A trip to the art gallery is typically quite straightforward: pay the entrance fee, grab a map, and wander around its confines at your leisure. For those wanting more direction to their visit, a guide will happily conduct a tour; and, those less inclined to do so can opt for the audio guides available for rent.
Interested in collecting art? The nearby gallery used to be the default answer: attend the newest exhibit, and hopefully find that painting or sculpture that was pleasing to both the eye and checkbook.
But in a few years’ time we may just see a different type of art enthusiast—they may be appreciating (or buying) works of art in the virtual world, maybe hooked up on headsets, from hundreds or even thousands of kilometers away.
Museum attendance traditionally relied on the works of art themselves. Having iconic works like the Mona Lisa ensures a steady stream of visitors, and temporary exhibits can generate interest and visitor traffic. Nowadays, museums and galleries are looking at how their collections can be presented in a way that increases engagement and appeals to ay ounger, more tech-savvy demographic.
While walking around a museum or gallery, there are QR Codes that send your phone or tablet more in-depth content. Self-directed tours can now be downloaded online and streamed to personal mobile devices, eliminating the need for rentable audio guides. This shift to a more individualized experience, beyond just passively receiving curated information, is the next frontier.
Soundscapes and storytelling
The quaint audio guide is undergoing an evolution, and at the forefront, is a company that was involved in its creation from the start. Merging existing technology with a flare for theatrical presentation has been Antenna International's calling card for decades. Over the years, they have partnered with many art institutions all over the world, creating audio and multi-media tours as well as digital content for institutions like the Museum of Modern Art and the Sagrada Familía, among others.
Marielle van Tilburg, Antenna’s Executive Producer and Creative Strategist, relates integrating available technology to a more enjoyable experience. “Sound is very powerful because it allows visitors to be more aware of their surroundings, and in exhibits this leads to a more in-depth, more surprising experience,” van Tilburg explains, “and we use technology to create interactive storytelling.”
While Antenna is also involved in creating downloadable content for smartphones and mobile devices, they are pioneering location-positioning software where story-telling or soundscapes are triggered and offered to the visitor at specific places in the museum or gallery. Antenna is already developing projects of this nature in numerous venues in Paris, Barcelona and Munich, among others.
VR in exhibits
Besides the integration of storytelling into exhibits, museums are also looking at next-generation technology like VR to further engage their visitors. Framestore Labs is a digital visual effects company more known for its work in film and advertising but has partnered with museums like the Tate Modern and the Smithsonian American Art Museum to integrate VR into their exhibits. Robin Carlisle, the Global Head of Creative for Framestore, explains how these collaborations came about. He says, “our museum partners were looking to grow their interactive exhibits, by finding ways to digitally show their works. [By using VR], this allows them to break through the restrictions of a gallery setting, and create installations that enhance the visitor experience and hopefully give a different view of the art on display.” According to Carlisle, digital presentations could have another bonus to galleries as well. “We can now group artwork in different and multiple ways—even present art that is currently in storage, or at another location, which is impossible in a traditional gallery,” Carlisle says.
The willingness of these organizations to embrace new technology encourages visual effects companies such as Framestore to pursue this new business avenue. Carlisle reported no resistance breaking away from the established norms of museums. He says, “there were no ‘traditionalists’ in the Tate (well, that we met, anyway!)—and they were very forward thinking, and that helps when these institutions want to be on that cutting edge to be innovative and interesting.” Framestore is in talks with other organizations to pursue similar projects.
(Not really) being there: virtual visits?
This willingness of institutions to embrace new technologies may lead to innovations beyond the physical space of the museum or gallery. VR technology can also potentially allow for virtual visits—even from the comfort of your own home.
For Alex Comeau, the sales and marketing director of 3DShowing, a partnership with the Ottawa Art Gallery simply made sense. “I’ve been to the (OAG) a number of times,” he says, “and you had to go downtown and park, etc., so that got me thinking. Among the average art lovers, how many can actually visit a museum or gallery? That led us to partnering with the OAG to give them more exposure that they may not get otherwise, by putting in a tech twist.“ Comeau and his company creates digital visualization solutions for real estate by making virtual walkthroughs of properties. They help potential buyers make better choices by going beyond a two-dimensional floor plan, or eliminating the costs of building model units.
Adapting this technology for the OAG required little tweaking. “In a typical gallery, hallways lead to spaces with art installations, that connect to other hallways and so on, “ Comeau says. “This layout translates very well in the tech we use in creating ‘dollhouse’ models.” 3DShowing then created a virtual visit, where one can walk around the OAG and look at the numerous exhibits without actually setting foot in the gallery itself.”
This project increases overall accessibility to the OAG tenfold. Comeau says, “especially in older buildings, there may be limited access for wheelchairs and the like. For those who live far away, it also gives them the chance to enjoy a collection they’ve always wanted to see, but cannot.” And as the Ottawa Art Gallery moves into a larger space, Comeau says that 3DShowing is once again involved in creating a new iteration of the virtual visit.
Online art economics: upending the gallery model
In contrast to the public museum, private galleries provide a distinct function, as they are venues for artists to exhibit and sell their art. Through exhibitions, galleries display artwork for purchase at a commission or percentage, and while this model has been the norm, struggling artists can attest to the constraints of this traditional set-up. Much like in the hospitality or travel industries, technology is playing a role in upending this status quo.
Jonas Almgren, the CEO of Artfinder, draws from experience both in Silicon Valley and the New York art scene in creating an online marketplace for art. He says, “there are approximately 9 million artists in North American and Europe, and galleries and museums only represent over a million of them—or just 12%. That leaves all those artists who are looking for ways to sell their creations. And because the economics of the art market thrives on exclusivity, it’s in the market’s interest to keep it opaque and expensive, and it does not need or want to service the remaining eight million artists.”
Almgren has created an online website that directly connects buyers to original art from independent artists around the world. By removing the middleman, artists can get to speak directly with potential clients, and retain more creative control over their work. An online presence also generates much more traffic than a gallery, thus increasing the number of eyeballs—and prospective buyers. Besides creating a secure online space for art buyers and sellers, Artfinder has nurtured a global community of artists and art lovers.
In the future, museums and galleries will indeed be much different. Virtual access could become a gallery standard, and perhaps even account for a significant portion of projected visitor traffic. When asked about how these institutions may look 20 years from now, with advances coming at such a frantic pace, Carlisle admits, “it would be impossible to tell.” He says, “public spaces like museums used to lag behind retail spaces in the use of technology…now they are becoming leaders and trend-setters in this integration. And as the tech continues to evolve we will inevitably start working with the artists themselves in conceptualizing and creating their installations.” Art, as an institution, will be integrating more and more modern technology.
Comeau believes that this may well be the next step in the evolution of art. He says, “artists are already creating with VR platforms like Tiltbrush, and as Canada is rapidly becoming known as one of the leading exponents of this ‘new form of art’ we’d like to be part of this revolution.” Does this mean that in the future, the brick-and-mortar museum or gallery will become obsolete?
Almgren doesn’t think so. He believes, “VR and other tech can allow us to interact with art in new and interesting ways; and hopefully this greater reach will mean that people will have a greater affinity for art and maybe encourage them to go to galleries and museums more often.” After all, the underlying concept of museums and galleries is essentially providing access to art for all. Tech not only makes this possible, by eliminating physical boundaries and limitations, but also creates ways to make the experience more immersive, and thus allowing for a better understanding and appreciation of the art.