In Harrisburg, the question isn’t “Who is Van Gogh?” The question is, “What is VanGo?”
Physically, VanGo is creativity on wheels, a 31-foot extension of the Susquehanna Art Museum’s mission to introduce people to and educate them about art, all wrapped up in a neat recreational vehicle package.
Spiritually, VanGo is the very loose manifestation of the Dutch painter, who was one of the founders of modern art.
Logistically, VanGo is simply a method of taking art to people, instead of having people come to art.
Intellectually? Well, VanGo’s just a great idea.
“Art is important because, if you can find a piece that speaks to you, it can be a powerful reality,” said VanGo’s director Ross Tyger. “It can feel like you’re in someone else’s head, sometimes. It can bring you closer to the people around you. It takes a lot of looking to find art that speaks to you. But not all art is for everyone.”
For nearly 30 years, the Susquehanna Art Museum’s VanGo program, or “Museum on Wheels,” has been taking art on the road, to urban and rural destinations that might not be exposed to it otherwise. Loaded up with a handful of mostly interactive exhibits in a recreational vehicle, the VanGo program is designed mainly for students, but also for those young at heart.
“We intend it to be as kid-friendly as possible, but still palatable for adults,” said Tyger. “The height of the displays and the labeling are intended for kids, but I try to have something for everyone.”
VanGo serves the central Pennsylvania community within a loose 100-mile radius of Harrisburg. Typically, VanGo visits schools, libraries, colleges, conventions and other museums and can even be booked for parties and gatherings.
There is a fee associated with VanGo’s visits, but Tyger said that the fee can be negotiated, depending upon an organization’s ability to pay.
“We do a lot of presentations in Dauphin County, Cumberland County and Lancaster County,” Tyger said. “It’s really about taking the high-quality art and design that you can find at Susquehanna Art Museum, taking it into the community and making it as accessible as possible, especially for students.”
Right now, SAM is in the process of replacing its repurposed RV with a new, custom-built, state-of-the-art vehicle that will be slightly larger than the current one. The new VanGo, which could be on the road as early as October, was funded through grants and financial assistance from supportive foundations.
“It’s essentially taking the current VanGo and making it better,” said Tyger. “We have a great opportunity to build on that, but we want the new VanGo to be as much like the current one as possible.”
But better, he added. Across the board, it will be higher quality and will include a wheel-chair lift, an awning for outside exhibits and better lighting.
“It’s going to give us a greater ability to serve new populations,” he said.
SAM started the VanGo program in 1992 in the belief that art was meant to be shared. The first VanGo vehicle was a repurposed city bus, which was replaced by a refurbished school bus, before the current renovated recreational vehicle was put into service.
There is a collection of elements associated with VanGo that contribute to its success, but none is more important than the human one. Not only does Tyger drive VanGo, he also schedules, designs and installs the rotating exhibits and acts as the program’s promoter and narrator.
It’s his outgoing nature that drives the program, as much as the engine that runs under VanGo’s hood.
“Honestly, I do know that,” said Tyger. “I’m a child at heart, and I’m a freak for art. But my skill set is all over the place. I love driving the VanGo. I love talking to people. I’m an extrovert. Once I start talking about the VanGo, I won’t shut up.”
So, it is only appropriate that Tyger gets to experience firsthand the good that VanGo does. Conceptually, everyone can understand the positive impact that art can have on lives, but Tyger gets to live it.
“When I first started this, I thought it was a little weird,” he said, citing his seven years of service. “But I would go to schools and then, after my visits when I pulled out, the kids would be running after the VanGo.”
He finds that level of excitement gratifying.
“There aren’t many places on planet Earth where you can see people jumping up and down for art,” he said.
The Susquehanna Art Museum is located at 1401 N. 3rd St., Harrisburg. To learn more about the museum and VanGo, visit www.susquehannaartmuseum.org.
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