Herman Lo: Elevating Experience
After closing its doors for months, the AGO’s director of visitor experience, Herman Lo, reflects on delivering exhibitions in lockdown and how the art world can prepare itself for the new normal.
Growing up, Herman Lo always felt privileged living in a city like Toronto. With institutions spanning the Royal Ontario Museum, Bata Shoe Museum and Museum of Contemporary Art, there’s never a shortage of cultural experiences.
His first memory of being in a museum was in Tsim Sha Tsui at the Hong Kong Space Museum. Though he was there when he was much younger, it set something in motion that would lead him to work with the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) as its director of visitor experience. “It had recently opened and was the first local planetarium,” he says. “It’s one thing to hear about these things on TV, but to be there, interacting with the exhibit and appreciating there’s a bigger world out there … It puts things into perspective and gives us a sense of the world we’re a part of.”
As one of the largest art museums in North America, the AGO’s collection features more than 120,000 works of art from cutting-edge contemporary art to significant works by Indigenous and Canadian artists and European masterpieces. Currently, the AGO is in the final days of a major Andy Warhol exhibition and has just opened Picasso: Painting the Blue Period. A major retrospective of First Nations artist Robert Houle is planned for December 2021.
It’s also where Lo gets to put his passion for helping people connect with art into practice. It comes after spending much of his childhood visiting museums and a professional career working with other cultural organizations in marketing and sales. For him, the role at the AGO brings everything together. “It’s a culmination of all the experiences I had in my career,” he says.
Because of the ever-evolving role of the customer experience, no two of Lo’s days are the same. Where one could be spent on the daily operations at the gallery, the next could be planning for upcoming exhibitions in the calendar. “I could be in meetings talking about the exhibition’s flow from one room to the next,” he says. “Then, I could be talking to the team on communications about how we should respond with a friendly tone in emails.”
There’s also the educational aspect of the job. “The topics we cover at the art gallery are ones I might not be knowledgeable about, but it’s an opportunity to gain new insight.” Toward the end of our discussion, Lo talks about how a new perspective can even come with seeing the same work multiple times, describing a piece in the sculpture atrium that offers something new, depending on the time of day he walks past it.
With the pandemic, however, everything changed. Time spent on the floor observing patrons moved online, and employing a skill set to deliver art in a way that resonated with guests onsite had to pivot. In response, the AGO delivered a program of virtual lectures, tours and workshops to keep the community engaged, with a high rate of participation. For Lo, it was a lesson in the importance of being nimble and able to adjust to changing times.
“We’re a diverse city with people from all over the world. We ensure they feel they have a home here in the gallery and what we offer is meant for them”
Even with the pandemic aside, it comes at a time when transformation with data and technology is accelerating. “We had a show a few years ago about industrialization and impressionism, looking at how artists are seeing the rapid changes with factories being built, highways being brought in,” he says. “Put it in today’s perspective, in our information age, and you see we’re going through an industrial revolution of our own. The bigger-picture question is how the art world shifts with that.”
Particularly now that the gallery has reopened, and people are appreciating art again in person, Lo feels the future of art lies in physical exhibitions, but in a way that’s complemented by digital innovation. “There are a lot of digital tools, but it’s not quite the same as being in front of a painting or sculpture and admiring the brushstrokes and materials used by the artist. That’s still important,” he shares. “But the silver lining is, there are new tools. If you want to go in-depth, you’re able to hop on your phone and get that audio tour or go through the exhibition before you come on-site, so you know what to focus on when you’re here.”
A key point for consideration with bringing art back to the public has been accessibility and ensuring as many people can connect with the work on show as possible. “We’re reflecting the place we live in,” he continues. “We’re a diverse city with people from all over the world. We ensure they feel they have a home here in the gallery, and what we offer is meant for them.”
No matter what artist you’re visiting the AGO for, or which piece of work you want to appreciate, it’s Lo’s job to ensure it happens seamlessly, with impact. In the same way the creation of art is personal, so, too, is the experience of enjoying it. “One of the things we’ve heard from visitors is how much they’ve missed coming to the gallery and being able to stand in front of a painting and lose themselves in their thoughts,” he says. “It’s therapeutic in many ways. It’s part of this experience of knowing you’re part of something greater than who we are. I think it’s important, especially now, to know we’re in this together.”
Interview by Estelle Zentil