The online exhibition has been a looming wallflower on museum websites for several years now.
You don’t really know when it initially showed up, but every museum website has them now. It has been a godsend in terms of academic research at times, and aided in the ever-important task of description to this reviewer as a critic. Rather than seeing the online exhibit as a threat to the real experience, we’ll take the approach to objectively investigate the online option and hope to find out what the medium has to offer amidst a sea of digital images.
Of the medium, the Smithsonian American Art Museum explains that the online exhibition “complement and extend…gallery and traveling shows.” A logical assumption has always been that museums create online exhibitions in order to make more of their holdings available to the public. Weekend trips to the museum often leave us competing for the space and solitude to really experience art fully. Weekday museum hours leave much of the working crowd unable to schedule quiet time with art.
In exploring the online exhibition, this reviewer chose to attend the Ogden Museum of Southern Art's “Stanley J. Staniski: On the Road with Benny Andrews” at her leisure: no parking, no makeup, no brevity of looking in order to clear the way for other attendees. When you look at an online exhibit the first luxury presents itself – there is neither any time limit nor hindrance of any other kind to looking at the work. Most online exhibitions stay up indefinitely.
The first portion of the show is the artist’s statement. It involves a description of the circumstances under which the photographs in the exhibition were taken, and that it exists in three distinct parts. Photographs were taken along three historically significant travel routes. The Route 66 leg of Staniski’s “On the Road” traced the path of the Dust Bowl exodus from Oklahoma and Texas west to California; the Trail of Tears' the infamous drive of five Native American nations out of Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia into Oklahoma; and also drove throughout the devastated Gulf Coast city of Biloxi following Hurricane Katrina.
The statement doesn’t explain the causes and statistics of population upheaval from the Dust Bowl, or tell us which tribes were driven out of the South. But the online exhibition provides a lot of space to do this research on one’s own. If you are wishing for more context, like a true art-lover tends to do, the online exhibition can make experts of any of us with internet access in an afternoon. Or a late night., for that matter. We can read up on Benny Andrews, a Black artist from Georgia who served as the Visual Director of the NEA during the early 1980’s. Andrews died in 2006, but he accompanied Staniski on each of the routes. A Southerner of African descent on the NEA during the Reagan years is probably a whole world of interest on its own.
Another benefit of the online exhibition is a static description of the materiality of the show, and dimensions of the work. While these do stay with works in person, they are most often more clearly and consistently displayed online in the interest of citing and crediting the images properly. They can also be researched and revisited, considered and assimilated.
The work itself depicts a lot of quiet, symmetrical scenes of American countryside. Architectural oddities like looming concrete Indian Chiefs, outdated oil company logos and single-wides sporting huge Christian symbols are spectacles in terms of the terrain, but stand out for their mundane look. The show in its whole is sort of a “Walker Evans’ Thesis on Consumerism Revisited” — symmetrical, green and unpopulated, but littered with things for sale nonetheless. The trees and grass constantly seem to encroach, nature insinuating itself back into the proverbial picture in an oddly hopeful manner.
While viewing art is nearly always done best in person, the online exhibit offers some surprisingly enjoyable opportunities. A museum’s installed exhibits are generally the tip of the iceberg in proportion to its actual holdings. While bandwidth is still slightly less pricey than actual real estate, the online exhibition offers some intriguing possibilities in terms of presentation, use and visibility. What could be done with the medium has yet to be fully investigated – or more accurately, fully invested in.
The presentation of online exhibits might grow in the future to include the kind of exciting graphics museum funding doesn’t allow. The basic physicality of drywall just doesn’t allow for the installation and removal of non-essential items onto gallery walls, but a website suffers no drywall deterioration from adding and removing punchy titles or charming fonts. Furthermore, the digital reproduction is far more accessible on a daily basis than is the actual painting or picture. The online exhibition can never hope to compete with a live exhibition. The experience of encounter is still crucial to viewing artwork, especially work that is not considered “2D.” It may, however, be high time to start to consider the online exhibition and what it can offer; to imagine what it could become in the future.