In many ways, the entrepreneurial bent of the art-stack model dovetails with long-running trends in the art world. It arrives at a time when museums have grown more corporate, and also face pressure to diversify their collections and expand their audiences. Art works are seen as financial assets, and flashy, “starchitect”-designed museum buildings, with airy, open gallery spaces, demand work of a certain size and scale. There is also the long-standing popularity of experiential, environmental art. Artists such as Turrell, Robert Irwin, and Robert Morris began creating such art in the nineteen-sixties and seventies; by the nineties, it had become an institutional fixture. Writing at the beginning of that decade, Rosalind Krauss, a critic and former associate editor of Artforum, argued that such art had altered the nature of museums. Once spaces full of objects, carefully arranged to tell a story, these institutions now sought to “forego history in the name of a kind of intensity of experience.”
The new immersive art also reflects the rise of consumer digital technologies, and the behaviors and expectations that they cultivate. In “Contemporary Art and the Digitization of Everyday Life,” published in 2020, Janet Kraynak, an art historian and professor at Columbia University, argues that the museum, “rather than being replaced by the internet, increasingly is being reconfigured after it.” Museums now treat visitors as if they are the “users” of a consumer product, and thus cater to their preferences, creating “pleasurable, nonconfrontational” environments, and emphasizing interactivity. She suggests that, instead of striving to be places of pedagogy, museums are growing “indistinguishable from any number of cultural sites and experiences, as all become vehicles for the delivery of ‘content.’ ” Kraynak told me that she thinks the user-friendliness of museums is making them less challenging and interesting. “That friendliness is kind of pernicious,” she said. “They’re not equipping the beholder to go outside of oneself, outside of one’s comfort zone.” In this fashion, she went on, museums have assumed a therapeutic function.