LONDON — It’s not a good time to open a gallery. Art fairs have been canceled; auctions put on hold. Even major museums have furloughed or fired staff. If the coronavirus crisis turns into an economic meltdown, many small and midsize spaces are unlikely to make it.
But one corner of the art world — albeit a virtual one — seems in the pink. The virtual exhibition space and multiplayer game Occupy White Walls, which bills itself as an “art platform of the future,” has attracted 10,000 users in the past month, to add to the 40,000 people who had already signed up. Since its launch 15 months ago, gamers have created some 50,000 galleries covering some 215 million virtual square feet.
Several real-life, bricks-and-mortar museums have recently made approaches to discuss collaborations, said Yarden Yaroshevski, the chief executive of StickiPixels, the London-based tech firm behind Occupy White Walls. (He wouldn’t say which.)
Mr. Yaroshevski said these conversations had come about because curators were desperate to explore digital possibilities, with their physical galleries closed: “Corona effect, who knows?” he said.
In an interview over a teleconferencing platform, Mr. Yaroshevski talked up the game’s recent expansion — pausing for breath only when asked to clarify what this virtual world actually is. “I always struggle to define it,” he said. “It’s a massive multiplayer game, a space where people can build galleries and create their own museums. It’s also a platform for emerging artists.”
Like Minecraft for art, then? “You could compare it to that,” he said.
Mr. Yaroshevski then embarked on a whistle-stop private view. Occupy White Walls is a “sandbox” game, he explained: a free-roaming environment where players can do their own thing rather than accomplish structured quests. They choose from hundreds of premade architectural features — baroque spiral staircases, Brutalist concrete foyers, art deco light fittings — and construct their galleries in whatever style they desire. Maximalism seems to be in vogue.
Once their space is built, players can choose from a library of around 7,000 artworks to hang on their virtual walls, many drawn from public-domain collections. “Daisy,” an artificial intelligence-based “assistant curator,” is on hand to recommend pieces players might like. The neural networks that power her analyze data about which works have already been selected by other users.
After that, players can explore the galleries others have put together and engage in conversation using a chat feature — whether about art or anything else.
Represented by his avatar — a sprightly green figure with an eyeball for a head — Mr. Yaroshevski padded through some of the players’ spaces, teleporting to more distant one. One had floors swathed in grass and walls covered in Yayoi Kusama-like dots, decorated with cartoonish pixel art. Another was a shadowy, marble-tiled space that vaguely resembled the Frick Collection in New York, enlivened with prize Botticellis, Bruegels and a rococo “Allegory of Music” by the 18th-century French painter Francois Boucher (an unofficial loan from the National Gallery of Art in Washington).
But it was only a matter of time before we encountered the kind of identikit space beloved of dealers everywhere: luxe minimalism, polished floors, and, yes, white walls. Only the fact that the space didn’t have a roof to shield its Hilma af Klints was unusual. “People do many things,” Mr. Yaroshevski said.
Mr. Yaroshevski said that while casting around for ideas soon after founding StikiPixels in 2010, he noticed that games focused on the art world — rather than games where players made their own art — were hard to find. “It seemed crazy,” he said. “There are games for everything, even street-cleaning simulators. But not art.”
The astonishing success of the virtual building game Minecraft, which first appeared in 2009, was an enabling factor for Occupy White Walls, he said. Another was that museums were beginning to make high-resolution images of their collections available online; they could be repurposed elsewhere.
One of its users, Jenna Juilfs, said in an interview that the game’s mix of architecture and art was appealing. “I work in marketing, so it’s a really good way of staying creative,” she said by phone from her home in Roanoke, Va. “It not only gives you the opportunity to design your own space; you can take inspiration from all this amazing art.”
With an energy that rivals real-life mega-gallerists such as Gagosian and Pace, Ms. Juilfs has opened no fewer than eight separate ventures in Occupy White Walls. The first space she created is a light-filled, classical-style gallery in which works by Caravaggio and Artemisia Gentileschi float in midair; another looks as if it’s on the edge of space and features photographs taken by the Hubble telescope.
Ms Juilfs’s most recent venture is on a pontoon surrounded by water, and is filled with calming mosaics and landscapes (plus an aquarium for extra distraction). She opened it soon after she went into lockdown a few weeks back. “Something tranquil,” she said. “It feels like we need that.”
StikiPixels is now looking to expand further, Mr. Yaroshevski said. One aim is to expand the catalog of available art to some 400,000 works and make display of sculpture and installation possible (at the moment, objects are limited to 2-D). More significantly, artists will soon be able to upload their own pieces for a fee, meaning that the game could function as a marketplace — more interactive than Artsy, less forbidding than traditional auction houses.
That seems to be Mr. Yaroshevski’s grander ambition with Occupy White Walls. As the game’s name suggests, he said he wants to unsettle the art establishment, which he regards as a shadowy cabal: the gallerists, the auction houses, the dealers, the curators, the billionaire collectors.
All of them, he said, wanted to control how art was seen and leave ordinary people out in the cold; instead, his game made it possible for anyone to try their hand at curating and collecting.
“A lot of those people, they kind of hate art,” he said, adding: “We’re not against the art world. We just want to re-engineer it.”