Bruno Monnier has stood at the forefront of digital art spaces and concepts in France for years. As Founder and CEO of Culturespaces, the group behind Paris’ Atelier des Lumières (opened in 2018), the Carrières de Lumières in Baux-de-Provence, near Arles (opened 2012) and the Bassins de Lumières in Bordeaux (opened 2020), Monnier and his team of curators took what looked like risky bets on their all-digital art center and exhibit concept. The public response has been resoundingly enthusiastic, with the Atelier des Lumières alone registering an average of around a million visits a year.
Culturespaces also operates an impressive array of museums and cultural heritage sites that don’t have much to do with digital media and creation– from the Musée Jacquemart-André in Paris to the Nîmes Roman Arenas museum in southern France.
But it’s without doubt the group’s “Lumières” concept– melding lush, floor-to-ceiling digital recreations of iconic paintings and artworks with music, sound effects, and historical narration– that has won the group worldwide attention and acclaim. With most of the shows conceived by digital artists Gianfranco Iannuzzi, Renato Gatto and Massimiliano Siccardi, they’ve attracted rapt audiences.
This is so much the case that in 2018, Culturespaces Digital, directed by Monnier, opened its first digital museum concept outside of France: the Bunker des Lumières, in Seoul, Korea. Others are following this year and next.
I caught up with Monnier recently by e-mail to talk more about the wild success of the Culturespaces digital exhibit concept, and in particular the Atelier des Lumières. The interview was held the same week that Paris was heading into another lockdown, as a third wave of Covid infections cast a pall over hopes of museums reopening in France and Europe in the spring of 2021. Amid these challenges, I wanted to know, what was Culturespaces and the Atelier doing to ensure its continued success?
And what, I wondered, might the future of the digital art space look like, from the standpoint of Monnier and his team of innovative curators? What follows is a translated and edited version of our conversation.
The Atelier des Lumières has been tremendously successful from its inaugural, immersive exhibit on Klimt, Schiele and the Viennese Secession movement. Did you expect this level of success, and what do you believe best explains it? Was it mostly thanks to word-of-mouth? New interest in artworks displayed in innovative ways? The continuing development of digital art techniques?
This enthusiasm can first be explained by the fact that our immersive exhibitions offer (in addition to artistic discoveries) a genuine sensorial experience around art. They offer an occasion to present artworks dispersed around the world [in different collections], and to enter them into a dialogue with music. It’s a formidable collective experience!
Our immersive exhibits [are also] always careful to respect the oeuvre of art history’s grandest artists, and we work closely with rights holders and artist foundations [to ensure that this integrity remains intact].
[Public interest] also has to do with the success of our [in-house digital technology], which allows us to present several immersive exhibitions [at a time] in very large spaces, with high-quality images and sound.
As an institution, how has Culturespaces confronted the Covid crisis since it broke out in Spring 2020? And will your programming or projects be changed (notably to allow more time for visitors to see exhibits that have been interrupted due to lockdown and the closure of museums and cultural spaces?)
As soon as our sites closed, we wanted to stay in contact with visitors. We amped up our social-media outreach by encouraging [audiences] to discover our sites, exhibitions and collections through photos, videos, and anecdotes—but also through special activities for children at our website.
Currently, the [Covid] crisis is prompting us to rethink everything. We’ve already made big strides toward the digital with our online ticketing, online [reservation] slots, mobile apps…and we’re now putting into place several virtual visits on a dedicated platform.
In the future, we’ll have to improve the visitor experience: visits [to our spaces] will be more pleasant, with less wait time, fewer visitors [at a time], which will allow audiences to forge a more intimate rapport with the artworks.
Finally, in 2020 and 2021, we extended the dates for our [most recent] exhibitions and chose to continue developing digital art centers across the world. These are large spaces that can accommodate visitors safely while still staging high-quality immersive shows.
How will you encourage and inspire visitors to come back through the doors once museums are finally allowed to re-open in France? And what are your current projects for the Atelier des Lumières in particular? Can you give us a glimpse of one or two forthcoming exhibits?
In 2021 at the Atelier des Lumières, we’re ushering visitors into the universe of Surrealism! [A new immersive digital show], “Dalí, The Endless Enigma” [open from 1 May to January 2022] looks back at more than 60 years of creation from the Catalan master, and lasts for around 40 minutes. Paintings, drawings, photographs, installations, films and archival images explore the unique personality of the painter with the famous moustache. As a whole, [the exhibit]—set to the music of Pink Floyd—offers a trip outside of time.
To complement [the Dalí show], we’re also staging “Gaudí, Architect of the Imaginary”, which, for a total of 10 minutes, plunges you into the universe of [Catalan architect] Antoni Gaudí—who was himself a source of inspiration for Dalí.
The show takes you on a stroll through [Barcelona and the works of Gaudi]: the Güell Park, la Casa Batlló, la Casa Milà, the Sagrada Família church, [etc.].
When the Atelier (and the other spaces you manage) were conceived, how did you decide to place such an emphasis on digital technology, in a time when it’s become entirely banal and part of our daily experience (IPhones, video games, zoom, etc)?
Digital tech has indeed become part of our daily lives, for listening to music, reading the news, watching television, [etc.]. In our art centers, digital technology is a tool for immersing visitors in the artworks. We see the details of these oeuvres in a new light: layers of colors, the medium, painting brushstrokes…
With the aid of digital [tools], we [also] create a collective experience… every visitor is free to wander around, to sit down, to touch [the virtual displays]….We prioritize immersion, both visual and sound-based. The immersive exhibitions are accessible to [almost] everyone, and from all generations.
All of this is possible thanks to our [in-house technology], developed for the Atelier des Lumières. It was developed by [the digital arm of Culturespaces], and optimizes the quality of sound and image with the aid of a new generation of servers. [There are] over 150 videoprojectors, around a hundred speakers and… subwoofers, as well as a [3D] LED mapping installation—all of which give us a number of ways to play with light—alongside a specialized render farm [a system designed to display computer-generated imagery].
Do you think Culturespaces has inspired other museums and cultural institutions to stage more multimedia exhibits, or even to try to use similar curatorial techniques and tech? If so, do you see this as a positive point?
With the Atelier des Lumières [and our other sites], we created a whole new approach, which is really complementary to those of [traditional] museums. It creates a desire to see the original works. Visitors continue going to [traditional] museums, and that’s a good thing! And digital cultural projects are continuing to develop. If they’re carried out well, they offer a formidiable way to discover—or rediscover—art.
Will we see new sites run by Culturespaces open in the coming years? If so, where and when?
We’re pursuing international development and are preparing to open (in 2021 and 2022) the l’Infinity des Lumières center in Dubai, and the Hall des Lumières in New York City. And we also have several other projects underway in cities around the world!