You can sit on your couch in Minnesota and tour the Museu de Arte in São Paulo.

Or you can get up off your couch in Brazil and dance along with Har Mar Superstar at a Minneapolis dance-and-draw party hosted by the Walker Art Center.

Anyone, anywhere, can join in one of the Walker's free online programs: listen to a talk, try a craft project, watch an artist at work. But most who log on are from around here. People at home, feeling homesick for their hometown.

"It's been really nice to see," said Jacqueline Stahlmann, a public programs manager who organizes free programs on Thursdays for the Walker. "I thought people would be chiming in from wherever, but — and this is true nationally — people are looking to their local arts organizations for online content. Even though you can see the Berlin Philharmonic [perform online] or go to the Met programs, I think there's still a real interest in what's happening in our community and what's going on locally."

In the early days of the program, when Zoom was still strange and new, Stahlmann set up the online programs so only the speaker and moderator were visible online. But she quickly realized that people liked seeing other faces in the little boxes in the Zoom room — even if everyone else was on mute, even if half the people had their cameras off. It felt nice to know you were part of a crowd.

It's been a long year. We miss us.

Around the planet, museums, theaters, orchestras, parks and cultural centers met the pandemic with digitized collections and online programs to connect isolated visitors with beauty, history, joy — and one another.

You can zoom in close enough to see Botticelli's brush strokes at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy. You can scroll around the entire Guggenheim in New York City or wander the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles. You can join a ranger on a video hike of Yellowstone geysers.

The pandemic stripped museums of visitors, revenue and staff. It stripped them down to the work that mattered most.

At the Minnesota Children's Museum in St. Paul, what mattered most was fun.

"We want kids to grow and learn through play, that's our mission," said Bob Ingrassia, the museum's vice president of external relations. "We are champions for the importance of play. We don't want that to get lost."

The past year has been a time of anxiety, stress, disruption and grief for children and their families. Play helps. When children couldn't make it to the museum, the museum offered online enrichment classes for kids, support programs for overwhelmed parents and activity kits families could pick up. It hosted a virtual New Year's party that drew about a thousand parents and kids.

"Play is a great antidote for a lot of things," Ingrassia said. "In normal times, it's how kids learn and grow. It literally builds your brain. When kids are playing, neural connections are being made that will last a lifetime, in a positive way."

The past year has been a time of anxiety, stress, disruption and grief for museum workers as well. The Children's Museum welcomed 300,000 visitors between March and December 2019. Between March and December 2020, the museum shut down twice as COVID cases and deaths spiked, and reopened with strict attendance limits. Just 25,000 people visited the flagship St. Paul museum during the pandemic last year.

But they focus on what matters most. The mission. The people. The fun.

In February, as the Walker reopens its doors to visitors again, Stahlmann's free Thursday programs move offline and into the snow. Every Thursday, registered participants can sign out a free pair of snowshoes for a 45-minute trek around the Sculpture Garden and up the snowy slopes to watch art films, projected through the gallery windows.

"I think there's a real, huge need for people to come together right now," Stahlmann said. "We need to process what's going on, and escape what's going on."

We've lost a lot of things this year. But we still have us.

If you missed the Walker's Har Mar Superstar summer dance party, you can still buy the coloring book at Illustrations are by Emma Eubanks and Michael Gaughan and proceeds go to support survivors of domestic violence and Violence Free Minnesota.


Follow Jennifer on Twitter: @stribrooks