Online Art Viewing Is Finally Being Embraced—But Does That Make It More Accessible?

An artist uses a VR headset while adapted version of The Mona Lisa is seen in the background.

Digital art and virtual access have become crucial both for artists and spectators. Davey Jose

Isolation has taught many of us that the role of the internet and digital spaces is paramount to staying connected to our lives and loved ones. With this, many are working hard to provide inspiration or solace online, with entire art collections now available at our fingertips, regardless of our location, budget, or time zone.

Artists have always made use of new technology—whether print media, Daguerreotypes, or chisels—to enhance their practice, realise new ideas, and broaden their audience. The internet is no different. In 1974, Nam June Paik imagined a broadband communication network which was, effectively, the internet as we know it today. However, despite our ability to connect and share ideas across borders as Paik envisioned, there are many ways in which online communication and communities continue to fall short. 

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Many new technologies are being used by the art sector to pave the way for human-centered thinking and design approaches. They hold vast potential for opening access and enhancing the experience of art but remain hindered by the very problems they’re trying to solve—access, experience and overall inclusion. Arguably, owning a VR headset or smartphone on which to access virtual artwork is just as exclusionary as having stable internet access or broad language skills, both in terms of knowledge of English and sector-specific terminology. 

There are, however, many projects that are accessible but without relying on specific types of equipment. The Guggenheim’s Mind’s Eye, offers an alternative learning experience for those who are visually impaired by providing a way of “seeing” art through voice, led by audio descriptions and conversations. 

This direct link between word and image emphasises the importance of the language we use to translate art across multiple senses, making clear the need for facilitators who can provide direct translations of the work across a variety of channels. Arguably, it’s the curator who should rise to that position, as it’s often not only the artwork that needs to be mitigated but also the medium in which it’s displayed.

Making steps to be more open in the digital realm really isn’t as hard as it seems. Adding audio descriptions of exhibition materials, sharing videos in sign language, ensuring your alt tags are comprehensive and clear, implementing colorblind-friendly design, integrating text-to-speech, and making sure your copy and layout is friendly to the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) are all ways in which art organisations can design for a broad range of people in a digital space

Boris Magrini, curator at HeK (House of Electronic Arts Basel), has been inviting artists to take over their web page to present net-based projects created specifically for the digital series HeK Net Works, as a response to the closure of their physical space.

While experimenting with formats and media, HeK Basel presented a number of pieces, such as video art by Maria Guta, a livestreaming installation by Vtol, Instagram face filters and stories by Keiken and Lauren Huret, and interactive web page scripts by Jonas Lund, to allow audiences to engage with art online on a range of levels. For example, Lund’s piece suggests how simple details, such as smiley faces or a moving cursor on a screen, can evoke a feeling of being part of something bigger by emphasizing a moment shared with someone else. It provides an ephemeral, but very necessary, feeling of company on the vast, anonymous web.

If Nam June Paik imagined a future where connectivity resulted in greater accessibility, it’s time to envision a post-pandemic scenario in which the role of curators and educators is to be even more mindful about translating and mitigating art and making it more accessible by acknowledging a wider spectrum of abilities and backgrounds.

As we create virtual worlds, explore gaming experiences, and connect with fellow art explorers online, we discover that connecting through art is something that stimulates our senses and establishes long-lasting memories. Research led by Dr Mariana Babo-Rebelo of University College London suggests that the way space is represented plays a significant role in the way art is experienced, indicating that we should consider the environment and the ability to navigate through it as paramount to the way we display art both online and offline.

Nevertheless, art should continue to be created without restrictions or limitations for artists. Instead, it is the role of institutions and curators to provide a way to make art accessible, including being open to the technological solutions available to us and conscious about the stark gaps that are yet to be filled, made ever-more apparent by the COVID-19 lockdown.

The current situation, albeit distressing, could offer the perfect foundation for building a broader, more inclusive and more exciting art sector that is led by and accommodating to the needs and desires of real people. In many ways, the COVID-19 crisis has proven our ability to adapt, with entire industries being rehauled to suit the online world within the matter of weeks. Similarly, audiences will continue to evolve as they get used to interacting with art online, opening up the space for new kinds of interactions and endeavors.

Online Art Viewing Is Finally Being Embraced—But Does That Make It More Accessible?