A Visit to the Big Apple is Good For You

A Visit to the Big Apple is Good For You

Friday, July 10, 2015

Well, okay, it was a bit jarring no longer seeing the giant marquee for The Late Show with David Letterman above the Ed Sullivan Theater on Broadway (the building seem diminished without it; full disclosure: David Letterman once name-checked me at the start of a show), but my recent two-day, multiple-museum visit to NYC was extremely productive, affirming the work we are doing here in the Collaboratory and providing avenues of inspiration for future work.

The focus of my visit was a panel discussion on Tuesday afternoon, June 9, at the New Museum, "AFA ArtViews: Digital Space/Physical Space: Mapping the 21st Century Museum." Empaneled on the stage (and virtually) was a supergroup of thinkers and practitioners with respect to how digital practices/computational methods inform (art) museological practice in the 21st century. Representing the home team was Lauren Cornell, Curator, 2015 Triennial, Museum as Hub and Digital Projects, New Museum, whose experience curating and preserving digital art forms is extensive and pioneering. She is one of the driving forces behind RHIZOME and its all-important archive, Artbase, a home and incubator for born-digital art for several years now (almost 20 years!). Sree Sreenivasan, Chief Digital Officer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, well-known through his prodigious use of social media (he is a super Twitter user!), has brought to the Met and art museum worlds fresh perspectives born of his many years as a professor and practioner of journalism. Jennifer Foley flew in from Cleveland, where she is the Director of Interpretation at the Cleveland Museum of Art and the creative force behind that museum's ArtLens app and the associated GalleryOne, both of which have received much well-deserved praise. Piotr Adamczyk, Program Manager at a Google Cultural Institute that continues to impress with its range of projects and commitment to facilitating the digital turn of smaller museums, joined the group from his home in London by Skype (which, predictably, led to some technical snafus!). Steven Mann, recently a curator at the Walters Art Museum, but now at the American Federation of the Arts, moderated the panel. If you find yourself with an hour and a half and want to get the full experience, click here for a video.

Still around? Want a condensed version?


First question: What are the Digital Strategies for each of your institutions?

Lauren Cornell enumerated several examples of the strategy at the New Museum and of her own work, both of which have focused on creating conditions wherein digital art might flourish and find a home (the New Museum's launching of Media Z Lounge at the start of the century, the First Look on their website that highlights new digital art, the collaborative venture NEW INC, which acts as an incubator for all forms of art making, the Triennial exhibition (which had just closed), which featured several works that extended well beyond the walls of the museum, and, of course, RHIZOME. Sree Sreenivasan highlighted the Met's multiple strategies and huge investment in these for reaching its publics, including programming for the Breuer Building (formerly home of the Whitney Museum), the fact that they have both and infrastructure team of 50-60 people and the group he leads of around 70 people, devising strategies that best makes use of the tech that people bring with them (think smartphones!). He ticked off popular interventions, such as 82nd & Fifth, Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History ("most popular digital resource at the Met"), and The Artists Project. When Steven Mann queried Sree as to the locus of their competition, he gave this memorable quote: "Our biggest competition is not another museum. It's Netflix, Candy Crush, etc." Jennifer Foley spent some time discussing Gallery One and how it brings together three elements that visitors seek now in a museum visit - "Art, Interpretation, and Tech."

Second question (directed first at Piotr, who, as the only non-museum employed panelist, idled during the first question): How are choices made to invest time and money in projects?

Piotr listed several impressive ways that Google seeks to democratize the availability and use of resources in the museum world that allows museums small and large to "archive and present material": the recently unveiled museum app platform, hosting tools, and tools for building digital/online exhibitions.

Third question (first to Sree): How is online presence affecting global presence?

Sree stressed that the Met's digital presences (note the plural) allows them connect to various audiences. He noted that China now boasts of some 300 million citizens with passports, which means a huge potential audience intersted in the Met's collections. Reaching them means configuring their digital presence to be discoverable on Weibo, the popular search engine in China. Indians are similarly plugged in, but are not at the Met, which Sree and his team seek to change. The headline number, of course, is that 6 million people visit the Met annually, but some 30-35 million do so online, and so resources must be devoted to the online experience, but not at the cost of the physical visitor (who, Sree, notes pays for admission!). Sree also related that Facebook officials once visited the Met early on in this networked era to work with them on their online presence and stated that "you (the Met) need to think of yourself as a media company." Fairly radical thought (and one I resist, as does, I think Sree and evryone else at the Met).

Fourth question: Museums are inherently physical. Will digital change our interests?

Jennifer Foley related the fascinating anecdote that a survey of users of the ArtLens app found that they engaged in a lot recontextualization through the digital interface, such that an box fashioned as an asparagus, "the Asparagus Box", now figures as one of their most popular items, even as it is displayed in relative obscurity. Sree related how the Met's director, Thomas P. Campbell, recently started posting on Instagram, a format that would seem to ill fit a scholar of Campbell's reputation, but, in fact, the picture-oriented quality of the platform allows followers to see with Campbell's curatorial eye on his visits to other museums. It appears to be a way to increase visitors access (in this case to the Director's activities) without dumbing down the scholarly enterprise. Lauren Cornell allowed that is is quite important that there not be a misfit between the institutional voice of the museum and the particular social media platform. In other words, a blog or Facebook post should have more of an institutional voice, whereas Twitter allows for a more expressive, creative side of the institution to flourish.


Fifth question: Steven Mann asked panelists to weigh in on their institutional efforts to "corrall" or engage community in social media.

Lauren noted the New Museum's commitment to an international audience and how social media can create a "mass effect" in this regard.

Piotr was asked about Streetview's effect on the museum-going experience, if it was "cannbalizing physical space" by dissuading visitors to the actual museum.

His reply is tops: "that is not in evidence."

With regard to stories and their importance to the museum experience, all panelists agreed that "core stories and narrative; that's what brings them in," and digital interventions that best accomplish that feat are those worth pursuing. They should not be seen as add-ons, but intrinsic to the mission of the museum.

Towards the end of this very worthwhile hour and a half, the panelists offered a few shoutouts of projects and museums doing intersting things: Cooper Hewitt Museum and Seb Chan's pen (about which more below), Brooklyn Museum of Art's "Genius Bar," where visitors can get expert help, the Davison Arts Center at Wesleyan College, doing so much with just 1.5 staff, the Walker Art Center's website, with its strong editorial voice, and Red Hook Journal. Also mentioned was the temporay exhibition, David Waterson's Filthy Lucre, at the Freer-Sackler Museum (through January 2016).

Now, apart from this central reason for my visit to New York, I also took in several museums or exhibitions, each promising an interesting dimension to the visitor experience through the use of technology (oh, and the Donatello show, which was amazing!). The most significant of these visits, and the most rewarding, was to the newly reopened Cooper Hewitt Museum. Sebastian Chan, Director of Digital and Emerging Technologies at the Cooper Hewitt, has done amazing work, reconceiving so much of the institution through its website and its newly introduced "pen." This device, given to every visitor along with a paper ticket on which is printed an unique URL, allows one to store works of particular interest as one peruses the collections, the return of which at the end of your visit uploads all of the stored data in a way that one later can access it. Here's mine. To say that this technology possesses great potential is an understatement; it's amazing, and fun at the same time. Using it injects just the note of whimsy necessary when thinking about design and its processes (and doing it, too, in the front gallery, although I don't think the pen captured all of my likes). Oh well.


I must have traversed most of Manhattan in my two days (I am not kidding; I figure about 23.5 miles!), all of which was worthwhile, although I will admit that my tired feet and I did not appreciate the Augmented Reality-centric exhibition "Priya's Shakti" as much I had hoped. Essentially this exhibition is one that can be enjoyed at about the same level of experience both in physical space and in front of one's computer, and in the latter case with far less drain on one's smartphone's battery! Still, my discussion with the attendant at City Lore led me to a deeper appreciation of what the show's creator, Ram Devineni, is trying to achieve, and his belief in the democratizing possibilities of a thoughtful use of technologies such as Augmented Reality, a passion we seem to share.

Of course, the best way to take in New York is to spend good time with good friends in the evening, and there, too, I was in for a treat. If ever you secure an invitation to visit and stay with Professor Steven Mansbach and his wife Julia Frane, make sure you take advantage! Just lovely.