What Immersive Art Exhibits Mean for Traditional Museums

Playing or about to play in a total of 20 cities, “Immersive Van Gogh” and competing immersive Van Gogh presentations have mainstream museum officials wondering how seriously to take this emerging genre of art presentation and whether it’s a competitor to what they do or a complement.

An indicator: No less an institution than the Louvre will contribute to the creation next month, in Marseille, of an immersive exhibition on the Mona Lisa, an enveloping exploration of its most famous painting.

Another could arrive in the coming months in Chicago, at the former Germania Club, renamed Lighthouse ArtSpace Chicago. The “Immersive Van Gogh” team opened “Immersive Frida Kahlo” in rotation with Van Gogh last week.

The success of the early 20th-century Mexican artist’s novel approach will go a long way in determining whether these immersive presentations – video animations accompanied by a soundtrack played from multiple projectors across a large room as patrons walk, stand standing or sitting in the middle of the imagery – are a flash in the pan, fueled by the novelty and star power of Van Gogh, or something that could become a staple of American entertainment.

If it’s the latter, it’s a safe bet that more and more museums will incorporate at least some of the tactics used by immersive shows: new ways to animate or augment the actual art they present.

“After we’ve all gone through the moment of panic, everyone wonders if this will have a long-term impact on art museums or not,” said Nannette Maciejunes, executive director of the Columbus Museum of Art, who has saw “Immersive Van Gogh” open in his Ohio town around the same time his museum debuted “Through Vincent’s Eyes: Van Gogh and His Sources” last November.

“I think there’s a general concern that it might replace an artistic experience, and I don’t think it will. I think it’s something we’re going to live with for a while,” she said.

At least one observer sees the new experiences as a wake-up call for traditional museums. “In a good way, experiences like ‘Immersive Van Gogh’ and ‘Immersive Frida Kahlo’ put some pressure on museums to be more accessible, to provide experiences outside of the traditional things they offer,” says Debra Kerr, CEO. of Intuit: The Center for Intuitive & Outsider Art and Professor of Museum Studies in the School of Professional Studies at Northwestern University.

This does not mean that there has not been new thinking. Kerr was impressed by the video she saw of an image of Monet reuniting at a Denver presentation of the “Claude Monet: The Truth of Nature” exhibit. She also noted that the Art Institute’s 2016 blockbuster “Van Gogh’s Rooms” gave people the chance to see all three versions of this famous painting together in North America for the first time, as well as stay in an Airbnb that replicated the iconic piece.

And at the Art Institute’s recent “Monet and Chicago” exhibit, the final room in the exhibit used the artist’s many takes of lilies atop a pond to create its own kind of immersion. , but with real Monets.

Over the past decade, the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago has curated two of its three most popular exhibitions by going off the beaten path of the art museum to showcase the work of streetwear designer-turned-haute couture designer Virgil Abloh. and David Bowie, deeply immersive with individual headphones. and a concert video room at the end.

Art museums need to investigate what makes these immersive exhibits appealing and see if there are elements that can be applied to their own offerings,” said Michael Darling, the former MCA chief curator who brought Bowie and Abloh at the Chicago Avenue Museum.

“Some of those elements seem to be a sense of accessibility, the opportunity for a special experience that they can photograph and post on social media, and a general sense of wonder. Art museums should be able to to nail those attributes,” said Darling, co-founder of Museum Exchange, a startup that connects museums with art donors.

As museums over the past year struggled to bring the public back amid various starts and stops of the pandemic, it was impossible not to be hit by the wave of new entertainment based on Van Gogh, one of the world’s most trusted prints of old school art. Indeed, two of the Art Institute’s most popular shows were “Van Gogh’s Rooms,” drawing 434,000 people in just three months, and “Van Gogh and Gauguin: The Southern Workshop” in 2001.

Gloria Groom, president of the Art Institute of European Painting and Sculpture and curator of “Van Gogh’s Rooms”, said she has no hesitation in recommending the immersive Van Gogh exhibition to people looking of family entertainment.

“It’s entertaining and it’s an experience,” said Groom, who said she also plans to see Kahlo’s immersive presentation soon. “But looking at art in a gallery is a different experience. I don’t see them as being opposed to each other.

In a few cases, traditional museums are directly integrating the new immersive art.

The immersive Mona Lisa show is the first part of a plan by French cultural authorities to set up a dedicated immersive art space at the Grand Palais in Paris “to make art accessible to as many people as possible, by promoting digital innovation in all its forms”. says its website.

Closer to home, the Indianapolis Museum of Art in Newfields — an institution founded, like the Art Institute, in the late 19th century — has donated more than 30,000 square feet of gallery space to The Lume , a digital art projection experience that debuted last summer with a show dedicated to Van Gogh.

“Some people are a bit intimidated to walk into an art museum,” said Jonathan Berger, vice president of marketing and external affairs at Newfields. “Our immersive experience kind of breaks that down and acts as an invitation for people to come in and experience art differently.”

The advantage of his museum over other immersive shows, he said, is that in the final room visitors can see the museum’s actual Van Gogh landscape alongside a Cézanne and a a Gauguin.

Although Berger declined to say how many tickets were sold, he said The Lume contributed to a “substantial” recent increase in attendance.

But whether immersive art will draw crowds for subjects other than Van Gogh, or perhaps Frida Kahlo, who both have fascinating life stories and have made feature films about them, remains to be seen. Also in question: will people pay the onerous fees (“Immersive Van Gogh” starts at $40 for the 40-minute experience, while patrons can spend the whole day at MCA Chicago for $15) for a second or a third immersive show?

Lighthouse Immersive, the Canadian company that features Van Gogh and Kahlo here, is so confident it’s taken out a five-year lease on its Chicago space.

Corey Ross, co-founder of Lighthouse, sees traditional museums entering his work, along with the 5.4 million tickets his company has sold nationally, as validation and proof that this is of a new genre emerging with its own artists, such as the Italian light designer Massimiliano Siccardi, creator of the Van Gogh and Kahlo animations of Lighthouse.

“So many Americans have now seen an immersive show and been introduced to this concept,” he said. “And some will love it, some won’t. But it created a new kind of entertainment.

He said shows like his will inspire some “Immersive Van Gogh” customers to say, “That’s really cool. Let me delve into that,” and then go see Van Gogh’s paintings at the Art Institute.

That’s basically how it worked in Columbus, said museum director Maciejunes. As the two Van Gogh exhibitions opened almost in parallel, the non-profit museum spent too much money on marketing.

But some initial confusion about what was going on quickly cleared up and “everyone in Columbus, Ohio was talking about Van Gogh, and I think a number of people decided they wanted to do both” , said Maciejunes. “We exceeded our attendance projection by 85%, and it was the second highest-attended show we’ve ever had.”

Julia P. Cluff