Some museums have seen the crisis as an opportunity, and a chance to reflect on questions that have been emergent for some time: How can museums remain relevant if people can’t visit them? Who does a museum serve? Can exhibitions be transferred to the digital realm? If so, will they still be as meaningful?
Kicking and Screaming into the Digital Age
The pandemic has pushed museums into the digital age. Forced to close their doors and shoulder the economic impact, with little stimulus from the government, many of our beloved institutions are severely under threat. According to the latest research by Art Fund, 6 in 10 museums, galleries and historic houses are worried about their survival.
‘It’s been tragic,’ reflected Lee Cavaliere, the Director of the Virtual Online Museum of Art (VOMA). For him, the situation is ‘do or die’, and museums must increase their digital services to continue to engage their audiences.
While the circumstances are brutal and sadly many smaller institutions with fewer resources may not be able to adapt, the pandemic has added impetus for our cultural institutions to embrace the power of technology. ‘The art world is being dragged kicking and screaming into the modern era,’ Cavaliere told me. ‘But it’s doing really well.’
"The art world is being dragged kicking and screaming into the modern era"
Indeed, is our new world of online collections, 360° tours, virtual museums, online publications, digital exhibitions and Zoom symposiums one that we want to continue to visit once the pandemic is over, or is it as dry as that list makes it sound? Are virtual galleries poor substitutes for the real bricks and gilt frames and long wooden benches, or might they transform our conceptions of art works and the spaces that house them?
The French philosopher André Malraux was the first to conceive of an imaginary museum that exhibits all the world’s greatest art under one roof free of geographical constraints in his book Le Musée Imaginaire (1965) – sometimes translated as ‘museum without walls’. Malraux advocated television as a means of boosting access to art and its democratising potential was taken up by the art critic John Berger in 1972.
As if in riposte to the reverence displayed in similar BBC cultural broadcasts, such as Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation (1969), Berger’s Ways of Seeing opens with the critic standing in front of Botticelli’s Mars and Venus and slashing it open. Ways of Seeing was a museum over the airwaves. The opening minutes see Berger delivering a kind of manifesto:
I don’t want to suggest that there is nothing left to experience before original works of art, except a certain sense of awe, because they have survived, because they are genuine, because they are absurdly valuable. A lot more is possible, but only if art is stripped of the false mystery and false religiosity which surrounds it. This religiosity, usually linked with cash value, but always invoked in the name of culture and civilisation, is in fact a substitute for what the painting lost when the camera made them reproducible.
Some fifty years later, the temples of art have been forced to close and the artist Stuart Semple founded VOMA; envisioned before the pandemic hit, it was a coincidence that the launch of the world’s first non-profit virtual art space overlapped with the UK’s first lockdown. Continuing Malraux and Berger’s attempts to democratise art, the museum’s director Cavaliere explained to me that ‘the founding principle of VOMA was to make art more accessible’.
"the temples of art have been forced to close"
‘I’m very allergic to the idea of elitism within art,’ he continued. ‘Artists are basically there to tell stories, and there is a need to hear from a different set of people than we have been hearing from.’ He pointed out that the Black Lives Matter movement, which also shook the art world last year, was not only about race, but about access. ‘Who gets to make the decisions, and whose voices are we hearing, and that was all very much part of our philosophy when we approached VOMA.’
VOMA is designed by the architect Emily Mann, who took her cues from post-war Japanese architects who were driven by the idea of ‘starting again’ and renewal – apt, given the way that society will have to rebuild after this crisis. The virtual building ‘really strikes all my favourite modernist Brutalist chords,’ Cavaliere said. ‘I think it really looks like a socialist structure, which is kind of the idea.’
Click ENTER> and you find yourself gazing up at the twinkling blossom of a tree casting long shadows and the sounds of a water feature. Misha Milavonovich’s PINGA (2020), a pink lacquered steel sculpture, stands guard on the wooden decking overlooking the pool, rising up like some abstract animal that could belong on some fictional, matriarchal coat of arms. VOMA changes with the seasons, so who knows what the landscape will look like in a few months’ time.
"VOMA's design took inspiration from post-war Japanese architects who were driven by the idea of ‘starting again’ and renewal"
Stepping inside, the huge skylights cast great rhomboids of sun on the stone floor and Caravaggios are hung next to works by contemporary artists, such as Luiz Zerbini, from Brazil. ’It was important to us to make it feel as real as possible,’ Cavaliere said, ‘which is why we're working with these very high-end computer games designers, CGI experts. The works on the walls are not just JPEGs, but very high resolution, textured objects. And we've worked very closely with the estates a lot of the time.’
Hieronymous Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights (c.1503-15) is currently showing in VOMA’s second room. The painting was downloaded as a 250-megabyte image from Google. ‘We worked with the CGI artists to make it look as real as possible. I have to go through with them piece by piece – this painting is from this era, it's painted on this kind of wood, with this kind of varnish, this is how it's going to react to light.’
Cavaliere explained that the Bosch is currently on show in Madrid, on a very broad plinth behind a rope barrier. ‘You can't get close to it. And it's full of these tiny figures. So, you really do want to get close to it. I mean, obviously you're not allowed to touch it in the real world because of conservation issues.’ But at VOMA, the detail is such that you can practically stick your nose up against it. ‘We need to allow a space where visitors feel welcome,’ Cavaliere said. ‘And they feel that they can touch things - which is ironic, because obviously, it's not real.’
As well as being able to get up close to great works of art, from anywhere in the world (according to VOMA’s analytics, 50% of visitors arrive via their mobile phones, pulling museums out of their pockets) VOMA canvases opinion and wants its visitors to ‘feel that they’ve got some ownership,’ Cavaliere said. ‘Sometimes museums feel like you’re walking into a monument. And that can be quite alienating. We really wanted to break down that kind of barrier.’
"Sometimes museums feel like you’re walking into a monument. And that can be quite alienating."
Visitors can feel right at home in VOMA, which boasts a café, a reading room, a comments wall, and is working to add a dialogue box at the bottom of the screen. In the first two or three weeks after it opened, VOMA had 400,000 artwork interactions – that’s people clicking, zooming or reading information about the works – and people have been flocking ever since from all over the world. The museum has gone ‘viral in Korea’, Cavaliere told me. ‘And art has never had that kind of virality before. It's always been contained, because of its physicality and in the physical space.’
In the worst instances, the art world’s online migration has re-inscribed its tendency towards elitism and alienation: you find yourself in a viewing room, only to scroll down and see the price tags and realise you have stumbled into someone else’s bottomless wallet. The best digital experiences – and for me, VOMA is leading the vanguard – divorce art from its silly and sustaining religiosity and remind us that art is inalienable. What physical museums could stand to learn from virtual ones is that they need fewer walls. And more bridges.
By Sammi Gale
Lee Cavaliere is a curator and contemporary art specialist. Following a number of years working with the Tate’s Collection displays, he moved on to the commercial sector, delivering contemporary exhibitions programmes at Max Wigram Gallery and the Fine Art Society on Bond Street, London. He works with artists, galleries and museums internationally, developing exhibitions and facilitating opportunities and connections. He now heads up VOMA, the world's first online art museum, as well as numerous charitable, community and NGO projects internationally. He is dedicated to opening up access to the arts, promoting equality and challenging exclusion and elitism.