A Theoretical Proposition for Art + Wellness in the Virtual Realm

  • Houghton Kinsman

COVID-19 has radically altered the future for the GLAM (galleries, libraries, archives, and museums) sector in the United States. Numerous recent articles have captured, in detail, the closures, layoffs, and dire financial situations at fine arts museums such as the Guggenheim, SFMoMA, the New Museum, and the Getty Museum. Other articles have speculated on the lasting effect of the pandemic on the art museum world. What is evident is that art museums are at a crucial crossroads in their history and are being forced to rethink how they operate.

The Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento, California—where I oversee various Art + Wellness initiative—was forced to close in early March 2020. The Museum’s short-term, direct response to shelter-in-place orders was to craft programming that addressed pandemic-driven social isolation. The strategic goal for these virtual programs was centered on designing content rooted in social interaction and a collective sense of togetherness among staff, audiences, and the wider, Sacramento community. The qualitative response was overwhelming. Email comments, increased program attendance, and audience interactions all delivered measurable indicators of the positive impact of this new public programs philosophy.

As concern grows around mental health—with many people continuing to socially isolate and refrain from in-person socialization—art museums are hastening their efforts to help improve collective mental health. The Crocker’s new approach demonstrated how Zoom, YouTube and Facebook Live, and even the Museum’s Google Arts and Culture page allow institutions to meet people in their homes and deliver compassionate virtual offerings that ground and center audiences and those who deliver them. Consequently, this convergence of new possibilities for engagement, technology, and the need for more wellness-orientated programming presents a unique context in which to explore a theoretical structure for an art museum based, virtual art and wellness portal.

Art + Wellness at the Crocker Online

Pre-COVID-19, the Crocker offered various Art + Wellness initiatives for nearly ten years. The Museum’s suite includes marquee offerings such as Art Rx, Artful Meditation, and Art on the Spectrum. Art Rx is a slow-looking program centered on socialization and open to audiences who self identify as suffering from chronic pain (as well as their caregivers). Artful Meditation invites audiences to relax and experience the museum in a calming manner through a meditation anchored by a work of art. And Art on the Spectrum is a program designed for children on the autism spectrum and their parents/guardians. When the pandemic forced the suspension of these programs in-person the Education Department—which develops these initiatives—transitioned a number of them online.

Art museums, like the Crocker, have historically struggled to remain abreast of, and evolve with, technological advances. The reasoning varies: Small staffing units, limited budget, lack of funding, uncertainty around how to monetize digital content, and/or limited access to tech expertise. When forced to pivot digitally, art museums took up the challenge to enhance what existing content they may (or may not) have already had. Much of the early content offered by art museums was simply a re-presentation of what already existed on their digital platforms or was an attempt to replicate the in-person experience. As a result engagement quality was poor. As art museums and their staff began thinking more consciously about designing content for the virtual space more innovative programs were developed.

This shift from re-presentation to working within the virtual vernacular informed how the Education Department reimagined the Crocker’s Art + Wellness suite from in-person programs to digital content on Crocker from Home. Instead of designing with the in-person experience and audience in mind, the department focused on building programs that would attract a digital audience. The institution started thinking more like a media company and we focused on translating the “soul” rather than re-presenting our most successful, empathetic in-person programs. As a result, these Art + Wellness programs became hybrid versions of themselves—part replication of the in-person experience, part exploration of new forms in the virtual space.

For example, Art Rx was stripped to its elements: slow-looking, visual exploration, and social interaction. It was then rebuilt into a pre-recorded, YouTube-based virtual exhibition tour that concluded with a guided, slow-looking activity. These elements also morphed into an interactive, scavenger hunt styled exploration of works of art on the Crocker’s Google Arts and Culture page. Participants were encouraged to take their time engaging, in unimaginable detail, with a work of art of their choice while sharing their experiences through our social media handles. Art Rx eventually became a Zoom program, open to audiences across the nation that more closely resembled parts of the in-person experience. Artful Meditation also took on a new guise, ultimately becoming a thematic, pre-recorded audio meditation connected to self-care during the pandemic before morphing into a Zoom program. Quickly, both virtual Art Rx and Artful Mediation became wholly independent experiences and unique in comparison to their physical, in-person equivalents. These programs were museum experiences regular attendees had never encountered before.

One measure of success—in terms of quantitative data—is that both Art Rx and Artful Meditation, in Zoom format, have seen an increase in average attendance. For Art Rx, the average attendance has increased from between 8–10 visitors in-person, to between 12–15 virtually. Artful Meditation, has seen a similar uptick. Average attendance in-person ranges between 18–20, while, virtually, average attendance is upward of 25. The age demographic has also noticeably trended younger—both Artful Meditation and Art Rx tend to skew older. The variables for why this trend exists are numerable, but I argue it is because access is made easier for our participant demographic through the Internet and the programs offer an experience the in-person program cannot. They have their own experiential value.

I consider this value system as a key component for a meaningful Art + Wellness portal. It’s a system predicated on use-value—a principle that references how useful public programs are as products in satisfying the needs and wants of visitors. High use-value allows the digital museum experience to stake its claim as a worthwhile “visit” in its own right. An effective Art + Wellness portal must be able to provide products that cannot be found elsewhere. Thus, creating this system, means moving from a state where the in-person experience is simply replicated in the virtual realm to a situation of programmatic hybridity. This would be a shift in process from where “the real is volatized” through reproduction in another medium, as described by Jean Baudrillard, toward a scenario where art museum staff are creating within what Homi Bhabha terms the “interstitial passage between fixed identity.” The two fixed identities here are in-person programming and traditional modes of digital engagement within art museums.

Put more simply, trying to replicate the in-person experience does not work for a digital audience. The in-person experience has its own use-value—any attempt to reproduce it will be inferior. Treating the digital museum experience as having its own use-value and possibilities within the totality of an art museum experience made the Crocker’s digital Art + Wellness content more engaging.

This concept of the “digital” or “virtual” art museum is not a new phenomenon. Nor is the art museum as media company. The Walker Art Museum’s Walker Reader exemplified the former and The Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art’s MoCA TV was an interesting example of the latter. Furthermore, the work of Net artists, Post-Internet artists and organizations like Rhizome have helped develop and enhance the discourse surrounding digital art, art after the Internet, and the virtual art experience. What is intriguing though about success of virtual Art + Wellness is that without in-person programs the “virtual visit”—through the Crocker from Home—has proven it has much to offer as an experience of its own and this “Museum from Home” concept provides a second crucial component to building a virtual art museum wellness portal: a malleable architectural framework.

A More Considered Museum from Home

The realization of the benefits of designing public programs and content for digital audiences occurred alongside the development, and proliferation, of the “Museum from Home” concept. This concept was a direct response to the need for art museums to stay connected to audiences while galleries were closed. Until art museums began reopening recently, “Museum from Home” was the only way to “visit” these institutions.

The concept is simple: Upon visiting the websites of institutions such as the Crocker, a visitor is greeted by a “Museum from Home” landing page. This landing page collates highlights of the respective art museum’s virtual offerings and helps visitors easily navigate through a wide variety of content through a number of different “galleries”—each grouped by content type (Read, Watch, Listen, etc.). Visitors then have the option to browse or streamline their interaction by either clicking through the galleries or heading directly to their desired content. This architecture closely mimics the familiar act of moving through an art museum’s building: wander through the physical gallery spaces or beeline to a certain artwork/public program. Admittedly, it is a totally different mode of interaction, yet it remains an individually controlled/directed experience. In this manner, the “Museum from Home” by design is not an extension of the museum visit, it is the museum visit.

However, as its primary role is to collate and manage content, presently, “Museum from Home” is simply an effective tool to manage web traffic and enhance the flow of a visitor’s browsing. It is an experience by nature; not an experience by design. Here, The Walker Reader offers a valuable example of the potential impact of the designed experience. Run by an editor, The Walker Reader brought together thought-provoking articles, videos, online film festivals, and talks—all of which were built around key social/artistic ideas explored in creative practice. This approach created its reputation as a highly valued publication in the art world and made it rich in cultural capital. “Museum from Home” lacks this type of consciously applied or curated dimension.

In thinking through how to best utilize the “Museum from Home” architecture for an Art + Wellness portal, retooling is evidentially necessary. This structure has yet to be explored as a framework for a very considered, or curated, type of virtual experience. The Art + Wellness portal must therefore draw on The Walker Reader’s philosophy and push the “Museum from Home” concept to a point where it combines its user friendly nature with a greater use-value that entices visitors. In this regard there is an argument to be made for activating this space by introducing a critical curatorial component. Each element must be carefully created and curated to function thematically or narratively to explore an essential question or idea. Owing to the fact that this portal would host digital content and virtual public programs, as opposed to paintings, sculpture and mixed/new media, traditional curatorial approaches are not appropriate. Rather, the Art + Wellness portal should be theorized through what Paul O’Neill calls the paracuratorial or the concept of “event-exhibitions.”

Describing the modus operandi of a group of curators, such as Maria Lind, and Ute Meta Bauer who operating during the mid to late 2000s, and primarily in Europe, O’Neill notes how in many of their curatorial and exhibition making practices, “discursive events formed the very foundation of the [exhibition] project.” O‘Neill posits that “conversations, panel discussions, roundtables, symposia etc.” or “event-exhibitions" require curating in their own right and exist as alternative exhibitions formats. As Simon Sheikh writes:

“the curatorial is here then, an analytical tool and a philosophical proposition, and by indication, a separate form of knowledge production that may actually not involve the curating of exhibitions, but rather the process of producing knowledge and making curatorial constellations.”

Much as The Walker Reader has its own, unique use-value, distinct from the Walker Art Museum itself, designing the Art + Wellness portal as a virtual event-exhibition would thoughtfully enliven a passive digital landing page and create greater experiential value. In this mode, the Art + Wellness portal could be very consciously programmed to explore specific social/civic ideas or issues and components like meditation, yoga, slow-looking, etc., could function as building blocks within a larger exhibition-like presentation.

For example, a group of these types of programs could be curated (and then created) to explore the topic of creative aging over the course of several weeks. Through the lens of the paracuratorial, the “Museum from Home” has the potential to become a platform, within a larger website infrastructure, that can provide its own knowledge producing experience—rather than simply organize existing content or knowledge; an experience by design. Much like the shift with designing content to speak to digital audiences—through curation and considered creation this architecture can be shaped as a more independent entity with its own unique use-value. This consciously thought out, wholly unique, crafted experience is what sets the portal apart from other digital platforms that an art museum typically provides such as the website, Instagram, or a blog. Each of these platforms would support this portal through marketing, content sharing, page views, write ups, etc.

Art + Wellness for the Future

When the Crocker “Museum from Home” page began being conceptualized, the topic of a having Wellness subsection was discussed. It was to be a space dedicated to programming that directly addressed self-care, social isolation, and social cohesion. We did not pursue this aspect, instead settling on subsections Virtual Programs, The Oculus blog, and Exhibitions. If a similar discussion arose today, a number of subsequent insights would be valuable to consider.

Firstly, building and then populating this “Museum from Home” space has demonstrated how quickly the Crocker can adapt, improve existing digital content, and use technology to stay in touch with our audiences—despite a lack of funds, and during a tumultuous period for art museums defined by industry-wide layoffs and power shifts. Secondly, working to attract digital audiences was a valuable lesson in helping create more engaging content for audiences. Both Art Rx and Artful Meditation provided resources to develop other unique digital offerings that in turn had their own niche value. Thirdly, digital content offers a certain type of convenience to a visitor—they can access prerecorded mediations and slow-looking experiences whenever and wherever they desire. The live scheduled programs that they cannot attend can also be recorded and provided to them at a later date. Moreover, Zoom has helped alleviate transport and physical access issues typically associated with Art Rx and Artful Meditation. Lastly, meaningful social interaction is possible despite the mediation of technology—it’s difficult to overlook the joy of visitors on Zoom seeing new and/or familiar faces, connecting with other visitors from different parts of the country and hearing their individual stories.

A digital Art + Wellness portal may not arrive at the Crocker soon, but thinking about how to build it in tandem with designing projects for the Crocker “Museum from Home” has helped create a theoretical structure predicated on three key components: digital content/programs must be designed for a digital audience. The portal must operate independently of the in-person experience. And, most importantly, it must be a consciously designed holistic experience that is a high use-value commodity for visitors.

With a little more thought and experimentation these elements of an Art + Wellness portal designed through the framework of the paracuratorial and built within the architecture of the “Museum from Home,” with content and programs created for a digital audience, could offer a unique spin on what progressive tech apps like Calm, Headspace, and Breathguru have monetized—through subscription—so successfully: access to self-care offerings wherever one is and whenever one needs them.

Fundamentally, the traditional in-person art museum experience looks very different today and faces an uncertain future. Reduced visitation, restrictions on public programming event size, and reduced budgets have imposed a new set of conditions that art museum professionals must urgently address. Thus, new modes and methods of mediating visitor interaction with the art museum are needed. With art museums at this crossroads, forced to rethink the museum going experience, perhaps an Art + Wellness portal and the ability for visitors to take the Crocker with them wherever they go is a future worth seriously considering.

About the Author

  • Houghton Kinsman

    Houghton Kinsman works as the Adult Education Coordinator at the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento, California. He holds a Master of Fine Art in Art from the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and has previously served as assistant to the Curator of Education at the Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami. His writings have appeared in Art Africa, Contemporary And, Dazed and Confused, Frieze, and Artthrob.


  1. Artforum Editors. 2020. “SFMoMA Furloughs Majority of Staff.” Artforum (August 31, 2020). https://www.artforum.com/news/sfmoma-furloughs-majority-of-staff-83855
  2. AAM 2020. “Association of American Museums TrendsWatch 2020.”
  3. ARTnews Editors. 2020. “What’s Next? 18 Trends That Will Move the Art World Forward,” ARTnews (June 24, 2020). https://www.artforum.com/news/sfmoma-furloughs-majority-of-staff-83855
  4. Chatterjee, H., Bedford L., and Desmarais, S. 2018. “Museums as Spaces for Wellbeing: A Second Report from the National Alliance for Museums, Health and Wellbeing.” https://www.artforum.com/news/sfmoma-furloughs-majority-of-staff-83855, 7.

    Small, Z. 2020. “Museums Embrace Art Therapy Techniques for Unsettled Times,” New York Times (June 15, 2020). https://www.artforum.com/news/sfmoma-furloughs-majority-of-staff-83855
  5. Farago, J. 2020. “Now Virtual and in Video, Museum Websites Shake off the Dust,” New York Times (April 23, 2020). https://www.artforum.com/news/sfmoma-furloughs-majority-of-staff-83855
  6. Dodge, W. R. 2016. “Technology—Are Museums Keeping Pace?,” MUSE: The Voice of Canada’s Museum: (pp. 40–5).
  7. Farago, J. “Now Virtual.”
  8. Fraser, J. 2020. “Museum Priorities,” Curator: The Museum Journal 63(2),: 165. https://www.artforum.com/news/sfmoma-furloughs-majority-of-staff-83855
  9. Reducing barriers to digital access is a key part of the Education Department’s mission. Closed captioning, ASL interpretation, image descriptions are all important aspects within this process. Digital programming has also helped alleviate transport and physical access barriers that typically hinder both Art Rx and Artful Meditation.
  10. Poster M., ed. 1988. Jean Baudrillard: Selected Writings. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, (p. 143).
  11. Bhabha, H. 2003. “Homi K Bhabha on ‘Hybridity’ and ‘Moving Beyond.’” (p. 1112).
  12. Vierkant , A. 2020. “Flatten the Cube: Post-Internet Art’s Lessons for Our Current Crisis and What Comes After.” Art in America (April 30, 2020). https://www.artnews.com/art-in-america/features/flatten-the-cube-post-internet-arts-lessons-for-our-current-crisis-and-what-comes-after-1202685356/
  13. Greenberger, A. 2020. “Walker Art Center Staff Reorganization Results in End of Museum’s Closely Followed Digital Magazine.” Artnews. https://doi.org/https://www.artnews.com/art-news/news/walker-art-center-reader-shuttered-realignment-1234569878/
  14. O’Neill, P. 2007. “The Curatorial Turn: From Practice to Discourse,” in Issues in Curating Contemporary Art and Performance. Rugg, J. and Sedgwick, M. (eds.), 13–75, 17. Bristol, UK: Intellect Books.
  15. O’Neill, “The Curatorial Turn,” 18.
  16. Paul O’Neill quoted in Simon Sheikh. 2017. “From Para to Post: The Rise and Fall of Curatorial Reason,” Springerin (p. 3). https://www.artforum.com/news/sfmoma-furloughs-majority-of-staff-83855
  17. Sheikh. “From Para to Post.”
  18. Curatorial projects such as Hans Ulrich Obrist’s Serpentine Marathons–which are essentially 24 hour discursive exhibitions. Or Catherine David’s “Documenta X” in 1997, wherein for 100 days (the length of the exhibition) David invited 100 people to present in various forms examples of paracuratorial conventions. Their formats challenge traditional expectations of exhibitions and purposefully play with entrenched notions of engagement within specific art historical spaces or templates. These are relevant examples that would influence the Art + Wellness portal as a virtual “event exhibition.”
  19. Art museum staff must therefore continue to explore the possibilities that exist within the concept of public programmer as content producer.
  20. Cieko, B. “American Association of Museums ,” American Association of Museums (blog), May 3, 2019. https://www.artforum.com/news/sfmoma-furloughs-majority-of-staff-83855


AAM. 2020. “Association of American Museums TrendsWatch 2020.”

Artforum Editors. 2020. “SFMoMA Furloughs Majority of Staff.” Artforum (August 31, 2020). https://www.artforum.com/news/sfmoma-furloughs-majority-of-staff-83855

Bhabha, H. 2003. “Homi K Bhabha on ‘Hybridity’ and ‘Moving beyond.’” Art in Theory 1900–2000: An Anthology of Changing Ideas, Harrison, C. and Wood P. (eds.): 1110–16. Cornwall, UK: Blackwell Publishing.

Bishara, H. 2020. “Guggenheim Museum Lays off 24 Workers Citing Ongoing Losses.” Hyperallergic (September 16, 2020). https://www.artforum.com/news/sfmoma-furloughs-majority-of-staff-83855

Chatterjee, H., Bedford, L., and Desmarais S. 2018. “Museums as Spaces for Wellbeing: A Second Report from the National Alliance for Museums, Health and Wellbeing.” https://www.artforum.com/news/sfmoma-furloughs-majority-of-staff-83855

Cieko, B. “Museopreneur: How Museums Are Leaping into New Business Models with Entrepreneurial Spirit.” American Association of Museums (blog), May 3, 2019. https://www.artforum.com/news/sfmoma-furloughs-majority-of-staff-83855

Dodge, W. R. “Technology—Are Museums Keeping Pace?” 2016. MUSE: The Voice of Canada’s Museum Community 35(1).

Editors of ARTnews. 2020. “What’s Next? 18 Trends That Will Move the Art World Forward.” ARTnews (June 24, 2020). https://www.artforum.com/news/sfmoma-furloughs-majority-of-staff-83855

Farago, J. 2020. “Now Virtual and in Video, Museum Websites Shake off the Dust.” New York Times (April 23, 2020). https://www.artforum.com/news/sfmoma-furloughs-majority-of-staff-83855

Fraser, J. 2020. “Museum Priorities.” Curator: The Museum Journal 63(2): 165–66. https://www.artforum.com/news/sfmoma-furloughs-majority-of-staff-83855

Greenberger, A. 2020. “Walker Art Center Staff Reorganization Results in End of Museum’s Closely Followed Digital Magazine.” Artnews. https://www.artforum.com/news/sfmoma-furloughs-majority-of-staff-83855

Kenney, N. 2020. “Met Lays off 79 More Employees and Furloughs 181, as It Faces a ‘Very Different’ Financial Picture.” The Art Newspaper (August 6, 2020). https://www.artforum.com/news/sfmoma-furloughs-majority-of-staff-83855

Poster, M., ed. 1988. Jean Baudrillard: Selected Writings. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

O’Neill, P. 2007. “The Curatorial Turn: From Practice to Discourse.” Issues in Curating Contemporary Art and Performance. Rugg, J. and Sedgwick, M. (eds.): 13–75. Bristol, UK: Intellect Books.

Sheikh, S. 2017. “ From Para to Post: The Rise and Fall of Curatorial Reason.” Springerin: 16–20. https://www.artforum.com/news/sfmoma-furloughs-majority-of-staff-83855

Small, Z. 2020. “Museums Embrace Art Therapy Techniques for Unsettled Times.” New York Times, June 15, 2020. https://www.artforum.com/news/sfmoma-furloughs-majority-of-staff-83855

Vierkant , A. “Flatten the Cube: Post-Internet Art’s Lessons For Our Current Crisis and What Comes After.” Art in America, April 30, 2020. https://www.artforum.com/news/sfmoma-furloughs-majority-of-staff-83855