Grad student creates virtual art gallery in Animal Crossing

University of Minnesota student Julia Maiuri created the Museum of Contemporary Art Kittengale, bringing real art to the virtual game.

Courtesy of Julia Maiuri.

Courtesy of Julia Maiuri.

by Alex Strangman

Julia Maiuri isn’t letting a global shutdown stop her from making and sharing art. 

Instead she has turned to a different, virtual world — the game Animal Crossing — where she’s created a virtual museum. Dubbed the Museum of Contemporary Art Kittengale (a nod to Maiuri’s island in the game), or MoCAK for short, it showcases the creations of real artists.  

A first-year student in the MFA painting program at the University of Minnesota, Maiuri said she got Animal Crossing: New Horizons to fill her time after the art studios at the University closed.

Once she discovered there was an in-game digital drawing interface, allowing her to create her own art, she started recreating famous artworks to fill her character Joolz’s virtual house. She started with the paintings from world-famous artist Marlene Dumas.

Following the Dumas installation, Maiuri decided to open her virtual gallery room as a project space for artists.

Since the Dumas show, Maiuri has curated five new shows featuring artists Joshua McGarvey, Lela Pierce, Kaitlin Smrcina and Kristen Sanders, respectively, with a new installation from Mark Schoening opening April 23.

According to Pierce, the MoCAK shines a bit of light onto a very dark art world.

“It’s a really discouraging time to be an artist right now. It’s kind of hard to keep your spirits up. So having this virtual show, to me, kind of gave me some inspiration to feel like, ‘Oh, my work is still existing in the world. People are still viewing it,’” she said.

While the museum is a bright spot, Maiuri faced some challenges along the way. The in-game app she uses to recreate the art only has 50 slots, which she quickly used up. This makes it hard to plan ahead, requiring her to uninstall a show before she can add new artworks to the game.

Trying to recreate 3D art within a 2D world is also not an easy task, but Maiuri says she enjoys the challenge.

“There are some limitations of the game that make it difficult, but that’s the part where the artist’s artwork really becomes part of the game… The biggest limitation is also the most fun part of it,” she said.

While this project started out as a way to fill the time opened up by the shutdown, Maiuri says MoCAK has taken on a vision of its own, allowing her to explore alternate universes.

In the same way, many of the artists she’s worked with through MoCAK artistically explore what Maiuri calls the “uncanny phenomena” or “this in-between space.”

McGarvey said he was intrigued by the way MoCAK incorporated a fluctuation between public and private — something he’d been experimenting with in his art.

“I liked that this is an inversion where she’s creating this kind of escapist realm in Animal Crossing, but then she’s opening it back up to the public,” he said

Although it is public, Maiuri says people will need a “dodo code,” which they can get by reaching out to her either on Instagram or her website, allowing people to access the MoCAK on their own.

But accessibility can be an issue for some, as not everyone plays Animal Crossing: New Horizons, so Maiuri regularly updates the MoCAK’s Instagram page with in-game screenshots.

While she has programming plans for the next month, at this point, Maiuri is unsure how long the MoCAK will stay open. 

But, regardless of the museum’s future, Maiuri says MoCAK has already done more for her than she could’ve hoped for.

“It’s been a really good way of maintaining a connection with people at this time, because otherwise I think I would be pretty isolated socially and just not really engaging with people at all. So, it’s really been a gift.”