Customize Your Zoom Virtual Background with Free Works of Art

Lim­i­ta­tions stim­u­late cre­ativ­i­ty. While that phras­ing is cred­it­ed to busi­ness-man­age­ment schol­ar Hen­ry Mintzberg, the idea itself has a long his­to­ry. We know we work more fruit­ful­ly when we work with­in bound­aries, and we’ve known ever since our capa­bil­i­ties were lim­it­ed in ways bare­ly imag­in­able today. With the ongo­ing coro­n­avirus pan­dem­ic hav­ing tem­porar­i­ly redrawn the bound­aries of our lives, many of us have already begun to redis­cov­er our own cre­ativ­i­ty. Some have even done it on Zoom, the tele­con­fer­enc­ing soft­ware used by busi­ness­es and insti­tu­tions to keep their meet­ings and class­es going even in a time of social dis­tanc­ing.

Instead of their bed­rooms or offices, stu­dents and office work­ers have start­ed appear­ing in set­tings like a 1970s dis­co, the Taj Mahal, and the star­ship Enter­prise. The tech­nol­o­gy mak­ing this pos­si­ble is the “vir­tu­al back­ground,” explained in the offi­cial Zoom instruc­tion­al video down below.

Word of the vir­tu­al back­ground’s pos­si­bil­i­ties has spread through insti­tu­tions every­where. It cer­tain­ly has at the Get­ty, whose dig­i­tal edi­tor Caitlin Sham­berg notes that “the Getty’s Open Con­tent pro­gram includes over 100,000 images that are free and down­load­able. This means they’re also fair game to use as your own cus­tom back­ground.”

From the Get­ty’s dig­i­tal col­lec­tion Sham­berg offers such works suit­able for Zoom as Van Gogh’s Iris­es, Turn­er’s Van Tromp, going about to please his Mas­ters, Ships a Sea, get­ting a Good Wet­ting, and oth­er can­vass­es of such reli­ably pleas­ing set­tings as 18th-cen­tu­ry Venice and a 16th-cen­tu­ry for­est with a rab­bit. The Verge’s Natt Garun recent­ly round­ed up a few resources where you can find more promis­ing vir­tu­al-back­ground mate­r­i­al, from bin­go cards to beach­es to “pop cul­ture homes” includ­ing “Car­rie Bradshaw’s apart­ment from Sex and the City, your favorite Friends lofts, Sein­feld liv­ing rooms, and more.”

Here at Open Cul­ture, we’ll point you to the thir­ty world-class muse­ums that have put two mil­lion works of art online, many of which insti­tu­tions have made them avail­able for down­load. In this post appears, from the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Muse­um of Art, Kat­sushi­ka Hoku­sai’s Under the Wave off Kana­gawa (whose evo­lu­tion to the sta­tus of an icon­ic ukiyo‑e print we’ve pre­vi­ous­ly cov­ered); from the Get­ty, an 18th-cen­tu­ry room “orig­i­nal­ly used as a bed­room or large cab­i­net in a pri­vate Parisian home at num­ber 18 place Vendôme”; and from the Los Ange­les Coun­ty Muse­um of Art, George Bel­lows’ The Com­ing Storm.

That last work, pic­tured above, has a cer­tain metaphor­i­cal res­o­nance with the sit­u­a­tion the world now finds itself in, hop­ing though we are that the storm of COVID-19 is now pass­ing rather than still com­ing. But while we’re shel­ter­ing from it — and con­tin­u­ing to car­ry on busi­ness as usu­al as best we can — we might as well get take every oppor­tu­ni­ty to get artis­tic. Find many more artis­tic images to down­load here.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Get­ty Dig­i­tal Archive Expands to 135,000 Free Images: Down­load High Res­o­lu­tion Scans of Paint­ings, Sculp­tures, Pho­tographs & Much Much More

The Met­ro­pol­i­tan Muse­um of Art Puts 400,000 High-Res Images Online & Makes Them Free to Use

LA Coun­ty Muse­um Makes 20,000 Artis­tic Images Avail­able for Free Down­load

25 Mil­lion Images From 14 Art Insti­tu­tions to Be Dig­i­tized & Put Online In One Huge Schol­ar­ly Archive

Where to Find Free Art Images & Books from Great Muse­ums, and Free Books from Uni­ver­si­ty Press­es

Take a Vir­tu­al Tour of 30 World-Class Muse­ums & Safe­ly Vis­it 2 Mil­lion Works of Fine Art

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.


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Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.