Removing my shoes in a cavernous, dimly lit room before quietly entering the white-tiled, monastic-like space that houses Monet’s Water Lilies series at the Chichu Art Museum in Japan. Visiting MoMA in New York and happening upon Tilda Swinton sleeping in a glass box. These are not experiences to be had on Artsy, a site launched in October 2012 with a mission ‘to make all the world’s art accessible to anyone with an Internet connection’. Beguiling art experiences are perhaps not implicitly the point of Artsy, but those behind the site promote a motto of serendipity, curiously powered by science and the Art Genome Project, ‘an ongoing study to map the characteristics (known as “genes”) that connect the world’s artists and artworks’. But can a virtual art collection, no matter how sophisticated its programming, even come close to providing a real-world gallery experience?
Artsy is two-fold – both educational and profit-driven. The founder and CEO, Carter Cleveland, came up with the idea when he was looking to put art on the wall of his dorm room. While searching, he couldn’t find the art-based site he assumed existed, so he set about creating it himself. Artsy holds a hefty collection of over 26,000 artworks by over 5,500 artists, most available to purchase online.
The education stream is borne from the Art Genome Project, which is essentially the backbone to Artsy’s functionality. Speaking at DataGotham, a conference held annually in New York, director of the Art Genome Project Matthew Israel uses the example of Andy Warhol’s Marylyn Diptych to explain the project, assigning labels like ‘Repetitive’, ‘Painting’, ‘Pop Art’ and ‘Grid-Structure’ to Warhol’s work. These are examples of the metadata which Artsy calls ‘genes’, of which there are over 700 so far, including subject matter, formal qualities, or art and style movements. I found it interesting to learn that ‘genes’ are very different to tags, which are binary. Genes show a subtlety that isn’t afforded to tags – they have a range from 0-100 indicating the strength of the relationship. For example, Salvador Dali is synonymous with the Surrealist movement, while Man Ray made a significant but less explicit contribution, so each artist would rank differently the scale. Serendipitous browsing happens through the pliable linkage of genes, for example, printmaker and textile artist Annie Albers is prominent under the ‘Bauhaus’ gene, but also connected via the ‘Tapestry and Wall Hanging’ gene to contemporary artist Noel Anderson, who also works with the woven medium.
Israel makes a point that the origin of these genes are not ‘scraped’, they come from ‘hundreds of years of art-historical scholarship’ (Israel himself is an art historian) and weekly Artsy team meetings and debates. Watching Israel speak, I wondered that if you used Artsy as your predominant educational art tool, at whose curatorial whim are you student of? No one’s in particular, I learnt from Israel. This art bank is not just Artsy’s decree; they work in partnership with hundreds of galleries and museums globally to ensure broadness to their curatorship. Though the collection is not without significant gaps: when the site launched, its repository was still only half the size of that of Google Art Project. The New York Times wrote that Greek and Roman antiquities are but two major holes in Artsy’s collection. And of course, the art that does make up the collection is not necessarily going to please everyone. (I got off to a stumbling start when first using Artsy: the first three artists I searched had no work catalogued – they were Ricky Swallow, Callum Morton and Bill Henson.)
Working in harmony with the science behind its creation, there is a slick playfulness to this site that I really liked. An example of this is to ‘View in Room’ a particular artwork – choosing this function, my screen opened out to display Damien Hirst’s Beautiful Magnificent Death and Decay Painting (with Butterflies), 2007, in a gallery setting, an empty bench positioned in front of his work. The purpose of this is to appreciate the scale of the work: I had assumed Hirst’s Butterfly paintings to be large-scale works – they are in fact, quite humble in size relative to the six-foot bench positioned in front of the work.
Artsy, arrested by its virtual-state, can’t replace slow afternoons spent inside a gallery or museum. But it’s fresh, enlightening and convenient. The migration of both art-buying and viewing to bold online platforms is surely inevitable, like other algorithm-based platforms (think Netflix and Pandora) that have come before it, and Artsy hopes to ‘foster new generations of art lovers, museum-goers, collectors, and patrons.’ I think it will, and after gallery hours, I also think it’s a nice place to visit and take a wander.
Belle Place is a Killings columnist and the Publishing Coordinator for Affirm Press. She lives and writes from Melbourne.