Article: Art moves ahead with look back

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Art world moves ahead with online look back

PAM DIXON 02-May-1999 Sunday

In its massive retrospective exhibit, “The American Century: Art and Culture 1900-2000,” the Whitney Museum of American Art has culled icons of American art and placed them in one enormous show.

Part 1 of the exhibit, spanning art from 1900 to 1950, opened April 23, with Part 2 set to open Sept. 26. The 600 or so works of art in Part 1 easily fill the 30,000 square feet of the museum and are set along a generally linear path of time.

It is, to some degree, the visual equivalent of one of the “Three Tenors” concert programs: All the chestnuts have been identified and are firmly in place, one right after another.

The museum exhibit also has a virtual aspect. The Whitney, in collaboration with Intel Corp., has cre-ated a formidable online companion site, also called “The American Century.” The online exhibit contains images of 100 artworks from the physical exhibit, plus additional audio and video clips, educational tools and sophisticated multimedia enhancements.

“The Web site is a pre-visit and post-visit research tool that allows people to delve more deeply into information about the art and culture,” says Maxwell Anderson, director of the Whitney Museum.

While that may not sound like anything special, it really is. For better or worse, the scope, depth of content, funding and visual techniques used for creating the Whitney online exhibition site are unprecedented, and resound with plenty of implications.

The “American Century” exhibit is not only a retrospective of American art, but also a prospective look at how exhibitions may be handled in the future, particularly the online aspects.

American century, virtually

Museums have been putting elements of exhibits online for a couple of years now. Most recently, the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego added snazzy online enhancements of some exhibits to its Web site.

The National Museum of American Art placed its “Posters, American Style” show online with compelling visuals and easy navigation.

But the Whitney Museum’s “American Century” has gone further in almost every respect. It is arguably the largest online site that has been built for a single exhibition. To create it, a team of programmers and Web designers has been working nonstop since last November. The site is fed streams of information by multiple computers, a feat typically reserved for large corporate Web pages.

Beyond sheer size, the exhibit’s online look is complex and refined to the point that it is like using a high-end CD-ROM as opposed to merely browsing the Web.

“When you come to the Web site, you can immediately see that it is something entirely new,” says Dana Houghton, co-director of corporate affairs for Intel Corp. and the overall program manager for the Whitney “American Century” collaboration.

“We used a time line as your basic navigation area. You will not see your Web browser interface or a back button, because we created our own navigation. That’s the thing — there’s no `back’ capability because of the way the site works dynamically.”

And it is dynamic. Essentially, the images of the artworks are laid out along a time line that is subdivided into decades. Each image is accompanied by hordes of research information, including textual narratives. Then, infused into the rest of the time line is additional information about history, science, and so on, all of which provides the context for the art.

An online knockout

Nothing about the site was easy to create. “The real sweat on this project was in two areas — getting the content onto the site and then coordinating it with four different streams of information,” says Houghton.

For instance, if you want to view a ’20s-era George Bellows’ painting of a prizefight, “Dempsey and Firpo,” you can zoom in on the painting, look at it in magnified detail, read the artist’s bio, see a video clip of the actual fight that the painting documented and read about the background of the painting. All the information strands are held within the context of one new, unified Web environment.

It’s an environment the Whitney did not actually create. The museum provided and curated the art, but it relied on Intel Corp. for the funding and on both Intel and its subcontractor, Razorfish, for the technological and design expertise.

“Intel made an underwriting grant of $5 million to this exhibit,” says Houghton, who also noted that two Intel employees have been working full time on this project since the fall.

The catch is that the sizable cash donation wasn’t a standard corporate grant by which the corporation writes a check for an exhibit, gets its logo on the museum catalog and walks away. In this case, Intel wanted some control over what happened with its money. That meant creating the Web site.

“We said early on that we were not going to just write a check. We wanted to be more directly involved and use our technology to enhance and make the exhibit available to people anywhere in the country,” says Houghton.

“It’s very unlike the typical sponsorship. We had no role in the curatorial process, but we wanted to create a very dynamic Web site,” added Houghton, saying he believed that this is a unique new partnership between the organizations.

It’s a collaboration that has produced a rich, forward-looking site. But not everyone is cozy with some of the possible side effects.

“Obviously, this is going to change museums,” says Alan I Marcus, professor of history of technology at Iowa State University and director of ISU’s Center for Historical Studies of Technology and Science.

“It’s potentially both positive and negative. On the one hand, it’s great to be able to have more access to great art for more people, but it’s not great when it is dominated or shaped by various people who are driven by certain motives.

“The issue is who controls it, why, and what for.” Marcus’ concern is that museums, which have always been reliant on benefactors, should have complete freedom to develop as they wish, Web site or not. He also dislikes the idea of hard and fast technology standards edging into how art is displayed online.

“One of the big moves today in technology are the attempts to develop de facto standards for every program the Windows operating system uses,” says Marcus. “The whole point is to become the standard. And any time you become a leader, you set the standard.”

Inclusive, or exclusive?

The Whitney-Intel site has arguably raised expectation levels — not to mention at least a few standards — by fearlessly using the newest technologies.

It’s a difficult choice for a museum to make. Do you try to include everyone, or do you try to provide the richest possible information, which may exclude some people with older computers? Sometimes, as with the “American Century” site, both goals cannot be completely accommodated.

One thing is certain, though. No technology will get in the way of the physical exhibit. You still don’t need a computer or a Web browser to simply look at a painting or a photograph.

“There’s no substitute for being in the presence of great works of art,” says Anderson.

But those who have decent computing power can hop onto the online site and get the next best thing.

PAM DIXON’s column on arts and technology appears the first Sunday of each month.