Immersive Van Gogh Show Success Drives Live Events Forward During the Pandemic

By Stephan Cartello • Nov 28, 2020

It is a completely new way of seeing art — a display of Vincent van Gogh’s brilliance and torment, no longer confined to four-sided static picture frames on a gallery wall, but stunningly projected onto giant screens that highlight brushstrokes, detail and color as we have never seen them before. “It’s massive in scale. It’s emotional. It’s got an extraordinary soundtrack to it,”

says Corey Ross, co-producer of Immersive van Gogh.

Who could resist? Indeed, when the idea of staging the Immersive van Gogh exhibit in Toronto was initially conceived, organizers had every reason to believe it would be a resounding success. Afterall, a similar display in Paris at the Atelier des Lumières had attracted more than 2 million visitors after opening its doors the year before. It was no surprise then that 25,000 tickets for the Canadian premiere were quickly purchased after going on sale in February 2020.

Unfortunately, because Toronto’s exhibit was originally intended to be a walk-through experience, with people in close proximity to one another as they wandered about the 600,000-cubic-foot, immersive gallery, the emergence of COVID-19 suddenly threatened to turn what should have been a “showstopper” into a show STOPPER. Ticket sales dried up, as live entertainment venues around the world shuttered literally overnight.

“We weren’t sure what to do,” Ross says. “We didn’t know when we could open, what we would do, how the whole thing could work, what would be allowed or what wouldn’t be allowed.”

That might have been the end of the story, at least for a while, had it not been for a serendipitous observation. As construction was underway on the immersive gallery in the former printing press room of the Toronto Star newspaper, Ross would go downtown from time to time to check on progress. It was easy enough. He would simply drive up to the old loading dock that newspaper vans had used in the past and park right inside the cavernous room. So, when COVID-19 struck, and a walk-through exhibit became a problem, Ross had a brainstorm. “I realized that if I could drive into the gallery, then maybe the public could do the same,” he says.

It was the seed of a concept that was to become Gogh By Car, one of the very first drive-in COVID-19 workarounds. “We were really the first people anywhere to come out with a drive-in concept during the pandemic,” Ross says. “We announced in April that we were going to pivot toward being a drive-in. That immediately generated a lot of enthusiasm, and we quickly sold another 10,000 tickets.”

When the exhibit opened in July, Gogh By Car lived up to everyone’s expectations. It allows 10 cars an hour to drive into the exhibit, park, then see the show from inside their vehicles. “It feels kind of like your car is floating through the arts,” Ross says.

“There are different moments in the show where the animation moves in a way that makes everyone think the cars are moving. Every time I’m in there, I see everyone hit the brakes, so it’s really an interesting illusion. The projections are on four walls around the cars, on the floor and on the car beside you. If the car beside you is a white car or a light car, it really shows up marvelously.”

As it turned out, by the time the drive-in exhibit opened, the Ontario government had also begun allowing walk-ins with appropriate social distancing. “Both a socially distanced walk-in and drive-in are legal now, so we’ve been running both simultaneously,” Ross says. “We built a second gallery to do the drive-in, so we built the whole show twice in order to run both concepts at the same time. And for the public, it is the only real outlet where you can go to see something new and exciting in the midst of a pandemic and do it in a safe way. We’ve had 170,000 people in our socially distanced walk-in and, so far, everyone has been safe.”

Safety has always been the No. 1 priority, both for patrons and staff, and the efforts being taken are highlighted in the show’s promotional outreach. “My sense was patrons wanted to know,” Ross says.

“People wanted to go out. They still want to find a safe way to go out. And they want to know what it is that you’re doing to make it safe, because it’s counterintuitive that there could be an event that’s safe. That’s why it was really important to explain step-by-step how it’s safe, then we kept that message front and center. I mentioned that we had a big jump in ticket sales when we announced the drive-in, but we also had a big jump in ticket sales when we started running advertisements that had people standing in socially distanced circles, because the public could begin to [visualize and] imagine how they could come safely.”

Organizers are ensuring the safety of patrons and staff in a variety of ways — like the standard temperature checks, masks, sanitizer hand gel and Plexiglas — but also via innovative social distancing that Ross says actually adds to the overall experience.

“Because we have projection on the walls and the floor, it became a simple process to incorporate social distancing circles into the floor projection. And so really that’s the key; once you get into the gallery, you find a circle and you can move between circles. The fact that the social distancing is incorporated right into the art and can guide you through the experience is probably the key component. It really helps people feel comfortable.”

Ross and his team also recognized the importance of providing customers with value for their money. At first, he says, the focus was primarily on the drive-in experience. “The first concept was that we would just give drive-in tickets for free to the 25,000 people who bought walk-in tickets before COVID-19 started, so the first thing was that nod of customer service to those patrons. We had their ticket money, so we were going to offer them a drive-in experience, but since they signed up for walk-in, we thought we should still honor that if they wanted to come back, so that’s how [including free walk-through tickets with the drive-in tickets] began. I also just realized that it’s more expensive to run the drive-in; we’re charging people more for tickets, and we just wanted to give them extra value. We also thought that if you got a taste of the show from inside your car, you’d be intrigued enough to want to come back and see the full show, the way Massimiliano Siccardi, our creator, had originally intended it, and that seems to be the case. It seems to be something that people really liked, so we stuck with it.”

And then, like any other live event, the focus turned to further improving the customer experience. Ross and his team were able to do this in a way that made business sense, too, increasing revenue through strategic upsells and add-ons. Planning for this had begun long before COVID-19 was in the air, but Ross says the virus wreaked havoc with just about everything.

“The actual benefits, type of experiences and upsells have definitely been influenced by the pandemic. We originally thought of a VIP ticket that would get you past the lineup, but now we don’t really have any lineups because we’ve had to time all of our guests and move them around. We originally thought of an anytime ticket, which would be truly that, that would allow you to show up whenever you wanted, but that can’t happen in COVID either. We need to know who’s in the venue and when they’re coming in to control the crowds, so that concept had to pivot into an anytime flexi ticket, which you can buy, but you have to tell us when you’re coming. You have the ability to change it, but we still need to know when you’re coming at the end of the day,” Ross says.

“We had to reevaluate a number of the different concepts that we had,” Ross says. “We had an idea called the comfort ticket, which would come with a rental cushion that you could use to sit down when you’re inside the gallery, but you would be getting a cushion that someone else had touched. How would the public feel about that? For a bit, we thought maybe we won’t be able to do the cushions, but then we came up with ways that we would clean them and show people that they had been cleaned. The upsell would be if you don’t want one that’s been rented, then you can buy one.”

Because organizers of the Immersive van Gogh exhibit stayed on top of their game, they have been able to continue operating throughout the pandemic, ensuring 200 arts workers kept their jobs, something they are especially proud of.

“There was a moment in April,” says Ross, “where the question was, ‘Are we going to have to stop our business and let everyone go?’ A lot of thinking went into figuring out how to avoid that, and I’m very pleased that we were able to figure it out.”

In this, he says, there may be a lesson for others. “I think the key is being able to bring together your team and come up with innovative ideas instead of being discouraged and focusing on what it is that you can’t do — to begin to think about how you can conceive, what can be done. We had to take a leap that what we were doing and the approaches we were taking were logical and would ultimately be accepted. When we came up with drive-in, there were no laws around drive-in. I noticed that [the] Tim Hortons [coffee chain] was doing drive-through, so I figured if they were doing it, then we could do drive-in art, but that was almost the extent of the logic. I think it’s time for brave arts administrators who are willing to take risks and take leaps. Not leaps that put people’s lives in danger, but leaps to get things done, because it really is uncharted territory.”

Ross acknowledges the uncertainty and the difficulties still facing many in the entertainment industry. Even when a vaccine becomes available and the overall picture improves, it will take time for things to bounce back, especially for commercial theaters, which, unlike the film and television industry, do not qualify for tax credits. Ross says he hopes the Canadian government will reevaluate this as part of its effort to kick-start the post-pandemic recovery.

“As a theatrical producer, I hire the same actors and the same IATSE [union] technicians. The week after they work for me, they can go over to a film or television set and the producer of the film or television show would be getting a tax credit for that labor. I feel that what we are contributing to the economy and to culture in our country is no less than what a film or television producer is contributing. In fact, I could make an argument because of the economic benefits for restaurants, hotels and tourism that flow out of live theatre where the public has to assemble in a live way, that possibly our economic benefits are greater than the film and television business. I think now is the opportunity, now is the moment, that the government might listen and say, at the very least, we should be offering the same incentives for live entertainment that we offer for film and television entertainment.”

In the meantime, Ross and his team are celebrating yet another milestone as Immersive van Gogh gets set to debut at Chicago’s Lighthouse ArtSpace in February 2021. This will follow the opening in Toronto on Dec. 14, 2020, of Illusionarium, a massive experiential magic gallery, presented by the same creative team and applying the lessons — and successes — learned from the Immersive Van Gogh concept.