Art Museums as Spaces of Digital Play

A SXSW panel discussion on how designers, artists, curators and storytellers of all kinds can come together to leverage technology in the service of digital play.
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For most, “fun” is not at the top of the list when it comes to adjectives ascribed to art museums. While kids museums have “fun” interactive installations that are designed to teach through discovery and play, there are few critical examples of interactive play for art museums. On the whole, these institutions tend to project authority rather than empathy or emotional connection. However, museums’ aspiration to grow attendance beyond traditional art audiences has begun to create opportunities for playful engagement almost unthinkable a decade ago. Digital experiences, particularly AR, have played a key role in this development. As a designer, I have found in my own work with frog that focusing on delight over didactic forms of education can have powerful effects on fostering understanding and engagement with people of all ages. Along with my fellow panelists, we’ll examine trends in the newly emerging field of interactive design in fine art and take a deep dive on findings from the immersive Interpretive Gallery created by SFMOMA and frog in 2018 for the “Magritte: The Fifth Season” exhibition.

Ahead of our conversation, I spoke to my fellow panelist Sarah Brin, a creative producer specializing in play, new media, and accessibility and Digital Storytelling Program Manager at Meow Wolf, about how we can begin to create these spaces of digital play in museums. At SXSW we will be joined by Chad Coerver, Chief Content Officer at SFMOMA.


Chuck Yust: Why do you think it’s important for museums and cultural institutions to embrace new forms of engagement and/or emerging technology (like AR/VR) in order to reach new audiences?

Sarah Brin: There are at least a couple of really important reasons! One would be that because these are emerging forms, we can’t let industry exclusively shape that discourse. Artists and cultural institutions need to play a part in determining how we use technologies, who uses them, and what we use them for. And while these technologies are definitely not perfect, creative producers have a responsibility to engage with them now to make sure we’re building the kind of cultural future that we want for ourselves.

And a second is that the visual languages of art historical genres like for example, Abstract Expressionism, are often unfamiliar to many contemporary audiences. The visual language of AR and VR, especially in gaming contexts, is much more ubiquitous and recognizable to many. Artists and arts organizations can (and have) use this somewhat common aesthetic to engage audiences who might be otherwise alienated by traditional arts contexts.


Chuck Yust: What is an example of a stellar digital or interactive installation or industry trend you’ve seen in cultural institutions thus far?

Sarah Brin: About 8 or so years ago, museums started to catch “videogame fever,” and a lot of games-focused exhibitions started popping up at art museums all over the place. But they really varied in quality and had a tendency to emphasize aesthetics as the primary artistic value.

But lately, we’re starting to see a lot more nuanced, focused, brilliantly-curated games projects that, in one way or another, focus on experience as a criterion of understanding the work. Design/Play/Disrupt at the V&A is a great example. ACMI in Melbourne is really thoughtful about this too. I’d be remiss if I didn’t highlight PlaySFMOMA, the museum’s ongoing initiative supporting artist-made games, as a great example too. Although, admittedly I’m very biased because I had the great privilege of working with the museum a bunch on shaping the program!


Chuck Yust: What does “focusing on delight” (more than didactic forms of education) mean to you?

Sarah Brin: I was an in-gallery educator for a really long time, and that was really valuable for me in terms of figuring the various headspaces people are in when they come to museums. And of course there are the people who’ve been coming to museums their whole lives and feel very comfortable there–but that’s not most people. And to many, art museums can be really intimidating; they’re quiet, they’re pristine, they’re full of really expensive stuff that you can’t touch and might not understand.

For me, delight is a way to reduce some of that pressure and anxiety. It looks like extending an invitation, like making people feel like they’re not only welcome, but that they’re filling in a missing piece of the museum. It looks like an opportunity for surprise and play! I think a lot about comedy when I think about museums, and there’s this idea that a lot of theorists reference, that laughter is the sound of an audience congratulating themselves for understanding a joke. To me, a delightful art experience combines those feelings of validation with making playful (or even joyous) connections to and re-contextualizations of lived experience.


About the Panelists

— Sarah Brin is a creative producer specializing in play, new media, and accessibility. She currently works as the Digital Storytelling Program Manager at Meow Wolf. Before joining Meow Wolf, Sarah has developed programs, exhibitions, and publications for more traditional arts institutions including the Hammer Museum, British Arts Council, the Museum of Contemporary Art Los Angeles, the MAK Center for Art and Architecture and elsewhere. Sarah specializes in organizational development and the implementation of new initiatives and technologies within arts organizations. Some of her prior projects include supporting the development of PlaySFMOMA, the artists in residence program at the Pier 9 Workshop, and an EU research grant focused on playful museum experiences.

— Chad Coerver has served as chief content officer for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) since 2012. He is responsible for establishing the overall direction, tone, and appearance of SFMOMA-produced public media, exploring new platforms and creative approaches in the effort to broaden and engage the museum’s audiences. He also leads SFMOMA’s Content Strategy and Digital Engagement division, which comprises more than 30 staff members across Web + Digital Platforms, Interpretive Media, Community Engagement, Publications, and the Design Studio. Coerver lectures frequently on content strategy and organizational change, recently appearing at the conferences of the Association of Art Museum Directors, Museums and the Web, the American Alliance of Museums and National Museum Publishing Seminar. A former specialist in Renaissance Art, Coerver holds an MPhil in art history from Yale University and a BA in art history from Duke University.

— As a Principal Design Technologist at frog Charles Yust leads client engagements, develops software, conducts research, and builds prototypes of new products with a focus on emerging technology. He is frog’s AR/VR tech capability lead and has built mixed reality applications across a range of platforms and spaces that include low-cost pain distraction for burn patients in VR (VR Care) and the first version of the IKEA Place ARKit app announced at WWDC 2017. Prior to frog he received an MFA with honors in Design and Technology from Parsons School of Design and worked for two award-winning design consultancies in NYC building immersive and gestural interactive environments for leading museums and clients throughout the US. He lives in San Francisco and is a self-taught pancake artist (Instagram @prandomcakes)

Visit the SXSW schedule for more information on “Art Museums as Spaces of Digital Play.”

Charles Yust
Principal Director, Design Technology
Charles Yust
Charles Yust
Principal Director, Design Technology

Charles is a design technology and XR lead focused on the architecture, design and development of state-of-the-art human-centered solutions for innovative companies and influential cultural institutions. He helps teams navigate complex engagements, conducts research, develops software, and builds prototypes with a focus on emerging technology.

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