Gallery view: School of Art offers ‘virtual’ tours of student work

This year, unable to host the public due to the pandemic, the School of Art is offering virtual 3D tours of student’s capstone projects, using photogrammetry.
Three paintings hanging in a gallery.

Installation of work by Gabriel Mills (left) and Alina Perez (middle, right), installed as part of In Praise of Shadows, the Yale School of Art’s 2021 MFA thesis exhibitions in Painting/Printmaking. Documentation photography by Nabil Harb, Photography MFA ‘21.

Spring is thesis season at the Yale School of Art (SoA) — an opportunity for students to showcase their capstone projects after two years of intensive training and artistic development. Typically, the annual thesis exhibitions draw crowds to the school’s Green Hall Gallery, including visitors from New York City and elsewhere seeking to engage with the work of promising artists.

This year, unable to host the public due to the pandemic, the SoA is offering virtual 3D tours that allow viewers to explore the shows from their laptops, smartphones, or tablets.    

The thesis shows are important to students and we want to share their work as widely as possible,” said Sarah Stevens-Morling, a critic and assistant dean for communications and digital media at the SoA. “We can’t recreate the experience of being in the gallery, but we hope these virtual tours provide a sense of what it’s like to visit the shows in person.”  

The spring thesis exhibitions kicked off on Feb. 1 with two shows by students in the school’s painting and printmaking department. This month, sculpture students will display their final projects. Undergraduate thesis projects go on view in early April. Then MFA projects in graphic design and photography follow in late April and May, respectively. (The complete exhibit schedule is on the SoA’s website.) 

Stevens-Morling and Lindsey Mancini, communications associate at SoA, create the virtual tours using photogrammetry — the science of extracting 3D images from two-dimensional photographs. Once the shows are installed in the physical space, they photograph the gallery at eight specific points using a 360-degree, ultra-high-definition camera, which captures the floor, walls, and ceilings. They then upload the images to the cloud and Matterport, a company that specializes in 3D imagery, knits them together to create a virtual gallery.

A cutaway of a 3D model of gallery space.
A 3D rendering of the gallery space using photogrammetry.

It’s similar to how Google uses its ‘street view’ cars to capture three-dimensional images of roads and neighborhoods for its map tool,” Mancini said.   

The two began experimenting with the service after the school welcomed students back to its studios in the fall, creating a virtual space for the annual fall exhibition of artwork by first-year MFA students. When this first attempt showed promise, the school invested in a high-end camera and Stevens-Morling and Mancini repeated the feat during the fall exhibition for second-year students. 

Kathryn-kay Johnson, a first-year MFA student, exhibited “10 Harlems,” a 10-minute film, in the initial fall show. She was grateful that the 3D walkthrough gave people a chance to see her work in a gallery context when the pandemic kept them from coming to campus. 

I was glad to have the link to send to friends and family who were not in New Haven and would not have been able to see my work in person even in the best of times,” said Johnson, a digital media and video artist.

The virtual tours for the thesis shows are paired with student-created exhibition websites, which provide information about the show, the artists, and their works. Viewers can navigate the virtual gallery with mouse or touchscreen. White circles arrayed on the gallery’s concrete floors chart paths through the virtual shows. (They’re particularly helpful in navigating the stairwells.) A map feature is available should one lose their bearings. At a click, target-like icons hovering near each artwork reveal basic details, including the artist, title, dimensions, and a link to the student’s page on the exhibition’s website. 

The digital “walkthrough” can’t match the physical experience of visiting a gallery, of course. The virtual space unavoidably flattens the sensory experience of being in the gallery, Johnson explained, making it difficult to take stock of an artwork’s materiality, textures, and, in her video’s case, its sound. In the physical gallery, the audio from her film filled the gallery’s mezzanine with the voices of Harlem’s residents, enabling visitors to engage with the piece even when it was out of view. This soundscape couldn’t translate into the virtual space. 

There is, however, a substantial upside to exhibiting a 10-minute piece online, Johnson said. “The viewer would presumably get to watch the video while seated, comfortable, and (hopefully) playing the piece full screen on their computer,” she said. 

And, of course, viewers can watch it from anywhere. That’s one of the reasons that the virtual tours could become a regular feature of thesis-show season after the pandemic, when guests are welcomed back into the gallery, Stevens-Morling said. 

People can’t always make it to New Haven,” she said.   

The tours will be archived on the school’s website. Join the virtual walkthroughs for group one and group two of “In Praise of Shadows,” the painting and printmaking thesis show. 

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