At first glance, Artsy (Artsy.net) looks like the minimalist homepage of a wealthy museum. It displays crisp, high-resolution images, the option to browse or search, and invites you in to learn, admire, or even purchase. But it’s what you can’t see—how all those images are categorised and organised—that really sets the site apart. Artvehicle sat down with Matthew Israel, an art historian who directs The Art Genome Project at Artsy, in Artsy’s open-plan Tribeca loft to find out more about the Genome Project and the company’s plans to democratise art connoisseurship.
Inspired by The Music Genome Project® that underpins the website Pandora, Artsy’s goal, when Israel joined the company in early 2011, was to create a similar search and recommendation engine for fine art. Most online images, Israel explained, contain very little metadata—generally the name of the piece, its title, maybe its subjects—making search engines all but useless unless you know exactly what you’re looking for. How could an algorithm using only that basic data realistically sort among millions of ‘Untitleds,’ or know the difference between Picasso in 1903 and 1913?
Artsy’s team of engineers and art historians therefore realised that they would need to build a much more sophisticated mechanism to relate artworks to each other. And to back up even further: What is a systematic vocabulary for understanding fine art? Israel describes an early epiphany at the company: ‘We’re looking at Donald Judd, and we’re not saying that it’s rectangular or shiny.’ This goes back to ‘the way many of us have been educated to talk about art: theory before object.’ But our reactions to art are not purely theoretical—more immediately, we respond to shape, colour, representation.
Then again, not everything rectangular resembles a Donald Judd. The Art Genome Project therefore does not merely tag an artwork but assigns values, from 0-100, across over 1000 possible ‘genes.’ So rather than just tagging a piece as ‘abstract,’ for example, Artsy asks, well, how abstract? Are we talking Matisse or Malevich? The genes belong to different categories, including ‘geography,’ ‘technique,’ ‘medium,’ ‘content,’ and ‘concepts’ and there is no hierarchy of theory: ‘colour’ and ‘neo-Dada’ are different but equally valid ways of interpreting a particular work.
Israel sees one of Artsy’s great strengths as its capacity to showcase contemporary art, which is often not available on Google or other search engines due to concerns over ownership and copyright. By partnering directly with museums and galleries, Artsy has been able to bring a huge online gallery of contemporary works to an audience that might otherwise never discover it, as well as to put it into a carefully thought-out historical and theoretical context. More than 80,000 artworks have been added to Artsy to date, and an iPhone app launched this summer has enabled users to take Artsy’s educational interface along with them when they visit galleries and museums. Play with the app for a little while, and it starts to look like the final nail in the coffin of the rentable audio guide, with its unwieldy headphones and selective information.
Just to make the massive data-gathering project even more daunting, Artsy decided early on that they wanted to direct Artsy’s written content themselves. No pulling an artist’s biography from Wikipedia, but writing and editing everything in-house, according to a house style that aims to be both intellectually rigorous and accessible to casual users. This includes building connections beyond Artsy’s downtown New York home. When we met, Israel had just been discussing the art scene in Istanbul with a specialist in Middle East contemporary art who is based there: an example of the way Artsy works to inform the genome by including feedback and knowledge from as many people—especially internationally—as possible.
Artsy has two main, interconnected aims: commercial and educational. The site hopes to demystify the world of art collecting, which can seem impenetrably clubby and snobbish to outsiders, by building relationships individually with museums and galleries, from powerhouses like Gagosian and Pace to smaller institutions that welcome the exposure. The site can put buyers in touch with gallery representatives, or an Artsy specialist can offer advice and help to guide a purchase. One way to explore the site is through ‘Featured Partners,’ which currently highlights the Calder Foundation in New York and Riehen’s Fondation Beyeler alongside the British Museum. In the future, Israel hopes that galleries will curate their own online exhibitions, and contribute to the information about works and artists that Artsy is already building, in their aim to become the default platform for art collectors.
Israel first joined Artsy as a consultant after completing his PhD in art history and archaeology at NYU, and firmly believed that Artsy needed an art historian to lead The Art Genome Project. ‘The art world is very discerning,’ he notes. ‘We would be dismissed if the Genome Project was seen as superficial.’ Artsy’s twin goals of accessibility and sophistication are therefore his particular responsibility. His critical work focuses on political art (his book Kill for Peace: American Artists Against the Vietnam War was published by the University of Texas Press in September) and the site’s goals of offering free access to art and educating visitors is also, in his eyes, a political act.
Informed by his past experience in the classroom, Israel sees huge pedagogical potential in Artsy. The sheer quantity of high-resolution images available to view or download make this an invaluable resource for teachers, as well as offering various pathways for non-specialists to explore and discover new works and artists. ‘Last year I gave a talk to Harvard undergraduates and Artsy was introduced as the number one form of procrastination for Harvard art history majors. I loved that.’ Working artists, he adds, have also embraced the ability to explore a huge variety of work in a single site. Users can ‘favourite’ works and curate their own collections, as well add their own posts—‘stories, facts, and reflections’—to the site.
However, when so much vibrant contemporary art is experiential, ephemeral, site-specific, or all three, Artsy inevitably faces the challenge of bias toward the still image. There is video work here, but represented through square or rectangular stills. The site is experimenting with video walkthroughs and other recordings of site-specific work, but as Israel points out, ‘everyone’s wrestling with the same questions’ of what happens when ephemeral work gets turned into an object and fixed in time. He refers to Tino Sehgal’s work, and its deliberate absence from the catalogue of Documenta 13, as a particular version of this problem.
In a global art marketplace, a large part of Artsy’s future will be focused on international sales and building relationships with overseas galleries. Online viewing galleries will of course never replace the experience of being in the presence of art, in whatever form—but if a site like Artsy can encourage more people to share that experience, it will be serving a valuable purpose.