Photo: Kate Holt/ Opportunity International/ Arete

The discussion around the power of exhibitions — and whether they can work online — is particularly topical at the moment as we enter the 4th month of the COVID-19 induced lockdown. The arts and culture sector in the UK is on the ropes. The closure of venues and no clear plan in place for when they will reopen, or in what form, has left the industry reeling. As a result, over 100 leading creative figures in the industry have signed a letter calling for the government to prevent the demise of the sector.

As a creative organisation, we have experienced this first hand with a planned impact exhibition for Opportunity International postponed because of the lockdown. It has made us think. There is no doubt that exhibitions are a powerful tool for charities and NGOs for many reasons which we will dive into later; however, is this power lost when exhibitions are presented purely online? Or do they have even more power?

The power of exhibitions

Impact exhibitions are usually open to the public and held in venues in high-footfall metropolitan areas, like city centres, so that they are easily accessible and attract passers-by. This is partly what makes impact exhibitions a powerful tool for charities and campaigns. Carefully curated content, such as photographs, videos and stories, can be used to attract people who hadn’t planned to attend the exhibition but are passing by. As we saw with an exhibition we created for PLAN International UK, this provides a great opportunity to educate new people about both the cause and the brand, therefore, widening the supporter base and generating advocacy for the issue/s being explored in the exhibition.

Charities can use this platform to position their organisation at the centre of the conversation around the issue, which will, in turn, raise the overall profile of the charity, its prestige, and its legitimacy as being a positive force for change. It also provides a forum for charities to bring together people from their community who wouldn’t normally meet, such as supporters, staff, and trustees. This in itself will act as a hive of networking and creativity, as people form new ideas and relationships over a selection of free drinks (if it’s the opening night!).

Photo: Kate Holt/ Plan International UK/ Arete. A photograph of Helena from the PLAN International UK exhibition by Kate Holt. Helena fled with her family to escape fighting in her hometown of Abear. All of their possessions were stolen along with many of their cattle. Helena has never been to school because she has to look after the remaining cattle, and the family normally eats once per day.

This power of bringing people together and creating a shared experience is something that can have huge impact. Exhibitions bring the issue to life, where professionally captured images and video are able to instigate a feeling of intimacy between the viewer and the subjects, catalysing an emotional response that will help the viewer feel a little of what the beneficiaries are experiencing. This is their life and their world, and for a short period of time, the exhibition transports the viewer there — taking them on a journey of discovery.

Should exhibitions continue with the risk of COVID-19?

Photo: Kate Holt/ Opportunity International/ Arete. A photograph from the Opportunity International UK Exhibition for World Refugee Week centred around the Nakivale settlement in Uganda.

The emergence of COVID-19 has certainly altered the way we go about our daily lives and although much has changed, the needs served by impact exhibitions are anything but diminished. In fact, with COVID-19 causing harm to people’s physical and mental health across the globe, perhaps now, as charities find their resources stretched, there is a need for exhibitions that help with advocacy and fundraising more than ever.

Beyond this, as already discussed, exhibitions provide a fantastic opportunity for a meaningful and shared experience, which with social distancing measures in place, is another commodity people are in short supply of right now. There will always be a need for powerful imagery that transcends the medium on which it is presented, eliciting an emotional response and a lasting connection. Exhibitions, whether carried out in-person or online, still provide a high-quality shared experience.

How could impact exhibitions continue with the current limitations?

Photo: Kate Holt/ Opportunity International/ Arete. A photograph from the Opportunity International UK exhibition that is postponed.

We have seen many organisations and industries adapt during this unprecedented time and the culture sector is no exception. Some exhibitions have been postponed in the hope that venues will be allowed to reopen, others have taken advantage of online event platforms such as Hopin, hoping to capitalise on the vast numbers of people who find themselves stuck at home and spending a large proportion of their time online.

Although, as we will explore, there are some advantages and disadvantages to presenting an exhibition in the online space. As we found during a recent interview with painter, Daniel MacCarthy, if adequately advertised and sign-posted, online exhibitions can work well.

Dan MacCarthy is a painter based between Wales and London. He had an impressive run of exhibitions lined up for the spring and summer of 2020, but they were all affected by the lockdown. However, one exhibition, in rural Wales where he is from, went ahead online and attracted a surprising number of viewers.

Artist Daniel MacCarthy with his painting, ‘Edgar Derby’s Tea Pot’

How did you find attendance at your first online exhibition?

“A really wide range of people engaged with the exhibition online. I was surprised, a lot of people I’ve never heard of, some in America, some UK-based, friends and strangers. I think a lot came through the Instagram route. The exhibition completely sold out, so I added more pictures and it sold out again!”

With this being purely online, how did you create the exhibition feel?

“We did a written piece with the two artists ‘in conversation’, which was a nice way of reflecting on the collection and inviting the audience into a discussion around the work.”

Has anything come from this new online norm due to lockdown?

“I’ve been involved in something called the Artist Support pledge, which has been a real game changer. For the first time in my life I can make a good living being an artist. It cuts out the gallery. I’m sending out about 20 packages per week. I think people are locked down at home staring at bare walls, they’ve realised they want to invest in decent art and this is an affordable way of doing so. Lockdown has changed things in a big way, some for the better.”

We also spoke to artist and performance designer, Miriam Nabarro, about her views on whether online exhibitions could become the new norm:

Artist, Miriam Nabarro in the studio.

“Several major art institutions are making more work accessible online — which has a major impact on accessibility for everyone under the Covid Lockdown. But there is no substitute being able to immerse themselves in the real thing and the physical experience of the real thing. Galleries, exhibitions and museums are monuments of peace and prosperity. They are about being able to access priceless works of art that everyone can access for free. The experience is as much about the place and space as it is about the works on show”.

Issue 755 of The List

The List is a publication that gathers and distributes information on upcoming events and entertainment from across the UK. Robin Hodge, Co-Founder at The List, said on the topic of online exhibitions,

“Those who are prepared to experiment can find ways to present work to an audience and so keep culture alive”.

He pointed to organisations such as the Wigmore Hall, a concert venue that has continued to present performers via a live stream and downloadable content on their website.

Are online exhibitions the future?

It is clear online exhibitions can work but are they the future? There are certainly some benefits to holding an exhibition purely online; however, there are also several areas where the exhibitor will lose out. Arguably one of the most important is the ‘opening night effect’. The opening night of any exhibition, impact or otherwise, is often touted as the most crucial time. This is, generally, when the exhibition is its busiest, and it is where many of the positive results of the exhibition, such as inter-stakeholder discussion, engagement and the formation of new ideas, relationships and advocacy, are generated.

Although the ‘opening night effect’ wouldn’t be lost entirely with an online exhibition, as integrated group video calls and chat forums can make up for some of the discussion and engagement, these positive results would be diminished.

A visitor to the Oxo Gallery in London views one of the photographs chosen for the BLINK: The end is in sight exhibition by Sightsavers.

Exhibiting only online also limits the versatility of the exhibition, limiting the use of exhibition enhancing technologies such as those pictured above in an exhibition we were part of for Sightsavers at the Oxo Gallery in London. Sightsavers took advantage of cutting-edge camera and screen technologies to provide the viewers with an experience that illustrates the debilitating effects of trachoma. For people with trachoma, every blink of the eye can cause excruciating pain. Trachoma is an eye condition where the eyelid starts to turn inwards; the eyelashes scrape painfully across the eyeball. The disease is infectious and can spread easily in areas that lack proper sanitation and clean water. It is a degenerative disease that worsens over time, trapping people in a cycle of poverty and dependencey on others for their care.

A view of the Sightsavers exhibition from outside the gallery.

The camera, situated just above or below the screen — would track the eye movement of the viewer, counting how many times they blinked. Every time a viewer blinked, the image would gradually decay, representing how someone suffering from trachoma would see the world as their eyesight deteriorated. Although there are new and exciting technologies, like virtual reality, that can be utilised by online exhibitions, these are still limited by accessibility, which, it can be argued, limits the effectiveness of online exhibitions versus those delivered in-person.

Although there is a school of thought that the presence of other people during an exhibition is beneficial, the opposite could also be posited. Does the presence of other people, particularly those we are familiar with, act as a distraction? Ultimately detracting from the quality of engagement an attendee has with the exhibition and therefore the connection with the cause?

Presenting an exhibition online could allow people to be more focussed. Furthermore, the curator of the exhibition would be able to exert more control over how it is viewed, ensuring that the content is displayed in a specific order, or for a certain amount of time, which could serve to bolster the storytelling experience.

And then there is the financial cost. With no space to rent, or exhibition displays to create, an online exhibition could prove to be a much cheaper option for some organisations. This would allow for more funds to be directed towards advertising, which in turn could expose the exhibition to a broader audience.

Online exhibitions also have no borders or boundaries. Anyone, anywhere in the world, providing they have access to the internet, can buy a ticket and gain instant access allowing the impact of an exhibition to transition across borders and timezones, gathering support and advocacy from much further afield. This is, perhaps, the most beneficial factor online exhibitions can bring.

What is the conclusion?

Impact exhibitions, whether delivered online or in-person, can be a powerful marketing and fundraising tool for charities. Online exhibitions can provide an alternative for when we find ourselves living within circumstances such as those delivered by the outbreak of COVID-19; although, perhaps they aren’t the best medium to deliver content just yet.

With the development and improvement of accessibility to technologies such as virtual reality, it is clear to see how this could change. The ability of online exhibitions to engage with people all over the globe on their own terms cannot be ignored. However, the benefits gained from the ability to utilise exhibition-enhancing technologies and gathering a community in one place for the ‘opening night effect’ remain the most powerful.

At Arete, we specialise in creating authentic and engaging content, including films, exhibitions, images and articles; utilising our network of local photojournalists and content creators to search out stories on the ground. With such a large quantity of online media on offer, it is essential now more than ever to ensure content is of the highest quality.

Arete photojournalist, Kate Holt, in South Sudan for PLAN International UK.

Contact us to find out how we can help you make an impact through exceptional storytelling and targeted communications strategies.

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