The Gallery of the Future: Navigating the Evolving World of Digital Art

People will always crave a personal connection to art, and the value of in-person experiences will likely rise, not diminish, with digital access.

Refik Anadol’s “Unsupervised,” MoMA, 2022. Photo: Refik Anadol Studio

When we imagine the future, our minds often drift to scenes filled with flying cars, towering modern buildings and technology that seamlessly responds to our every gesture. Yet in these futuristic visions, we rarely consider the evolution of cultural institutions like galleries and museums, and how they will adapt to a rapidly changing digital landscape.

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In my visit to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in 2023, I got a glimpse into the future. Refik Anadol’s “Unsupervised”—an artwork generated entirely by artificial intelligence—has since been acquired by the institution. With its fluid, mesmerizing patterns, Anadol’s work was seen by nearly every visitor, whether they were (like me) there to enjoy the Picassos and Van Goghs or for the “Crafting Pinocchio” exhibit.

The digital art era and art accessibility

While nothing can come close to being in the presence of a great work of art—physically wandering through the halls of museums and galleries and seeing art in person—traditional art viewing comes with significant challenges:

  • First, one has to get to a museum or gallery, though it’s clear relative proximity isn’t the only barrier. Only 28 percent of New Yorkers visited a museum in 2023, even though they are surrounded by 83 museums, including the Met, MoMA and the Guggenheim.
  • Galleries, while free, can feel exclusionary; museum admission can be expensive. Not everyone can easily shell out for $30 museum tickets.
  • While museums still face challenges attracting new audiences, the most famous and popular artworks—e.g. the Mona Lisa in the Louvre or special exhibitions like Manet’s Olympia at the Mettend to attract large crowds that detract from one’s enjoyment.
  • Most of us treat art appreciation as a ‘sometimes’ activity. It’s taxing to spend hours roaming and browsing, and most laypeople are not eager to do it day after day.

And it’s worth pointing out to those willing to look beyond these and other roadblocks that only 3 percent of all artwork in the world is on public display!

Institutions and cultural organizations that care about art accessibility and preservation must be open to digital transformation. Embracing digital art and art digitization will ensure their relevance, broaden their reach to increasingly digital-savvy audiences and advance their fundamental mission: to preserve, display and educate.

How the pandemic became a digital art tipping point

Art and technology have always gone hand in hand, with artists readily experimenting with the latest technologies, from the camera obscura to digital graphics, as a way to push the boundaries of their creative expression. These pioneers laid the groundwork for today’s digital movement in the arts. Museums and other traditional arts institutions haven’t always been as willing but the COVID-19 pandemic catalyzed the rapid digital transformation of art spaces. As the world went into lockdown, cultural institutions were forced to close their doors and needed to find new ways to engage with audiences from afar.

Museums and galleries worldwide pivoted to virtual exhibitions, allowing audiences to view shows or even explore entire collections online. Digital platforms of all kinds provided new modes of art appreciation that complemented, and in some cases, reimagined the art-viewing and collecting experience.

SEE ALSO: We’re Watching Niche Art Become Trad Art in Real Time

For institutions that planned shows many years in advance, quickly adapting was the only way to avoid losing not only audience but also relevance. Museums had to innovate, and quickly.

The USC Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena used Matterport, a software that provides virtual property tours, to create a virtual tour of “We Are Here: Contemporary Art and Asian Voices in Los Angeles.”. They were able to run the show as planned and reach a global audience, significantly expanding the exhibition’s reach and impact.

In “Underpinning History: Japanese Posters in the Age of Commercialism, Imperialism, and Modernism,” the USC Libraries and USC Dornsife College of Arts, Letters and Sciences leveraged Scalar, a semantic web authoring tool, to transform a relatively static online experience into a flexible, dynamic and engaging exploration.

Online-only exhibitions kept museums, galleries and artists in the public eye. Most have adapted their crisis measures to drive value in a reopened world: engaging more deeply with audiences on social media, putting more art online and partnering with generative artists and NFT creators.

What it takes to engage a digital art audience

The future of art engagement extends beyond virtual galleries. Interactive apps and augmented reality (A.R.) are beginning to play significant roles in the art world, offering immersive experiences previously unimaginable.

Social media has also emerged as a crucial platform for engaging with a digital audience, enabling direct interaction between artists, galleries, museums and art enthusiasts. New communities have emerged in this space—particularly, passionate digital art collectors building a market for works that live on chain.

The art market has also witnessed a noticeable shift toward online sales and auctions for traditional art and new platforms and marketplaces for selling digital works. Major auction houses like Christie’s and Sotheby’s, which have both built their own platforms (Christie’s 3.0 and Sotheby’s Metaverse), also include digital artwork and NFTs in their traditional auctions.

IPads displaying NFTs hang on green wall.
NFTs exhibited at Miami’s Bass Art Museum. Photo by Aaron Davidson/Getty Images for eToro.Art

Digital platforms have become vital for both artists and galleries, enabling them to reach a broader global audience. This democratizes access to art and the art market, opening up new avenues for younger collectors and investors and those who don’t find galleries inviting.

As this new future becomes reality, many people are wondering: How do we balance digital and physical art experiences to ensure technology enhances rather than replaces art spaces? It’s a logical question. We’ve seen this happening in many industries, particularly media (cable, Netflix, bundled streaming services), music (vinyl, CDs and Spotify) and sports (stadiums, streaming games, esports and fantasy teams). But nothing really disappears; everything shifts, changes and evolves.

People will always crave a personal connection to art, and the value of in-person experiences will likely rise, not diminish, with more reach and access. Seeing a Rothko in person will always be more profoundly moving than viewing a Rothko on a screen, but that first digital encounter will likely be what introduces new audiences to the artist’s works. The integration of digital art in traditional spaces and vice versa—hybrid exhibitions, digital archives and interactive installations—bridges the gap between the physical and digital worlds.

Those who embrace this democratization of access, expanded reach and welcoming of new artists, art enthusiasts and collectors will pave the way for the rise of the museums and galleries of the future—connecting more people from around the world with art and inviting everyone to be part of the conversation.

The Gallery of the Future: Navigating the Evolving World of Digital Art