The Digital Museum and the Art Ecosystem

Why do art museums exist? To preserve the cultural heritage represented by art objects and educate the public about art, if you examine museum charters. But why do they survive? Or more to the point, how do they survive? Museums are expensive operations and the immediate economic value of the cultural heritage and public education they provide may seem small, at least to the narrow-minded. Nonetheless, museums seem to survive and even thrive, so there is some sort of economic engine operating behind the scenes. What can it be?

Well, let’s examine the set of players involved in art. There are artists and collectors, of course. Beyond that there is the general public, people who are in the main neither artists nor collectors. Next we have museums, which are different from collectors in the use to which they put their collections. Collectors assemble art for their own enjoyment, while museums do so in order to share it with the general public. There are middlemen like art dealers, auction houses, and appraisers, people whose living depends on the existence of an active trade in art. And lastly there are governments.

Just the existence of such a complex ecosystem tells us that there is a lot of vitality in the art community. What are the primary drivers?

In the bad old days the drivers of art, at least the art that survives, were wealthy patrons. Their desire was to have beautiful and interesting things in their homes. The tastes of the wealthy have always driven art, but tastes change and what is fashionable and attractive in one year may suddenly be uninteresting the next. What to do with the gigantic Titian that was the centerpiece of the drawing room last season and is now out of style? Demote it to some lesser venue – a less important room, a country house, or even a basement or attic. Some individuals, whether through discernment or driven by the same sort of pack-rat tendencies that cause my closets to fill up today with things I can’t bear to throw away, became collectors. Because they were wealthy, they could spend the resources to catalog and properly store their accumulations of objects.

Major museums, by which I mean large art collections open to the public, began to appear a few centuries ago (the British Museum in 1753, the Musee du Louvre, long the site of a royal collection, opened to the public by the revolutionary government in 1793, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York chartered in 1870), about the time when governments began to discover the consent of the governed and concern themselves with educating and pleasing us, the great unwashed.

Art education seems to have agreed with the middle classes. They have supported governmental grants of tax-exempt status to museums and they have filled their own houses with art. Perhaps not the fabulously expensive major works that capture the headlines, but enough to make the art marketplace expand to meet the demand.

So what does the modern art ecosystem look like? Artists create new works. Collectors rich and not-so-rich fill their houses with them. When the attics get full, the collectors donate some of their less-beloved works to museums and sell the others through auction houses and galleries. While they keep them they buy insurance to protect them and pay appraisers to evaluate their collections so that insurers have something on which to base the policy. Acquisition decisions, whether by direct purchase or by acceptance of gifts, by major museums validate emerging artists, causing the values of works by the same artists in private collections to appreciate in value. Gifts by collectors of appreciated works to museums provides tax breaks that may exceed the amount spent by the art-lover in the first place.

Today we see a mature ecosystem operating. It sustains artists, art schools, collectors, appraisers, galleries, auctioneers, critics, historians, and art-lovers.

So all’s right with the world, right?

Well, maybe not.

Already we see things happening in the library world that should be causing excitement and anxiety in the museum world. Back in the bad old days every major city and university needed at least one large comprehensive library to provide access to an archive of knowledge to support the local populace’s needs for education, research, and commerce. With a scanned image of each book on a server on the Internet, however, the need for a lot of old stone buildings full of beautiful wood shelves lined with dusty old books, the happy home of much of my youth, is eliminated. Why bother traveling to a library to look at a book when you can do it from any convenient web browser?

OK, you say, that’s fine for books where the information is mostly text and the main value is in the abstract content and not the physical object, but for art, for Art, it’s different. You have to be able to see the texture of the paint on the old wooden board to appreciate the Mona Lisa or the surface of the marble to apprehend the Pieta. You have to be able to walk around the sculpture of David in Florence and see it from different angles in different lights to properly understand and enjoy Michelangelo’s work.

Quite right. But many of these things can be captured digitally and delivered over the Internet. The technology for capturing detailed representations of complex 3-D objects, including surface textures, is available today or will soon be available. Rendering the appearance of a surface under arbitrary illumination and viewed from any distance or angle is well within the reach of most of the graphics engines incorporated into modern desktop and laptop computers, particularly the ones built to play the latest video games. The technology is available now to deliver many of the experiences we seek from fine art objects over the Internet. Of course, what’s lacking is a comprehensive supply of digitized representations of these objects. How hard would it be to solve that problem?

Smaller museums have always struggled. What has kept them alive has been the need to have a survey collection available at universities and important regional centers. In the future, however, the survey collection will no longer be an important function of the regional museum because that will be provided over the Internet from major central museums. The only way for a small museum to distinguish itself is to specialize in some niche and develop the definitive collection of some important category of object. Small museums all over the world are now beginning to face up to this reality, so we should see them reshaping their collections over the next several decades.

One of the first things that was done preparing to renovate the Statue of Liberty in the 1980s in anticipation of its centennial was to create an immensely detailed and highly accurate 3-D map of the surface, gathered by laser photogrammetric techniques, as reported in the press at the time. Since then progress in technology has created 3-D scanners capable of mapping the surfaces of moderate-sized objects in considerable detail. This, combined with appropriate photography and texture-mapping can, at least in principle, produce digital representations of medium-sized, medium-complexity objects that would be suitable for many casual art education purposes. Support for more detailed close-up examination would probably involve additional techniques, some of which may be uneconomical at present. The work of Octavo in creating digital representations of rare books gives us a hint of what is coming.

Of course, this will take a lot of time and money. But the results will be fascinating. The largest collections are so vast that the exhibition halls that seem so large to us when we visit are nonetheless incapable of displaying more than a tiny fraction of the available riches. With digital representations available interested people will be able to explore in the sort of depth that is only available today to accredited researchers. Moreover, people living in remote locations not convenient to a large comprehensive public collection will have access to the cultural riches of humanity.

Of course, this begs the question of how it will be funded. The existing art ecosystem may not be as stable and healthy as it seems. Already the need for funds has forced smaller museums to “deaccession” parts of their collections. Only the largest and richest museums located at major global crossroads have any clear path forward. As we’ve seen as music and movies have begun their migration from the bricks and mortar past into the digital future, change can be disruptive and traumatic. A new economic ecosystem for art will evolve over time and stability ultimately will return. With the lessons of the music and video worlds behind us and the clear evidence that the new ecosystem that is emerging has the potential to be lucrative, we can hope that the evolution of museums will be much less traumatic.