Why the quality of the curated virtual gallery matters
Virtual galleries are nothing new. Even before the pandemic, art institutions were toying with how to connect with collectors and art-lovers across the internet ecosystem. But 2020 kicked things up a notch, prompting a revolution in the way we consume art online. In September 2020, the Virtual Online Museum of Art (VOMA) became the world’s first museum of its kind. Earlier in the year, ArtBasel went into high gear as it developed its first digital viewing rooms, Hauser and Wirth hosted its first digital-only exhibition. In addition to all these “firsts,” many museums saw a surge in their online audience since they were forced to close their doors due to the pandemic.
Despite the surge, the art market dropped 22 percent in 2020, losing over $14 billion in sales. This steep decline, reported in “The Art Market 2021” report, is enough to make anyone wonder if virtual galleries are enough to replace in-person experiences.
Can immersive virtual events ever be acceptable replacements for physical visits? Are there ways to improve the viewing experience? Before we answer these questions, let’s talk about what constitutes most virtual events.
What Is It and How is It Done?
What is an immersive virtual experience? In simple terms, it is technology that allows people to enjoy a place or experience without needing to actually be there in person. A virtual event uses artificial environments to simulate brick and mortar galleries, museums, and fairs, letting people get up close and personal with the art without it needing to be physically present.
Done well, virtual experiences are tailored to individual viewers and collectors, allow a broader audience to interact with exhibits, and act as a catalyst to bring together like-minded people to engage with art. It lets viewers “walk through” galleries at their own pace. Virtual booths at fairs let prospective buyers see the art they may want to purchase from many angles. Many of these experiences use videos shot from multiple cameras, interactive pop-ups, and audio tours. And unlike these pre-made experiences, live-streamed tours, lectures, and events hosted online allow docents and lecturers to interact with viewers.
The Quality of the Experience Matters
Near the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak, Rubin Museum of Art director Jorrit Britschgi said, “there is nothing that can replace in-person encounters with art.”
To a large degree, this is true. But while the immersive visual experience simulates brick and mortar art institutions, it isn’t meant to function exactly like one. Seeing art while being guided up the spiral walkway in New York’s Guggenheim Museum is a very different emotional experience than “walking” through a virtual gallery. And the best virtual experience designers know this. They also understand that it’s the quality, not the replication, of these very different, but parallel experiences that matter.
The problem is that we have a quality control issue. Some experiences, for instance, offer viewers page after page of uncurated thumbnails that they can click on to see larger, high-resolution images. While it would be impossible to convey the feeling of sublimity many people get standing in person in front of a massive Clyfford Still or Mark Rothko painting, these virtual experiences are about as uninteresting as shopping on eBay.
In a similar fashion, entering an online gallery that lets you “walk through” the space isn’t a great experience unless visitors can truly control how they move from artwork to artwork. Many art institutions, for instance, will use cameras to take photos of artwork from multiple views — but if it’s not the view you want to see, all of that fancy camerawork will be for naught. In fact, it might just feel frustrating.
Curating the Virtual Experience
Pages of thumbnails aren’t necessarily a bad thing, provided the thumbnails lead to high-resolution images viewers actually want to see.
What does this mean? First, that curation matters. This is where ArtTech comes into play, with customer relationship management (CRM) platforms and other tools that collect, store, and analyze information. For example, artificial intelligence and machine learning can learn that someone is engaging with some artists, but not others, or that paintings, rather than sculptures, are the preferred medium to view. The smarter the platform, the better the experience for the person immersed in the virtual experience. Hundreds of pages of thumbnails might be whittled down to two, completely customized thumbnails.
The same applies to digital exhibitions, viewing rooms, lecture series — really, anything at all that brings the museum, gallery, or fair to someone who wants to engage with art. Studies show that experiences make us happier than purchases (AKA, things). This means, if you really want to engage someone, you need to give them what they want. Websites will never virtually reproduce artworks to the degree that they look exactly like the real deal. Yet this doesn’t mean that art institutions can’t create virtual experiences that meet the demand for interaction, emotions, and engagement with those artworks. Just focus on delivering the curated experiences people want to see, rather than a chaotic visual smorgasbord.