Economics Trends Museums USA

How to avoid a digital boom and bust

There are plenty of grants for new digital projects but finding long-term funding could be much harder

Touch and go: Cleveland Museum of Art’s 40ft-wide digital Collection Wall

The Microsoft Corporation donated more than $1.5m worth of software to the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA), Boston to upgrade its computer systems and help the museum put more of its collection online, the institution announced Monday. Meanwhile, Art Institute of Chicago is due to launch an app this month that aims to transform visitors’ smartphones into pocket-sized curators. The application, which features audio interviews with artists and slideshows of works undergoing conservation, is funded in part by Bloomberg Philanthropies, which last year pledged $15m to five museums for mobile guide development. Like dozens of digital projects, the Art Institute’s application and the MFA Boston’s upgrades received the green light only because of external funding. But some experts worry about what will happen if and when grants for digital development diminish.

Today it may be easier for museums to fund a digital initiative than an exhibition. “Grant money is always easy to get for new things,” says Wayne Clough, the outgoing secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, which received $1.7m last month from the US government to help digitise its collection. In Germany, the Städel Museum in Frankfurt plans to spend between €20m and €30m on various projects, which it calls its “digital extension”, over the next three to four years, all of which will come from corporations and foundations.

“It is very hard to find a corporate sponsor for our next show of High Renaissance German art,” says Max Hollein, the director of the Städel. “I can find a sponsor for our next digital education project without a problem.” He plans to build an endowment to underpin the museum’s digital initiatives. “The renewal phase is much quicker than with a building. After 20 years, you need a major renovation of a building, but you need a version 2.0 or 3.0 [of a digital project] after around 18 months,” he says.

Grants and sponsorship may not always be so easy to secure. “The shininess is going to wear off relatively quickly,” says Elizabeth Merritt, the director of the American Alliance of Museums’ Center for the Future of Museums. “I haven’t heard enough from museums about building a long-term business model.”

Shrinking grants

Federal funding in the US is dropping: the National Endowment for the Humanities, a significant source of support for digital projects, offered 23% less grant money for such initiatives last year than in 2012. Although there is still ample support for educational tools such as mobile apps and online courses, funds to put high-resolution images and information about collections online are tapering off. The Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo received a $500,000 grant in 1999 to digitise its collection over three years, but “when that grant ran out, there was no more digitisation”, says Rich Cherry, the gallery’s former chief information officer. The gallery is making steady progress on the 20% of the collection still to digitise, a spokeswoman says.

Even the world’s wealthiest art institution, the J. Paul Getty Trust, which gives grants to other museums for digital projects in addition to funding its own, struggles to support digitisation. “We have fewer of our objects online than we want,” says Jim Cuno, the chief executive of the trust. “We have a robotic digitiser that can turn [and scan] the pages of a book, but those are very expensive and you can’t have as many as you need.” Digitisation also takes longer than some funders are willing to wait. The Smithsonian estimates that if it digitised one work every minute, the process would take more than 260 years to complete.

The scale of these projects is forcing museums to rethink their approach. “We’re wasting too many resources doing things that everybody else is doing,” says Robert Stein, the deputy director of the Dallas Museum of Art. The solution, he says, is collaboration. Institutions should not be digitising the same rare book or developing similar software to produce online exhibitions.

To promote collaboration, Bloom­berg Philanthropies and the Getty Trust require their grant recipients to convene to discuss their work several times a year, while the Smithsonian shares its latest technology with 184 affiliate institutions. The Getty is also encouraging museums to adopt open-source code for new projects, which would provide free access to a product’s design or blueprint. Digital development is “so much more expensive than a single institution can withstand”, Jim Cuno says. “But the field of digital applications is not going away. Once you’re in for a penny, you’re in for a dollar.”

Five digital trailblazers

Cleveland Museum of Art, Ohio: Gallery One, which opened last year thanks to a $10m grant from the Maltz Family Foundation, allows visitors to interact with the museum’s collections using interactive touchscreens. A 40-foot-wide Collection Wall enables visitors to explore the museum’s works and create personalised tours for tablets.

The Getty, Los Angeles: “If you wanted to view a sketchbook in our collection, you used to have to get on an airplane and fly to Los Angeles,” says Murtha Baca, the head of digital art history at the Getty Research Institute. An open-source initiative called the Scholar’s Workspace is making research easier. It enables researchers to closely examine documents online and develop interactive catalogues.

Dallas Museum of Art, Texas: As part of the museum’s membership programme, visitors can earn perks such as free parking if they scan a card at various checkpoints or text a code from the galleries. In the process, the museum is learning more about its visitors and non-visitors. “We now know who we aren’t reaching, which helps us with marketing,” says Robert Stein, the museum’s deputy director.

The Smithsonian, Washington, DC: The Smithsonian has digitised around one percent of its 137m objects, but it believes that a new robot could speed up the process by more than 80%. The automated conveyor-belt system would bring down the cost of digitisation from $5 to 75c per object. “We’re hoping to turn digitisation into an industrial strength activity, the way Ford approached building the Model T,” says Günter Waibel, the director of the Smithsonian’s digitisation programme.

The Städel Museum, Frankfurt: The Städel Museum aims to launch a “comprehensive digital exhibits platform” for its bicentenary in 2015. It has been working with the Hochschule Darmstadt, a university of applied science, and Software AG to develop the cloud-based platform to allow users to “stroll” through the collection, create their own narratives and roam beyond art historical timelines, themes and artists’ names.

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