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VOMA online art museum

Inside VOMA: the Virtual Online Museum of Art

A ‘museum for everyone‘, the new virtual institution showcases art to a global audience

VOMA (the Virtual Online Museum of Art) is the world’s first online art museum. It is fully interactive, free, and since it is open to anyone with an internet connection, fully accessible.

The online model means that VOMA is free to work with partners in new ways. It aims to become a truly communal experience, one which adds the voices of visitors to the conversation. VOMA, which was founded in 2020, has already exhibited works by a wide range of artists, from Banksy to Caravaggio. It exhibits work from across history, including well-known artists and hidden gems.

Meet Lee Cavaliere

Lee Cavaliere VOMA

Lee Cavaliere, VOMA’s director, spent several years working with Tate’s collection displays, before moving on to the commercial sector, delivering contemporary exhibitions programmes at Max Wigram Gallery and the Fine Art Society on Bond Street, London.

He tells blooloop:

“While I was at Tate I was working with the collections and displays; we worked on things like the Turner Prize and the Turbine Hall. It was interesting because it was across the collection.”

He then went into the commercial world:

“I was director of a couple of commercial galleries, working closely with their artists and delivering their programmes, and doing art fairs internationally. I’ve been freelance as a consultant for several years.”

Dedicated to opening up access to the arts, promoting equality and challenging exclusion and elitism, Cavaliere now heads up numerous charitable, community and NGO projects internationally, in addition to his role with VOMA.

The Sixteen Trust

In 2019, he founded the Sixteen Trust, an arts and education charity that aims to inspire children between the ages of 11 and 16 in financially challenged areas through mentoring from real-world arts professionals, across disciplines. Bringing new ideas, it engages young people in the broad spectrum of careers in the arts, giving long-term support, tied into the school curriculum and in partnership with schools and educators.

“The Sixteen was inspired by the fact that I had been in the art world for many years, and everyone looked and sounded like me,” says Cavaliere.

VOMA exhibition 'Reclaiming the Body'
Still from the exhibition ‘Reclaiming the Body’, featuring Sandro Boticelli, Luciano Garbati, Artemisia Gentileschi and Frida Kahlo

“There is a lack of diversity and opportunity within the arts broadly. I think there is still this idea within education, and it’s even carried through to university and beyond, that if you’re an artist, then it’s a romantic pursuit where you’re going to starve to death and be noble in your poverty.

“Actually, the art market is a $50 billion international industry. But if you look at the arts, arts subjects in schools are being devalued, because there is no proper economic argument being made for them.

“What is happening, therefore, is that people who already have means are going into jobs in the arts, which is damaging the arts in several ways. It’s diluting the quality of the people, and it’s also diluting the gene pool, in that the people who oversee what we’re seeing are coming from a potentially narrow educational and economic background. That was the beginning of it.”

Inspiring young people

Additionally:

“A conversation I had years ago with Phoebe Philo about the cross-pollination of arts subjects, and the way that creative thinking feeds into absolutely everything, sparked an idea. She is a very successful fashion designer, but she studied visual art.

“I looked at my address book and realised it is full of interesting people who work across the arts, in architecture, theatre, museums, transport: it’s a huge, really interesting industry. I think if you show that to kids who would otherwise think that the arts aren’t economically viable, they suddenly realise that they can have a say and a voice and that maybe the arts do have something to do with them.”

It’s a huge, really interesting industry. I think if you show that to kids who would otherwise think that the arts aren’t economically viable, they suddenly realise that they can have a say and a voice and that maybe the arts do have something to do with them

The Sixteen Trust has been working to inspire young people, improve career prospects, and broaden opportunities through sustainable, long-term projects for two years now.

VOMA opens to the public

VOMA opened its virtual doors on 7 Sept 2020. Its genesis, Cavaliere says, came about because of a conversation between himself and Stuart Semple:

“He’s an artist-activist I’ve known for some years,” he says. “We have quite similar brains in that we are both very interested in trying to open up access to art. For a long time, Stuart has been working with the internet as a means of democratising the art world.

“The idea behind VOMA was to create a high-quality museum that exists completely online and is freely available. The problem, again, with museums is that they’re only accessible to the people that they’re accessible to.”

VOMA entrance

Cavaliere is fortunate in that he grew up in Surrey, just outside London, so could, if he wished, go to the Tate:

“But even if you’re from the area, there’s no guarantee that you’re going to want to go into a museum,” he points out:

“They are not always very welcoming places. They sometimes don’t cause people to feel that they can have a conversation they’re involved with. We spent a good year looking at that question, talking with museums and with artists, visitors, kids and schools, just consulting and seeing what it was that people felt was missing from the museum experience, why they weren’t engaging, so we could then attack that.”

A new type of virtual museum

The result is VOMA:

“We’ve created a virtual museum that is architect designed, and quite lovely. It hosts exhibitions that have an international museum quality where we work on collaborations with museum collections, artists, and artists’ estates around the world to bring together work from across history, to deliver it to anyone who wants to see it.

“So far, we’ve hit hundreds of thousands of people in 60 countries. So, it is clearly working, and there’s clearly a desire for it.”

VOMA is successfully reaching new audiences.

“We’ve got very good analytics on that,” he says:

“The overwhelming number of people who visit are younger; the 18 to 25 age range is a big spike in the numbers. We’re also hitting people in rural areas, and around the world.

“The interesting thing about it is its virality. We see these random spikes in the numbers in Korea or Brazil, and that’s nothing to do with us. It’s where something has been posted, then reshared 2000 times, for whatever reason. That’s something that most museums would kill for. Because VOMA is so easily accessible, we’re seeing about 50 to 60% of people are viewing it on their mobile.

“Kids in Guatemala are walking around, literally, with a museum in their pocket, which is what we wanted.”

Improving access

In terms of addressing how to reach those who may see the arts as irrelevant or indulgent, or who can’t spare the time or the money to make the arts part of their life, Cavaliere says:

“VOMA doesn’t take any time or money. I can pick it up right now, just click, and I’m there, and that helps. But yes, access is a problem.”

Abe-Odedina-and-Édouard-Manet-VOMA
Abe Odedina and Édouard Manet looking again at the background story of black servitude in ‘Olympia’

“A lot of the kids that we work with at the Sixteen are in places like Margate that have a museum. There is a lot of talk about cultural regeneration because of the museum, but most of the kids have never even thought about going to it. They’ve never been to any museum. It is a huge challenge.

“Giving easy access, – and you can’t get much easier than it being literally in your hand – does help. 20% of our visitors are repeat visitors, which is encouraging. The time that people spend there per visit is, on average, about seven minutes, but it can be anything up to about an hour and a half.”

Collaborating with VOMA

The VOMA team are always looking for new collaborations:

“The current show, for example, is about art and protest. I managed to find some people who organised the gathering of some painted boards in Minneapolis.

“During the George Floyd protests, local businesses boarded up the front of their buildings to protect them from the riots. These boards were then painted by local artists. Then completely grassroots, non-art organisations gathered these boards to preserve the story; we’re showing them in VOMA, so that’s a completely new audience.”

“What we are trying to do is work with as many different people and voices as possible. We work quite closely with the artists and the museums that we borrow work from.”

What is a museum?

VOMA deconstructs what a museum is, and what we want and need from a museum. Cavaliere explains:

“We started with the building. That was quite interesting because when you go to a museum, it tends to be this monolithic structure that, effectively, shouts down at you a little bit. We wanted to create something that didn’t do that, and that was changeable. Our idea is that we are going to keep changing the building, and the landscape around it, which is a fun thing.”

The Virtual Online Museum of Art

Visitors to VOMA can type comments and questions in a dialogue in the corner of the screen as they wander:

“We’re getting constant feedback from visitors from all around the world, which is lovely,” he says. “We’re also trying to democratise the curatorial process a bit. I don’t like the idea that exhibitions are ‘delivered’ by someone; that can be very problematic. I’m cited as the curator, but it is the artists that are really the curators. This was a collaboration through discussion.”

Making connections at VOMA

Many of the works, Cavaliere says, speak to each other across time.

“[Exhibiting] the George Floyd boards was a collaboration with Save The Boards, Minneapolis and Memorialize the Movement, the two groups involved in collecting, preserving, archiving, and reactivating the plywood protest art. These are very deep conversations, and we ended up making good friends with artists and the organisations that support them.”

The idea is for VOMA to be a listening post for developing culture. Culture and history are moving targets, and you must keep evolving with that

There are several freedoms inherent in the concept of a purely digital museum:

“The idea is for VOMA to be a listening post for developing culture. There has been an argument recently in Europe about what it means to be a museum, between the two points of view that a museum is either a) a means for preserving history, or b) a means to map culture. I’m more on the b) side. Culture and history are moving targets, and you must keep evolving with that.

“VOMA gives us an unprecedented opportunity to do that because we don’t have to worry about tickets or paying for a monolithic structure. One challenge for museums is primarily that you’ve got to pay the rent. That brings all sorts of limitations, so you’ve got to start doing exhibitions that people will pay tickets for.

“That’s why we get so many Andy Warhol shows – because curators think everyone loves Andy Warhol. The issue there is that museums are overwhelmingly populated by the same few white, male artists.

“I think the idea of galleries and museums being kind of guardians of culture is something that we may need to challenge.”

The challenges of a virtual museum model

There are, of course, challenges in running a free virtual museum:

“The main challenge is making it work financially,” he says. “We are working on several different ways of doing that. We can work on a skeleton crew. What you’re seeing in VOMA is almost a proposal of what we could do. Every single area of it could be expanded and developed.”

Exhibition 'Breaking Into Colour' VOMA
The exhibition ‘Breaking Into Colour’, including Joan Mitchell, Vincent Van Gogh and Josef Albers.

Accordingly:

“We are looking at collaborations and sponsorship,” he explains. “We don’t want to completely sell out. Our independence is important. We have been approached by some organisations we didn’t particularly want to work with because of their moral issues. It is important that we are careful about that. We want it to remain free and open and honest. But at the same time, that is a very noble cause, which doesn’t pay.

“We are working on that, but right now the challenge is staying true to where we started while keeping an eye to developing. Many of the challenges are answered just by the very nature of VOMA. It is this wonderfully inclusive space, and the exhibitions themselves can be put together with that in mind.”

Education at VOMA

Cavaliere is also keen to develop the education side:

“We are working, along with the Sixteen Trust, since it’s all part of the same charity, to develop the education programme, and to do more outreach. We’d like to get a full-time education officer.”

In terms of digital outreach, he adds:

“Stuart and I did initially conceive of VOMA as being something that you could download, and then do your own shows, but it is way too advanced for that, though we have come up with other ways of young people being able to put their own exhibitions on in the virtual space, including their own work, or that of well-known artists. We are talking with various museums about going into partnership with that technology.”

The Virtual Online Museum of Art

“The thing that we do have is a completely ground-breaking technological solution to online exhibitions and online museum education.”

Looking to the future

There are, he says, various irons in various fires in terms of how VOMA will grow. For the future, he says:

“I think we need a much larger education programme; the potential is enormous. I’d also like to see more events, more talks. They have been successful so far. I want to be working with more curators internationally.”

The Virtual Online Museum of Art

“Then we have one wall, the Discovery Wall, which is work that has been suggested by visitors. I want to build a new space. This is called the Convertible Gallery because it’s outside and has no roof. It will be for work that has been suggested by artists. It’s an idea around broadening out the idea of how you put shows together. I’d like to explore that further.

“I’d also like to re redesign the building and put it somewhere new because it’s been where it is now for a year.”

VOMA can be at the centre of global conversations

The team has also been exploring hosting a conference on art and digital innovation:

“VOMA, I think, has the potential to be at the centre of those conversations globally. Particularly as we move into the metaverse.

“We can develop in all areas. I want to be commissioning more artists. Artists are the geniuses here. If you give them new technology, they will run with it and create new, beautiful things.”

In conclusion:

“It’s a brave new world, and it is quite nice to be at the vanguard. It’s interesting: I fully expected there to be a hundred of these by now. But I think because we’re doing it as a non-profit, we’re the only people mad enough to have done it to this level.”

Top image: VOMA entrance, with sculpture ‘Pinga’ by Misha Milovanovich. 

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Lalla Merlin

Lead Features Writer Lalla studied English at St. Hugh’s College, Oxford University. A writer and film-maker, she lives in rural Devon with husband, children, and an assortment of badly-behaved animals, including an enormous but friendly wolf.

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