VR as a game-changer for the art

By Bernadine Bröcker, Co-Founder & CEO Vastari, London, UK
The Kremer Museum VR Corner powered by VIVE Arts and MSI at the Art + FinTech summit Bahrain 2019 © Fadi Farhat Photography
Khora Contemporary VR Corner powered by VIVE Arts and MSI at the Art + FinTech summit Bahrain 2019 © Fadi Farhat Photography
dslcollection VR Corner powered by VIVE Arts and MSI at the Art + FinTech summit Bahrain 2019 © Fadi Farhat Photography
Bernadine Bröcker, Co-Founder & CEO Vastari speaking at VR as a Game Changer for the Arts panel at the Art + FinTech summit Bahrain 2019 © Fadi Farhat Photography

Can VR museums reach 1 billion viewers?

When speaking to people about Art + VR, most don't understand how much the medium genuinely is making the art world question itself. This medium is more than just a cool gimmick, where you can walk into a virtual museum to look at or climb up the magnificent works in the DSL Collection, listen to a hologram of Mr and Mrs Kremer discuss 17th century Dutch art and walk straight through a Rembrandt, or feel your heart stop (in awe or fear) with a work by Yu Hong or Paul McCarthy which many was able to experience at Bahrain’s recent international art fair, ArtBAB through a virtual reality corner curated by UNFOLD Art XChange and powered by VIVE Arts and MSI.

Vastari had the privilege of taking part in a panel discussion with Sylvain Levy, Joel Kremer and Jens Faurschou about the way virtual reality technology is changing the arts at the world’s first Art + FinTech summit, 2nd Annual UNFOLD Art XChange that was part of the talks program for the 4th edition of ArtBAB, held at the Bahrain International Convention and Exhibition Center, under the patronage of Her Royal Highness, Princess Sabeeka bint IbrahimAl Khalifa, Wife of His Majesty The King of Bahrain in collaboration with Tamkeen that took place from the 7-9 March 2019. It was so inspiring to bring this new tech onto the stage with these men who have been championing the medium, each in their own way.

The projects Sylvain, Joel and Jens have developed are so extraordinary, that one should go and grab a HTC Vive headset and explore it straight away. It is beautiful, impactful and unforgettable. 

But intellectually, let's look a bit deeper at what this technology means for the art world, in terms of the reach, the value chain and the business models.

In terms of reach, Joel Kremer put it very clearly in his presentation. "My family was thinking of the best way to exhibit the private collection. As a former Googler, I was taught to explore how to scale something 100x from the analogue version, using technology," he recounted. (Joel previously spent 7 years at Google). "If we were looking at having a few million visitors to our collection by building a traditional private museum (in a best-case scenario), could we make it 100million? Could we find a way to reach 1 billion people?"

Kremer found his scalable solution, in terms of reach, through Virtual Reality. With his family's Mighty Masters initiative, they are bringing the Old Master paintings from The Kremer Collection to thousands of children around the world and hoping to get to 1 million by 2020. Without the barriers of transport, imposing museum doors and other logistics, children from India to Nigeria to Brooklyn can now walk into the Kremer Museum and discover the school of Rembrandt for themselves.

This mission, so inspiring, also comes with challenges. At a 2018 conference of museum professionals where Joel presented the Kremer Collection, a French museum director muttered: "...this is like Amazon presenting at a conference of booksellers." One can draw parallels, indeed. But in order for these two forces not to compete, museums need to engage with VR and bring it into their spaces. They need to become collaborators on the value chain, not competitors for attention.

A few years prior to Joel's adventures, Sylvain Levy also came to a similar conclusion about his collection of Contemporary Chinese art. He and his wife Dominique set out to collect 'museum-quality' works by the top Chinese artists. In Chinese terms, this meant scale. The finest, more extraordinary pieces were being created in their studios, and they were BIG.

For example, DSL commissioned and now owns a work by Jia Aili ("Our Century") that measures 15 metres across and is 6 metres tall. It is so big, it is currently held in storage. Sylvain had an open mind about the potential of tech (he has such a huge network onLinkedin, that the company blocked him from adding new connections at somepoint) and discovered that this technology could solve the issue and show all the works in one place

With the new DSL virtual museum, all the works in Dominique and Sylvain's collection can be experienced as a whole, at a fraction of the cost of setting up a physical museum. When Sylvain discusses his museum, and the reasons why he finds VR so inspiring, you can feel that this is an emotional, inspiring thing for him. Him talking about his virtual museum, exudes the same kind of passion you'd see from Elon Musk talking about the potential to travel to Mars. It is full of passion.

Jens and Masha Faurschou met with a gaming studio in Denmark that was working in VR a few years ago, and this was the cathartic moment that inspired them to start funding artists to start making art in VR. The video Jens played during his presentation was clear and inspiring - these artists are working alongside developers who usually build fighting or racing games and consumer brand experiences, to instead create a more spiritual, interactive, creative experience. A super successful joint venture, Khora Contemporary has been making a huge range of artworks, from those that explore optical illusions to those, like Yu Hong's work, that tell more of a narrative.

Both Sylvain and Joel have been working with Vastari for a while, making the works in their collection available to museums via the Vastari Collections platform. Vastari’s experiences with them and some of our other collectors exploring VR, inspired the company’s interest into this space.The conundrum is how to get museums to understand that they can exhibit or incorporate virtual reality pieces, beyond simply being an "engagement and learning" tool.

In the video Jens presented with Khora, one of the team members said "we can't wait for these works to be exhibited in a museum, where they deserve, next to other pieces of important contemporary art". But this is the issue. The medium itself is a huge conundrum for museums. Museums bring in content, usually, in two ways: as an individual object, lent to the museum for free so it is seen by the public and its resale value hopefully increases in future. The second way is as a touring exhibition, where a museum pays a hiring fee to the producer in exchange for the right to sell tickets to some content.

VR works are a strange mix between the two. The DSL and Kremer collection virtual museums are artefacts in their own right (designed by architects, developed by a team of creatives), the artists that Khora or AcuteArt support are making VR artefacts, that are relics in their own right. But,given these VR pieces require a team of people to put the thing together, and they are likely to require "ticket sales"/app store purchases in the future for people to access them. It is much more like a movie that is shown in multiple theatres worldwide, than like a painting or sculpture that is on display to the public. Should these pieces then be considered touring exhibitions?

According to the Vastari GlobalReport, the #1 thing a museum expects from a partner in the case of a touring show, is "Access to Objects". Could the VR pieces be considered objects?

The panel in Bahrain of course didn't answer all the questions that were raised. It is a huge topic, so we didn't even get to go into depth on how VR could even be used to assess facilities for exhibition insurance (get in touch with Vastari if you'd like to learn more about that). But, what was clear from the discussions is that given the scale (can VR museums reach 1 billion viewers?), the value propositions and new business models, this is a game changer for the arts. Watch this space!