Inside the World's First Virtual Online Museum of Art

An interview with Lee Cavaliere, director of VOMA

The launch of the world’s first non-profit virtual art space overlapped with the UK’s first lockdown. But the Virtual Online Museum of Art (VOMA) was envisioned before that. ‘The founding principle of VOMA was to make art more accessible,’ the museum’s director Lee Cavaliere told Grimshaw Foundation.

‘I’m very allergic to the idea of elitism within art,’ Cavaliere 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.’

The virtual building and gardens were designed by the architect Emily Mann. She 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.’

"VOMA architect Emily Mann took her cues from post-war Japanese architects who were driven by the idea of ‘starting again’ and renewal"

Anyone with an internet connection can get up close to great works of art (the works on the walls are very high resolution, textured objects involving hundreds of megabytes that you can zoom in on) – 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 regularly 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.’

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.’

VOMA is changing all that, opening up the walls – and building bridges instead.

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