Art in person, art online

Writing back in December 2013, The Economist’s books and arts editor Fiammetta Rocco noted in a special report for the publication that museums the world over were “doing remarkably well”. Two decades ago, she wrote, there were around 23,000 museums dotted about the globe. Today there are 55,000.
In 2012, she continued in her essay entitled Temples of Delight, museums across the US received around 850 million visitors, “more than all the big league sporting events and theme parks combined”. In the UK, in the year that she penned the article, at least half the adult population visited a museum or gallery.
Ms Rocco goes on to quote other facts – in Sweden three out of four adults visit a museum at least once a year – but what is most telling is that, irrespective of the fact that this is an age where experiences are increasingly defined by what can be achieved ‘under the screen’ of a device, there is nevertheless a real desire to experience history, culture and art in person.
In particular, the author explained, contemporary art is “one of the biggest draws” for institutions, big and small. It is as if after so long in the thrall of the intoxicating power of mass media, people are once again discovering – or wanting to discover – themselves and the rest of the world through the ‘then and now’.
Quoted by the Independent less than a year later in November 2014, in a similarly themed article – Is there a future for the traditional museum? – Alain Seban, president of the Pompidou in Paris, said: “Museums are places where things are considered in the long term.
“They serve as beacons, distilling a sense of authenticity and truth – and they are also, quite simply, places of beauty and meditation. In an era of doubt, of uncertainty, of rapid change – the audience’s enthusiasm is hardly surprising.”
Still, this being the twenty-first century, museums and galleries have had to adapt. While interest in seeing relics, artefacts and works of art – past and present – remains strong, enthusiasts also expect a high level of engagement via the world wide web. We can’t all, despite our passions, visit every museum and gallery in the world, nor attend every seminal show.
However, it isn’t just the viewer, the art lover that is driving institutions to adapt, to innovate and conceptualise ideas, collections and discourse remotely. Technology itself has challenged the very foundations of how museums and galleries operate.
“One thing you can say for sure about museum websites is that they’ve become much more useful,” wrote the New York Times’ art critic Ken Johnson recently. “Many museums have put their entire collections online, and many more, like the Philadelphia Museum of Art, are in the process of doing so.”
In his essay No Detail Goes Unnoticed When Art Is a Click Away, he goes onto cite other ways in which these platforms are amplifying the physical experience. Online you can find artists, curators and scholars talking about works, watch videos that discuss exhibitions and lose yourself in the vast and accessible repository of high-resolutions images of works.
Thus it is that art museums, in particular, are carving out a particular niche between the old and the new, the traditional and the current, and not only excelling in its presentation, but also advocating a model – or a way of life – that takes the best out of everything.
Nothing will ever beat the experience of seeing a work of art in person, but, in the absence of that, and in tune with the zeitgeist, you can’t argue against the merits of image/information rich websites being accessible on you flatscreen device.
Cadogan Tate works with artists, galleries and museums to deliver art storage solutions.