Art on the Mart (Conclusion)

[December 29. 2009] 

[This post reflects the state of the sites discussed at the time. Since then, each site has improved in design and messaging in differing degress. The issues raised are still relevant to the discussion of digital marketing for the arts in the US.]

Art museums hold a special place in the public imagination as storehouses of culture and history. What universities are for “knowledge,” art museums are for everything many people associate with our better nature. From that lofty perch, a Web site visitor might reasonably expect to receive a cultural experience commensurate with the status art museums hold.

Whether because, in terms of long-term cultural evolution, digital space is still too new, or whether these great institutions mistakenly see their Web sites as unavoidable necessities, the sites I visited did not live up to that expectation.

The site built for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, while elegant and sensitively designed is, at base, little more than an electronic catalogue. The one key function it does fulfill is a kind of distance learning, a way for people new to art history to get a general orientation to an astonishing array of works from many different eras and cultures.

As a digital experience, however, the site is highly unsatisfying and, consisting of ream after ream of thumbnail-and-text pages, is ultimately more overwhelming than inviting. Like the oracles of ancient Greek mythology, its message is profound, but rather inaccessible.

Considering how far removed many Americans are from the works of art themselves and their cultural contexts, the Museum does itself a disservice by failing to provide users with a clear point of orientation. The rudimentary search functionality on the home page is only minimally useful, and only to visitors with previous exposure to art history.

For those patient enough to dive in and start clicking, the breadth and depth of the collection itself makes up for the site’s inadequacy as a site. Just as important, the informative commentary, written in a crisp and perfume-free style, conveys a casual air of authority and scholarship that invites further exploration.

In contrast, the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) more successfully engages visitors in the process of touring its vast collection. Instead of relying solely on thumbnail and text displays of individual works, the site includes an extensive collection of video and multimedia features. Laid out in bold colors and sensitive to proportion and scale, it invites interaction.

MOMA also offers a blog, linking out to major social networking sites, as well as Red Studio, a microsite oriented to younger teens. Red Studio includes interviews of artists, conducted by teens, articles on the themes of contemporary art and educational games.

While the site navigation lacks true coherence (try finding Red Studio), the site succeeds for one simple reason: MOMA recognizes that a Web site is a communications medium, not an object. It exists, in other words, to tell a story and invite your reactions. .

Whether you turn to the Philadephia Museum of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis or a dozen other examples, the same themes recur, and the overall impact is actually kind of discouraging.

With the birth of digital space rapidly receding into the last century, it’s high time the majority of arts marketers shook off outdated ideas about its form and function. Whatever treasures the past holds, in this era nothing exists entirely offline. As such, an arts institution’s digital presence is every bit a part of its identity as its hallowed halls of stone.

Despite appearances, it’s not a question of financial resources. Of course, the inexcusably scattershot way the arts are funded in this country has no doubt taken its toll. It explains why a site built for a symphony orchestrashould so closely resemble an e-commerce site.

Whether living large or hand-to-mouth, however, any and all of these organizations could improve its Web presence with very inexpensive change of perspective. In digital space, success is counted in how well and how often your audience interacts with your Web presence. It’s not what you display, but what you say that counts—in the new multimedia composite language of sight, sound and limitless cross reference that will one day lead us to a new level of consciousness.

Digital space, in other words, is itself an art form and, to unleash its full potential, needs to be treated as such. In the years ahead, there’s an opportunity for leaders of the arts community to take a leading role in developing that potential. The first step will come when they stop leaving their Web presence in the hands of vendors and engage the task with the full scope of their talent, training and vision.


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Mark Laporta

Writer, Creative Consultant
New York, NY




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