When Jesse Thorn's college radio show got picked up for national distribution by Public Radio International in 2007, he became the youngest national host in public radio history.
Guest Host: Marc Fisher
Many of the most famous artworks in the world have long been available to audiences looking for them on the web. But until recently, one still had to travel to museums to fully experience those masterpieces. Now museums are presenting high-resolution images of masterpieces in the public domain, allowing viewers to observe colors and textures like never before. We’ll explore how technology is bringing the public closer to art and if that changes how we experience it.
- Tyler Green Producer, host and editor, Modern Art Notes; columnist, Modern Painters magazine
- Anne Goodyear President, College Art Association; co-director, Bowdoin College Museum of Art
- Peter Dueker Head of digital imaging services, National Gallery of Art
Art Quiz: Can You Guess The Famous Painting?
Through high-tech studios and a computer-controlled easel, the National Gallery of Art has created ultra-resolution digital photographs of dozens of paintings. These high quality images allow users to zoom up to 250 million pixels, revealing brush strokes, fingerprints and paint cracks with granular clarity. See how many well-known masterpieces you can identify when zoomed in on a work. Click to open the quiz in another window.
MR. MARC FISHERFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your community with the world. I'm Marc Fisher sitting in for Kojo. To see Rembrandt's masterpiece "The Night Watch" in person, you have to travel to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, but now, you can look at the painting in precise digital detail right on your computer screen. Museums around the world are making high-resolution images of artworks freely available to anyone online.
MR. MARC FISHERFrom the Rijksmuseum to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, museums are allowing users to access, zoom into or download high-quality copies of works as they please, meaning that you can see the exact pestle strokes that make Edvard Munch's "The Scream" so haunting or dissect the composition of dots in one of George Seurat's paintings. But are those digital images really distortions of the painter's art? Do they show too much? Do they send the wrong message about the meaning and power of these works?
MR. MARC FISHERJoining me to explore the impact of digital technology on our access to masterpieces are Peter Dueker. He's the head of digital imaging services at the National Gallery of Art. Anne Goodyear is president of the College Art Association and co-director of the Bowdoin College Museum of Art. And Tyler Green produces and hosts the "Modern Art Notes" podcast and writes the "Modern Art Notes" blog. He's also a columnist for Modern Painters magazine. Welcome to all of you.
MR. MARC FISHERI have to say, when I was in college many, many years ago, I took an art history course and was kind of left flat by the sort of murky slides that everything was shown to us then, and then had the experience almost immediately thereafter of going to see many of the same paintings that I had studied in their natural settings in the museums in Europe that I saw following taking the course and came back thinking that it was somehow outrageous that people had to learn about these paintings through these murky slides because the paintings come alive when you see them in person in a visceral way that just has almost no connection to the slides.
MR. MARC FISHERIs there a similar kind of difference between viewing a digital representation of a masterpiece and seeing it in person? Anne, you want to start off?
MS. ANNE GOODYEARYeah. Absolutely. I think anytime we look at a reproduction, we have to recognize that it is a surrogate for the original. It doesn't replace the experience of the original work of art, but I think those of us who love the arts recognize that in fact our opportunities to be in person with great masterworks may be somewhat limited. And so certainly, reproductions, I think, have the ability to show knowledge, to acquaint us with some of the significant principles of a work of art, to acquaint us with the composition.
MS. ANNE GOODYEARYou spoke a little bit in your introductory segment about the ability of a high-quality digital reproductions to reveal things about brush strokes, perhaps about details that are not always readily visible to the naked eye that may particularly be the case if a work of art is situated in a place that is difficult for a viewer to have close proximity to. And so certainly, these are different sorts of experiences. I think it's important to acknowledge them as such, but I don't think that necessarily means that we want to discount the value of reproductions.
FISHERHow do you experience art? How do you think the public should see the great works through the ages? Is a computer screen the right frame for a painting? Give us a call at 1-800-433-8850 or email us at email@example.com. You could also get in touch with us by sending a tweet to @kojoshow. And, Peter Dueker, is there -- give us a sense of how swiftly this change is happening where images that previously had been sort of held tight by museums are now being opened up in a new and explosive way.
MR. PETER DUEKERI think it's terrific, and it's happening very quickly. And I think technology has a lot to do with that. I want to jump back to something that you said what you're talking about quality, which I think really is an important point to raise, which is that throughout the ages, museums have put in considerable resources into duplicating or trying to make reproductions of their collection. What you're dealing with in the analog days was third, fourth generation copies.
MR. PETER DUEKERYou're looking at these terrible slides that are sometimes shot out of exhibition catalogs. They're -- you know, someone goes to the gallery with their 35-millimeter camera. They're under terrible lighting. And I'm an artist, and I took art history. And I love art history, and I was dying. You know, I was sitting there through these slide projections -- and I know Anne is at College Art Association. We both sat through some pretty painful presentations.
MR. PETER DUEKERAnd this does not represent the art, and this is not the experience. What we're able to do now digitally is not only make the utmost highest quality images available, but we can distribute them first generation to everyone. And that's what, to me, is the most exciting part because we are putting these images out.
MR. PETER DUEKERThe National Gallery are putting them 25,000 images freely available for anyone to download, do whatever they want with. So we're putting all the student workers out of business, as I like to say. So I don't want to ever see a student photocopying one of our catalogs and making PowerPoints out of it.
FISHERTyler Green, as someone who's watched the museum world for a long time, what does this tell us? Why is this important? I mean obviously there's a democratization element here, but is this something that you think will change the nature and scope of the audience for great art? Is there, you know, what's going on here, and what are the implications for museums and beyond?
MR. TYLER GREENSo 10 or 15 years ago when art museums started putting art from their collections online, there was a common conversation in museum circles. Oh, well, if people can see the images online, will they need to come to the museum? Well, you know, in that intervening 15 years, attendance at art museums has taken off.
MR. TYLER GREENIt has at least indirectly helped encourage more people to go have that physical experience in front of a work of art to see what their size is like relative to the size of a great painting or a great sculpture, how light moves through pigment and oil to provide an effect that you can't get through a reproduction.
MR. TYLER GREENYou know, an important thing to recognize here is that art museums are nonprofit institutions. They are not motivated by profit or by an imperative to generate commercial revenue. Their mission, you know, their purpose is to fulfill their mission, and their mission is to encourage public interest in art, to spread the word and share scholarship about art. And image dissemination is a really baseline simple wonderful way of doing that.
FISHERAnd is that earlier reticence now vanished? I mean...
GREENIn the U.S.
FISHERThere's still resistance elsewhere?
GREENEurope is definitely slower than America is when it comes to getting collection images online.
FISHERAnd still based on that fear that people won't come out and see the real thing.
GREENI think there's lots and lots of reasons. There's, you know, there's confusion over rights. There's confusion over intellectual property. There's also -- I think it's important to realize that smaller institutions in particular have limited resources. And so digital is converting from film to digital is an expensive proposition, getting your materials online is an expensive proposition.
GREENAnd just getting collections information online, a lot of institutions have challenges. Just getting object records, so adding images is another layer. But what I think is really exciting about right now is that the democratization -- if I could pronounce that right -- of that process is happening. It's great. I mean because now it's getting cheaper and cheaper and cheaper. So people are putting images up on Flickr. They're putting them up on Facebook all those different avenues. They don't have to have the big infrastructure investment.
FISHERSo, Tyler, you mentioned that attendance at museums has actually increased even as digital images become much more pervasive online. Let me try to drum maybe a flawed analogy to the world of music where suddenly every piece of music ever recorded became freely available or supposedly not freely available but in essence freely available to anyone anywhere.
FISHERAnd what happened was the big artists, the ones who already had big names got more people to come to their concerts than ever before, and those who haven't achieved that kind of fame had a much tougher time. Is there an analogy in the art world? Will this change things so that there's this intense focus perhaps on the great masterpieces that people want to see but have a deleterious impact on people who haven't made their names quite yet?
GREENI don't think there's any evidence of that in part because, you know, if we take that all the way, you know, if Rembrandt is at the top of the ladder and a 24-year-old art student coming out of art school is at the bottom of the ladder, you know, that art student has much greater ability to create high-quality images of his or her own work and disseminate it than, you know, Rembrandt does. So, no, I don't think there's any -- I mean, yes, when the Google art project puts a big fancy Rembrandt online, that gets lots of headlines, and it should. But I don't think there's any evidence of that.
DUEKERIn fact, I can address that. I mean, with NGA images, we see that specifically. We have our greatest hits images that are downloaded, and those get, yes, absolutely...
FISHERThis is on the National Gallery.
DUEKERThis is on the National Gallery of Art. It's NGA images, and it's our online image repository. And we don't look closely at what individually but at an aggregate level we're looking what people are downloading. And to my surprise, we have 25,000 images up, and I think, like, 23,000 of them have been downloaded. So this is really esoteric and weird stuff, like drawings on paper and things like that. So I think, in fact, it's giving better exposure to minor artists or to tangential artists because people can now see these things that might not ever be on exhibit.
GOODYEARAnd I would argue as well that the access that digitization provides to collections also becomes a creative engine for new artists. And I think that ought not to be underestimated that we now have the capacity to share information but also to encourage new ways of using those images that perhaps we can't even imagine. And that's where I think things really get to be exciting.
GOODYEARWe can imagine here and the here and now very easily ways in which a digital image serves as a sort of a successor to the slide image, but the slide image, of course, is an analog image, which is not so easily transmitted, manipulated and so forth. Digitization, I think, gives us very exciting new ways to think about what we are looking at, new ways of analyzing information, sharing it and so forth.
GREENEspecially important for school teachers who want...
GREEN...to share to students, you know, in seventh grade, the true range of art history instead of just the same images they can get, all kinds of stuff they couldn't have gotten five years ago.
FISHERAnd do you think museums around the country as well the Google art project are now allowing users to zoom in on a painting to really startling level of detail. What is it that you can learn about a work of art when you're able to magnify each of those individual elements and does it reach a point that's sort of too much?
GOODYEARNot in my view. I think one of the things that's exciting about visual technology is it changes the way that we perceive the world. And certainly, lots of artists have recognized that, Nam June Pike among them, of course, who's one of the pioneers of video art. In my view, the ability to zoom in on an image will give us new ways of thinking about particular details that an artist included that perhaps had gone overlooked.
GOODYEARIt means if you are a school teacher or a professor that you have the ability to think seriously about significant aspects of a work of art that may otherwise be subsumed to the whole. There's no question that nothing replaces the experience of seeing something in person. And one of the things that I'm always startled about, in fact, when I see an original work of art is scale.
GOODYEARNo matter how familiar I am with that work through reproductions, the original always asserts itself in new ways because of the way it occupies space. And certainly, I don't think we want to imagine that a reproduction is a substitute for the original, but if it has the capacity to give us new insights about that work of art, then I think it is doing something very important for us as human beings.
FISHERLet's go to Jonathan in Chevy Chase. Jonathan, it's your turn.
JONATHANHey there. Thanks for taking my call. I've been a spectator at -- on The Mall of pieces of art for some time. And recently, I was viewing "The Princess" from the Land of Porcelain, which is at the Freer Gallery. And they went online and looked at the high resolution image of it on my retina screen iPad. The reproduction was incredibly amazing. And I imagine that if my iPad was as large as a painting that it would be indiscernible to -- from the original.
JONATHANAs we approach this fuzzy divide between the original and the reproduced, at will we be crossing that line as far as technology? You mentioned scale, for instance. But if we can reproduce the scale into large images to occupy the same space and the same color and the same resolution, then how would we ever be able to discern the original from a copy?
GREENA great de Kooning painting isn't flat, and light hits the different levels of surface of a great painting in different ways, which creates texture, changes the way light moves through the painting. A great painting is a wonderfully physically thing. And, you know, especially with, say, de Kooning, you get this real sense that, you know, the artist was there. And as wonderful as digital is, you're never going to get that digitally, I think.
DUEKERAnd I certainly think that in reproduction -- I mean, when the goal is reproduction, that's absolutely going to be case -- that it's never going to have the same properties. I do think you raised an interesting...
FISHERBut never is a long time in technology...
DUEKERWell, maybe not never. This is true, this is true.
FISHERIn the world of 3-D printing, maybe there is a time when...
DUEKERYeah. And that's where I was going, which I was thinking was this idea of replication now, so this idea of recreating something and the ability of Inkjet printers to lay on different layers and different materials. And I think from a conceptual and contemporary standpoint, we are getting into that area where, I think, contemporary is really addressing some of these issues and that art, as a single object, kind of goes away and you have these ideas in multiple forms.
DUEKERBut from the museum perspective, you know, ultimately, it's always to drive people back. We want people to come and see the thing. And if we can inspire, you know, you got the luxury of seeing both of these, you know, the object and its reproduction. But if you can come and do that and see the real thing, then I think it's going to be more valuable.
JONATHANHow about some of the flatter pieces like Vermeer's "Woman Weighing Gold"?
GOODYEARI'm just going to jump in for a quick moment. I think you raise a very interesting and, in fact, a question with very deep philosophical roots in the history of art, particularly in the history of art of the past century. And I think that, in fact, one of the things that the ability to reproduce images raises as a question is what is the value of the original versus the reproduction? And as you're well aware, there are a number of artists who've really made that a focus of their artistic inquiry.
GOODYEARAndy Warhol, for example, comes to mind, Marcel Duchamp, and, in fact, you know, in the 1930s, a philosopher, literary theorist by the name of Walter Benjamin very famously talked about "The Work of Art In The Age of Mechanical Reproduction." And in some senses, he raised just the questions you are now, and he began to think a little bit about what is it that's special about the original, what is this, as he called it, erratic quality that we find so significant.
GOODYEARAnd to what degree does it become valuable to, at least in some instances, demystify the work of art, to increase access to it? And certainly, I think we do want to be mindful as institutions to be sensitive to means of distinguishing the original from the replica. And absolutely, I think that we need to pay attention to that. But there may also be some very interesting ways in which we're able to think about the assumptions that are caught up in notions of originality, the value of the museum and so forth.
GREENIt's also worth pointing out that there are some art works that 99.9 percent of the public can't see all of. So take the van Eyck brothers' "Ghent Altarpiece," which is 15-feet tall. The stuff at the top of that -- you and I, when we walk in to where that object is installed, we can't see it. But if we go to a website, like Closer to Van Eyck, if you Google it, it pops right up.
GREENThere are high-res images freely available for anybody to use for any purpose from research to education just to looking at over a cup of coffee, where you can see stuff that because of the size of an object that you wouldn't be able to see otherwise.
FISHERThat's Tyler Green. He's the producer and host of the "Modern Art Notes" podcast and blog. Anne Goodyear is president of the College Art Association and co-director of the Bowdoin College Museum of Art. And Peter Dueker runs the digital imaging services, a part of the National Gallery of Art. We'll continue our conversation after a short break. And when we come back, we'll talk about what artists' intended, how they intended their works to be seen and whether that matters in this digital age. That's coming up on "The Kojo Nnamdi Show."
FISHERWelcome back. I'm Marc Fisher of The Washington Post, sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. And we are talking about the digitization of great pieces of art and their availability to anyone online. You can join our conversation by calling 1-800-433-8850 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. And we have an email from Winston, saying, "Unfortunately, lower income individuals and families are not often able to visit the institutions that hold these works. So I believe that giving people online access to the great artists is overwhelmingly a good thing.
FISHER"There are, however, elements lost in the viewing experience." He mentions the size of paintings and sculptures, which you've covered here. And he also says that there are interactions with particular methods like Van Gogh's use of the palette knife to demonstrate dimensional elements. So it's this trade-off question again, is there -- and there's an art professor named James Elkins, who recently wrote an op-ed, saying, is Google bringing us too close to art?
FISHERBasically saying that there were painters such as Bruegel who like to hide things in his paintings, including men doing their business, and that hiding becomes impossible in a zoomed in, high-res kind of presentation. Is there a problem there, or is this a new reality?
DUEKERI think it's interesting that a lot of these issues have been positioned oppositionally. I think there's points in both sides, but it not an oppositional argument. You will learn about a painting if you go and stand in front of it and study it for a very long time. You will learn more about a painting if you have access to a high-quality reproduction and you can zoom in. You can see Van Gogh's palette knife. You can see on the National Gallery of Art website.
DUEKERYou can go in and see how he did an eyeball, how he got the back side of the brush and scraped things off. You can see the weave. That, to me, is undeniably cool. You cannot argue with that. I read that piece and it's an interesting argument, but you're getting in to the intent of artists who are long dead. And I don't think we can say that Van Gogh would not be 100 percent behind us. I think the benefit's far outweigh any disadvantage is there.
FISHERWell, and does that matter? You know, the artists we're talking about, for the most part, are long dead. They had no concept of what digital representation might be. Is important to keep their intentions in mind? But we pay a lot of attention. I would imagine in museum as to how artists want their works displayed. Does that simply go out the window when it comes to digital reproduction?
DUEKERLet me just add on to what I'm saying, absolutely not. I mean, it's always the question of, how do we be most respectful to the intents, and do we present the work in the way that we think it would be? It's not about disrespecting the art or just kind of going on our own way. The National Gallery has put a lot of effort into contextualizing experiences. There's a lot of text. There's a lot of education.
DUEKERThere's provenance. There's exhibition history. So you can come in and you learn more about the work, not just how it's painted. But someone who is like me -- I'm a painter -- I like to go on and see how things were painted. And I like the idea that some of my students can go in and see how things are painted, and they can learn and go, wow. I'm going to get inspired, and I'm going to go do this.
GREENTo the extent this is a question, it's a less a question for, you know, Rembrandt or 19th-century painting and more a question for new media works, videos, sound art, things like that.
FISHERAnd if you have thoughts about the artist's intentions when you view an artwork, give us a call at 1-800-433-850. Let's hear from Bryan in Germantown. Bryan, you're on the air.
BRYANHi. There are glasses you can wear that gives 3-D binocular vision. It's called Oculus Rift. You could mimic the state of a museum exactly. You could see Botticelli in a virtual Uffizi basically. You could combine that with 3-D printers. In essence, you are viewing a perfect reproduction of art that you could actually touch. Aren't there ways technology can go far beyond the limitations of physical museum?
GOODYEARThat -- I think that that's a wonderful point. And, of course, the question of the degree to which museums can serve their publics is something that every one of us who cares about visual culture is interested in. And to my mind, that's one of the great promises of digitization that it enables us to draw in audiences who might not otherwise have easy access to our collections. As Peter was saying, it enables us to present interpretative material alongside a work of art.
GOODYEARThat said, I have to say I don't think the ability, even with powerful reproductions such as those offered by Google, to see things remotely or to see things though the medium of the computer or through any other sort of mediating environment probably ever will fully replace the experience of the original. It may give us new insights into thinking about the original. I think it certainly helps us to share the significance of art with broad audiences.
GOODYEARBut again, this question of the relationship between the reproduction and the original remains an absolutely fascinating question. And to my mind, I don't think any of us are suggesting that a reproduction exceeds or improves upon the original, only that it gives us new ways of literally seeing it and, therefore, new ways of understanding it.
FISHERBut if Bryan's proposal comes to fruition at some point and the digital experience or the online experience, the at-home experience becomes every bit as or perhaps more satisfying in some ways than going to a museum, do you, as a museum director, Anne Goodyear, worry that the business model behind the presentation of art in museums could be dismantled?
FISHERAbsolutely not. Museums, traditionally, are not for profit entities. They have the goal of serving the public good. I think the more audiences that we can draw in, the better case we can make for the public importance of museums. To my mind, I think everything we can do to make our collections publicly accessible is in everybody's best interests.
DUEKERAnd let me just add that there's nothing, you know, it's 90 degrees out today, you walk into the National Gallery of Art, and you feel that cool air. And you walk into a room with all the Cézannes, and it's not just a personal experience like you might have in -- with 3-D glasses. You're there with the public. You're in a public space.
DUEKERThere is an element of humanity that comes into play with what public institutions like the National Gallery are. And I don't think you'll every -- I know not to say never ever, but I just -- I find it a dystopian future where we don't want to go outside, and we don't want to walk in to an air-conditioned museum on a hot day.
FISHERTrue. But there are certainly forms that we've seen turn into at-home experiences...
FISHER...in recent years. You know, another analogy might be that the world of sports where a lot of people have come to prefer watching a high-definition representation of a football game to going to the real thing.
GREENWell, that's because there are a lot of drunk people at Redskins games, right? Yeah.
FISHERBut it's also because you see things in high definition. You see the every twitch of a muscle. You see...
GREENWell, that's because at a football game, you're 23,000 feet from the action. You know, at an art museum, you can come pretty darn close to sticking your nose into something 400 years old that was created in another place, in another time and be transported both mentally and physically -- sort of physically. It's, you know, reproduction and image availability is a wonderful complementary experience, and it's a useful complementary experience. But it is a complementary experience.
GOODYEARIt's interesting, one of my most powerful moments as a museum person watching somebody interact with a work of art came very unexpectedly. It happened when I was actually at the National Air and Space Museum.
GOODYEARAnd I don't know how many of your listeners know that the Air and Space Museum actually has quite a distinguished art collection that grew out of the development of an art program sponsored by NASA in the 1960s with the belief that there was an ability of a human artist to capture aspects of the spiritual and intellectual significance of space flight that cameras recording things mechanically simply wouldn't pick up on.
GOODYEARAt any rate, one of the works of art that happened to be on view was a Norman Rockwell painting called "Suiting Up," which featured John Young and Gus Grissom getting ready for their Gemini flight. And Norman Rockwell, of course, is an artist who made paintings for reproduction. There is a little boy who happened to come into the gallery when I was looking at this painting. And he was bowled over by the experience of seeing the painting in the flesh. And he just could not get over the fact that this was, as he put it, the real thing.
GOODYEARAnd there was, for him, a revelation about the notion of authenticity which clearly was an intellectual awakening. And I think in our image-saturated culture, with reproductions around us all the time, we may find that the ability to see something fresh, to see something unique is so special that we become increasingly reminded of the importance of places like museums that protect those types of artifacts.
FISHERLet's go to Jonathan in Olney. Jonathan, you're on the air. Jonathan, are you there? OK, I guess we've lost him. Let's try Donna in Reston. Donna, you're on the air.
FISHERYes, go ahead please.
DONNAI recently had the opportunity to see a Sargent exhibit of watercolors at the Brooklyn Gallery of Art Museum. And I love Sargent. I've looked at a lot of his reproductions, and I brought some of them up online. And what I was so amazed at looking at the real pictures was the actual difference in some of the coloring, the hues and the depths of the greens and the yellows, how different they were in a lot of the reproductions, you know, some of the digitals, as from the original.
DONNAAnd then the original, they're definitely better and more exciting and made the picture look richer. I'd like to hear from you certainly what value that has in looking at the reproductions and digital.
GREENSo when I was, I don't know, five or six years old, the first work of art I remember seeing in reproduction was a Rembrandt painting of a civic guardsman. It's at the National Gallery, the painting of a guy wearing a big, bright, red sash. And I -- you know, three decades later, every time I'm in the National Gallery and I'm in front of that painting, I'm taken back to Ms. Brown's classroom, you know, third grade or fourth grade or whatever it was.
GREENAnd the part of that experience I remember other than the classroom is how different the red sash is. I mean, I remember being fascinated by that painting as a kid, and I'm still fascinated by it now, and the differences of the red sash I notice every time, even though it's been 30 something years. So, yeah, it's neat.
FISHERThat's very cool. Peter, could you tell us about the download options that the National Gallery of Art is offering with its digital collection.
FISHERAnd what -- are there any limits on how the public can use these images? If somebody wants to take one off the Web and put it on a T-shirt, I would imagine you might have an issue there.
DUEKERI mean, aesthetically, I might. But...
DUEKER...there's a saying, there's a lot of shower curtains out there that works on me. But, about 15 months ago, we launched a specific website for image access called NGA Images. And it's been an enormous success. And I think the reason for its success is that at the same time, we launched an open-access policy. And this is for works of art that are presumed in the public domains, so there's not any known rights issues or copyright holders. And what we opted to do is continuing the gallery's mission was to make these works freely available.
DUEKERNo hoops to jump through, you don't have to agree to terms and conditions, you don't have to say, I'm not going to, you know, you can make greeting cards, you can do commercial and non-commercial, anything you want with these images. We started with 20,000, we're up to 25,000. Fifteen months later, we've had close -- we've just hit about 275,000 images downloaded, which absolutely blows me away.
DUEKERI mean, some of those are robots and things like that up there. But it's hugely exciting. We never could have fulfilled those requests. And I think because it's so open and so clear, we are becoming a -- we have that reputation that this is an easy place to get images. And that's what we want because we want people to come and get -- we're talking about the quality of reproductions. We invest a lot of time. We have a lot of experts on staff.
DUEKERWe have 17 people working in my department, not for me, but in my division. I have a small subset of that. But what we are trying to do is make sure that we have accurate reproductions that match the art. And we wanted these super accurate reproductions to be available and not these cruddy knockoffs that people were scanning.
FISHERAnd, Tyler Green, before this kind of thing happened, what would have been involved in trying to get some -- a high resolution image of a masterpiece?
GREENYeah, what the National Gallery and a couple other museums are doing now is really significant. For 95 percent of museums, you still have to do this. You pick up the phone, you call. You say, Hey, this Monet of yours, I want an image of it for my book or to make a T-shirt or whatever. And the museum then says, oh, OK. That'll be $675, or whatever the price happens to be. And then, you know, you have staff time, and dollars change hands. And it's slow, and, you know, if there are publishing issues, there's legal paperwork.
GREENAnd now, with the National Gallery's new site or relatively new site -- Los Angeles County Museum of Art does this as well, so do both museums at Yale, Yale Center for British Art and Yale University Art Gallery -- you can just log on, get these 4500 by, you know, 3500 pixel images, massive files, and use them for anything you want.
FISHERWow. And, Anne Goodyear, the Rijksmuseum has not only taken these images of works and put them online. They've also set up the Rijksstudio, which is a place on the museum's site where you can alter the work and essentially create new works. So this is a shift from observing to actually changing and making something. Is that something you think is going to take off? What meaning do you see in that phenomena?
GOODYEARWell, you know, artists, of course, have been engaged in appropriation for a long time. There's really, in fact, history that goes back centuries. I think it picked up steam in the early 20th century with the growing mechanical reproduction of images. But in my mind, I think what's exciting about what the Rijksmuseum has done is that it engages an audience. It makes viewing art an interactive experience.
GOODYEARIt makes it meaningful in a new way. It invites people to engage in an imaginative fashion with the collections. And it does seem to me that one of the things that must always be in the minds of those of us in the visual arts -- people particularly who run museums, who oversee art history departments, who oversee art departments -- is to think about what is the case for public support here? Why do the arts matter?
GOODYEARAnd I do think that the ability to engage audiences in lots of different ways, and particularly to invite them to engage in a creative fashion, helps us to build a broader case for why the arts matter, how they stimulate the imagination. So I think what the Rijksmuseum has done is fabulous. It also demonstrates how the art of the past can be relevant for contemporary audiences.
FISHERWell, when we come back after a short break, more of your calls as we discuss the digitization of art and the availability of high-resolution images. You're listening to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." I'm Marc Fisher. Stay with us.
FISHERWelcome back. I'm Marc Fisher of The Washington Post, sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi, and we are talking with Anne Goodyear, the director of the Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Tyler Green, producer and host of the Modern Art Notes blog and podcast, and Peter Dueker, head of digital imaging services at the National Gallery of Art. And we're taking your calls about the digitization of art masterpieces. And here is Ian in Falls Church. Ian, you're on the air.
IANHow are you doing, Marc? It's -- you know, what I wanted to mention today was that, you know, I'm a hobbyist photographer, and so taking photographs of artwork at museums is something that I've enjoyed doing since I picked up photography. So taking a picture of a piece of art at a museum is a somewhat more challenging thing than you might imagine.
IANSo the perspective that you take the photograph from the depth perception that you set your camera to, and then solving for the light characteristics in the room, but then, beyond that, possessing the actual image itself makes it such that the photographs that I've taken in museums of artwork allows them to be some of the favorite photographs that I've ever taken so far. And I'm just curious to learn that these are actually -- in some cases, art is sort of readily available or at least freely available.
IANI've always sort of assumed that this is stuff that I really wasn't allowed to do that with and had always chosen to sort of keep it to myself and not share it, just assuming that that's not something I could do. But nevertheless, it makes it interactive in that way, and it's an enjoyable way to sort of interact with the art in and of itself in an enjoyable way, to observe it and possess it in an ongoing way, so something I wanted to share.
FISHERSo -- that's an interesting point. I mean, do any of you have concerns that that experience of visiting the artwork and then sort of making something of it in that moment, in that space, is at all diminished by the free availability of these images?
DUEKERI don't think so in the slightest. I think it's the -- what your -- what I thought was great about your comment is that you're talking about a personal connection, which I think is the key. This is a photograph that you've taken. This is the experience.
DUEKERWhen you look at a photograph you've taken versus, say, like a postcard, you know, you're always in that moment, and you're aware of when you took that picture. So I think it's absolutely complementary. And it -- and we do. We sell a lot of postcards, but people take -- they take pictures themselves in front of paintings. I think that's wonderful.
GOODYEARAnd, you know, it's very interesting to hear your comments. I agree. I think they were very sensitive. As an art historian, I tend to interpret works of art through words. But it strikes me that the activity you're describing represents for you, as I hear it, an interpretation of works of art through the visual medium of photography. And one of the things that distinguishes masterworks, in my mind, from run-of-the-mill pictures, if I can use that phrase, is the ability to reveal new aspects of themselves over time to new audiences.
GOODYEARThere's always something new to be gleaned from "The Night Watch," for example. And I think that you -- that it's fabulous that you're using that, your own camera, to think about the significance of a work of art. Should you choose to publish those images, I would encourage you to look at the copyright status of the artwork you're interacting with. But certainly I think for personal use, what you're doing sounds quite wonderful.
FISHERSo why is it, with so many museums making their collections available online, why is it so many museums continue to ban photography inside their walls?
GREENI don't know that that many do anymore. I mean, they all, more or less, ban flash photography.
GREENBut museums in their best moments are in the practice of maximizing the ways in which people can have encounters with works of art on their walls through scholarship and books, on their websites, the issue we're talking about today. And museums over the last, you know, decade have gotten much better at that.
FISHERWell, that's good to hear. Here's Tricia with another question about experience at museums. Tricia, you're on the air.
TRICIAYes, thank you. This is such an interesting conversation. This is so -- maybe the flip side of the wonderful aspect of technology and the way you can do painting. My college daughter's in New York, I'm in D.C., and we always do the galleries. A few weeks ago, we were at the Metropolitan, and we decided to sit and take account.
TRICIAWe were in the van Gogh room, exquisite paintings, and seven out of every 10 people would snap a shot and move on and not even seem to look at the painting. And we just thought, wow, what is the whole experience of art becoming? And I just wondered if y'all had any thoughts about that.
DUEKER...jump in on that, and I'll say for sure that that's not a new thing. I mean, I think we -- we're always blowing through galleries and, you know, it -- yes, you take a picture and you move on. And it does kill me sometimes at the gallery because you walk in the room and you want to sit someone down and say, spend an hour with this painting, you know, and that's not always well received. But, you know, people have a bulk experience, and they have a bulk approach and that happens.
DUEKERAnd I think for everyone, the, you know, if you go to a museum, you do want to see as much as you can. But I agree with you, stop, take a moment, take the whole experience, and look at the walls, look at the floor, look at the lighting, pay attention to the environment and really slow yourself down. And it's hard. It's in the culture wherein we're quick and we take a lot, and I'm the same way. I sometimes have to stop myself, you know, blowing through exhibits as well. It's definitely a challenge, and it takes practice.
FISHERAnd we have a tweet from Tim Kreft (sp?) saying that the technology could enhance museums by keeping museum experience going after visitors leave with games and so on. And so we've talked about this step forward in digitization, what do you see coming next with new technologies coming down the pike that could enhance that experience?
DUEKERWell, on your website, I noticed you put up a quiz.
FISHERWe did. It's at kojoshow.org. It's a quiz where we ask you to match details of masterpieces with their titles.
DUEKERYeah. So that's, you know, and that's the sort of thing. Again, it's gets back to my comment about just making art personal. I've been an artist and interested in art for a really long time. And for me, it is personal. And I do take it seriously, and I love it. And that's the reason I work, you know, for a museum. And I think you now have opportunities for people to engage. We have an iPhone app that just came out, which is wonderful. I think more museums are using technology in a way to keep people going.
DUEKERThey have Twitter, they have Facebook, they have all these. I think what is really nice about that is that enables people to be more participatory. So they're coming -- it's not the National Gallery of Art, it's your museum. Come in, be part it, engage with it, you know, fill up the comment cards, get the app, do all of those things.
GREENThe art museum and foundation and related communities have done a really good job in recent years of figuring -- of addressing this what's next question. And one of the things that they're really focused on is getting more total information about works of art and museum collections online. So, for example, the Getty in Los Angeles is funding an online scholarly catalogue initiative where when you go to a work of art on a museum website, you won't just see images of a range of qualities, details.
GREENBut you'll see X-ray and microphotography that reveals or may reveal how the painting was made, its conservation status. You'll see links to scholarship and writing on the painting, its exhibition history, where you can get all of this updated in real time on one page. And that's going to be a really exciting thing coming online for about a dozen museums in the next year or two.
FISHERAs a, you know, not everyone can travel around the world to see the world's great masterpieces, but as you put more and more works online, do -- is there evidence yet of whether this is truly expanding the audience to different economic classes or geographical areas, or is it largely enhancing the experience for those who are already interested in art? Is there any data on that yet?
DUEKERI think for -- just from our perspective at National Gallery of Art, looking at --- as I say, we don't look at individual users but just as an aggregate whole, our traffic is worldwide. It just absolutely blows me away to look at that little Google Analytics map, and I'm just going, we've got pretty much every country in Africa covered. And there are places where Western artists not nearly as accessible, you know, China, for example.
DUEKERAnd we're getting lots of traffic from there. And I think that's really exciting. So I think absolutely reaching new places and new international audiences. And hopefully that will work both ways. You know, I love Korean painting. I want to be able to find more Korean painting online and get to encounter that as well.
FISHERLet's hear from John in Takoma Park. John, you're on the air. John, are you there? OK. But John is not there. It's hard to see how digital collections that include these downloadable high-resolution images could create a new revenue stream for museums. Is -- or am I wrong about that? And if there's connection to revenue, is there an issue for museums here regarding how you -- how the business model evolves in coming years?
GREENYeah. It's not revenue. Art museums -- so the vast majority of art museums still charge for access to images, for scholars, for T-shirts, for whatever. And this is an incredibly small percentage of their revenue. I mean, before I came in today, I looked up the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena. Fantastical master collection. Ninety-five or seven or 8 percent of their collection is, you know, copyright clear.
GREENAnd so last year, it cost them about $6 million to run their museum, and they got about $2,000 worth of image licensing revenue. We're talking about an infinitesimal slice of how museums pay their bills. So this isn't really -- with the exception of maybe MOMA or something, this isn't really having an impact on that.
GOODYEARI think at the same time, though, you know, as you point out, Tyler, it's worth acknowledging that there are many museum managers who may feel otherwise. And this...
GREENThree or four museums.
GOODYEARWell, I think that there's a bit of a debate in the field about this. The Mellon Foundation is among the organizations that's sponsoring research into this question to try to understand what is the relationship between the cost of maintaining a staff of people to regulate these images, disseminate them and so forth, and to what degree is there really a positive revenue flow as a result of that charging of image permission fees.
GOODYEARAnd indeed, I think when we understand that museums are largely institutions that are held in the public trust, we may have to ask ourselves to what degree are we possibly shooting ourselves in the foot and being pennywise and pound-foolish in terms of building a larger case for engagement with our collections, for interpretation of our collections precisely by making them as widely available as possible.
FISHERWe have John back on the line. John in Takoma Park, you're on the air. Maybe we don't. OK. We gave him two shots.
DUEKERLet me add just one -- just quick comment on revenue...
DUEKER...'cause its -- oh, is that John?
FISHERIs that -- are you there?
JOHNYes. Hello. Can you hear me?
FISHERYes, I can. Go ahead.
JOHNI'm sorry. Quick question. I'm wondering what thought is being given to digital restoration. I'm thinking of Leonardo's "The Last Supper" and how it's suffered over the ages and if there's ways to make that look like it may have looked several hundred years ago.
GREENThat's a really interesting one. I'm honestly not on the conservation side, and I think that's going to be new terrain. And again, it gets back to people taking the images and remixing them. But, you know, I would air on the side of caution of being too aware. We're talking about paintings and artworks are physical things, and they age and they deteriorate. So the question of what it looked like back in the day is sort of like "Jurassic Park." I mean, you don't really know what you're going to get. And it could end up being something that's really not valid or even really particularly important.
FISHERPeter, in the very short time we have remaining, could you give us a quick snapshot of the process of digitizing these images? What's actually involved?
DUEKERAbsolutely. It's a real -- I'll start with paintings 'cause I think they're, you know, among the most complex. We have a very state-of-the-art studio. We shoot paintings on a very high-end digital camera. The paintings are secured to a motorized easel that allows us to shoot the paintings in sections. The sections of the paintings -- the digital files are then stitched together by the photographer who, you know, who's got 20 years of experience.
DUEKERYou know, he knows what he's doing. And it's amazing to watch him work 'cause he -- I could never do what he does and watching the colors and getting everything matched accurately to the art. Everything gets stitched together, and we end up with this enormous file. And it's usually, you know, 1.5 gigs. You know, for those into computer, that's, you know, it's a really big file.
DUEKERAnd now we're making that available on our new public website, you can zoom in and see. So it's, you know, it's quite an intense process, but it's great that we're able now to share that with the world, you know, through our new website where you can come in and zoom and see all the hard work.
FISHERAnd we'll have to leave it there. Peter Dueker is the head of digital imaging services at the National Gallery of Art. We're also joined by Anne Goodyear, president of the College Art Association and co-director of the Bowdoin College Museum of Art in Maine. And Tyler Green, produces and host the "Modern Art Notes" podcast and writes the Modern Art Notes blog. He's also a columnist for Modern Painters magazine.
FISHERAnd thank you very much, all of you, for being here today to talk about the digitization of art. And we have a number of links up on our website that you can check out to see some of these works, these high-resolutions images that are nearly available at the number of museums around the world. I'm Marc Fisher, sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi on "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." Thanks so much for listening.
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