Thursday, February 17, 2011

CORRECTION Not Everyone Clicks with Google Art Project

CORRECTION, 2pm FEB 17 : Dear readers - as I was gathering material for this article, I made some mistakes in interpreting information. These mistakes were brought to my attention this afternoon. The mistakes relate to Darin Freitag and his statements. To his recollection, Frietag said that Google Art Project "degrades" art, not "damages" it. He also circulated his objections to the Google Art Project to just one media outlet, not several, although several did contact him and reference him following that initial contact. He also contacted a small group of museum directors with his views. Frietag in no way believes himself to be "unofficial spokesperson for a backlash" as I suggest he may be viewed in the article. I apologize to Mr. Freitag and to readers for any confusion or misrepresentation my mistakes may have caused. The text below and in the online article has been updated to reflect this corrected information.

It's been a couple of weeks now since the Google Art Project was launched, and while many are impressed with it (myself included) the honeymoon is also over for some folks. I talk about this a bit--and recommend other sites people can go to for a virtual art experience--in today's Toronto Star. An excerpt:

Hailed by Tate Britain director Nicholas Serota as an indicator of “the digital future of museums,” the Google Art Project is clearly an arts-access boon. With a few clicks, Torontonians can peruse galleries it would take thousands of dollars to visit in person — and add masterpieces to a personal virtual collection, too.

But for some critics, the honeymoon is over. Ms. magazine’s Kyle Bachan questioned the project’s lack of women artists. The Boston Globe’s Sebastian Smee wrote, “We’re deluding ourselves if we think Van Gogh’s brilliance can be subdivided into pixels . . . to start with, human vision is binocular; digital photography is not.”

One of the most outspoken critics of the Google Art Project lives in Toronto: Darin Freitag, managing director of Synthescape, a local company that’s assisted museums in putting exhibitions online for 10 years.

“What I found so remarkable about the Google Art Project was how s--tty it was, technically speaking,” Freitag explains over the phone from his Spadina Rd. office. “The quality was atrocious.” And he’s astounded so many museum directors bought into it. “It’s ethically wrong — it’s a desecration,” he says of Streetview’s low image resolution and fisheye distortions. “It takes a work of art and damages it.”

You can read the rest of the article here.

What Freitag means, as he also explained to me, is that art museums sweat the image quality in their print product (brochures and catalogs) and in-situ product (exhibitions and collections) like crazy, but those participating in the Google Art Project basically sacrificed a ton of image quality, and he doesn't this it's conscionable, particularly when businesses like, ahem, his own, exist to create much better quality virtual views.

As usual, I feel conflicted and sad about the research/interviews that didn't make it into the article. To this end, here's some additional notes I gathered:

1) Re: the financial feasibility of putting more exhibitions and collections online in Canada.

I asked a few people about this, because the classic excuse for not doing something in our museums or galleries is "the money's just not there to do it." The Canada Council said that it does support web outreach initiatives through its Support to National Visual Arts Service Organizations--orgs can use some of this operating money to enhance their website. The council doesn't have any programs designed exclusively for web outreach yet, though that might change as its recently announced "strategic directions" favour distribution of art and exhibitions in addition to their production.

The Virtual Museum of Canada said that they partner with 10 to 12 big institutions and 50 small institutions a year to create online exhibitions that are umbrella'd through their site. So it seems like there's some funding partnership there. Gabrielle Blais, director general of the Canadian Heritage Information Network which operates the VMC, said that doing high-res imaging of exhibitions is ideal and desirable, but "not cheap."

And Darin Freitag said that he, as part of his business, helps museums and galleries apply for special funding for online shows. He noted that the deadline for the Canada Interactive Fund, which offers grants up to $500,000, just passed on February 14.

2) Re: Social media rather than online exhibitions seem to be a focus for Canadian museums

In an interview, Blais said that now that many Canadian museums sites (and online exhibitions) are build, the next big challenge is getting users to comment on and interact with them. "One of the great challenges that we have right now is realizing that we are going to have to put some effort into getting public participation. Canadians are not used to having that dialogue with museums."

Megan Richardson, chief of education and public programs at the National Gallery of Canada, also pointed to the gallery's more recent interactive outreach initiatives, like the So You Want to Be an Artist contest for youth, which will be voted on by the public through Facebook.

Frietag also referred to this social-media focus in a less cheery way, noting that it seems to be the latest bandwagon museums have gotten on--even if their own websites could still use a lot of work in the first place.

3) How is the Google Art Project itself funded?

Well as we all know, Google is a megacorp with a pretty great cash flow. But the details of their arrangements with the museums--who gave who money to participate, and how much--are private.

Nonetheless, I wondered: would the Google Art Project every be treated as an outlet for content-specific ads, like Google Searches are? If you looked at one of GAP's Van Goghs, would you one day see related ads for visits to the Van Gogh Museum or Van Gogh biographies.... or coffee mugs, etc.?

I asked Wendy Rozeluk, a Canadian spokesperson for Google, about this, and she said "we don't have any plans to monetize it [Google Art Project] at this point." She also said "we would never introduce advertising for the sake of it. It needs to be relevant to the project." When I pointed out ads linked to Google Searches and Google Mail, she pointed to products that Google provides ad-free, like the mobile platform Android.

Rozeluk also said there are no specific timelines right now for expanding Google Art Project to other countries.

4) What else?

I wish I had been able to include some of the other comments on Google Art Project. I very much related to Roberta Smith's humorous observation in the NYT of being ejected onto the sidewalk when trying to zoom in on a wall-mounted artwork. And I appreciated Art Fag City's Will Brand pointing out that "the Rijksmuseum is committed to giving the full museum experience -- gift shop included."

I didn't get to mention that the National Gallery site also has a good number of interesting artist interviews -- the problem is, they're just a bit tricky to find and spread out over multiple platforms (Youtube, podcast, older Quicktime (?) formats). They also have put "audio stops" from in-gallery tours on the website for people to view. And they do say that they are committed to digitizing more of the collection, but couldn't say how many new items were being added per year. It was also unclear why so many artwork entries on Cybermuse existed sans image (I floated the idea of copyright being an issue, which was admitted but uncertain if it applied in all cases.) As I note in the article, hopefully things will become more cohesive when the gallery launches its web redesign in the spring.

(Image of Google Streetview Trolley in an art museum from Art Observed)


Anonymous said...

Hi Leah,

What an interesting set of queries! I'm glad you included these notes as well; they pose some difficult questions.

While I haven't really formed an opinion on Google Art Project, I'm very much with Freitag on the galleries-jumping-on-the-social-media-bandwagon thing.. as someone who really believes in its power, it's frustrating to see social media not being taken seriously as a tool (would be a useful tool for getting people out to the galleries, especially.)

The other point I find interesting is that many people seem to be lauding Google Art Project as if it hadn't already been done by institutions themselves. The site you point out and are linking to are fairly powerful and useful but are not always well-publicized. I wish they tooted their own horns a bit more!

And I'm glad to hear NGC is updating its website.. it's needed almost as badly as the Power Plant! Incidentally, I believe PP's new website is being done by the same group that worked on Textile Museum's much-praised Social Fabric site...


Leah Sandals said...

Hi Elena,

Great to hear about the PP's new website developers.

Yes, I do think there's a ton of great content at the Virtual Museum of Canada, but the images are so very small in most cases and the formats so wide ranging. It just seemed a bit hard to navigate. Of course, this can be said of many websites... but I hope that in future it will be less so in the Canadian art world.

pixo said...

I love it.

With so many paintings of old masters available online in one place and can be zoomed in to such great details - brush work, textures, fine lines ... etc are so accessible.

I have a feeling that this will help revive the love of paintings in a new generation of artists... everywhere.

Leah Sandals said...

Hi Pixo,

Thanks for your comment. Yes, I do hope the Google Art Project and other online art resources inspire people to learn more about art, and maybe even try making it themselves!

We're all so used to previewing or researching things online these days--be it clothes, books, or movies--that I think it is imperative for museums to join the fray--or if they have outlets already like the VMC, maybe promote them better.

I guess that's what the big social media push is about.. Tho in mu opinion a little old fashioned advertising never hurt either in terms of reaching the yet unconverted.

We'll see!

(And apologies for any typos, I'm on the go at the moment.)