Muncie's First Thursday gallery goes virtual during pandemic

Artist Ben Fulcher poses with a balloon for Muncie's First Thursday event. The event went virtual for the months of April and May amid COVID-19 restrictions. Natalie Phillips, Photo Courtesy
Artist Ben Fulcher poses with a balloon for Muncie's First Thursday event. The event went virtual for the months of April and May amid COVID-19 restrictions. Natalie Phillips, Photo Courtesy

The First Thursday events during the months of April and May in downtown Muncie were not bustling as usual.

There were no physical art exhibition openings, film screenings, performances, or any other variety of community events due to state lockdowns and strict guidelines which prevented any of these large scale events from taking place.

However, that did not stop local Muncie artists from creating, sharing and selling their artwork. 

The First Thursday gallery walk went virtual for the months of April and May due to the COVID-19 pandemic and related state lockdowns. The monthly event, which occurs every first Thursday in downtown Muncie, allows local artists, venues and galleries to come together to showcase the city’s art scene.

Nicole Phillips, coordinator of the First Thursday events, said she had to make a lot of changes during this time, but was determined to keep the event going. 

“Canceling First Thursday was not an option,” Phillips said. “I wanted to use every avenue available to me to continue to support these artists and get them a platform for sales, especially in a time when so many people are losing their livelihood.”

She decided to make a Facebook photo album in order to showcase the work that would typically be in the physical gallery walk. She then spread the word that anyone could submit their art to be included in the collection. 

Phillips said several participants were “coming out of the woodwork,” whom she had never seen before, and were submitting “great stuff.” 

“I received the kindest messages about how much people appreciated being included in this project,” she said.

Along with the gallery, the First Thursday Facebook page also directs viewers to virtual exhibits at other venues which are a part of the lineup, like PlySpace, an artist-in-residence program of the Muncie Arts and Culture Council.

(Left to right) Valerie Skakun and Pat Spadine stand with one of their mechanical organ sculptures as a part of their virtual exhibition with PlySpace Residency Program. Their online gallery opened May 7, 2020, in conjunction with Muncie’s First Thursday event. Valerie Skakun and Pat Spadine, Photo Courtesy

Valerie Skakun and Pat Spadine, the spring 2020 fellows at PlySpace, put together an online gallery where viewers could experience the work they had been doing during their residency.

Their work features mechanical representations of lungs using handmade musical organs that generate air-based sound. These sculptures require two people moving in synchronization to pump air through the human-scaled bellows of the mechanism. 

When COVID-19 began to rapidly spread and cause lockdowns, Skakun and Spadine had to move their studio from MadJax to the back room of PlySpace.

“We feel fortunate that PlySpace gave us access to the back room of the building, which they use as an art gallery,” Skakun said. “This massive room is an addition to the original building and was built to house the former owner’s mechanical organ collection.”

She also said there is a silver lining from these changes. Quarantining in Muncie has allowed them to continue experimenting and recording with their mechanical organs. 

“We have used the wealth of extra time to experiment and familiarize ourselves with the new series of organs, envisioning what the public performance will resemble in the future, with a focus on composition and choreography explorations,” Skakun said.

Despite having to move to an online platform, their exhibition allows viewers to listen to the art Skakun and Spadine created with this mechanism and learn more about their immersive learning connection with the Ball State School of Art. 

“We had planned to work with students in the School of Art to choreograph and score the music and performance and also collaboratively perform with our new series of organs at MadJax,” they stated in their online exhibition website.

However, when COVID-19 closed the Ball State campus, Skakun and Spadine had to develop an online platform where the School of Art students could still engage with the project. They asked the students to create a sound sculpture using materials from their homes and create a video performance. These video performances were all compiled into a virtual ensemble that can be viewed at their online exhibit. 

This platform has accumulated hundreds of views from all over the country since it went live on May 7 and Skakun hopes they can present their collaborative organ ensemble to a live audience in the future. 

“PlySpace has offered to host us again for a few weeks in spring 2021 so that we can hire a team of artists to rehearse and perform our new series of sound sculptures, allowing us to present a public performance with a choreographed ensemble,” Skakun said. “ If we are able to obtain funding, this presentation will be the physical debut of our new series of sound sculptures and will double as a record release of audio composed and recorded during COVID-19 lockdown at PlySpace.”

The First Thursday event for the month of June will also be held online and the organizers will continue posting a virtual photo album of images from local artists and venues.

Additionally local artist, Debra Gindhart, will have a small reception and gallery open at her studio on the second floor at MadJax.

Contact Sarah Jensen with comments at or on Twitter at @jensenesarah2.