Immmersive Extraction: Not to Be a Debby Downer, But . . .
Note: I met people who thoroughly loved the Immersive van Gogh experience. They really got lost in the atmosphere. And really, whatever you get lost in–whether it’s nature or movies or what have you– if it makes people feel better, fantastic. I resisted telling people who I knew had tickets about my response, so as not to be a Debby Downer and poo-poo their experience. But here’s my response. – LM
A friend had an extra ticket to the Immersive van Gogh installation, which is in the Saint Clair-Superior neighborhood near the studio I co-founded, Zygote Press. Immersive van Gogh is housed in a re-vamped, once-vacant building on 72nd Street. The bare bones space changed hands in July, 2021. The interior is simple, with a front office/ticket space, a large room where the appropriated barrage of van Gogh images are projected, and finally a sprawling, brazenly commercial giftshop.
I suggested to my friend that we meet at Angela’s Family Restaurant for breakfast, which is near the corner of 72nd and St. Clair, maybe 300 feet from the building, which is newly minted as the Lighthouse Artspace. I inquired with our waitress, “so have you been getting lots of people coming in from the van Gogh thing”? She replied, “the van Go what”?
I saw the owner and asked him, too, and he said he hadn’t seen any uptick at all in business. He also shrugged and replied, “no.”
The marketing of Immersive van Gogh teased folks at the onset with a “secret location” and followed with hyped encouragement that visitors post the detached montage of illuminations of van Gogh beds, sunflowers and Starry Nights or the “selfie station” images near his oversized paint box, or the van Gogh text sign near the gift shop that provides free advertising for other Clevelanders to buy their tickets before the time slots sell out. We, as consumers of anything flashy, are trained to post our Instagram-able badges of cultural experience and continue the promotion to others who follow us so that they, too, will shell out the $39.99 – $49.99 for a ticket. I shared the half-hour experience with about 150 others, and with 12 hours of operation daily Monday thru Saturday, and eight hours on Sundays, I calculated that they are collecting an estimated $144,000 in revenue each day. An insider friend who has a buddy that works there said they were bringing in $21,000 daily in the gift shop alone.
I felt a sinking irony: if you continued east on I-90 one exit farther to Martin Luther King Blvd, you’d be right up the street from the Cleveland Museum of Art, where you could stand before a real van Gogh and see the thick impasto paint and vivid color, and learn more about the context of this amazing artist, who died broke and unknown.
In my 30-minute session, the majority of van Gogh-ers were white people, in what is an overwhelmingly (75%) African American neighborhood. The median household income in the neighborhood is $23,662. The newly paved parking lot in the rear of the building is a one-stop proposition, with no economic energies spreading to the surrounding area.
This is a consistent formula of Immersive van Gogh events: parachuting into temporary, vacated Walmarts and shuttered industrial warehouses in other cities on the tour. Also consistent is the airlift out, with bags of profit from city after city–19 locations, including Nashville, St. Louis, and Chicago.
The hit-and-run commercialization of the Immersive van Gogh experience reminded me of the Spirit Halloween pop-up stores housed seasonally in vacated storefronts where they sell $44.95 Tiger King costumes with a side of Grim Reaper American-opportunism and a coupon for the half-off sale on November 1st. Feasting on consumers in these barren spaces left by once-thriving industry for a digestible, franchised experience of disillusion and escape is largely the same ammo that Immersive van Gogh is borrowing from other temporary retail outfits.
I wondered how a family of four could afford $160 worth of tickets, plus a Starry Night wine-and-cheese plate shaped like an artist palette for another $25. Carl Skalak from Blue Pike Farms said that to him, there wasn’t much of a difference between this and what people spend on Guardians, Browns, or Cavs tickets. He has not seen the Immersive van Gogh show, and probably won’t unless he gets a free ticket. He was pleased that they cleaned up the litter on 72nd street and fixed the building’s exterior with a huge vinyl Van Gogh wrap for additional curb appeal and advertising.
I had so many raging questions. I wondered how local artists could have been more involved; and whether Immersive van Gogh could have paid local musicians in the respective cities on tour to record the music played in the projection, and whether they could reserve a Free Day for Cleveland Municipal School District field trips; and how could they develop Plein Air days and art fairs on-site to profile local artists who paint and draw from life? How could Immersive Van Gogh have supported food trucks and promoted other neighborhood businesses like Angela’s Family Restaurant? How many temporary jobs are created for the run of this Cleveland tour? How much are employees getting paid? How much are these Immersive van Gogh folks contributing to our local economy through taxes? What happens to the building afterwards? Immersive Monet? Immersive Warhol? Immersive Basquiat?
The biggest rub is the way this tired and weary art / entertainment is received from illuminated screens in this pandemic—during which stimulation and desensitized overload become the new digestible draw, taking the place of some other authentic, real, connective and cost free experience that exists (by the way) in the countless galleries and museums across Cleveland, and in neighborhoods that are worth visiting, celebrating and supporting. The isolation I felt sitting in a room with 150 other people on a cold floor in a glow-in-the-dark, socially distant circle–and being so far removed from any context of who the artist Vincent van Gogh was–just made me feel lonelier. It doesn’t compare to the experience of seeing art, a real piece of art, in a place that could really use my support, both in money and attendance, which would actually benefit our local economy. Those real experiences that actually support people year-round in jobs–Cleveland’s own artists and their industry, the permanent brick and mortar spaces, all beleaguered by the Pandemic, all threatened by the difficult economy, and now too by this franchised, soulless art experience, this branding exercise, a merchandised blockbuster that takes the money and runs.
CAN invited artists to send us their own responses to Immersive van Gogh, and we got a range of opinions, from appreciation to disgust, from intrigue to complete lack of interest. We’ll publish a dozen responses in the Winter 2021-2022 issue of CAN Journal, which debuts November 19 at one of Cleveland’s genuine arts venues, Sankofa Fine Art Plus, 11401 St. Clair Avenue, Cleveland.