How immersive Van Gogh exhibitions are challenging the museum world

But if there’s been a true star in the entertainment world of late, it’s an emotionally tortured Dutch-born painter who died more than a century ago. Sure enough, Vincent Van Gogh is hotter than ever — largely through numerous global exhibitions that have brought his key works, from “Starry Night” to “The Potato Eaters,” to life through immersive, digital experiences that project the pictures within massive spaces.

“This is a new genre,” said Corey Ross, a Canadian-based entertainment producer whose company, Lighthouse Immersive, is presenting its “Immersive Van Gogh” show in about a dozen cities across North America to what appears to be an eager following. Indeed, its current New York presentation, set in a pier facility that has hosted everything from basketball events to a comic-and-toy convention, is something of a holiday encore that capitalizes on leftover demand from an earlier run this year.

Ross and his team, including producing partner Svetlana Dvoretsky, estimate that collectively they have sold about 4.5 million tickets, translating into roughly $250 million in revenue, to all their “Immersive Van Gogh” presentations, including ones in Chicago, Toronto and San Francisco. And that’s not counting $30 million in ancillary gift-shop revenue: Can you say Van Gogh-themed teddy bears? (They’re available in four sizes, priced from $16.99 to $69.99.)

“This is a new genre”

— Canadian entertainment producer Corey Ross on the Van Gogh immersive shows

Ross has plenty of competition, however. While museums have generally shied away from such exhibitions, several other entertainment producers have developed similar Van Gogh shows — in some cases, going years back. Bruce Peterson, an Australian promoter, says he led the way with a presentation in Singapore in 2011. He adds that his company, Grande Experiences, has since presented its show, called “Van Gogh Alive,” in more than 70 cities across the world, including a few in the U.S.

Peterson says his idea came about when he took his children to some of the great art museums in France and Italy. “My kids were getting pretty bored and they were saying, ‘Let’s get a gelato,’” he recalled. That led to him to thinking there must be a way to bring the grand masters to life that would appeal to all ages and all levels of art knowledge and appreciation.

So, Peterson developed a method to turn the paintings into moving images — a far cry from what you’d see at your local art museum, where the framed-pictures-on-a-wall approach has been in place for generations. “Traditional museums are a little bit more handcuffed,” Peterson said matter-of-factly.

Still, the Van Gogh immersive shows didn’t quite become a global sensation until the last few years — specifically, the pandemic era. Some in the entertainment industry say the concept got a big boost when the hit Netflix series, “Emily in Paris,” featured a scene at a Van Gogh exhibition.

But some also note it was the pandemic itself that prompted the Van Gogh boom. Producers of live entertainment were challenged by the fact it became impossible to offer traditional events, be they concerts or spectacles like the circus or ice-skating shows, when restrictions on crowds remained in place or audiences were simply fearful of sitting in theaters.

At the same time, some people were nevertheless eager to get out. The Van Gogh shows, which easily allow for generous spacing because of the size of the venues, emerged as an alternative for producers to offer — and one that quickly proved appealing to entertainment-starved audiences, even with ticket prices that can reach about $50 for what often amounts to little more than a 30-minute movie run on a continuous loop. (At most venues, audiences can stay for as long as they like, however.)

“I thought it was a wonderful way to experience art,” said Shari Bayer, a New York City resident who recently saw the “Immersive Van Gogh” show in New York — at a special presentation that allowed attendees to view it while doing yoga, no less.

Van Gogh with a side of yoga: At the “Immersive Van Gogh” exhibition in New York City, you can stretch and view at the same time.

Carol Fox and Associates

Producers are boosted by the fact that shows can be created at a relatively modest cost. Mario Iacampo, chief executive of Exhibition Hub, another company that is presenting Van Gogh shows across the globe, says the initial investment can be around $250,000 in the digital production itself with physical setup costs of $50,000 to $75,000 in each city. Also helping matters: Van Gogh’s works are in the public domain, so no licensing fees are involved.

And, of course, Van Gogh’s works, with their swirling, impressionistic quality, have a natural appeal to audiences. “His art transcends time,” said Iacampo.

Not that art critics haven’t had their issues with the various Van Gogh immersive shows — some find them cheesy, light-hearted entertainment at best and an appalling misrepresentation of the artist at worst. “Even the rudiments of Van Gogh are not easy to capture in photographic reproductions,” said a New York Times reviewer of the two Van Gogh shows in the city (yes, there’s another one that’s been offered in town).

Ross, the promoter of the Pier 36 show, says the criticisms aren’t fair, arguing that these digital, immersive experiences shouldn’t be considered like traditional museum shows, but that’s how art reviewers often approach them. Ross also isn’t surprised that museums have generally backed away from doing immersive experiences of their own, though he says that probably has to do more with the fact they require spaces far bigger than the standard galleries.

Others suggest that museums are hesitant for different reasons. Veteran museum consultant Mark Walhimer says the fact remains that the Van Gogh exhibitions aren’t really what could be considered museum-quality. “I don’t think anyone would say these projections are art pieces in and of themselves,” he said.

Newfields, an Indianapolis space that incorporates the Indianapolis Museum of Art, is a notable exception. It has created a permanent digital-art showcase, called the the Lume, and is currently featuring a Van Gogh show in partnership with Bruce Peterson’s Grande Experiences.

Jonathan Berger, a Newfields official, think the immersive experiences represent a next-generation way to appreciate art, though he admits it may take time for some museum-goers to see them that way.

Then again, Berger said, “It wasn’t that long ago that photography was looked at as something that didn’t belong in museums.”

Berger adds that the experiences can spur interest in seeing the actual paintings, which should work in the museum world’s favor. He’s quick to note the Newfields Van Gogh show features a gallery that includes a genuine Van Gogh. “I have never seen so many people huddled around our Van Gogh,” he said, as if to underscore his point.

Regardless of how the Van Gogh immersive shows are seen by the larger art world, it’s clear they aren’t disappearing anytime soon. If anything, they are stimulating interest in developing shows featuring works by other artists. Ross and his team have already created similar exhibitions built around Gustav Klimt and Frida Kahlo.

“This immersive space will continue to grow,” Ross said.