The Agnes goes digital

Staff talk pros and cons of digital exhibits

The Agnes Etherington Art Centre

In response to quarantine measures, the Agnes Etherington Art Centre expanded its online content, enabling the public to safely enjoy the art from home.   

Max Valsamas, curatorial assistant of European Art, and Danuta Sierhuis, digital development coordinator, spoke to The Journal about Agnes’ response to its sudden closing, as well as the pros and cons of online exhibitions. 

“We wanted to find a creative way to somehow allow [our audience] to still get access to the themes of the shows,” Sierhuis said. 

Sierhuis asserted that creating a fully-interactive virtual exhibition is a project in and of itself, which could not be arranged in the wake of the pandemic. Instead, their aim was to enhance the existing webpages for their ongoing exhibitions with “a selection of featured works.” 

“It was a matter of scale,” Sierhuis explained.

Rather than overwhelm viewers with a flood of images from their disrupted exhibitions, she said they wanted the themes and intentions of the shows to be “easily grasped” in their digital incarnations. 

One of the exhibitions that was cut short by the pandemic is From Tudor to Hanover: British Portraits, 1590-1800, which was curated by Valsamas. He told The Journal about the themes of the show and the process of translating the exhibition into an online showcase. 

“The Agnes has never really had a British portraiture show of this magnitude before,” Valsamas said. “Part of what I was really thrilled to highlight is portraits in a variety of media.” 

Among other styles, the physical exhibition would have featured paintings, engravings, and mezzotints—a unique style of engraving a picture onto a metal plate. 

“All brought together, it’s a very rich representation of the Agnes’ collection,” Valsamas said. 

Speaking on the themes of From Tudor to Hanover, Valsamas explained that because the show covers a time period of over 200 years, one can see very different representations emerging within the tradition of British portraiture. Valsamas said the variety of portraits demonstrate what each of the different artists sought to highlight in a person’s image, “whether that’s inner or outer beauty, whether it’s wealth, [or] whether it’s social aggrandizement.”

“There’s a lot going on even when we think these are in some ways similar images.” 

Valsamas chose to highlight 20 of the works from his show on the Agnes website. If you click on each of them, you’re directed to a page with more information about the origin and dimensions of the piece. 

Still, Valsamas laments the fact that people can no longer see all of the works in person for the time being. 

“There really isn’t anything like experiencing or viewing an artwork firsthand because you can see the scale of an artwork exactly in front of you as is,” he said. 

Valsamas added looking at artworks as a digital image can minimize a viewer’s ability to detect “subtle differences” in colour, texture and other details. 

Sierhuis added that “while digital [exhibitions] will never be able to replace…the aura of physical art because that can be quite an emotional experience, the good thing about [going] digital is that it does provide accessibility beyond the in-person visit.” 

Despite the drawbacks of the digital Agnes experience, Sierhuis said there are still some benefits of the digital Agnes experience.

“We’re also able to extend our reach and the reach of the artwork that we have in our collection beyond Kingston and to elevate them and the research attached to them.”  

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