The art gallery of the future, and why we must digitize art

Well, that took long enough.

This week the Google Art Project was launched, with the aim of digitizing the contents of seventeen major art galleries. Through integration with the Streetview technology it’s possible to go on a virtual tour through the galleries, but whilst that’s a neat trick, it’s not why I’m interested. I’m excited by this project because the extent to which art is available online has long disappointed me. In the digital age, for works of art to only be visible ‘in the flesh’, in whatever gallery they are housed, is a travesty. These works are too good to be limited by their mere physical location.

Some galleries have invested in digitizing their collections, but the overall picture of the availability of art online is a disappointing one. To properly experience most pieces of art you have to visit them in person. Failing that, you’ll have to make do with a 300×400 pixel imitation on a computer screen, that may have been poorly photographed, and with a distorted colour balance. The second full post in this journal was a discussion of Otto Dix’s War Triptych, and I was quite disappointed by the quality of the photographs available online. I’d love to see the Triptych in its full splendour, and the internet has not been particularly helpful in facilitating this.

A good example of a low-quality digitization of a painting. Click on the image to see the impressive fidelity of the Google Art Project version.

So I’m delighted that more works are being digitized. It’s fantastic that high-quality reproductions of these works are being made available to anyone with access to the internet and the desire to seek them out.

Of course, I have some reservations, – the large institutions that the project is focusing on could already afford to digitize their collections, so surely a real triumph would be a concerted project to also chronicle the contents of less wealthy institutions? – but that should not detract from the potentially massive impact of this project. Any drive to make our great cultural works more accessible is an important step.

This project is probably as much about convincing these large galleries to make their content available to everyone online as it is about the mechanical process of digitizing. The combination of a drive towards openness and the concerted effort to acquire high-quality records of these works is a powerful one. Hopefully smaller institutions will be able to follow in the footsteps of the larger galleries, taking advantage of the investment in equipment and expertise. Properly digitizing works is incredibly important in terms of preserving at least something of their legacy if the physical version is ever destroyed, and any project could be usefully integrated with curators’ digitalisation projects.

Let’s take a step back and think about what impact this project could have on how we experience art. How does viewing art digitally differ from viewing it in a gallery? What impact does the change in setting have? The very act of going to an art gallery is a powerful one – you are making the commitment to go out and see something beautiful, and are opening yourself up to being moved by what you experience. You’ve taken the time out of your normal routine – indeed, you’ve physically removed yourself from it – to experience the artworks properly. There’s more of a sense of occasion when one’s in a grand space. You stand before the piece of art, and it’s the only thing that matters in your universe right now. Viewed online, there’s the risk of the work of art being subsumed amongst the clutter of the computer session, amongst the chat messages or emails. I don’t want such things intruding on my encounter. A grand work of art deserves to be viewed in a space that is suitably undistracting, rather than being framed by my desk and other debris of domesticity. So maybe there’s something to the gallery experience. The space of the art gallery is as much a sanctuary for the visitor as it is for the paintings.

On the other hand, viewing art in a gallery isn’t always ideal. Works only exist in a single place at any one time, meaning that if you don’t happen to be within travelling distance, you can’t experience them. Even if you are able to visit them, some of the greatest paintings are spoiled by their gallery setting. The Mona Lisa in the Louvre is too distant to see through the crowds, and sheltered behind perspex so that you can’t see her properly. And you have to travel to Paris for the privilege! I’ve studied her features more carefully in a high-qualify photograph in The Story of Art, taking my time, in good light, to examine the details of the painting. This was a much more powerful encountered than seeing the ‘real thing’, so I’m hopeful about the possibilities presented by wider-scale digitization. De-localising cultural works – in other words, making it so that they can exist in more than one place at once, by digitizing them – will mean that we can each appreciate them more carefully. The security measures, noise and bustle of the art gallery don’t add to the experience – unlike, say, an enthusiastic crowd at a gig, which heightens the atmosphere – as experiencing a work of art is a one-on-one relationship. Anything else is a distraction, a detraction.

The project raises some important questions – how should we preserve our cultural works? Who should preserve them? Is this project too important to be left to Google, or are they exactly the right organisation for the job? Should the dissemination of these great works continue to be throttled by art galleries’ jealous guarding of copyright? (It’s not yet possible to embed images from the project in other websites, for example.) But I’m going to sidestep these issues and dream for a moment.

Imagine what an art gallery could look like ten years from now. It doesn’t look like much from outside – indeed, it could be a small room in a local hall rather than a space in a grand gallery– but it is a real portal to art. Imagine a room with high-quality computer screens on the walls, waiting to display the art works desired by the visitor. Each visitor could become their own curator – choosing which works to display and where, deciding what information they would like to see alongside their paintings, and under what lighting conditions. This would combine the best elements of digitization with the best elements of visiting a gallery; allowing art to be freed from physical constraints, and art galleries to become spaces to experience art, rather than mere store-rooms.

In terms of digitizing art, we’ve been lagging behind where we ought to be. But these developments give us a glimpse of a thrilling future that could lie ahead of us. Curators of the world unite; make your individual galleries obsolete for the sake of art!

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3 Responses to The art gallery of the future, and why we must digitize art

  1. Dologan says:

    Unfortunately, even the best monitors are currently unable to reproduce all the details and characteristics of paintings, so there is only so far that digitized art can go in substituting for the real thing in real galleries. The properties of the paint used is something that can’t be readily reproduced by digitizing, for example. In some styles it doesn’t really matter much, but in others, for instance Impressionism, where paint is often applied in thick and uneven brush strokes that give the paintings a certain three-dimensionality, it can make a significant difference. Getting as close to the painting as the museum will let you and scrutinizing the details of the surface, observing exactly how much paint was applied and how, is just something that you can’t get from a digital picture and that I greatly enjoy myself when I have the chance (Starry Night is a very good example of this, actually)

    Regardless of this, digitizing art is very much a good thing in any case in my opinion too, for the reasons you have clearly explained. With music, the fact that there exists high-quality recorded music (and in most cases as good as free) does not detract from a live concert experience, and in many ways it even adds to it. I think the same applies to painted art. Now sculptures and other three-dimensional arts on the other hand…

    • I was thinking exactly that when examining the fine detail on that painting. I remain hopeful that such nuances will be captured and displayed someday, when the technology’s there. These close details can’t always be examined in galleries, due to restrictive security measures, so I can put up with having just two dimensions for the moment.

      But yes, we need to keep moving towards displays that can better convey colour and texture.

  2. Pseudoname says:

    How a work is actually hung in a gallery, the room in which it is situated, and its placement in context with other works, cannot be reproduced exactly through this sort of digitisation. (And more importantly -for better and worse – neither can the wider process of physically going to an art gallery and engaging with the works there).

    On the other hand, digitisation opens up all new sorts of curatorial possibilities, new ways of presenting and displaying existing artworks. If this process doesn’t mean removing the original artworks, then it merely opens up new and different possibilities for them, which has to be a good thing.

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