Very Van Gogh: What’s behind the immersive exhibits that are sweeping the nation

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Courtesy: “Beyond Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience”

(ABC4) – You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who hasn’t been served an ad for an immersive Van Gogh experience in the last six months. Whether by billboard, Instagram ad, or simply word of mouth, it seems nearly everyone has heard about the event. Now that immersive Van Gogh experiences have opened in most major U.S. cities, it’s safe to say the part art exhibition, part tech spectacle, part photo op is taking the nation by storm.

Salt Lake City is home to its very own iteration, called Beyond Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience. Hosted by Atmosphere Studios – a Salt Lake-based marketing firm specializing in building 3D environments – the event is open now and runs until December 31.

As far as why Van Gogh is so popular in the current moment, Christine McCallum, operations manager at Atmosphere Studios, says it’s difficult to pinpoint an exact cause.

It may well be a perfect storm for several reasons. McCallum says that an inherent fascination with Van Gogh is combined with a public desire for a memorable experience, creating a public curiosity surrounding the exhibit.

Since it opened in early October, McCallum and the team behind the event have been inundated with inquires about Beyond Van Gogh.

“People are always trying to figure out, ‘What is this thing?’” she says. “And invariably, we can’t do a very good job of totally helping them understand it unless they come see it. People are so eager to have an experience that they are willing to spend this money and come down even though they don’t really know what they’re being promised.”

Along with an air of mystery surrounding the nature of the event, McCallum also believes that another reason Van Gogh’s work is having a renaissance is due to society’s growing awareness of mental health concerns. She gives credit to celebrities like Simone Biles who have spoken out about their mental health for bringing the issue into the public eye. And though the exhibit doesn’t blatantly discuss Van Gogh’s struggles, McCallum believes that audiences are drawing a connection.

“We look back over time and the archetypal examples of mental health struggle come back into the mainstream consciousness,” she says. “It is by the nature of the character Van Gogh and his life story that you cannot tell this story without that being part of it.”

Another reason for the sudden Van Gogh immersion is simply that the painter’s art is in the public domain, so it’s possible to use the art without exorbitant licensing fees.  

“There are a lot of young artists that enjoy the technological mediums,” McCallum says. “They are interested in imagery that is as compelling as “Starry Night,” so they’re using that as a tool to really express their exploration of technological, artistic expression.”

But whether the reason is lack of regulation around Van Gogh’s art, increased attention to mental health, or a desire to experience art in a new way, it seems to be working.

Since putting on Beyond Van Gogh, McCallum says that Atmosphere Studios has had an increased amount of attention from other artists, licensing agents, and creatives in regards to creating similar experiences with their work.

“I know that loads and loads of artists are eager to create additional experiential art expressions for the community in Salt Lake,” she says.

Though it’s certainly been one of the most widely discussed, immersive Van Gogh exhibits were not the first of these types of experiential art events. Several years ago, photo-centric exhibits like the Museum of Ice Cream, Color Factory, and even Utah’s own Dreamscapes Museum, picked up steam and garnered a large amount of recognition on social media. Even before the pandemic, venues like Los Angeles’ Wisdome were creating experiences using a combination of projections, installations, and virtual reality.

According to McCallum, these types of events were a precursor to immersive experiences like Beyond Van Gogh.

“I think it’s just a natural development that is on a parallel course with the way the world is developing,” she says. “For a little while, VR was really starting to gain traction in terms of experiential and immersive marketing and art. But there’s still a price barrier to have that equipment available privately and COVID really hurt VR in a public setting because no one wants to put glasses on their face that someone else just took off.”

Beyond Van Gogh took what VR and experiential exhibits began before the pandemic and ran with it.

Van Gogh just said, let’s make this whole room feel like VR, but without the VR goggles,” McCallum says.

And it seems that the exhibit won’t be a one-off, either. Salt Lake’s Leonardo Science and Art Museum opened an immersive From Monet to Kandinsky exhibition in early November, and McCallum believes that other venues, artists, and promoters will be following suit.

“When you create an experience for a person, it creates a memory,” she says. “I think there’s a 12-15 year trend of creating experiences that is culminating right now in all of this experiential art expression.”

And all these new memories being created are also drawing in new audiences – and giving them an accessible jumping-off point into the art world.

McCallum says that if the exhibit lacked the immersive element, she wouldn’t have expected the success they’ve seen. The nature of the experience – the movement, music, and interactive nature – aids in fostering an approachability that can be difficult to cultivate in the art world.

“All of these young kids who are coming with their families to this exhibit will – for the rest of their life, if they’re taking an art history class or if they go to a museum and see anything from Van Gogh – have that personal connection that is always going to be there,” she says.  

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