By Jeff Maisey

Virginia MOCA Deputy Director of Exhibitions & Education Alison Byrne was recently named Museum Art Educator of the Year by the Virginia Art Education Association. 

The honor is well deserved, and we wholeheartedly second it. 

Under Byrne’s leadership, MOCA stepped forward with virtual tours soon after the pandemic shuttered most businesses and arts organizations. This allowed adults, educators and students of all ages to experience the contemporary art museum’s current exhibitions, most notably “Shifting Gaze,” a more than timely show of works by Black and Latino artists. 

When humans were forced inside their homes with such great uncertainty, having the ability to connect with art seemed to ease the minds and wellbeing of so many in 2020.

In addition to virtual tours, Virginia MOCA offers a variety of educational experiences such as the coveted Teen Apprenticeship Program. Professional development workshops and classroom resources are made available to educators. 

For families and adults, ARTlab aids viewers navigating the ideas and themes of the works hanging on the museum walls. 

I virtually caught up with Alison Byrne and posed a few questions regarding her honor, the museum’s educational programs, and the all important exhibitions. 

Here’s our conversation.

VEER: The Virginia Art Education Association named you Museum Art Educator of the Year. What does this honor mean to you?

Alison Byrne: It’s such an incredible honor to be recognized by the Virginia Art Education Association. I presented at my first VAEA conference in 2007 and have valued the organization, its mission, support, and advocacy of art education throughout the state of Virginia ever since. Each year I encourage my team to play an active role with VAEA and present and attend the annual conference. VAEA is a valuable resource and connector for art educators and plays an important role in highlighting the profession of art education and the exemplary work being done in schools, higher education, and museums.  

VEER: 2020 has been a challenging year. How have you and Virginia MOCA had to adjust your educational programming during the pandemic?

AB: It certainly has, but creatives often thrive on challenges and constraints. The pandemic has really highlighted the creativity and problem-solving skills of the Virginia MOCA team. 

Less than a week after the stay at home orders in March, we launched as a creative way to share educational content and resources with our audience despite the physical Museum being closed.  A true cross-departmental effort, we created new videos about our exhibitions and artists who would have been on view at the time, hands-on art projects for families and teachers to make at home with supplies that could be found around the home, as well as the creation of virtual exhibitions such as our recent In Response exhibition with Norfolk State University.  

We also moved all our public programming online and quickly adjusted to the logistics of Zoom. Coffee and Conversations, our popular gallery program saw an increase of almost 400% and we had attendees join us from all over Virginia and an art school in the Midwest. We also launched a series of Instagram Live conversations with our Curator, Heather Hakimzadeh, highlighting artists who are connected to Virginia MOCA whether past or present including Inka Essenhigh, Nikki Leone, Hampton Boyer and Lavar Munroe.  

For educators we invested in new equipment to offer virtual tours from our galleries. We also collaborated with WHRO’s VA TV Classroom to create a series of short videos to be played in between VA TV Classroom programming. In the videos, we look closely at selected works of art from our current exhibitions and provide art activity inspiration. 

Serving our community is paramount to our mission and the staff, so we continue to refine and adapt to the needs of our audiences. 

VEER: What have been the most important lessons learned since March 2020?

AB: We learned that the arts offer hope and help people to cope during challenging times – even during a pandemic that prevents us experiencing art alongside others in the same physical space. This energized and inspired the team even during the most stressful times over the past few months. 

The value and need for teamwork, support and empathy within an organization has also been a vital lesson. Ironically, working from home has brought us closer together. We have been forced out of our comfort zones and that has offered new possibilities. Perhaps most important though, is the value of being honest and open with each other about our difficulties and struggles during these times and being there to help, support and listen to one another. 

 Personally, at both home and work, I have learnt to focus on adaptability and accept challenges and try to find ways to turn them into opportunities rather than getting frustrated about what I have absolutely no control over. I spent much of the spring and summer working from home with my two children in the house. Challenging, absolutely, but they also have so much to teach us about resilience and adaptability. They teach me something new every day. 

VEER: The “Shifting Gaze” and complimentary exhibitions were exceptionally timely with all the social justice protests occurring nationwide. Was this a “teaching” moment for MOCA?

AB: We consider every exhibition at Virginia MOCA an opportunity to learn and connect with our community. As a Museum we have a longstanding programmatic commitment to diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion (DEAI) in our exhibitions and education initiatives. We started planning for Shifting Gaze to travel to Virginia MOCA in the fall of 2018. The 27 artists featured draw inspiration from history, art history and popular culture to create works that are powerfullly exploring important themes such as identity, belonging, race, sexuality and displacement. The current suite of exhibitions has proved to be a catalyst for dialogue and connection. One example that comes to mind is a powerful community conversation we hosted that focused on the perspectives of young people in Virginia Beach led by Bayside High School student, Jordan Lucas. Members of the VBPD, Virginia Beach School Board, City Council and community stakeholders were in attendance for a private discussion with teens. 

Internally, we have created a cross departmental DEAI working group which has been meeting for the past few months to continue to educate ourselves and incorporate anti-racist, equitable, and inclusive practices into our organizational culture and the work we do every day. Not only are we responsible for our public facing initiatives, but we have a responsibility to our community and staff to ensure we are doing the work internally.

VEER: You were recently promoted to Deputy Director, Exhibitions and Education at MOCA. How does this position expand your role?

AB: It’s definitely an exciting promotion and I am incredibly grateful to our Executive Director, Gary Ryan, and the Board of Trustees for their ongoing support and encouragement.  This position expands my role as advocate and steward of the Virginia MOCA brand, providing guidance to leadership and staff and as a long-time employee it provides continuity for the organization. 

VEER: In terms of educational programming for 2021, what is your approach?

AB: We are currently planning our educational programming that will accompany our new exhibitions opening in February 2021. We are considering what we have learned in 2020 and thinking through the continuing needs and safety of our community as well as discovering ways to elevate the voices of our exhibiting artists. Many of the programs that have been popular over the past several years will continue, and we are looking at new initiatives that tie into the upcoming exhibitions. We have 12 artists parting with 12 local food experts and are excited to host events that highlight their unique skills and points of view.