Zium Gallery shows us how to make virtual art galleries the right way

When the COVID pandemic hit in 2020, my regular gallery weekends came to a quick and screeching halt. As an art collective, we were painfully separated from the physical and visceral experience of being in the presence of art. Of course, there was also the financial cost it had on the creative economy itself, but there was also an unspoken emotional cost. Attribute it partly to the loss of community and partly to the deprivation of beauty. However, the art world quickly recovered. We dusted ourselves off and created the wave of virtual art galleries with immersive experiences that we all succumbed to. We were a little disappointed but not completely discouraged. However, each visit to one of these digital spaces made me feel like there was something more to be desired. I turned to video games instead, finding them a much more sophisticated form of discovering art online. I ended up writing a series called The art of games too. The Zium Gallery, founded by Michael Berto, is the first project that encourages me to see virtual galleries in a new light. The Zium brings together the video game experience, transposing on top of the market the feeling of being right in the middle of an art gallery. Curious to understand why this stood out from the rest, I caught up with Berto to learn more about the process of constructing and curating this space.

the oldest, 2021, digital sculpture, Veronica Graham Image: Michael Berto

Zium is what happens when an art-loving video game developer is motivated to share their own deep experience of art with the world. He tells STIR, “A huge inspiration was the feeling I had when I first saw Salvador Dali The Metamorphosis of Narcissus in person at the Tate Modern Gallery in London. I wanted to create a place where people could feel like this, see a work of art and be touched, inspired and captivated all at once.” Berto uses Unity, a development software, to create a three-dimensional virtual space for viewers to visit and experience conceptual digital art. The curation focuses on digital and physical artworks, presenting them with high image quality and realistic spatial rendering. While other galleries in line are often poorly constructed and sticky, The Zium manages to maintain the natural touch and texture of the works presented The Zium also connects its visitors Discord, a social connectivity app, commonly used by gamers. It creates a sense of community, something sorely lacking in the online gallery experience. After all, art is the great engine of discussion, debate and deliberation.

Object Permanence, 2021, painting on Polaroid, Cat Graffam |  The Zium Gallery |  Graffam Cat |  STIRworld
object permanence, 2021, painting on Polaroid, Cat Graffam Image: Michael Berto

The Zium Gallery is free to download on any device, with an optional donation to run the space. This makes the space accessible to people across socio-economic boundaries, breaking the glass ceiling of artistic exclusivity. Because many online art galleries were built to replicate actual museum spaces, they were architecturally limited. Berto takes advantage of the endless amount of space one can create in a video game, making viewing a rather inspiring affair. The result is a spacious place that can accommodate works of art of all sizes. It incorporates interactive elements, so you can take a map or catalog and take a closer look at an artwork. A gallery like Zium also encourages a sense of democracy in the art world, with low costs and little overhead keeping the space clear to promote artists at any stage of their career, destroying the contagious elitism that plagues the industry today. Berto says, “I think the video game medium is the most fascinating and special medium. Every day people challenge and change what a video game can be, and that’s very special. Because a video game really can be anything. The interactive experience, both from the development side and the experience side, is so rewarding. The more games I make, the more I really think game development might be my favorite game.

Sunspotter Vagabond, interactive game, Joost Eggermont |  The Zium Gallery |  Joost Eggermont |  STIRworld
Sunspot Wanderer, interactive game, Joost Eggermont Image: Michael Berto

Berto is the sole founder of The Zium Gallery, along with collaborators and artists he occasionally works with. The gallery went live in 2018, built with help from co-creators Quinn Spence and Richard Walsh and others. While Berto lives and works in Australia, the others are in the United States and Canada. The artists presented in the exhibitions come from all over the world: another advantage of digital curation is the absence of transport costs! Berto says, “Doing it all myself can be a lot of work, but I like it a lot. Working alone with the support of my collaborators to turn to is a bit of an ideal situation for me, creatively.”

object permanence, 2021, Cat Graffam Video: Michael Berto

The gallery space, like most modern museums, houses a permanent collection as well as rotating art exhibitions. The current exhibition, which opened in February earlier this year, features works by painter Cat Graffam, video game creator Pol Clarissou, multimedia artist Titouan Millet and several others. The Zium Gallery is an effective demonstration of the capabilities of a well-constructed and digitally curated art gallery experience. It’s proof that there is still hope for e-galleries to flourish, and that they are not yet doomed to be the dull, one-dimensional experience we’ve been forced to settle for for the global lockdowns of 2020. Even though I’m free to walk around my city’s galleries and museums today, I’d still love to visit The Zium. The virtual tour is no longer just a poor substitute for an actual visit, but a playful exploration in an entirely new format – expanding the scope of gallery visits as we know them.

Mildred D. Field