How Animal Crossing became an unlikely art haven during the pandemic

The first few months of Emilie Dujour’s quarantine looked pretty typical.

That’s to say, she spent a lot of time playing Animal Crossing.

The latest installment of the life simulation game was released on March 20, and it became an instant smash hit. The game sold more than 22 million copies in its first for months, making it the second most popular title ever developed for the Nintendo Switch console.

Dujour, a PR and digital communications manager for the San Antonio Museum of Art (SAMA) played the game as a fan at first. Then, her interest turned professional.

SAMA, like almost every other art gallery in the U.S., shut its doors at the start of lockdown. With the museum closed for a couple of months, Dujour began talking to her co-workers about a solution.

‘We want to be part of it’

In April, Animal Crossing added a new feature allowing players to open their own art gallery. Dujour and her co-workers started to get ideas.

“I asked my coworker, ‘Would you be interested in seeing if we could add some of the artwork from our collection?'” Dujour said. “And she absolutely loved it. She started working on it like, as soon as possible.”

SAMA uploaded a few of its pieces into the game, which patrons can access by scanning a quick response code on the museum’s website. From there, they can view a selection of the gallery’s artwork safely at home — all from the comfort of their Nintendo Switch.

Credit: San Antonio Museum of Art

SAMA wasn’t the only gallery to make the jump to Animal Crossing. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, which is the largest art museum in the U.S., dropped its own massive collection of work into the game.

The Met has a catalog of more than 400,000 pieces available online, many of which can be uploaded straight into the game. That means Animal Crossing players can decorate their virtual island with anything from Van Gogh’s “Self-Portrait with a Straw Hat” to Katsushika Hokusai’s “The Great Wave.”

Dujour said that, for SAMA, the virtual exhibits were a chance to connect with their patrons even when the museum was closed. More importantly, it helped them engage in a massive cultural phenomenon.

“We’re a museum that shares art for people to enjoy and be inspired — and we believe that if, right now, you’re spending a lot of time on Animal Crossing because you can’t go anywhere else, then, well, we want to be part of it,” she said.

SAMA has since reopened its galleries (as has the Met), but the Animal Crossing versions of both museums remain. In a way, their accessibility is a form of democratization, bringing art to people on their screens, wherever they might live.

‘It was honestly unbelievable’

That democratization doesn’t just help art fans, it also helps creators. Throughout the pandemic, independent artists have also taken to the game to host their own shows, bringing their work into a totally new medium — and plenty of new fans.

Just ask Stephanie Unger. The U.K.-based artist has earned tons of commission requests — and even a DM from actress Brie Larson — since she started sharing her work in the game.

Unger was one of the first artists to host a gallery inside Animal Crossing, and the decision seems to have paid off. The illustrator told Lecture In Progress that she was hoping “at least eight people” would show up to her virtual show. Instead, she was overwhelmed with requests to join her show.

“There was a continuous stream of people coming in to see the exhibition all night,” she said. “I didn’t think I would need to keep it open past 9 p.m. as planned, but I did. I also didn’t think I’d need to keep it open the whole next day, but I did that too! It was honestly unbelievable, I was shocked.”

Amsterdam-based artist Timo Kuilder was a similarly early adopter. The illustrator, who has worked with The New Yorker, The New York Times and Vogue, hosted a show that drew plenty of ecstatic reactions on social media.

“My first solo exhibition,” Kuilder jokingly captioned an Instagram post about the show.

Kuilder told In The Know that he got the idea to create an in-game gallery after some jobs “had fallen through” at the start of the pandemic. It was more a joke than anything — which made the response that much more surprising.

“It was just a joke I put on twitter, but people got really excited and were asking me to share the artworks with them,” Kuilder said. “Or wanted to visit my island to see the exhibition for themselves.”

The reaction surprised him, but it never grew beyond that. As Kuilder points out, there’s a difference between getting exposure for your work, and actually selling it.

“I don’t think it’s an actual source of income, and the hype around the game also died down a bit,” he said. “But doing something original with your work can definitely help get more eyeballs.”

Credit: Timo Kuilder

Many of these shows took place early on in the pandemic, and, like so much else in 2020, it’s hard to tell if they’ll become part of our “new normal.”

Dujour, for her part, said she wasn’t sure if the Animal Crossing gallery would permanently change how SAMA shares its art. However, she did say that the museum is constantly looking for new, unconventional ways to engage people.

“We always try to reach out to a different audience and to make art interesting to anyone,” she said. “So I think we’re always looking for stuff like that, that we can share with people who don’t think of a museum as a fun place.”

SAMA’s experiment was, by any measure, a resounding success. Dujour said the museum got countless heartwarming reactions from their community — and during a year like this, that might be enough.

“We believe that art gives you strength whenever you feel low, and I think, during the pandemic, we just wanted to cheer people up,” she added.

If you liked this story, check out In The Know’s article on why FarmVille is finally shutting down.

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