Elizabeth Levine Reede '84 Develops Virtual Reality Experiences to Connect People to World-Class Museums

February 23, 2016
Young woman uses virtual reality googles

Imagine putting on a pair of virtual reality (VR) goggles and being transported to a museum halfway around the globe. You gaze left and right, see a painting with bright, bold colors that intrigues you, and as you zoom in, a narrator tells you the painting is called Orchid and Hummingbird and it was painted by Martin Johnson Heade around 1885. While you look and listen, a hummingbird flies within inches of your face.

For anyone who has tried the VR museum experiences created by Elizabeth Levine Reede '84 and her arts education company, WoofbertVR (WvBR), that scenario isn’t imaginary. Reede, co-founder and CEO, and her team captured American 19th century landscape paintings at the M.H. de Young Museum in San Francisco last year. Later this month, users will also be able to download the WbVR app and "visit" the de Young.  

Goggle users can also visit the Courtauld Gallery in London, where they can walk around the Wolfson Room and be fully immersed in the actual space—not a simulated likeness—and enjoy Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings by Manet, Monet, Renoir, and Gauguin. Those who download the free app can also enter Manet’s modernist masterpiece, The Bar at the Folies Bergère, and listen to author Neil Gaiman narrate the experience, explaining not only Manet’s use of form, color, and style, but also the social and historical mores and behaviors of 19th century Parisian life. Users can also read information about the work from a tablet in front of each image.

"Our goal is to use VR to democratize access to art and culture and offer this content to anyone in the world, so users can experience the same thing at the same time, which is the best way to share global culture," Reede said.

Reede sees huge potential for the goggles and apps to help increase global sharing at a time when "sharing is deeply lacking," she said.

Yet before she could change how students (and adults) see art, she first had to change her own ideas about the value and importance of art in her life. Wellesley helped her do that.

As Reede explains in a TEDxWomen talk called "Life is Not Linear," she studied art history in high school and majored in art history and history at Wellesley. Her goal was to earn a PhD in art history and then teach. However, the excitement of the world of banking in the 1980s enticed her away from art history and she took a job as a financial analyst in Chicago. After a few years of banking, she earned an MBA in finance and management policy from Northwestern and then began a successful career in corporate banking in New York City.

Her love for history and art history never diminished, though, and after 10 years in finance she knew it was time for a change. When she called Miranda Marvin, professor emeritus of art and classics and director of the inter-departmental program in classical and Near Eastern archaeology, to discuss her career and return to art history, Reede recalls that Marvin said, without missing a beat: "I knew you’d come back from the dark side eventually." Marvin urged Reede to go to graduate school for her PhD.

That encouragement was important to Reede, who earned a Master's in art history from Williams College and began working at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) while working on her doctorate at the Institute of Fine Arts at NYU. Ultimately, Reede decided to stay at MoMA, working in various curatorial roles in the Department of Painting & Sculpture, rather than complete her degree.

Ten years later, she began to feel it was time to move on, but to what? Reede decided to take a leap of faith once again, and let the seemingly disparate parts of her life suggest the next step.

A few weeks later, she met Rob Hamwee, CEO of New Mountain Finance, through one of her contacts in the financial world. Hamwee wanted to develop virtual reality experiences involving art and knew she would be the right partner. Reede said yes, and after 6 months, she and Hamwee decided to make WoofbertVR a full-time business venture, one that would draw on all of the business and museum skills she had developed over the years, and that would speak to her commitment to and belief in the value of art.

As Reede said in her TEDx talk and has said recently, the idea that life is not linear is as much a theme in history and art history as it is in her life. "Life is not predictable nor controllable, but this does not imply that it is out of control," she said. "Rather, it implies a freedom to acknowledge the myriad thoughts, ideas and parts, of which human beings are composed."