Art in a Time
Immersive Van Gogh Exhibit hires 130 Art Workers
By Erin Baldwin
The Immersive Van Gogh Exhibit may feel like an escape from reality but, for 130 arts workers, it’s a chance to keep themselves – and their bank accounts – financially grounded.
While many festivals, performance series and art shows are going virtual or pausing this year due to COVID-19, the Immersive Van Gogh is just beginning. The blockbuster show opened their doors at One Yonge Street on July 1st, luring Toronto arts-lovers into an industrial space formerly home to the Toronto Star’s printing presses. With a vivid musical score, massive projections illuminating Van Gogh’s artwork and bold theatrical lighting, the exhibit is a large-scale production that requires an extensive staff to keep it running. It is also a much-needed source of jobs at a time when over 80% of arts workers are unemployed.
For exhibit attendant and Art History graduate Camilla Mikolajewska, the Immersive Van Gogh is a welcome opportunity. “Finding work in the arts community is extremely competitive and challenging, even without a global pandemic in the way,” she said. “When I heard that with all this uncertainty a major art exhibition was still moving forward, I was very excited.”
Her co-worker, exhibit attendant Justine Tenzer, agrees. “Finding work at Immersive Van Gogh has been relieving for me because I was scared I would not find anything within the arts,” she said. “I just graduated from university in June, so I was basically thrown into the fire.”
Venue and Operations Manager Eugenia Protsko knows arts worker jobs are rare right now. She has worked for Show One Productions and Starvox Entertainment – the Toronto-based production companies behind the Immersive Van Gogh – for many years and had this job lined up before COVID-19. Yet she was surprised by the number of overqualified workers applying. “While conducting job interviews in May and June, I was shocked by the amount of people with great experience, amazing resumes, ready to work as exhibition attendants,” she said.
While many industries have been hard hit, the arts world has been particularly ravaged by COVID-19. Arts venues are designed to bring people together: concert halls, theatres and art galleries all put strangers into close contact sitting or standing side-by-side. Unfortunately, this has become a major problem for spaces that now need to ensure social distancing protocols are consistently being followed. Many venues have closed, leaving their employees out of work with few promising ventures.
The Van Gogh exhibit has creatively found ways to balance health and safety regulations with artistic flair. Rings of light projected onto the floor of the exhibit hall effectively form social distancing circles, ensuring visitors can safely watch the exhibit while securely spaced apart from other guests. By having pre-slotted booking times, the exhibit also makes sure they are following Ontario’s indoor gathering restrictions.
“From the beginning, the producers and management created such strict and effective protocols, which work really well to protect staff and patrons and create a safe environment,” said Protsko. “We tried to foresee every detail: discussing the number of the sanitizing stands; sizes and quantities of masks; which disinfectant sprays we should use; what kind of wipes, face shields; Plexiglass for ticket scanning, box office and coat-check. I am not afraid to work at the Immersive Van Gogh because I know what extraordinary measures were taken to prevent the spread of COVID-19.”
The Immersive Van Gogh was determined to open despite these challenges. “At the beginning, as we were navigating territory we were completely unfamiliar with, I was overcome with anxiety over making the right decisions for our staff and our patrons,” said exhibit General Manager Jessica Johnston. “Things change quite rapidly due to COVID-19 and so do we – we work really hard to adapt as we need to in order to provide an experience that is enjoyable as well as safe. Ultimately, I am incredibly proud of what we have accomplished as a team.”
Along with securing much-needed employment for workers in a precarious industry, the Immersive Van Gogh is also contributing to a good cause: bringing art to the community in a time of crisis. “In today’s world, people are seeking an escape from what is a profoundly unsettling new reality. We’re looking to find sources of comfort in our present,” said Johnston. “What I love about this is that, for a moment, as the lights dim and the crowd quiets, and the show is about to start, there is a beautiful awareness that we are all together in anticipation of this shared experience.”
Tenzer believes that having an exhibit featuring the work of Van Gogh is particularly poignant in this contemporary moment. “Van Gogh was a fascinating person who was passionate and, in a way, had hope even though he struggled so much,” said Tenzer. “I think he is the perfect artist to showcase in a time like this. A lot of people will see this exhibit and remember that no matter how hard things get, there is always a way to create something beautiful.”
Natasha Abramova, a producer at Show One Productions, agrees. “This unfortunate COVID-19 pandemic locked us in our homes and countries, but it did not lock our creativity,” Abramova said. “By visiting the Immersive Van Gogh and learning more about the artist, anybody can wake up with a desire to make life around them more beautiful.”
Natasha Abramova, by Olga Nabatova
The exhibit provides a space for guests to lose themselves in art, but it also sets a strong example for other art venues and productions. By paying meticulous attention to health and safety regulations and coming up with innovative strategies to ensure social distancing, the Van Gogh exhibit has proved art spaces can overcome the unprecedented challenges brought on by COVID-19.
“I think what the Immersive Van Gogh has done for the arts community is to show that we can keep going,” said Mikolajewska. “No matter what hurdles the arts are dealt.”