An art museum designed with the 21st-century visitor in mind

Architect rendering, 2021, of the ground floor of the new Museum of Art + Light in Manhattan, Kansas (LK Architecture)

Opening this fall, the new Museum of Art + Light in Manhattan, Kansas, will specialize in immersive digital exhibitions

There are signs of life at your local art museum, which is something to cheer. In case you haven’t visited recently, or renewed your memberships since the pandemic, don’t worry, you’re not alone. Last year, only 21% of American adults reported visiting a museum. In fact, the American Alliance of Museums reported in 2023 that two-thirds of U.S. museums have not returned to pre-pandemic attendance. At best, museums are averaging just over 70% of the visits they had in the glory days of 2019.

It’s a tough business to be in. Besides changed visitor behavior, museums face a treacherous funding landscape compromised by shrinking public support while individual and corporate donors are pinched by inflation and high interest rates. Then there is the ongoing staffing exodus, particularly among curators and executives, who jump into the private sector, where guaranteed burnout is replaced by cushy salaries, blue chip artist rosters and top-notch exhibition spaces. Those remaining in the museum find themselves understaffed, working multiple jobs, often with fewer resources. Not to mention the risks of extreme weather, cyberattacks, art-hostile protestors, labor unrest and other unpredictable threats and scandals.

Consider also the demographic challenge facing most legacy arts organizations, e.g., art museums, symphony orchestras, theater companies, etc. It’s been well known that their aging core audiences are not being replaced. The so-called “digital natives” who comprise the now adult Millennial and emerging adult Gen Z generations have a fundamentally different relationship to high culture and material culture. Food trucks and cornhole are as meaningful as a night at the opera. They don’t want or need Grandma’s art and antiques. You can see it in the art they buy and don’t buy.

Exterior view rendering, 2021, of the Museum of Art + Light at night (LK Architecture)

Traditional collections of painting and sculpture have given way to luxury designer handbags, exotic sneakers and cartoonish street art. High and low culture are muddled mashups of fashion, music, art and social media events; as consumers, these younger audiences value the experiential over the material. They want happenings at their museums; they are driven by FOMO. Most art museums have responded to these shifts in recent years, but institutional business models are slow to adapt. The landscape appears ripe for innovation, disruption and reinvention.

Enter Robert and Tracey DeBruyn, the visionary co-founders behind the Museum of Art + Light. Set to open in downtown Manhattan, Kansas, in the fall of 2024, this compelling new art museum concept is designed with the 21st-century visitor in mind. The three-story, 100,000-square-foot facility is going all in with the latest in immersive digital exhibitions alongside permanent collection displays of fine art.

The DeBruyns took inspiration from the Atelier des Lumières, a popular digital art exhibition venue that opened in a renovated Parisian iron foundry in 2018. The venue specializes in the use of projection mapping technology to project high-resolution digital media on almost any shape imaginable in the built environment: floors, walls, ceilings, even building exteriors. The Atelier des Lumières has successfully presented interpretive programs about European artists such as Cezanne, Dali and Kandinsky, as well as new original works by contemporary digital artists.

Two comparable examples came through Kansas City not long ago. One of them, “Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience” is still on tour in the United States, Europe and Asia — notably not at art museums who tend to favor their collections of objects as the starting point for interpretation. What happens when the physical object is no longer required to have a meaningful experience of the artist’s work? We are at an interesting moment in art history in which digital technology has enabled a new genre of exhibition and interpretation.

2021 rendering of the museum’s third-floor gallery terrace (LK Architecture)

What is immersive digital art exactly? It is an original digital media production: Imagine equal parts slide deck and IMAX movie, enhanced with sound, animation and virtual reality elements. The program is projected 360 degrees, hence the physical immersion into an entirely digital environment. It is typically presented in a large open space where visitors are free to roam, sit, lean, photograph and absorb the sensorial overload. There is nothing to guard or get damaged. It is by definition “edutainment” and visitors are loving it.

The Museum of Art + Light founders, who made their mark providing professional development for K-12 educators, recognized the potential for digital art to engage audiences with a new kind of art experience. The genie is out of the bottle. Human dependence on digital devices is now irreversible. The DeBruyns are leaning in to it, bringing digital art to the forefront in an art museum context. It’s simply the next step forward in the inevitable dematerialization of culture.

Digital art has undeniable advantages as a medium. Besides being accessible to the largest possible audience, audiovisual elements enhance traditional artistic practices; van Gogh’s brushstrokes, for example, seen projected on a 30-foot wall are a revelation. Furthermore, moving image techniques of composition and editing heighten the emotional experience in the same way movies can. Most importantly though, this form of digital art breaks down barriers that have long plagued museums, namely socioeconomic and educational exclusivity. It’s still really about visitors activating and experiencing the spark of human creativity underlying it all.

What remains to be seen is how the Museum of Art + Light will integrate its permanent art collection into its dynamic new campus in downtown Manhattan. Museum leadership has been tight-lipped about what is in their collection, donated by two Arizona-based collectors. However, since last summer, the Museum has employed a full-time creative director of immersive exhibitions as well as a collection manager/registrar to prepare for the Museum of Art + Light’s inaugural opening in late fall 2024.

Plans include immersive, temporary and permanent collection exhibitions, live performances, arts education programming and events. With a clear founding vision and strong public/private support, including from the City of Manhattan and the State of Kansas, we can look forward to a remarkably innovative new art museum in the Central Plains.

The Museum of Art + Light, 316 Pierre St., Manhattan, Kansas, opens in fall 2024. For more information, 312.339.0320 or www.artlightmuseum.org.

Brian Hearn

Brian Hearn is an art advisor, appraiser, curator and writer interested in all things art, cave painting to contemporary.

  1. Michael Robert Johnson says:

    Brian’s article captures the crossroads of technology and the evolution of physical art audience engagement of new and future generations raised on technology. The Museum of Art + Light is making a bold, industry-needed step towards re-engagement of those audiences.

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