Elizabeth L. Reede, former curator, New York’s Museum of Modern Art and CEO, Boulevard Arts, on Making an Immersive App
By Augusta Monet
The pandemic has highlighted the need for accessibility within arts by presenting us with a rather large barrier to overcome. These barriers existed pre-pandemic, just not for all of us. For a myriad of reasons, many people were never able to get exposure to the arts. We’ve learned many of these accommodations were always feasible, as solutions were found once necessity demanded invention. As we come out of Covid, we have to ask the question: what other roadblocks to accessibility remain?
One group that has been working to close this gap is Boulevard Arts, a New York-based immersive art and culture technology company that develops experiences via virtual, augmented, and mixed reality. Co-founder Elizabeth L. Reede joins us to speak on their newly-launched collaboration with Lighthouse Immersive to develop an app that equalizes arts accessibility for the public.
What is the Lighthouse Immersive App and how will it enhance the exhibit experience?
It’s meant to be a comprehensive deep dive into immersive art and culture experiences. If we think in terms of a brick-and-mortar venue that people visit, this app is meant to kick in after they leave the experience, giving them something more. It will be replete with content we’ve developed in conjunction with the Lighthouse Immersive team, including all kinds of additional information and exciting technological ways of engaging with the artist or subject. It will also offer interesting information and content about the city in which the venue has opened. So if somebody sees this in Charlotte, North Carolina, and they think to themself, “Why Charlotte? What’s there, and how does Charlotte relate culturally to what is happening with my ticket once I go to the venue?” They can check the app.
There will be an e-commerce aspect to it too, plus opportunities to learn a bit more about the artist and to gain greater context. As this app expands, and more exhibitions come to various Lighthouse Immersive venues, further content will be added. You’ll tap on Lighthouse Immersive two years from now, and see an array of really interesting engagements: textual, audio, and interactive content shared through leading edge technology. The user can not only buy a ticket and read about the exhibit, but also use technology to engage further with arts and culture.
What is your vision in regards to how this app can contribute to Lighthouse Immersive as an arts-and-culture hub across North America?
What’s interesting is that Lighthouse Immersive has just hit the tip of the iceberg. I think one of the reasons why they are very interested in working with Boulevard Arts is the component we want to bring to it. If Lighthouse represents the tip of the cultural experience mountain, we offer everything else starting at the base. Our goal as a company has always been to democratize access to art and culture through leading edge technology.
We are a team of professional curators, technology folks, museum and art people, who’ve created public installations, run educational programs, built apps, all sorts of things. Our goal was to come together and ensure there were as few boundaries as possible for people to experience this content and this amazing world without feeling intimidated by it, or bored — or any of the things one can conjure up when we think about “Oh God, a museum?” People don’t often know how to enter and own it; they feel like it’s not for them. We’ve brought together lead educators, artists, and curators to make sure we offer multiple entry points to any user who comes in. And we do this through technology, which effectively means anybody with a smart device can have access.
What we hope to do with the app is to add this component of a more traditional museum and cultural access, and pack it into Lighthouse Immersive. If we as a combined entity are able to go back to these collections that we know so well and bring that forward, it only enhances the whole experience. And it extends it! We want people to realize that the app will consistently provide fresh content around the larger construct. It could be street art, it could be contemporary art, it could be Egyptian art. But the whole idea is: this is where you come for cool interesting stuff, where there’s a little something for everyone.
What unique challenges did your team face in approaching this collaboration, and what has it taught you about the changing landscape in the arts as a result of the pandemic?
That’s a great question, because the last 18-24 months have really been a learning experience for us. To set that up: Boulevard Arts delivers apps and experiences in virtual, augmented, and mixed reality–three separate platforms. Two of those (virtual and mixed) require headsets, and in a pandemic world, headsets are not going to be used. We made a commitment about two and a half years ago to primarily focus on building in augmented reality because it was such a fluid and flexible medium, and much more accessible to people on their smartphones.
What we started to see very early on, almost pre-pandemic, was that there had already been a reticence around putting on headsets; whether it was the cost, or the challenge of using it at home, school, or any public space. We can manage all the technological issues, but the sophistication of the public simply was not there. COVID and the pandemic has been an accelerant for the need for immersive and available technologies that deliver remotely. The obvious examples are schools, but think about how in New York, everything shut down because the situation was so dire here. And yet, people were craving experiences and things to do, so we really focused in on delivering augmented reality experiences. We also reached out to entities to say “Hey, we’re doing everything free for you, don’t worry about it, you know? Let’s just get through the pandemic, and keep these relationships going with school groups, let’s keep them functioning.” This was obviously met with great relief and gratitude.
At the same time I started looking around to see who else was in this space in a really meaningful way. And when I say in the space, I mean who else is delivering this kind of on-site, brick-and-mortar, all-encompassing experience? Then I started to do a deep dive on the kind of technology being used by Lighthouse Immersive. Our first conversation with them went like this: “You guys are doing amazing things. Here’s what we at Boulevard Arts think we can help you do: build out the authenticity and scope of the cultural content that’s being delivered, to help you foster an even more incredible opportunity for visitors, something where people walk away feeling like they’ve had a real connection.” It took off from there. So, I think that’s what we feel so committed to: this notion of developing a sustained and personal experience for people through the arts. Because, as you know, that’s our goal here. Everybody deserves to have a little bit of art in their lives. Our view is that everyone deserves access to it. So that’s how we’re doing it.