Immersive Van Gogh paints a portrait of CX excellence in a public art exhibition

Indoor cultural events have been scarce since the outbreak of COVID-19. This large-scale remix of an artist's oeuvre proved how it's possible to work within constraints

Vincent Van Gogh isn’t normally the best person to look to for customer experience inspiration if only because — as far as we know — he may only have had a single customer in his lifetime.

Though it’s still debated by scholars, The Red Vineyard purchased by Anna Boch is the only transaction that has officially been confirmed, and we know very little about what happened before, during and after she bought it. 

The Immersive Van Gogh Exhibit, on the other hand, may not only give a sense of how CX in the public art world may evolve in COVID-19, but could point the way for those in many other kinds of industries.

Originally seven by more than two million people in Paris, Immersive Van Gogh recently set up in Toronto at One Yonge St. in a 600,000 cubic feet space. This is the basic description of what is on offer from artistic director Massimiliano Siccardi:

Visitors will be immersed in Van Gogh’s works — from his sunny landscapes and night scenes, to his portraits and still life paintings. The installation includes the Mangeurs de pommes de terre (The Potato Eaters, 1885), the Nuit étoilée (Starry Night, 1889), Les Tournesols (Sunflowers, 1888), and La Chambre à coucher (The Bedroom, 1889).

In any normal year, this would already have been a popular cultural attraction during the summer season. Of course, this is anything but a normal year and as such is now one of the only (indoor) cultural attractions you can see in Toronto.

The decision to not only go through with Immersive Van Gogh but to find ways to create a safe experience amid COVID-19 is an act of creativity nearly equal to anything done by the master painter himself. These takeaways are my own, but they come from direct experience as a participant.

The Arrival Experience

After getting your tickets (which can be purchased for a timed entrance) scanned, visitors are asked to line up in a corridor that’s been created just outside the main exhibit space. There are circles for guests to ensure they stay six feet apart as they wait to be admitted (approximately less than 10 people at a time when I arrived.)

In an audio recording available on its web site, the producers explain that normally, an art exhibit provides visitors extensive context about the origins of the artworks on display, the life of the artists who made them and even some socio-economic history. Usually these are featured on little placards or painted as text on the walls. In this case, fears of COVID-19 meant discouraging too much wandering around, so the corridor is flanked on either side by about eight screens which provide some of this background information, broadcasting in a repeated loop.

Some of this was interesting and entertaining, like an anecdote about how Margaret Thatcher once misidentified the subject of a famous Van Gogh. Glimpses of the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam, meanwhile, got you thinking about how you could extend the experience you were about to have in the future, once travelling abroad is possible again.

When the time came to be let in, a staff person let us know that the exhibit, which she described as a show, would be about 35 minutes long. We were told we could take pictures, but had to keep our masks on. There would be circles inside, she said, and we could move among them but not into anyone else’s. We could leave whenever we wanted. This was done quickly, conversationally and in a friendly manner that didn’t make you wish you hadn’t come (unlike going into almost any drug store or grocery store lately).

CX Pluses: Welcoming to customers, with elements to positively reinforce the decision to purchase like the video screens, and plenty of precautions to limit COVID-19 inspection. Lots of humour in the signage, such as “Gotta Gogh?” to mark the bathroom areas.

CX Minuses: Bathrooms were in a small area in a back area where it was difficult to know if you were gong to run into anyone, and they were old and uninviting.

The Show Experience

You don’t have to be familiar with Van Gogh’s work to enjoy the exhibit. You just have toe enjoy being bathed in light and sound. Once you find a circle to occupy, the walls are covered in animations of the artist’s most famous paintings, which blend into each other in a way that’s dream-like, almost hypnotic.

The soundtrack by composer Luca Longobardi plays an incredible role in creating an emotional arc over the 35 minutes, which orchestral crescendos that match particular moments where sunflowers emerge or when the room turns into a giant rendering of “Starry Night.”

Though the show includes several of Van Gogh’s many self-portraits, you don’t really learn anything about his life, and though there may be a particular logic or story being told in how elements of different paintings emerge and then disappear, you can’t detect it without more explanation. There is no narration of any kind.

At particular moments — when the walls were swept in a dazzling red and yellow, for example — several people stepped out to their circle and posed closer to the wall for a series of selfies. Given the loose structure of the show this didn’t take away from anything but added an interesting element of audience participation that felt almost like a sort of ritual or performance. The cavernous nature of the space also helped prevent it from being distracting when people held up their smartphones for extended periods to film the show.

CX Pluses: This was the largest crowd in which I have found myself since the pandemic began, and at no point was I concerned for my health. People did move around somewhat, but almost always within a circle. It’s possible to imagine how conference or event producers might organize something similar — not for an all-day event, perhaps, but possibly a morning session featuring a keynote speaker, especially if they could demonstrate something using the wall projections in a similar way.

There was only one exit and the size of the crowd, which is capped at 132 people, was still small enough that there wasn’t congestion on the way out.

As cultural entertainment, the show delivered on its promise of immersion — making you think about which of Van Gogh’s works you might have seen, perhaps making you want to see or learn more and appreciating the kaleidoscope of beauty made possible through animation. No matter where you stood, you could see everything, which was a remarkable achievement. The fact that this experience was within a crowd, and during the pandemic at that, made it truly memorable.

Of course, one of the biggest achievements from a CX perspective here is that you can see the same show by driving in with your car. Though I didn’t go that route, it confirmed that many other event and hospitality experiences could not only be offered as an alternative, but in tandem with a more traditional walk-through experience.

CX Minuses: There were a few benches scattered through the space, possibly for the benefit of children for elderly guests, but they weren’t designated as such and created a sense of competition to get them. Standing for more than 30 minutes felt long, and some people wound up sitting on the floor.

There was a sort of upper deck set up in the middle of the space with a small flight of stairs, but there had been no information about using it, or how many people could go up there without creating COVIDD-19 risks.

Some of the animation and music was darker and more disturbing (like a montage of flies in darkness) that could be frightening to small children, and there was no real information around the family-friendly nature of the exhibit. As a parent, I would have been stressed trying to keep my kids within the circle.

The Post-Show Experience

Any public art experience usually ends with a gift shop to buy merchandise, and Immersive Van Gogh is no exception. There were buttons, badges and many other items, including jewelry kept under glass. Most prominent were Van Gogh socks, next to (of course!) Van Gogh COVID-19 masks, many of which were worn by event staff.

There was also a sort of photo booth set up with cut-outs of Van Gogh and some of his subjects, where visitors could have their portrait taken and receive a unique souvenir. This had been set up with a choice of three different background frames, and they were spaced just enough apart to feel safe.

Perhaps best of all, however, were a set of easels on which visitors could paint their own T-shirt renderings of famous Van Gogh works, with displays that helped guide the process.

CX Pluses: The merchandise offered would meet expectations and provide guests a way to walk away with something to remember the experience or give to someone who couldn’t come. The activities looked fun and would bring a special, interactive element to a date night or a night out with friends.

CX Minuses: The areas where gifts were sold and T-shirts were being painted were part of an extremely narrow passageway. It was almost impossible to stay six feet apart in this area and it was the only time that being present felt potentially unsafe.

The exit, meanwhile, is in a strange spot that isn’t easy to spot until you almost walk past it, and unless you’re interested in shopping, creating a souvenir or getting some simple food and drink, there’s no reason to linger.

Final Thoughts

Immersive Van Gogh proves CX leaders can create experiences outside the normal environments in which a brand is expected to operate, even during COVID-19. It sets a good example of how to adapt to social distancing measures while still serving sizeable numbers of people.

The content of Immersive Van Gogh, though based on exiting creative materials like paintings, is also instructive in how it creates an experience that is best had in person, rather than online. This may limit the number of people who see it but extends the degree to which the customers who do will talk about it to friends and family.

Finally, the customer journey of Immersive Van Gogh was well conceived and executed (though the exit could be improved) and its web site offers a blog to share stories and continue the experience in other channels, including social media.

“I wonder what Van Gogh would have thought of all this,” is the natural question. “How could CX leaders create something equally compelling for their own brands?” is an even better one.



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