Mountain View Voice Best of 2020

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'Going forward will be much more hybrid'
Real estate software transforms museum collection into a virtual gallery

Using software typically used in the real estate industry to showcase homes, Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University has launched a virtual gallery that enables anyone from around the world to access its collection. Courtesy of Cantor Arts Center.

There's an art to exhibiting paintings, sculptures and a 235-ton piece of steel all under one roof — methods that curators have studied and developed over many centuries, said Susan Dackerman, outgoing director of the Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University. "We have hundreds of years of experience of installing artworks in art museums," Dackerman said. "Personally, I haven't had hundreds of years of experience, but there are traditions and conventions and you learn from those lessons."

But how do you take an entire museum — originally intended to be experienced in person — and put it online during a global health crisis?

For the Cantor Arts Center, Stanford University's home to more than 38,000 works of art, the real estate industry already had part of the answer.

One of the problems the campus museum needed to solve was how to work around restrictions of large gatherings and maintain itself as a resource not just for the local aesthetes but also for the academics who look at the art center as an educational tool.

"We wanted to ensure that we had the means to support the research and teaching mission of the university," Dackerman said.

To do that, the museum invested in new pieces of technology — one of which is called Matterport, a 3D imaging platform that has been perfected for real estate professionals to show off commercial or residential properties online. (Clients of the Sunnyvale-based company include Coldwell Banker and Cushman & Wakefield.)

With Matterport, Cantor Arts Center is able to extract 3D renderings of the museum's space, along with its extensive collection of mid-20th century paintings of Auguste Rodin's bronze sculptures, and upload it to the museum website.

This allows viewers to virtually walk through some of the art center's 130,000-square-foot campus and, with the click of a button, zoom in on each piece of art.

The technology is not without its limitations, however. Dackerman and many other art lovers agree that current digital technology cannot fully replicate the experience of seeing all the true colors and textures of a piece of artwork in person.

"There is nothing better than a personal encounter with art; there's just so much more immediacy and intimacy that way," Dackerman said.

But the tradeoffs still come with benefits. With a large part of the museum now online, Cantor Arts Center is no longer limited to local visitors or researchers but is accessible to anyone around the world.

"It's a really interesting proposition around museums because it means that you can have the experience of going to the museum from your home, which makes us more accessible to a much broader demographic," Dackerman said.

And virtual tours don't have to bear the burden of replacing the in-person experience. Instead, the museum director sees this digital initiative as an opportunity to encourage people to later seek out art in real life.

"Even after the closure is over, even after we're all moving through the world again, I think that we will have learned some really interesting lessons and that our program, going forward, will be much more hybrid," Dackerman said. "It will be a combination of in-person and digital platforms because it really expands our base."

The art center continues to expand its virtual resources. Along with a large library of artist talks, learning guides and tours virtually led by docents, the museum will push out new exhibitions online.

Next year, for example, Cantor Arts Center plans to debut a new exhibition called "When Home Won't Let You Stay," in which contemporary artists confront the issues of migration and global movement — a particularly relevant topic when thinking about the spread of a virus, Dackerman said.

"In the last seven months or so, we've had to figure out a set of protocols for virtual tours," Dackerman said. "I would say we're still very much in the process of experimenting and learning from them."

L.L

Scroll down to find out how last year's winners have responded to the pandemic.

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