Discovery Place’s Van Gogh Alive inspires quiet awe

Fine art is typically shown in a quiet museum. When that museum is Discovery Place filled with young children looking at beautiful artwork, the silence is remarkable.

Patrons watch the display at Discovery Place in uptown Charlotte.

Patrons watch the display at Discovery Place in uptown Charlotte.

The artwork of post-impressionist painter Vincent Van Gogh is displayed in a new way in “Van Gogh Alive,” on exhibit at Discovery Place until June 1. Fifteen-foot walls in the cavernous exhibit hall dance with light and projection as Van Gogh’s artwork zooms across multiple screens. Classical music from the period plays as sunflowers fade in and out, cherry blossoms bloom and windmills rotate in tastefully designed animation.

“What’s amazing is how engrossed and totally enthralled kids are by the art,” said Joanie Philipp, vice president of exhibitions and operations at Discovery Place. Some children sit and watch the complete 30-minute show cycle, while others run along the floor trying to “catch” projections of rolling farmland and swirling sky.

Discovery Place is only the second venue in the United States to exhibit “Van Gogh Alive,” behind international stints in Milan, Moscow, Istanbul and Budapest.

“Van Gogh Alive” was fabricated by  Austrailia-based Grande Exhibitions, who perfected the digital mapping of more than 3,000 paintings, letters and sketches to create the show. The result is called SENSORY4™, an immersive exhibition experience that features high-definition projectors, multi-channel motion graphics and cinema-quality surround sound.

“We are always trying to push the envelope on experience,” Philipp said. “We wanted to see how a show like this would play in a museum, using technology instead of artifacts.”

Though no real paintings are present, “Van Gogh Alive” virtually shows every Van Gogh painting from every stage of his artistic journey at one time, in one place.

“You really get to see the evolution of Van Gogh’s work,” exhibit-goer Barb Kovach said. “It’s like being inside his art.”

Discovery Place has added a very human component to the show to compliment the technical feat of “Van Gogh Alive.” Assistant Manager of (In)Formal Education Douglas Coler has crafted a program of characters based on real-life people in Van Gogh’s life: his brother, Theo; his model, Adeline Ravoux; and his short-term studio mate, Paul Gauguin. Actors in period costume rotate delivering monologues in character.

When Coler portrays Van Gogh, he shares the artist’s life in what his own words might have been. He talks about Van Gogh’s childhood, how he fell in love with art, his religious calling and ministry to coal miners in Belgium, his process of painting his dreams and his struggle with mental illness.

“I felt like he was actually real,” 6-year old Isaac said.

“I could feel his pain,” 10-year old Isabella said.

The exhibition reminds the audience that, like many great artists, Van Gogh was not commercially successful in his time. He did not start painting in earnest until his late 20s. He sold only one painting in 10 years of artistic activity. However, the appeal of his art has increased exponentially since his death in 1890 at the age of 37.

“His work is very approachable,” said Shane Agostinelli, visual arts coordinator with Community School of the Arts. “He painted what was around him and what he saw.”

Agostinelli will facilitate a special “Van Gogh Family Workshop” this Saturday that will encourage children and adults to use different mediums to explore the world around them. Adults and children can move at their own pace, using pastels or fabric to weave an artistic interpretation of sunflowers. Families can paint together or listen to music and draw in freeform. Find more information on the workshop at

“Van Gogh Alive” is not meant to replace the experience of seeing a real Van Gogh work or any piece of art. This dramatic presentation forges a new kind of communal emotional connection between the audience, artist and

Sitting in the exhibit hall of Discovery Place, “Van Gogh Alive” patrons like Lydia Love are inspired to share: “My 12-year-old granddaughter would love this!”

“Van Gogh Alive” closes June 1. Admission is $20 for adults (14 to 59 years old); $18 for children (2 to 13 years old) or senior citizens (60 years old and older); and free for children younger than 2. All tickets include full day admission to Discovery Place. Discovery Place also will offer an experience called “Vinyasa and Van Gogh” on May 31. Find more information at www.discovery 


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