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This Animal Crossing home gives art a second life

In this time of quarantine and social distancing, people have had to find ways of keeping up with their normal routines. That's what one artist in Minnesota has found herself doing through the most unlikely of venues: Animal Crossing: New Horizons. Yes, the adorable life sim starring cute animals may have recently been banned in China, but it's bringing people in the arts together in the U.S. 

Julia Maiuri is a first year student in the MFA painting program at the University of Minnesota, and she's opened her own art gallery in the latest installment of the Animal Crossing franchise. Situated in her character's home on the delightfully named island of Kittengale, Maiuri has named her gallery the Museum of Contemporary Art Kittengale, or MoCAK.

We had the opportunity to ask Julia Maiuri a few questions about MoCAK, including how the project got started, how it has been received, and what we can expect from the museum in the future. As she explained to us, this game felt like the right opportunity to explore aspects of her work she'd been toying with for years.

"My work with MoCAK has also been a natural progression of my existing painting work," Maiuri explained. "I have been interested in the uncanny, alternate realities, doppelgängers, different perspectives or versions of the same thing, for some time now. I had been creating paintings that deal with imagery in those realms, but with MoCAK I have an actual space that embodies those themes." 

In other words, creating a second life in the game, complete with a virtual avatar named Joolz, was right up this artist's alley. She added, "The relationship I have with this space has fulfilled an interactive element that I was craving with my paintings."

She decided that Joolz was a famous art collector in the world of the game, and so began decorating the character's in-home gallery with artwork she drew using the game's custom design features. While it is possible to upload artwork into the game, she found that there were some losses in resolution when using the upload tool. Maiuri also enjoyed the freedom afforded to her with drawing them herself, adding original pieces to the gallery and even recreating some of South African painter Marlene Dumas' work.

She explained that she was unsure if some of her friends and acquaintances would be interested in allowing her to recreate their artwork in the game, but she was encouraged by the social media reactions to a show she put together of the Dumas pieces. From there, MoCAK was born.

Since then, Maiuri has reached out to numerous contemporary artists about having their work showcased in her gallery, with some enthusiastic responses. Many artists saw the value in having their work displayed publicly, even in such an unorthodox manner. "I was a little nervous to ask people to participate because if you don't play the game it might seem like a very weird concept," said Maiuri.

Despite the nature of this new project, Maiuri admitted that she's never been much of an Animal Crossing fan. As a kid, her family didn't do much gaming. One of their few consoles was a Nintendo 64 that met an unfortunate fate when she and her siblings accidentally broke it. 

In her teens, she got more into simulation games like like The Sims, which led to an infatuation with Stardew Valley as an adult. "When Animal Crossing: New Horizons was announced, [my husband] said that it was right up my alley. The release of it coincided with the global shutdown and my school's closure, so I gave into my Sims impulse to escape into the game."

That escapism has turned into a positive outlet for Maiuri and many others, though there have been a few roadblocks encountered while putting this museum together. One of the major limitations is fitting all of the submitted artwork into one show. New Horizons presently only allows up to 50 images for wall art, so doing shows with multiple artists has led to some compromises.

"I try to pair artists based on the amount of work they will have at a time," she explained, "and if they both want a ton of 2D work then I cap it at 25 per person."

According to Maiuri, the next step is continuing to break down any barriers people may have in seeing and appreciating the work. To that end, she has purchased a capture card in order to upload video tours of the museum. She is also prioritizing posts of the galleries on Instagram before the galleries go live in the game, making sure they're seen by as many eyes as possible.

"Though having this space within the game has some great qualities of accessibility that the art world doesn't, it comes with its own set of limitations to access," Maiuri admitted. "There are financial factors involved in 'visiting' the space, like owning a Nintendo Switch, buying the game, and paying for the Nintendo online membership. I don't want people to be shut out."

As for what's up next, Maiuri intends to keep the forward momentum. Thanks to positive feedback and new artists joining the project, there's plenty to look forward to.

"Joolz is going on her very first studio visit to another artist's island soon!" Maiuri said. "This week we have shows by Kristen Sanders (4/20) and Mark Schoening (4/23). Next week we have shows opening by Philip Hinge (4/27) and Hannah Perez (4/30), which I am psyched about. After that, we have a very special sculpture garden installation and more exhibitions inside the museum, of course. I have programming planned for the next month or so, so Joolz and I are keeping busy."

To keep updated on all thinks MoCAK and to see some of the work for yourselves, be sure to follow the museum on Instagram at @moca.kittengale, where Maiuri has uploaded detailed pictures of each gallery. You can also visit the official website for MoCAK.