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Visitor listening to audio guide at the Hermitage exhibition at the Art Gallery of NSW.

How might sound help audiences understand the works of one of the most striking progressive movements in the history of modern art?

Few people have the opportunity to visit the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, Russia. So with 65 modern masterpieces by the likes of Monet, Cézanne, Matisse, Picasso and Kandinsky making their way to Sydney for the Masters of modern art from the Hermitage exhibition, the Art Gallery of NSW needed an audio experience that complemented the magnitude of the ground-breaking collection.

Having previously partnered with the Gallery to provide a scalable audio delivery platform and create the John Russell Audio Experience, this time we had a more linear brief: to deliver an immersive audio tour complete with musical soundscapes and interpretative stop-based narration relating to key themes within the exhibition.

Working together with the gallery’s curatorial and digital engagement teams, we created the Masters Audio Guide, a location-aware audio tour that blended expert storytelling with an original exhibition score.

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Challenge

The Art Gallery of NSW wanted an immersive, compelling and linear audio experience that could elevate the stories behind the works while guiding visitors through the exhibition. The tour would be delivered via museum-owned mobile devices, but also needed to work as a standalone app that visitors could download via the Apple App Store.

Approach

How do you capture the ebullience, idealism and confidence of the masters of modern art in sound? How do you create music for a collection that encapsulates how artists freed themselves from tradition and imagined art and life in new ways? Ultimately, we drew inspiration from the modern art era’s spirit of experimentation and unrestricted creativity.

Solution

A multi-layered audio experience with captivating stop-based narrative, an original exhibition score and music paired to the artworks. An intuitive and accessible app that visitors could use on both in-house and on BYO iOS devices, and which leveraged the scalable audio delivery platform we had previously delivered for the Art Gallery of NSW.

Impact
83 % of visitors listened to all 12 of the audio tracks
62 Minutes Average time visitors spent listening to the audio experience while wandering the exhibition.
701 Sessions That used the Masters Audio Guide on the exhibition’s busiest day.

A close partnership

We’ve developed and continue to maintain a strong relationship with the Art Gallery of NSW, having now partnered on several projects. As Brooke Carson-Ewart, Head of Digital Engagement at the Gallery, puts it: “We only work with digital agencies that treat projects like partnerships, and working with Art Processors is very collaborative.”

The Gallery chose storytelling and soundscapes for the audio production, a similar approach to the John Russell Audio Experience. However, rather than developing audio for a single artist, this time we had to rethink how an exhibition featuring several different iconic artists — all with their own distinct styles and stories — might be experienced through sound.

To get into the collective heads of the Gallery staff, we ran workshops and shared links to musical references and internet radio shows that demonstrated curated and specialised listening experiences. This helped us gauge what they liked and the moods they wanted the exhibition to evoke.

This flexible approach built on shared ideas around audio and aesthetic simplicity and beauty made for a faster workflow within tight timeframes.

Creating a musical landscape

“[The] rethinking of how such an exhibition might be experienced has also been applied through the classic audio tour, an institution in itself, to offer a journey escorted by music paired to the artworks.”

— ArtsHub, Review: Masters of modern art from the Hermitage, AGNSW.

Opportunities to score music for an exhibition featuring the biggest names in art don’t come along frequently. Fortunately for us, we’d done it before.

Musicians Corin Ileto, Casey Hartnett, and our very own Becky Sui Zhen — a producer at Art Processors — who composed and produced the elegant exhibition score for the John Russell Audio Experience returned to the studio to create the soundtrack for the Masters Audio Guide. This time, their brief was to create a more atmospheric exhibition score.

The trio employed minimal ambient synths, piano and voice to create an emotive musical landscape, producing tracks for each section of the exhibition along with underlying music for each of the 12 narrative audio stops.

When visitors put on their headphones and entered the exhibition, the mesmerising ambient synths carried them from room to room, changing seamlessly to communicate the different themes and artists, and helping visitors to focus on the artwork at hand.

Telling a compelling story

Significant works in the exhibition included Monet’s Poppy field, Cézanne’s Great pine near Aix, Picasso’s Table in a Cafe, Matisse’s Nymph and Satyr, and Kandinsky’s Landscape near Dünaberg.

Rather than simply provide a chronological roll call of the modern greats, the audio experience moved visitors through the story of Russian art collectors, Sergey Shchukin and Ivan Morozov, and their roles in the birth of the Russian avant garde. About two-thirds of the exhibition was drawn from works they brought to Russia in the early 20th century.

Curator Jackie Dunn lent her voice and expertise to the narration, guiding visitors through 12 highlights of the exhibition. As visitors moved through the rooms, they could select the audio stops they wished to listen to on their device and the music would give way to Dunn’s storytelling and the underlying track created for each stop.

For visitors who chose not to listen to any narration, they could simply enjoy the music. As they wandered the gallery, the musical score created for each room changed seamlessly from room to room, punctuating the different themes and styles of the exhibition.

The storytelling was informative and compelling, so much so that 75-92% of visitors listened to all 12 of the audio tracks right through. Visitor feedback also showed the narration wasn’t too long and wasn’t too short, it was just right.

“Visitors were at first reluctant to use a smartphone device in Hermitage, thinking it would be too complicated. After being run through how to use it and trying it out themselves, they were pleasantly surprised at how easy it was. They mentioned how much it enhanced their experience and gave them confidence to ask for a device in Whiteley exhibition, which I suggested as they headed to the Upper Level.”

— Art Gallery of NSW staff feedback

The Masters Audio Guide

The Art Gallery of NSW wanted visual simplicity and beauty. We delivered an audio experience that was beautiful, intuitive, accessible, and location-aware.

The app’s interface made full use of clean typography paired with bright, contrasting colours. No images, just words. It was a creative solution to a problem — not having the rights to publish the artwork imagery digitally. Ultimately, it worked in our favour, teaching us to lean on the audio as the main event rather than adding competing visuals within the Masters Audio Guide app.

This solution served to minimise screen time and keep eyes on the artworks.

Two modes let visitors choose their own adventure:

  • Gallery mode let visitors listen to audio stops as they roamed the rooms of the gallery. Visitors could listen to the narration as they viewed the works.
  • At home mode allowed visitors to continue listening to stories from the exhibition at home, encouraging off-site engagement.

Building upon traditional audio guides of the past, the app delivered spatially-aware audio content mapped to physical locations within the exhibition to create an immersive and multi-layered listening experience. It also allowed for multiple pathways and agency without overwhelming visitors with too much choice.

Masters of Modern Sound

How many people can say they’ve performed in an art gallery, let alone beside the works of Picasso, Matisse, Monet and Kandinsky?

The digital and physical realms of the exhibition collided for Sydney Festival 2019 when Ileto, Zhen and Hartnett performed their ambient multi-instrumental compositions for Masters of Modern Sound.

The after dark event staged throughout the Gallery brought together boundary-pushing composers and music from Australia and around the world, including sound design from long time David Lynch collaborator Dean Hurley and movement from Force Majeure dancer Danielle Micich.

Ileto, Zhen and Hartnett had the privilege of performing their immersive soundscape as a live score within the Masters of modern art from the Hermitage exhibition space.

“It was a really special event. The live performance allowed visitors to experience the exhibition score that we had created live while viewing the works that inspired it. It was an amazing marriage of what we had achieved digitally, leveraging the music we had created with the physical works on the walls.

There was also an intergenerational aspect to it. New audiences came to the show, opening up the Gallery to a diverse range of people who might not have otherwise visited the exhibition.”

— Becky Sui Zhen, Art Processors Producer