How Virtual Reality Is Putting Art Online

Virtual Van Goghs

Key Takeaways

  • Museums and galleries are increasingly turning to online exhibits as the coronavirus pandemic limits in-person attendance. 
  • Online art-viewing can offer context and information that’s hard to convey in-person, some experts say. 
  • The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City offers videos that allow people to virtually visit the museum’s art and architecture using spherical 360° technology.
Side view of someone wearing VR Gear while enjoying immersive experience during an exhibition at an art gallery.
SeventyFour / Getty Images

Art lovers now can turn to a growing array of exhibits online as the coronavirus pandemic limits their access to museums and galleries. 

Many museums offer virtual tours of their exhibits, and galleries are trying to lure buyers by showing their offerings online. School children, who usually would be touring museums, are getting a close-up look via the web at everything from dinosaurs to classical art. There are even some upsides to looking at art online, experts say. 

"While the highly personal connection that visitors make with artworks and gallery spaces cannot be replicated online, the museum has discovered that connecting directly to living artists, scholars, and collectors, as well as other visitors online, provides a very rich context for all," Corey Madden, interim executive director of the Monterey Museum of Art, said in an email interview.

"The digital reproduction of art can also provide some important added benefits to visitors, including the ability to zoom in to see the work closely, convenience, and 24-hour access to the collection."

Look, No Crowds

As visitors dwindle during the pandemic, museums are trying to lure users with high tech tours online. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City offers the Met 360° Project, a series of six short videos that allow people to virtually visit the museum’s art and architecture using spherical 360-degree technology.

Viewers can experience standing in an empty gallery after-hours, witnessing a bustling space in time-lapse, or going high above The Met Cloisters for a bird's-eye view. 

Visitors wear a virtual reality (VR) headset, while looking a virtual and interactive animations, during a press visit of the exhibition "Leonardo da Vinci" at the Louvre museum.
Visitors wear a virtual reality (VR) headset, while looking a virtual and interactive animations, during a press visit of the exhibition "Leonardo da Vinci" at the Louvre museum. Chesnot / Getty Images

In Chicago, the Field Museum recently offered a free, interactive virtual class, "Dino or Di-Not," to bring kids closer to its dinosaur exhibit while the museum was closed due to COVID-19. The museum attracted approximately 20,000 attendees to explore various creatures. 

Art Made for the Pandemic

Artists also say the pandemic is influencing how they work. The Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago commissioned Jeanette Andrews’ piece Invisible Museums of the Unseen, a citywide, public audio art series utilizing user-activated GPS technology.

Located in four parks throughout Chicago, in an almost "choose your own adventure" structure, participants download a free app. As they walk through the park, GPS-based audio is activated as the participant’s movements and choices cause an invisible museum to come to life. 

"The ability to utilize cutting edge technology gives the public the ability to enter a new world, yet this is the world that exists for us every day in our own backyard," Andrews said in an email interview.

"At a time when people feel disconnected by something that is intrinsically airborne, I hope to connect people via structures in the air."

"The digital reproduction of art can also provide some important added benefits to visitors..."

Robert Berry, the owner of Robert Berry Gallery, said in an email interview that his business had gone full digital since the pandemic began. "There are many 'virtual gallery' technologies available, but oftentimes people don’t have time to wander through a 3D world, even if it’s unique," he added.

"They want to find that perfect piece for one or more of their empty walls. Social media has been a wonderful technology for art, disseminating artwork and artists more widely, but in a sense, it is not the full picture, because it is limited by the people posting the information."

Some galleries are turning to augmented reality to sell art during the pandemic. A client of KAB Gallery in Australia recently purchased two pieces of art while in Hong Kong. "Before KAB Gallery offered this feature, the client had been deliberating for too long and kept missing out on the pieces she liked," Kerry-Ann Blanket, KAB’s art gallery director, said in an email interview.

"Being able to quickly visualize exactly how the art pieces will look in her home and around the works in her collection allowed the client to make a quick decision with confidence." 

Seeing art online will never be the same as viewing it in person. But new technologies like augmented reality are bringing some unexpected benefits to the museum-going experience.

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