I’ve rarely left the immediate vicinity of my home since March, but I’ve been staying involved with different academic communities thanks to online conferences. Back in September, I presented my first virtual conference paper. Last week, I presented my second virtual paper, and participated in my first conference with the regional art organization SECAC.
Formerly known as the Southeast College Art Conference, SECAC is an annual event where artists, art historians, curators, and other art professionals based in the American Southeast come together to share their work. I’ve been hoping to present at SECAC since at least 2019 to take advantage of the networking opportunities, so I was excited that my abstract was accepted. The conference was originally going to happen in Richmond, but due to Covid was transformed into a virtual experience. Conference papers were prerecorded and presented over Zoom at scheduled sessions, much like an in-person conference.
My presentation looked at FAP prints that were exhibited in federal community art centers. More specifically, I looked at how prints exhibited in federal community art centers promoted modern American printmaking to different audiences. In addition to considering their historical significance, I also dipped into archival theory by considering how these objects offer insight into collections management practices. To do this, I examined a group of print exhibitions assembled by the FAP specifically for community art centers, specifically the Roswell Museum since I have access to those checklists. I then used these prints to begin a critical examination of museum cataloging and collections management, practices that receive less public attention than exhibitions or special programs but remain seminal to our understanding of museums as institutions.
There were a lot of engaging sessions at SECAC. There were three sessions on American art history, included the session that featured my video. Another session looked at the writing of art history itself, particularly the logistical and ethical complexities of archival research, which naturally spoke to my own interests. Yet another panel looked at mapping as an artistic practice, which I appreciated given the local character of my own drawing habits. In short, there are a lot of art professionals doing engaging work in this region, and I enjoyed having the opportunity to learn more about it.
I also have to give credit to SECAC for facilitating this online experience. I can only imagine how challenging it must have been to take what was supposed to be an in-person conference and convert it into a virtual one. Not to mention this was going on while people continued other obligations such as teaching, writing, taking classes, and so on. This all entailed a lot of labor and it needs to be recognized.
Overall though, as much as I appreciated having the opportunity to attend this conference, in terms of format I preferred the experience I had earlier this year at “Museum Exhibition Design: Histories and Futures,” for three main reasons:
- Personal preference for asynchronous format: I tend to participate more at asynchronous conferences because I can take the time to think over my comments, both when I’m asking questions and when I’m responding to inquiries. At SECAC, between glitches in Zoom and a finite time for questioning, I didn’t feel like I had enough time to mull over thoughtful questions. SECAC did try to compensate for this limited commenting time with live social events, essentially recreating in-person experiences like coffee breaks and other spaces that encourage spontaneous conversation, but it was contingent on the quality of one’s internet access.
- Glitches: While the conference organizers worked hard to make SECAC 2020 a smooth experience, there were glitches. A lot of presentations had to be given live, for example, because the moderators couldn’t get the videos to work. Sometimes the sound didn’t come through, the visuals wouldn’t sync properly, or a moderator’s Zoom connection would get cut off.
- Converted versus born digital: Ultimately, SECAC was an in-person conference retrofitted as a digital event. Museum Exhibition Design, by contrast, was born-digital and operated as such, from the paper format to the pacing to the resources page. If SECAC was an in-person conference that adapted to digital conditions, Museum Exhibition Design was crafted from its inception as a digital experience. As such, it was better able to take advantage of the possibilites of online interaction.
The lesson here is that when it comes to conference planning, organizers should be deliberate about the format from the onset, whether in-person, digital, or hybrid. Not everything can be anticipated of course, and there will be times when versatility is crucial, as SECAC demonstrated. Yet each format has its advantages and disadvantages, and they do not necessarily translate easily into one another. Given the effectiveness of digital conferences in terms of enabling accessibility by decreasing travel costs, I can see them becoming a more regular figure of conference culture in general. What I hope doesn’t happen is that virtual opportunities are tagged onto in-person experiences as afterthoughts. They take a lot of labor, but virtual conferences offer a lot of potential when it comes to academic sharing.
In the meantime, I have to commend all the organizers for facilitating this online experience. I know it wasn’t easy, but I’m sure all the participants are as grateful as I am for going through the effort to make this conference possible. And here’s to hopefully being able to participate at the next SECAC event in-person.