For my MA dissertation this year, I chose to study the Street Art Museum, Amsterdam (SAMA) as one of the case studies and also did an in-depth interview with its Founder and Director, Anna Stolyarova. My dissertation was focused on the theme of how museums can use digital technologies to transform visitor experiences, especially for the younger Next Gen audiences.
I have always been fascinated by Street Art. What has endeared me to it is its lively cocktail of vibrant colours, social messaging and its zany contemporary flavour. It is also an art form that is defined by its purity and rawness, a principled resistance to being co-opted by the art world establishment. It is also an unabashedly ‘public’ form of art, inclusive not just in a mission statement but also accessible out there on the street for everyone to experience without any barriers. I am both a culture vulture and an art lover, and I love to explore new cities I visit on foot. So, street art naturally becomes a part of the cityscape that I love to explore.
Every year the MA students at Sotheby’s Institute of Art London get an opportunity to visit SAMA during our study trip when we attend the TEFAF art fair in Maastricht and also make a brief stopover in Amsterdam. This year our visit in March was disrupted as it unfortunately coincided with the onset of the Covid-19 outbreak. But I had heard a lot about the museum and its initiatives from my professor, and my interest had been piqued. Vermeer happens to be one of my favourite old masters, and I had seen ‘The Milkmaid’ in person at the Rijksmuseum on an earlier visit to Amsterdam in 2017. So, the monumental Street Art rendition of the same by SAMA that I saw online had caught my attention as well.
When I began researching on my dissertation this summer, my primary focus was on the larger museums like the British Museum and the Louvre. However, I was also keen to study more independent set ups and media. While these legacy institutions may get the lion’s share of visitors, they suffer from two fundamental shortcomings. First, bulk of their visitors in the recent past (pre pandemic!) have been overseas tourists and consequently they have not bothered to meaningfully engage with their local communities. Age wise for them, a substantial chunk of the visitors are either children on school tours or older empty nesters. The Millennials and Generation Z are markedly under-represented. Critically, while these larger museums have had superior fundraising means at their disposal, their inherent bureaucracy and risk aversion has meant that they have been lethargic when it comes to technology adoption. The Street Art Museum at Amsterdam provided me with the perfect foil to explore fresh insights as well as compliment my research. SAMA works closely with its local communities, is very avant-garde and non-bureaucratic in its approach and has been working on multiple technology-based projects. It is also themed on street art which especially appeals to the next generation, who were the primary focus of my research.
Interviewing Anna as part of the research was a very refreshing experience. She was really forthcoming in her responses and generous with her time. For me, she was a unique interviewee as she is both the founder of the museum as well as someone who is very hands on and passionately involved with her current projects. This gave me an opportunity to both understand from her about the evolution of SAMA since it was started in 2012 as well as where it stands now and her vision for the future. In the context of my dissertation, we focused on the technology-based projects using VR and AR, the initial learnings therefrom, approaches taken for funding and visitor feedback.
There were a lot of valuable learnings for me both about the medium of street art as well as how technology can be used in its context. A key realisation was that since street art is ephemeral unlike oil paintings or marble sculptures. Even if the artwork survives the risk of being worn down by weather, covered up by authorities or vandalised by miscreants, eventually it is likely to be demolished and forgotten with the next wave of neighbourhood gentrification. Digital technologies can help at the basic level in archival of the same, but using immersive means like Virtual Reality can help keep it alive ‘post-mortem’ often even adding elements to the experience not possible in a physical visit. I also found the example particularly interesting of how SAMA has created a VR experience where the visitor can put on the headset and can elevate themselves twenty-two metres high up there along with the artist to experience close up how the artwork was created. It made me realise that the possibilities of using Virtual Reality to enrich the storytelling can go beyond the experience of the artwork itself. In this case for example, it allowed the visitor to be immersively and intimately experience the creation, something a street artist would is unlikely to allow in person.
I liked the fact that SAMA sees itself more as a ‘Heritage Action Unit’ than just a showcase of artworks – I think that makes it a much more embedded in its local communities as well as a key stakeholder in the preservation of their cultural heritage. The fact that the museum is located in a neighbourhood that is constantly being renewed by absorption of immigrants further makes SAMA a living institution whose work is being enriched in sync with the development of the community. I also appreciated that SAMA is not looking at technology merely as a tool to digitise for the sake of archival but as an enabler for more engaging and immersive experiences. The other key takeaways were the pivotal role that collaboration plays coupled with an entrepreneurial spirit and the importance of finding the right strategic partners for such projects.
Looking back, I am really happy that I studied SAMA as a case study as it provided me with an opportunity to satisfy my curiosity to learn more about street art and study it in depth academically. It also provided me with practical perspectives of the opportunities and challenges involved with commissioning, exhibition and conservation of street art. For research, a key enabler is access to information and that was even more critical this year given the lockdown and based on my experience I have to say unequivocally that SAMA and Anna were really accessible and helpful on that front. Unfortunately, the pandemic obviated the possibility of a physical visit, but I hope to visit someday soon and experience the artworks and the wonderful neighbourhood in person. With a growing trend in western society for the need to celebrate diversity of communities and enable accessibility of art, I also believe that both SAMA and the medium of Street Art are well positioned to play a bigger social role in the near future.
Sotheby's Business Art Institute