By Julian Mitchell (Contributor)

VRt Ventures Founder and CEO Jacob Koo (PHOTO COURTESY OF VR’T)

In 2017, the global art market grew to become a $63.7 billion industry, with sales increasing by 12% from 2016. The United States currently stands as the largest international market, followed by China and the United Kingdom.

Gallery sales accounted for $33.7 billion of the global market value, representing 53% of total sales, while public auctions generated $28.5 billion, fueled by a 27% spike year-over-year. Despite reflecting just 8% of the global market value, online sales reached a record high, amassing $5.4 billion as emerging technologies continue expanding the consumer base by introducing new ways for buyers to access art across platforms.

Founded in 2017 by Jacob Koo, VRt Ventures specializes in using virtual reality to develop mobile platforms designed to democratize the art experience, collaborating with renowned contemporary artists and museums to make rare exhibits easily accessible to a global audience on-demand.

Partnering with the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA), VRt broke ground last year by turning Kerry James Marshall’s acclaimed Mastry exhibition into a free immersive experience made viewable on Samsung Gear VR, as well offering a downloadable version for Mac and PC to view without a headset. Using a combination of laser scanning and volumetric photogrammetry, audiences are taken steps beyond an interactive tour, instead being able to virtually walk through galleries and explore from every angle with complete control.

Their proprietary technology captures subtle nuances such as lighting cues and painting placement, precisely mirroring the curator’s vision. More notably, the app includes guided narrations that serve to educate viewers, provide context and share the inspiration behind each piece from the artists’ point of view.

After seeing Shepard Fairey’s DAMAGED exhibition, Koo reached out to the famed artist with a vision for bringing his record-breaking show to life for enthusiasts across the world. Seeing the success of their first virtual exhibit with Kerry James Marshall, Shepard agreed to team up with VRt and develop the exhibit into a custom VR/AR experience and mobile app. The virtual showing takes fans into his largest solo exhibition ever, including 100 minutes of original narration from Shepard Fairey and an AR feature that allows viewers to use their phone to navigate the space at their own pace from any location. DAMAGED is available now on Oculus, Steam, and Samsung Gear VR. The app is also available for iPhone and Android.

I spoke with Jacob Koo about the vision behind his company, embracing virtual reality and his plans for transforming the way millions of people experience contemporary art.

What was the specific void or opportunity you saw that inspired the idea to launch VRt Ventures?

Jacob Koo: After personally discovering virtual reality, I wanted to create a VR experience in the art world because I realized it was next. I’ve been deeply involved in the art world for years, so I kept thinking about ways to merge the two together. I didn’t want our version of a VR experience to be a form of gaming, but instead wanted it to be something relative to normal people in a way that introduced them to art as it’s experienced in real life. That is how I got the idea to apply VR to museums. I didn’t want to simply create tours of museums, which are static, but museum exhibitions, which are inherently temporary. Around the same time, I also realized that the world of art has changed dramatically. There are hundreds of millions of people around the world who love art, but they can’t afford to collect million-dollar art work or have an opportunity to experience exhibits by the artists they admire. On the other hand, many people think it’s so cool to be at Art Basel, but don’t actually know what Art Basel is. It’s just a trade show where you can buy a lot of art. Yet, people think it’s something much more elaborate or robust than that. When you look at the people who attend Art Basel in Basel, Switzerland, it attracts around 110,000 people each year for 5-6 days. When you attend Art Basel in Miami, it attracts around 80,000 people annually. That’s an incredibly small amount of people compared to the number of art enthusiasts around the world. So, it made sense to me that if we were going to build our company right, we must deliver the right message and the right systems. If we reflect the right principles and message, I knew we would create something sustainable that would educate, enlighten and open people up the art world.

Describe the initial reception you received from the art world when introducing this idea and what did the response teach you going forward?

Jacob Koo: When I first started pitching the concept, nobody was listening. Fortunately, I had a good relationship with the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in Los Angeles. They allowed me to capture the best exhibition I could’ve asked for, which was Mastry by Kerry James Marshall, who is an unbelievable artist. His MOCA exhibit drew record attendance through the four months he was in Los Angeles. It was one of the most well-reviewed exhibitions of the past 10 years, which made it the perfect proof of concept for us to present as the first VR experience we delivered free to the world. After we launched it, we didn’t know what was going to happen. MOCA has a great educational program as part of their museum. They were helping us with the execution, because we had the VR experience in addition to creating a laptop experience for PC or Mac that people could download directly from our website. By making it accessible on any device, we saw an overwhelming amount of kids using it. I learned that there are so many kids that have never been to a museum in their lives or even had the opportunity to experience one. Instead of them learning about Kerry James Marshall through a textbook, they had a VR app that allowed them to learn through an immersive experience. We also realized that we are not going after the generally white, New York-based contemporary art collector who has hundreds of different pieces they’ve bought from different art galleries; that’s not our target demographic. Our target demographic represents people from all walks of life who simply like art. Then, when we had the chance to work with Shepard Fairey, who most people know through his many famous works, it presented the perfect follow up to reach a broader demographic.

What were some of the notable challenges you faced developing the platform and getting it off the ground?

Jacob Koo: The biggest challenge was deciding what to capture. That’s the term we use, because we’re not digitally recreating environments. We are using a process to technically capture an environment the exact way that it looks. The technical part of that is challenging, but not terribly difficult, because it’s what we do. However, explaining what we’re trying to do to the art world was really challenging. It’s less challenging now, because it gets easier every iteration and we keep progressing. To provide background and context, museums are one of the worst business models that exist. The average museum has less than 30%, some fewer than 10%, of their annual budget covered by ticketing, which is a joke. If we followed that model in the real-world, most of us would be bankrupt in six months. But, these museums have a Board of Trustees, and these trustees are usually wealthy individuals who commit to supporting museums financially. They can get money from these board members so that they can support the museum. In the case of a museum like MOCA in Los Angeles, their annual operating budget may be around $20 million annually. About $6 million of that comes from ticket sales. That means there is an annual short fall of $14 million. In my mind, we were trying to explain something simple. When you take a Kerry James Marshall exhibition at MOCA for four and a half months, that’s a wonderful opportunity for many people to come to MOCA and see it. However, what’s the problem with adding a VR version of that exhibition, as well as a mobile app or another platform’s version of that exhibition to bring an additional stream of revenue? Part of our plan was to help offset or even make exhibitions profitable in a way they’ve never been before. But, explaining this concept and getting it to resonate in the world of contemporary art is not easy.

What would you say to critics or skeptics who believe certain segments of the art world should remain exclusive to the elite or reserved for true collectors?

Jacob Koo: What would the NBA be without fans? Is the league just reserved for the players, general managers and coaches? More so, think about all of the different ways you can watch a game. I can view it on my laptop, on my TV, or watch it on my phone. I can watch a game anywhere on any device. Now, how do you see art? There traditionally hasn’t been any other option aside from going to a museum, going to a gallery or looking at very boring pictures that prompt you to purchase. There is no other way, and that’s what we wanted to shift. The exclusive fine art club you reference is really just the 1% or 0.1% of the 99% who love art. I’m comfortable in the fact that there is a huge group of people who spend $40 on a Shepard Fairey print and they cherish it. There is a huge community of street artists who don’t have a gallery or anything, but their mission is for people to see their work. They’re willing to put it on the street, just so people can see it. That’s who we want to reach, from artists to enthusiasts — anyone who has a love for art.

Why is creating this type of immersive VR experience so important to the art world and what makes you confident there is a need for it in today’s market?

Jacob Koo: The truth is that people don’t commonly go to art museums. Not many of them. At the Metropolitan Museum, they recently had a Michelangelo exhibition, which was really groundbreaking, which only attracted around 600,000 people who saw it over the span of four and a half months — that’s it. Considering the artist and how many people who marvel at his work, that’s really not that many people. The joke for me, having an art background, is when I ask my friends if they’ve seen a recent exhibit at the MOCA and they say yes — but, they’ve never been to MOCA. These are good, educated people. You know why they lie? It’s because the art world makes people feel stupid. It’s almost a good thing for a lot of people, even the curators and all the people who make these beautiful exhibitions. They make it difficult. If you experienced our Kerry James Marshall VR exhibit, or our Shepard Fairey exhibit, we have people explain things. It may sound cliche, but knowledge is always power. Once people feel educated and know the rules, they can walk into a museum and have an opinion.

How does your platform directly benefit artists and create more opportunities for them?

Jacob Koo: After we got so little response from Kerry James Marshall, we sat down and realized that it doesn’t really matter. That exhibition may have ended in July of 2017, but we have that data and that’s what is going to matter in the future. It doesn’t matter if people see it immediately or see it five years later, we’re going to get millions of people to see this exhibition. For the next step with Shepard Fairey, we switched our approach. We didn’t want to work with institutions that are slow and operate with a lot of bureaucracy. We wanted to see what would happen if we worked directly with the artist. So, we approached Shepard, because his exhibition that you will see in the mobile app is unlike any others. Shepard Fairey had 15,000 people come to his art exhibition opening night, which is unheard of. He also did it in this crazy warehouse in Chinatown near Downtown Los Angeles in a space that nobody would think to have an exhibition. When we saw it, we immediately thought this was incredible and something people will want to see. We were able to capture his exhibition so that it’s archived forever, which was the largest fine art solo exhibition that he had done before. Now, his millions of fans around the world who were not in LA during that period have a chance to see his exhibition. Additionally, he created 100 minutes of narration on our app talking about the art world and pieces he created. He goes in detail explaining the concept behind each piece and the message he wants to deliver through his work. He touches on all of these really important points about racial bias, immigration, environmental issues and so many other enlightening topics. This experience gave him a chance to have a platform to not only share his artwork, but share all of his thoughts behind the work. He even explains his artistic techniques that people in the art world can appreciate and apply to their own works. Our goal in the future is to have these art exhibitions captured in our mobile app and serve as somewhat of a signature shoe that only a few of the top player have, but will spread out to as many artists as we possibly can. It’s going to be a badge of honor for their fans whom they want to share their art thoughts with all of them. We believe Shepherd is the first of many who are going to go down that route.

Explain the inspiration behind DAMAGED with Shepard Fairey and what you hope to accomplish through the experience?

Jacob Koo: There have been several times over the past two years that I wish someone else came up with this idea; Someone more important with an ever bigger platform. I felt that if that other very important person got this idea, than they could’ve done something incredibly powerful with it. I thought for me, someone hustling who just loves art, there wasn’t a chance. But, in the end, I’ve learned that you just have to fight through. When the Shepard Fairey opportunity came, it was perfect, because it was art for the people. Shepard believes in democratizing art. He is an artist who has all of the same values that we embody. This was a perfect opportunity to go as public as we can and reach as many people as we possibly can. So, we did two things. We partnered with Shepard, because it’s his exhibition. We also partnered with Juxtapoz Magazine, which is technically the largest art publication in America. They loved what we were doing and wanted to be a part of it from the ground floor to make it more of a movement. What we’re going to show with this is yes, we have a VR product where you wear a headset and download the app for free to experience the exhibit. But, bigger than that is our mobile app itself for iPhone or Android. For the first time, you’ll be able to download and experience museum exhibits on your phone the same way Kindle allows you to download books or Netflix allows you to stream videos.

I’m an award-winning content creator with a passion for adding my perspective to topics in music, media and entertainment. I’ve spearheaded campaigns and content for brands like American Honda Motors, Wells Fargo, Google, and Magic Johnson Enterprises. I also worked closely … MORE

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