The Ruby, Reimagined for Academics

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Most days, the first thing Jason Sudak hears when he arrives at the Rubenstein Arts Center is his card being declined. He is teaching a hybrid Sound for Film and Video class, and like everyone on campus, he must complete daily symptom monitoring before he can access the building. But he has a habit of doing it just before he arrives, and there’s a short delay before the SymMon app gives him access.

Once he’s inside, it’s the conspicuous absence of sound that stands out. “It’s like the memories of the sounds from previous semesters that come to the fore,” he said. “I remember the lively activity of the hallways and the crowdedness and greeting people. Now, it’s a very calm quietness.”

But if it’s the differences from past semesters that sticks out, it’s because of how much of the building feels the same.

On March 10, Duke University suspended in-person events in response to the coronavirus crisis. For many arts administrators and artists at Duke, it took days to begin to understand and accept that the campus’s busiest time for events—the end of the spring semester—would see empty studios, theaters, and galleries.

Yet artists are used to surprises, tight budgets, and collaborating to make the impossible appear effortless. In a matter of weeks, the work and the spaces supporting arts at Duke transformed.

An instructor watches as students draw at easels
Stephen Hayes teaching Drawing in the Ruby's painting studio. Photo by Robert Zimmerman.

Today, the Rubenstein Arts Center is one-hundred percent academic space; closed to the public for now, in-person and hybrid arts courses are safely taught in its large, open studios.

Tom Rankin, a professor of the practice of Art, Art History & Visual Studies, is teaching two of those classes, including a workshop and critique for the MFA EDA program. Every Friday morning, the class meets in the film theater to review MFA student projects and offer feedback. Though much larger than necessary given the number of students, Rankin’s previous critique classes met in the theater, too, in order to use the high-quality screening equipment. Now, it’s the space that’s the major draw.

“Now, everything is going through Zoom and share screens, so it all looks the same,” Rankin said. “We’re not getting that really beautiful projection.” The new configuration has brought challenges. Spread out to maintain social distancing, students are also constantly negotiating over outlets and power cords for their ever-present laptops. “It looks the way an airport might look late at night,” Rankin said.

A large banner on the front of a building says "Life is beautiful"
The outside of the Ruby looks different now, too. RESIST COVID/TAKE 6! is an outdoor exhibition and public awareness campaign by artist Carrie Mae Weems, presented by the Nasher Museum of Art, Duke Health, and Duke Arts. Photo by Robert Zimmerman.

 

But the Ruby’s quietness also has benefits. Rankin’s class—the portion of it not on Zoom, anyway—occasionally leaves the theater to view photography projects in person. And Stephen Hayes, who is teaching drawing in the painting studio, has found that he can set up still lifes for his classes and leave them there for weeks at a time, something that was impossible before. (Duke Housekeeping is so good, and studio space so rare, it can be hard for creative chaos to linger.)

“Teaching still feels natural,” Hayes said. “It hasn’t changed. I don’t sit down much when I’m in class. I’m always walking around the room. Now I just do Zoom and project the video, too.”

None of that normalcy could be maintained without the Ruby’s staff, who do everything from restock cleaning supplies to ensure rooms are configured for social distancing. “There is no way to do the in-person-hyrid-Zoom teaching any of us are doing without the amazing support of our university staff. They are unsung facilitators and heroes, making all we do possible.”

“Never underestimate arts professionals. The single most valuable trait we share is resiliency—and we have a very wide portfolio of transferrable skills,” said Marcy Coe Edenfield, senior director for Venue and Production Management (VPM). Staff who once produced live events in the Ruby and other campus venues are now behind the scenes of online events and timed entry systems, in addition to reassignments to the coronavirus Isolation Care Team, contact tracing, and the career center.

In the early months of the pandemic, the Ruby became a production site for PPE face shields. In May, the VPM team, part of University Center Activities and Events in Student Affairs, began supporting Duke’s Innovation Co-Lab in the Office of Information and Technology by making bands for face shields. In total, this cross-Duke production made more than 90,000 face shields (with 25,000 bands by VPM).

“The Ruby’s makerspace was important to this effort. It is a flexible space,and the laser-cutter and CNC systems made it an epicenter of production,” shared Chip Bobbert, Co-Lab’s senior engineer and fabrication architect. (The makerspace has now mostly returned to business-as-usual.)

In July, the VPM team was tapped for a reassignment to support the Isolation Care Team. The Ruby has been central to this process, too: the Murthy Agora, once the site of multimedia art installations, is now the distribution hub of ICT supplies and deliveries.

Everyone, including the staff managing the Cinematic Arts equipment cage, have figured out how to adapt their work to protect the health of our community. Sudak’s Sound for Film and Video class depends on microphones and other equipment borrowed from the cage. “Staff have generously allowed us to keep sharing it with students, which is a big bonus of meeting in person,” he said. To reduce COVID transmission risks, students are now able to keep the equipment for weeks at a time, rather than the typical few days.

But more than anything, the thing students and faculty praise is the very fact that have a safe way to meet in person with their fellow artists. “None of this is ideal,” Rankin said. “But still we’re able to go out into the world and come back together and look at work.”

More than anything, the thing students and faculty praise is the very fact that have a safe way to meet in person with their fellow artists.

A student dances with a mask on
Omolola Sanusi '21. Photo by Robert Zimmerman.

“It’s just nice feeling the presence of other people and being clumsy in a community,” said Omolola Sanusi ’21, who is taking Ava LaVonne Vinesett’s African Dance Technique and is also lead for Duke’s Creative Arts Student Team. Students have their own personal twelve-foot squares marked out on the floor, but the occasional fall or bump into each other ends in laughter. “The community aspect is probably the best part,” the senior said. “I don’t think normally we would do this as students, before COVID, but after dance we all linger and talk about what we’re doing or get pizza.”

Bill Fick, lecturing fellow for Art, Art History, & Visual Studies and assistant director for visual arts for the Ruby is teaching Intermediate Drawing down the hall from Hayes in the gallery. “We’ve always known that the Ruby is a wonderful space for performance and exhibitions but now we’re learning about how great a teaching space it is,” shared Fick.