“Art doesn’t do anybody any good in the artist’s basement.”
With those words, Executive Director Joann Vaughan explained the reason for the existence of the Maryland Federation of Art (MFA) and her commitment to a community that extends beyond her local Annapolis, to a nationwide audience. MFA currently exhibits, on an annual basis, works by around 600 different artists from 40-50 states.
Under Vaughan’s guidance since 2008, MFA has not only grown in membership, but its annual Paint Annapolis competition has become a signature event drawing ever-increasing numbers of artists and the public. Despite being one of Annapolis’s art scene drivers, Vaughan is not an artist herself; her background is in non-profit management. Before coming to MFA, Vaughan founded and ran the successful Annapolis Book Festival.
Located at Circle Gallery in Annapolis, MFA has been in existence since 1968 and is considered the oldest continuously operating non-profit gallery in the state. That’s important to Vaughan. “As a non-profit gallery,” she says, “we don’t have to show commercial art, and we can expand the community’s idea of what art is and what art can do. Yes, art is decorative, but it also tells a message. It’s an expression of the artist that’s been interpreted by the viewer. And anything that adds to the conversation in the community strengthens the community. What MFA does it bring a different type of conversation to the table.”
Typically, an art gallery’s function is to incubate and support artists through exhibitions, shows, etc. It would make sense, and you might even think that COVID19 has put a stop to that role at the MFA. But you’d be wrong. As it turns out, this is not Vaughan’s first catastrophe. “I started my job on July 1st of 2008, and then the stock market crashed, and it took us two years to see ourselves out of the problem. And I thought, ‘wow, it will never be this bad again.’ Obviously, I suffered from a tremendous lack of imagination.”
On the contrary, Vaughan’s imagination is what’s turning the potential disaster of COVID19 into an opportunity. She began by identifying the challenges facing MFA. “First, if we are not open as a gallery, how do we connect with our constituents. And as a non-profit, how do we keep that commitment to the community? The second and simultaneous challenge, obviously, was money. Like everybody else, I needed to know how I was going to keep things doing, pay rent, pay my staff.”
The second part was the easiest. Vaughan learned all she could about grants, such as the PPP (Paycheck Protection Program), that helped answer the needed cash flow. The first challenge? Well, that was a bit more complicated, and for that, they needed social media.
MFA relied on various approaches. They requested their artists to do a video tour of their studio and put those online. They asked Wil Scott, an art historian who recently retired from the National Gallery, to interview MFA members about their works. Those were put on Zoom and YouTube. They held virtual receptions and posted juror talks about MFA exhibitions. “We threw a lot of stuff up there, and then evaluated: were we accomplishing the outcomes we wanted? And what we wanted was engagement, not just content.”
So, were they successful?
“We had a brief dip in our finances,” says Vaughan. “And then everything has come roaring back. We just finished Paint Annapolis, which is our biggest event of the year, and we’re going to have a 50% increase in net return off that event from last year.”
The reason, she says, is that because of the pandemic, people needed something to do. This plein air event, which had been rescheduled from June to September, featured over 80 artists worldwide, an MFA record. With artists painting outdoors, the slogan: “art looks better from six feet away,” became appropriate on many levels.
“After hospitality,” says Vaughan, “the art industry has been the second hardest hit with this pandemic, and people’s opportunities to experience something outside of themselves is limited; you can only watch so much Netflix on TV. People need to get back to something that approaches a normal interaction with their community. That’s what Paint Annapolis was able to provide.”
The interaction between art, artists, and the public is an essential component at the heart of everything the MFA does as it promotes its members and helps them get their work known. Vaughan came up with another way to accomplish that. “A lot of artists use art as a way to communicate with themselves as well as the public. So, we set up an online topical gallery where the public can vote for their favorite art piece. Our first exhibit was called Six Feet of Separation, followed by Art in Protest, and Black Art Matters. We’ve just launched one called Money, Money, Money, which is about our country’s income divide. All this lets people use visual art as a means of expression and as a means of interpretation.”
These ideas are ways that the gallery has had to change in response to the pandemic. Sure, says Vaughan, they could have had a robust online presence with virtual tours and interviews in 2019. But they didn’t have to consider all that then. “COVID forced us to re-think about new ways.”
What about after COVID?
Vaughan sees the value of keeping the online gallery, as it gives the person who is unable to attend physically a way to engage with both the art and the artist. “It doesn’t matter if you paint or if you do aerial photography,” says Vaughan, “you’re trying to tell the world something. Being able to use the online presence to expand that conversation with the community has been important. I think it’s as much a part of our mission as is an exhibition.”
For now, MFA has three exhibitions coming up that will take them to the end of the year. The first, a Member Show that allows any MFA member to exhibit their work. Typically, these will be local artists. A National Painting Show will follow that, and then a National Small Work Show, featuring artwork under 11 inches by 11 inches.
It’s a lot of work and a lot of commitment for an organization that makes it all happen with an extremely small staff of one part-time and three full-time employees. But Vaughan is used to working hard. She does, however, take time to enjoy her family, which includes four kids, seven grandchildren, and a husband. She also likes to dance, in particular belly dancing.
“The neat thing about belly dance,” says Vaughan, “is that it’s unlike being a Radio City Rockette where everybody does exactly the same thing and interprets that as exactly the same way. In belly dance, it’s the sense that every woman is built differently. Every woman has different experiences, and every woman will interpret the music differently. So even in a group activity where you have the same choreography, you don’t have the precision that you would in ballet or other kinds of dance.”
Kind of like her life and commitment to the artists and her community, Joann Vaughan has chosen to interpret the music of her surroundings differently. And it works.
For more information about the art and artists of MFA please go here. Photography by Mark Cassino
Val Cavalheri is a recent transplant to the Eastern Shore, having lived in Northern Virginia for the past 20 years. She’s been a writer, editor and professional photographer for various publications, including the Washington Post.