AWS Public Sector Blog

Barnes Foundation takes art education virtual and reaches record number of new learners

The Barnes Foundation, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit cultural and educational organization, is home to a legendary art collection including some of the world’s most important impressionist, post-impressionist, and modern paintings, alongside objects and art from diverse cultures and time periods. At the core of its mission is the advancement of education and art appreciation.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) reported that 90 percent of arts and cultural institutions around the world closed their doors when the COVID-19 pandemic began. The Barnes Foundation initiated a digital transformation a decade prior to the pandemic and was able to quickly pivot to develop and launch new online programming to continue to deliver their educational mission following temporary closure of their facility on March 13, 2020. The foundation rolled out online education for adults and pre-kindergarten through grade 12 students beginning in April 2020.

The Barnes Foundation used Amazon Web Services (AWS) Cloud technology and expanded their local partnerships, which supported triple the enrollment in online courses for adults, and allowed them to reach 40 percent more school-age students during the 2020-2021 school year compared to in-person courses in pre-pandemic years.

Integrating mission and technology supports a swift pivot to virtual education

Educational offerings from the foundation are based on the vision and practice of founder, Dr. Albert C. Barnes, who believed that art had the power to improve minds and transform lives. Since its founding in 1922, the Barnes Foundation has taught hundreds of thousands of people, from pre-kindergarteners to adults, and formed strong partnerships with school districts, hospitals, and corporations to support art education in the local community.

The pedagogy of Dr. Barnes—encouraging ideation and unique ways of interacting with art—lent itself to experimentation with technology to heighten the overall experience of visitors and learners. The art collection is 100 percent online with high resolution photography and allows visitors to search using both traditional search terms and visual elements. Barnes Focus, an in-gallery mobile web experience, visually scans any of the 3,000 gallery objects in seconds and shares additional information for visitors to contemplate. By embracing these technologies, which are powered by Amazon OpenSearch Service and deployed via AWS Elastic Beanstalk, and adopting hybrid infrastructure of on-premises and cloud technology, the Barnes Foundation swiftly adopted a new strategy to further its mission of education when the COVID-19 pandemic began in March 2020.

Art class goes virtual with Amazon Interactive Video Services  

Transitioning to remote work over one weekend at the start of the pandemic, the Barnes Foundation team set to work strategizing approaches to continue to deliver their mission, particularly to support the surrounding community “locked down” in city apartments and condominiums. The team decided to take on a bold experiment: to produce a video series focused on explorations of art related careers ranging from textile arts and puppetry to culinary and circus arts.

The video series was streamed via Twitch during the summer 2020. Twitch allowed for viewers to interact with the content through chat. The team at the Barnes Foundation analyzed lesson retention and engagement via the Twitch chat logs and stream reports, identifying positive engagement and strong message retention with concepts presented in earlier weeks recalled in later weeks.

With the summer video series success, the Foundation aimed to scale and expand their educational offerings. The Barnes Foundation further customized their video platform to deliver live, virtual classes to pre-kindergarten through grade 12 students as well as adults. The Barnes Foundation selected Amazon Interactive Video Service (Amazon IVS) as the core platform to build the livestream series around. Amazon IVS offered low latency, providing an opportunity for real-time interaction with the audience, and crisp 1080p60 resolution to showcase artworks at their best visual clarity, all critical to deliver an interactive and engaging experience. In this first foray into highly produced livestreaming content, the foundation also chose to run virtual production studios with on-demand Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (Amazon EC2) G4 instances, supporting graphically intensive workflows while benefiting from cost efficiencies. This content often featured deep zoom imagery of the Barnes Art collection, with images served from Amazon Simple Storage Service (Amazon S3) via Amazon CloudFront, and AWS Lambda providing serverless web hosting of the user interface.

The Barnes Foundation partnered with the Philadelphia School District to engage students in grades pre-kindergarten through 12 in interactive, real-time art education courses. Due to the low latency of Amazon IVS, artists teaching the virtual courses could ask students what color to use next in a drawing. Students responded via the chat by typing or using emojis, allowing the artist to see responses in real-time, and create a collaborative, participatory learning experience.

“I love the chat feature and was very impressed with the way it was handled and monitored. Our teachers couldn’t believe how quickly our students jumped right in and got involved. Socializing during this workshop was a big hit.” —Kindergarten teacher, Frances E. Willard School, Philadelphia

The Barnes Foundation customized their platform to adhere to necessary privacy guidelines required by the school district, making it the only non-standard platform approved for use among the district’s students. Using AWS afforded the Barnes Foundation with control and management over the end-to-end experience to meet the needs of their community partners and best support community members.

Barnes expanded the platform to offer additional virtual tours, lectures, and seminars to private groups, members, and the general public. To date, more than 5,100 adult students (including 544 scholarship recipients) from 45 states and 12 countries have enrolled across 97 online courses, generating over $750,000 in new revenue. Enrollment in adult education courses tripled in 2020 compared to 2019, when measured against in-gallery courses, and the number of full scholarships offered to students quadrupled. The pre-kindergarten through grade 12 program served over 16,000 students during the 2020–2021 school year, representing a 40 increase compared to pre-pandemic academic years.

The Barnes Foundation continues to remain committed to open-sourcing solutions and sharing technology and learnings as they look ahead to creating a next-generation, immersive online learning experience, based on lessons learned from past experience, and built on AWS. To learn more about the Barnes Foundation’s virtual education platform, visit their website at

Subscribe to the AWS Public Sector Blog newsletter to get the latest in AWS tools, solutions, and innovations from the public sector delivered to your inbox, or contact us.