Virtual Visual Culture

By Emelia Lehmann


As museums and galleries have closed in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, many have sought to maintain audience engagement by moving content online. While most would agree that the experience of seeing a work in person has far more impact than scrolling through JPEGs or flipping through Instagram feeds, shelter-in-place orders have left few alternatives. And as visual culture becomes virtual, many are reassessing the nature of art exhibitions altogether. Facing an over-abundance of digital content, arts organizations are exploring the ways in which entire shows can be put online—and whether such a model can hold the same appeal as a real exhibition. After all, exhibitions are so much more than just the artwork that fills a space, regardless of whether that space is real or virtual. Digital programming can highlight both the hard work and discoveries that make an exhibition successful and the challenges that come from the absence of physical artwork.


The Art Institute of Chicago— “El Greco: Ambition and Defiance”

Four years in the making, “El Greco: Ambition and Defiance” has been heralded as one of the art world highlights of the year. Developed in partnership with the Musée du Louvre in Paris, the exhibition explores El Greco’s life and character through his monumental artwork, generously loaned by collections around the world. Like most museums and galleries, the Art Institute closed abruptly in March, placing this show, along with many others, on an extended hiatus.

“It felt like one day the museum was open, and the next it was closed. Everything changed overnight,” says Rebecca Long, Associate Curator of European Paintings and Sculpture. Like many museums, the Art Institute of Chicago has had to adapt to these changing circumstances. “For safety and security, no one could get into the museum. So, we had to get creative with the resources we already had available.” This content has become “El Greco Online,” which has proven to be a popular alternative in the days of social distancing. The virtual portal allows viewers to explore the exhibition through abridged audio guides, blogs and articles, and interactive features. A video tour hints at the more than 57 works that fill the gallery’s walls; however, only a fraction of these images can be explored on the site. While viewers cannot bask in the glory of the Assumption of the Virgin or the Vision of Saint John, this online exhibition instead shares the years of work and scholarship that went into creating this show with audiences around the globe.


El Greco, The Vision of Saint John, 1609–14. Oil on canvas, 87 1/2 × 76 in. Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago.


For Long, this exhibition offers a unique look into the life and personality of El Greco—an “ornery old goat,” as one research assistant jokingly refers to him. “He was a very contemporary artist for his time,” remarks Long, “and he was really focused on his career as an artist.” In fact, Long notes that far more is known about El Greco than his peers due to the vast number of lawsuits he filed throughout his life. In constant legal battles over fair pay and artistic rights, El Greco certainly seems right at home amid today’s art news headlines.

“The exhibition was formed around the Assumption of the Virgin in the Art Institute’s collection,” says Long. “It was El Greco’s first commission in Spain, an important piece for him.” This work was one of nine paintings and five sculptures that made up an elaborate gold-framed altarpiece, which El Greco designed in 1577 for a convent in Toledo, Spain. Dismantled and sold in 1830, Assumption was eventually acquired by the Art Institute in 1906. (An article outlining the fascinating story of how the work came to the museum is accessible on El Greco Online.)

In 2018, in preparation for the exhibition, the painting underwent its first major conservation treatment in 100 years. In addition to removing centuries-old varnish that obscured its vibrant colors, researchers gathered important data about Assumption’s 450-year history, including collecting samples of El Greco’s paint and uncovering an 1830s restoration that altered the work’s original borders. To complement this scholarship, El Greco’s other works from the original altar have been brought to Chicago to be displayed together for the first time in nearly 200 years.

While visitors can’t experience this monumental work in person, the Art Institute has developed ways to share the extensive research undertaken for this show. An interactive feature sheds light on the discoveries made during conservation, while another page contains a detailed timeline of El Greco’s lifetime (and lawsuits) illustrated with his artwork. Much of this information might have filled wall labels and exhibition catalogues, overshadowed by the works themselves. But online, this research takes center-stage over JPEG images of the artwork and viewers can, for once, explore these resources at their leisure.


El Greco, A Boy Blowing on an Ember to Light a Candle,
circa 1570.
Oil on canvas, 23 5/8 × 20 in. Courtesy of the
Art Institute of Chicago.


Welcoming people back into the galleries remains a major goal for Long, who has extended the show past its June 21 closing date through fall 2020. “Especially with works like these, nothing can replace seeing the scale and artistry in person,” confirms Long. “And we have some truly unique pieces in this show, like Assumption, that can’t be seen anywhere else.” But even while galleries remain closed, “El Greco Online” continues to draw virtual visitors from around the world. “Hopefully, this online exhibition will raise awareness of these works and their stories and will encourage people to come see them someday.”


You can see more of this exhibition online at


Catherine Edelman Gallery—“Daniel Beltrá: The Amazon”

In West Town, a prominent commercial gallery is grappling with similar issues of viewing, engagement, and display. The Catherine Edelman Gallery had just opened “Daniel Beltrá: The Amazon” on March 13 when they had to close their doors. Now, the glorious photography exhibition can only be experienced online—JPEGs of photographs mediated through a computer screen.

The show features beautiful and striking images of the Amazon rainforest, taken over the course of 20 years and illustrating everything from migration to wildfire, habitat loss and human environmental impacts. Photographing from small planes or helicopters, Daniel Beltrá captures extremely remote and isolated scenes where humans and nature collide. During the last 2 years, Beltrá and the gallery’s owner, Catherine Edelman, selected a mere 15 photographs out of over 100,000 images to include in this exhibition.



Daniel Beltrá, Amazon Amapa iron mine (#226), 2017. © Daniel Beltrá. Courtesy of Catherine Edelman Gallery, Chicago.


Since the closure, the gallery has continued to showcase this exhibition online, building up a robust platform with installation shots from the show, written content outlining Beltrá’s vision, and video interviews with the artist and leading environmental activists. According to Edelman, much of this is business as usual. “We’ve always done a lot online and what we are doing now is not really different.”

As a gallery showcasing artists and selling artwork to collectors around the globe, having a digital showroom is a crucial part of their business. “90% of our sale come from out-of-state, so our website is important in keeping us connected with the public and our artists,” says Edelman. “For as long as we’ve had a website, we’ve put our exhibitions online.”


Daniel Beltrá, Amazon solo defoliation (#204), 2013. © Daniel Beltrá. Courtesy of Catherine Edelman Gallery, Chicago.


The gallery’s existing process for extensive digitization and programming succeeds in sharing Beltrá’s perspective with the audience, even virtually. Videos and photographs of the exhibition space have always been an online staple, as have high-definition images of every work. This time, Edelman has also digitized a detailed timeline of Beltrá’s career, mounted on the gallery wall, that complements and contextualizes his work. And with so much available content, visitors can explore his photographs and career in depth. His poignant images illustrate human impact on the natural world, highlighting the loneliness and isolation that comes with devastation. In this time of uncertainty, visitors can travel to distant lands previously unseen and unexplored through these images.

Even though so much of the show can be seen online, Edelman notes that there are challenges and drawbacks to losing the physical exhibition: “For one thing, it’s completely different to look at a JPEG online than to see a work in person.” Especially for monumental works like Beltrá’s, these vibrant and complex images deserve to be seen as they were intended—blown up and big-scale. Then there’s the personal aspect to it. “Artists like Daniel want their work to be seen, and socializing is a big part of this business. We want to meet people and educate them on our artists,” says Edelman. “While Daniel understands that postponement is inevitable and we’re continuing the show online, the sadness for him is that people haven’t been able to walk through the gallery and experience it.”


Daniel Beltrá, Amazon scarlet ibis (#222), 2017. © Daniel Beltrá. Courtesy of Catherine Edelman Gallery, Chicago.


As for the future, Edelman remains optimistic. “We haven’t had to recreate the wheel,” she notes. With the exhibition already installed, it is only a matter of waiting until they can welcome visitors to the space once more. “Staff plan to return to the gallery on June 2, and we will reopen Daniel’s show. We are extending the exhibition until the beginning of July,” says Edelman. “So he’ll end up having a four-month show. Well, it will feel like four months to us, but really the public has only had access to it for 5 days.”


You can see more of this exhibtion at


The Renaissance Society, University of Chicago—“Miho Dohi”

In historic Hyde Park, another museum has come to terms with another scenario: no physical exhibition at all. The Renaissance Society intended to open “Miho Dohi” to the public on April 18. More than a year in the making, the Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago and the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts at Harvard University co-organized this exhibition, which is the first large-scale US showcase of the Japanese sculpture artist. But at the last minute, nationwide closures forced the Renaissance Society to change course.

“This is not a moment for the museum to be open to the public,” noted Renaissance Society Curator Karsten Lund, “but we still want to share this work with our audiences in other ways.” Instead, the show has been moved entirely online, with photographs and reimagined digital programming standing in for tours and events.

Lund views this time as a unique challenge—and opportunity—for the art world to rethink their relationships with viewing and online engagement. Documenting exhibitions is extremely important part of the Society’s work, and they have been putting photographs, installation shots and programing online for years to archive their shows. Lund explains, “As an institution, we were already exploring how we can share that past and preserve it online so that people can access it even when it’s over. Each exhibition is a unique moment in time, and we want to find a way to capture that in our online presence.” Now, they are exploring not only how to archive past exhibitions but how to host present and future exhibitions online as well.


Miho Dohi, buttai 23, 2013. Copper and acrylic, 10.5 x 7 x 7.5 inches. Courtesy of the Renaissance Society.


In fact, the Renaissance Society’s show raises several interesting questions about what makes an exhibition an exhibition. Certainly, months of planning have gone into selecting these works, coordinating loans from around the world, and collaborating with the artist to bring together “Miho Dohi.” This behind-the-scenes work is not lost online, but it has had to adapt to a virtual audience who are unable to experience the works around which it is built. All of this scholarship and inquiry now surrounds a show which, for all intents and purposes, does not physically exist.

With travel restrictions and closures occurring around the world in the months leading up to the exhibition, many of the works remain in other cities waiting to be shipped to Chicago. No works have been installed. In fact, if one could enter the Renaissance Society today, one would likely find blank walls and empty galleries. This absence is felt throughout the virtual exhibition as well, which lacks installation shots and connections with individual artworks. Especially in sculpture, physicality and space is central to artworks’ existence. So how has the Renaissance Society attempted to create an exhibition while unable to install any work?


Miho Dohi, buttai 38, 2016. Wood, thread, cloth, and acrylic, 6.7 x 13 x 8.6 inches. Courtesy of the Renaissance Society.


High-resolution photographs of each sculpture against a white background make up the bulk of the online exhibition. Called buttai, meaning ‘object’ in Japanese, these sculptures are complex compilations of materials that explore relationships among shape, color, form and texture. These editorial images are taken from multiple perspectives, encouraging viewers to try to imagine their three-dimensionality. For Lund, these objects “are really quite relevant to this moment. Her sculptures are small and intimate, and that mirrors what a lot of us are experiencing right now. We are finding there is power in what is modest too.”


Miho Dohi, buttai 57, 2019. Wood, aluminum, brass, copper, red ink, acrylic, and paint, 8.6 x 16 x 15 inches. Courtesy of the Renaissance Society.


Online, the objectness of these buttai is relegated to photographs instead of sculptures. The Renaissance Society has instead developed a network of programming to make these images more tangible to viewers. Lund, for instance, has provided an audio tour that explores Dohi’s methods and materials for creating these sculptures. Poet Hoa Nguyen has presented a haunting and beautiful reading of her work in response to Dohi’s exhibition. And writer Shannon Stratton plans to live-stream her insights and reflections into these sculptures. However, without the experiences that come from placing and viewing these works within time and space, these exercises feel somewhat ephemeral. This show highlights that, both for the audience and the creators, there are limits to what can be seen or understood from 3D artwork that has only been experienced through photographs.

Moving forward, Lund hopes that the exhibition will open with some of the works installed later in the summer, although this will depend on how public health measures unfold. This way, audiences will have the opportunity to see the buttai in person and the Renaissance Society can finally realize their vision for this exhibition. But Lund believes this experience will inspire future collaborations and creativity when it comes to displaying artwork in the digital arena. “The relationship between physical spaces and online offerings is an ongoing conversation. I don’t see it as a matter of one replacing the other—instead, I like to consider how virtual components can complement and expand upon the offerings in the gallery.”


You can see more of this exhibition at


Exhibiting the Exhibition

The vast educational content and creative programming that these three institutions have developed is astounding, especially given the sudden and ever-changing situation we are facing. From a world-class cultural megalith to a wide-reaching commercial gallery to an independent contemporary art museum, each has cultivated a different relationship with virtual viewing and digital resources. But together, they also illustrate the importance of situating artwork within a physical space, whether or not it can be accessed by the audience it is intended to engage. In this virtual world, content appears to be based less around the actual works of art and more on what is gained from studying and analyzing them. When an audience can only experience artworks as JPEGs, they rely on other forms of content to tell the story of the artwork and the exhibition. The behind-the-scenes process of studying, curating, and installing works therefore becomes critical to developing an in-depth understanding of the exhibition that can translate online.

The installation shots and visual tours, conversations with scholars and curators, and in-depth research into the works themselves all help an online viewer envision the exhibition as actually existing. In a gallery, these behind-the-scenes features might be overlooked in favor of the actual artwork. But as website links and computer screens mediate between people and their encounters with art, this background work is paramount in understanding the exhibition and creating engaging content that can transcend the physical and enter the digital world.



Emelia Lehmann is a Chicago-based writer and graduate of the University of Chicago. She works as a fine art associate and claims adjuster with the Haven Art Group.


El Greco, The Assumption of the Virgin, 1577–79. Oil on canvas, 158 3/4 × 83 3/4 in. Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago.



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