Built to showcase student projects, VCUarts’ new virtual gallery is ‘a physical experience’

Gallery developers, pushed to go online by the COVID-19 pandemic, say the web rendition of The Anderson will put VCU on the map for virtual galleries.

Rendition of a room with various screens with images projected on them.
The virtual rendition of The Anderson gallery includes an immersive kinetic imaging room.

Faculty and students within the School of the Arts at Virginia Commonwealth University are receiving recognition for a virtual reality art project that came to fruition during the start of the pandemic.

Last spring’s campus shutdown prevented students from displaying their capstone art projects at The Anderson gallery, an exhibition that normally happens every spring. That led to a collaborative effort between The Anderson and students and faculty within the school to create a virtual reality version of the gallery. The first exhibit — the student capstone show — took place over the summer, and this month, the virtual gallery will feature an exhibition for SECAC (formerly known as the Southeastern College Art Conference).

Faculty and staff in the School of the Arts envision the project as a long-term resource for the Richmond art community and VCU. 

“This was an extraordinary project,” said Tracy Chapman Hamilton, affiliate associate professor in the Department of Art History.

Putting it together 

Discussions began shortly after campus closed on ways to salvage the capstone projects and recreate The Anderson as a virtual gallery. The idea was to use video game software and build a replica of The Anderson online, allowing people to wander the gallery on a computer.

“We did this for the students,” said Stephanie R. Thulin, assistant chair and associate professor in the Department of Kinetic Imaging. “They had the rug pulled out from under them mid-semester.”

A team of student volunteers and faculty created a site that begins with a virtual rendition of The Anderson’s exterior. But once visitors click to go inside, they are greeted by a large open room that is nothing like The Anderson. There, they have the choice of entering a theater, the kinetic imaging room, a photography and film gallery or a print gallery. The photography and film gallery and the print gallery are fairly recognizable to anyone who has entered a gallery before. The kinetic imagining room is a wholly different world. 

Chase Westfall, curator of student exhibitions and programs at The Anderson, wants people to explore the space and get lost. The experience will be very different from attending a gallery showing at The Anderson, he said. 

“The main hall is totally imagined,” Westfall said. “I hope the bait-and-switch from the inside to the outside will be something that people have fun with. Really, what obligation do we have to mimic reality?”

Depiction of a large room with figures.
A team of student volunteers and faculty created a site that begins with a virtual rendition of The Anderson’s exterior. But once visitors click to go inside, they are greeted by a large open room that is nothing like The Anderson.

Westfall has been amazed at how the project has come together. Other galleries around the country have done virtual exhibitions, but the one at The Anderson is unique, Westfall said. Often, technology professionals design the gallery, but they sometimes miss the finer points of going to a gallery, he said. That did not happen for The Anderson project, he said, because it was designed by artists. For example, the lighting for each exhibit was designed to mimic track lighting in a gallery, Westfall said. 

Clayton Harper, a Ph.D. candidate in Media, Art and Text, has a background building video game platforms and has helped build virtual spaces before. He and his colleague, Chelsea Brtis, an adjunct professor in the School of Arts, built the recognizable interior spaces of The Anderson and digitized the artwork in those rooms. 

The team, Harper said, tried wherever possible to include interesting details in the project. They try to give the paint in paintings some texture and have cloth drape in a natural way. The goal is to give visitors the most realistic experience possible, Harper said.

Hamilton said a digital version of The Anderson had been discussed previously in vague terms but it took the pandemic to push people to action. She was grateful for all the hard work that has gone into the effort.

“Suddenly, anyone from anywhere in the world can visit the gallery,” Hamilton said. 

The Department of Kinetic Imaging was also involved. Semi Ryu, an associate professor in the School of the Arts, said Kinetic Imaging was a perfect fit for the project. Her students design virtual reality environments and were willing to help. Under Ryu’s guidance, they built “the prototype and majority parts of the Virtual Anderson,” Ryu said, including the courtyard, main lobby, theater and kinetic imaging gallery. They also created game mechanics and code, “such as doorway, guest book features, media player and avatars database,” Ryu said.

She said the project was a great way for art and engineering students to collaborate and innovate. They gained valuable experience and were able to work together during challenging times.

Gaining recognition

The arts community has already embraced the new virtual gallery. Hamilton is set to give a presentation on the project in February at a conference hosted by the College Art Association. She has also been applying for two grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities. The applications contain letters of support from leaders in the digital arts community.

“We are trying to not just do this for VCU — although that is a huge motivator here — but we really think this could become a model for other institutions to be able to build something like this,” Hamilton said.

Ryu said the Virtual Anderson was able to demonstrate that art can be displayed and experienced in a different way. It also makes art more accessible.

“In my opinion, one of the innovations in the Virtual Anderson was [the ability to have] multiple video and sound installations, which is very hard to achieve in a physical installation,” she said. “By facilitating the web-based virtual reality exhibitions, anyone in the world could access the VCU arts community and exhibition, regardless of location or status.”

After the SECAC exhibit in December, the virtual Anderson team plans to have student capstone projects next year be shown in the digital gallery. The goal long-term is to make the project an archiving system. An exhibit would take place in both the physical Anderson gallery and online. The online version would be preserved and allow anyone to view the art even after the showing is finished.

A virtual gallery room with artwork on the walls and lights on the ceiling.
Inside the galleries, the creators added texture to paintings and designed cloth to drape in a natural way. The goal is to give visitors the most realistic experience possible, said Clayton Harper, who helped create the virtual Anderson.

Besides capstone projects, the gallery will be used for other showings. One already in the works is a recreation of a 1996 showing of “FLY” by Yoko Ono. That show is expected to take place in fall 2021.

Hamilton said she is pleased with how the project turned out and is grateful that everyone came together in a crisis. Students and faculty worked hard to make the digital gallery happen, she said.

Thulin agrees and believes the project will put VCU on the map as far as virtual galleries. No one else in the country has put together a project like this, she said.

“We are not just putting works online,” she said. “We are creating a physical experience.” 

View the 2020 SECAC juried show and artist’s fellowship exhibition.

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