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Tangled Web

Thinker collage
Deep Thoughts: Rodin's "Thinker", perhaps pondering the destiny of online art museums. Dakin Hart created the Palace of the Legion of Honor's innovative Thinker web site.

As San Francisco's art museums rush to the World Wide Web, are they pursuing a bold new future or fool's gold?

By Zack Stentz

  • A Berkeley scholar uses an online database to view little-known works of art that a museum usually keeps in storage down in a locked basement vault.

  • A child in the Sunset District downloads crisp black-and-white drawings from a downtown museum's site to use in her school report on the history of the comic strip.

  • A Walnut Creek art enthusiast takes a 3-D "virtual tour" through a museum's new exhibit in lieu of journeying across the Bay to see the real thing.

Depending on one's enthusiasm for the new information technology of the World Wide Web that San Francisco's art museums are rushing to embrace, these are either heartening dispatches from our brave electronic future or nails in the coffin of the museum as we know it.

For good or ill, many museums already have their cyber-beachheads well established. The De Young, the SF MOMA, the Asian Art Museum, the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts--all have presences on the World Wide Web to promote and augment their institutions, with the Palace of the Legion of Honor going so far as to make their entire collection available online. And the tier of smaller, more specialized museums are gearing up to venture online, as well. Both the Mexican Museum and the Jewish Museum in San Francisco are in the preliminary stages of setting up Web pages, and the Cartoon Art Museum is a little farther along in the process.

"We don't have a Web site up yet, but are in the process of designing one right now," says Lara Pepp, who is spearheading the Web effort at the Cartoon Art Museum.

Asked to explain why a Web site is worth the time, effort and resources to a museum like hers, Pepp replies: "We have members all over the country and we're only one of three cartoon art museums in the entire nation, so it's important that we have more than just a brochure saying 'come on by' up there.

"We want to focus on education," she adds, "giving people a lot of information on the exhibits we have and on cartoon art in general, so they'll be a better informed audience."

Professionally designed sites with sound, pictures and eye-grabbing design elements can cost between $10,000 and $100,000, but the Cartoon Art Museum is keeping costs down by letting volunteers build the site. "Our site won't have as many bells and whistles as it would if we had unlimited resources, but we're still happy with what we're able to do," Pepp says. "It isn't very expensive, and we're trying to get companies to help sponsor the site and underwrite the cost of the domain and other things."

But is the rush by museums to establish pages on the World Wide Web a rational use of a new communications medium, or merely a herd instinct on the part of institutions not wanting to be left behind by their colleagues? "It's a little of both," admits Tchira Seligman of the San Francisco Jewish Museum. "Everyone does seem to be getting a site these days, but we've talked to the institutions that have [gone online already] and they've really gotten a lot of 'hits' on their sites, so we view it as another way of doing public relations and letting people know what we're doing."

And while every museum in the Bay Area seems to be in one stage or another of site planning or design, none has taken the process as far as the Palace of the Legion of Honor, which Sept. 30 launched its Thinker site--named for the famous Rodin sculpture in the museum's courtyard--to much public fanfare, including laudatory segments on CNN and National Public Radio.

What made the unveiling so noteworthy was the sheer size and scope of the Legion's undertaking. Unlike most museums, who opt to make their Web pages online brochures containing only small samples of their physical holdings, the Legion became the first museum in the world to make its entire collection available online--60,000 works in all, including the 97 percent of the collection which normally remains locked away in the museum's basement, away from public view. "At this point, a child in New Zealand has more access to our works than most museum curators have to their own collections," declares museum special projects worker Dakin Hart, the enthusiastic 25-year-old who largely designed and built the Thinker.

In some ways the Thinker's creators were making a virtue out of necessity--or, in this case, disaster. After 1989's Loma Prieta earthquake shook the Bay Area and sent aftershocks of alarm through the region's art community, the Legion of Honor's curators decided to embark on a project to take stock of exactly what it had in its mammoth collection. "We knew that we would be closed for a while during our seismic retrofit, so we decided to use the downtime by putting our people to work on the cataloguing project," says Robert Futernick, chairman of the museum's conservation departments and prime mover behind the Thinker. "We couldn't have done all that work if our existing staff hadn't been idled by the closure."

Using the technology originally developed for cataloguing warehouses and supermarkets full of creamed corn, toilet tissue and other more mundane objects, staffers bar-coded, photographed and digitized each work of art in their possession, then linked all the records together in a massive database, initially for the use of staff and researchers. "It'd be nice to say we had a grand vision at the very beginning," says Futernick, with a wry tilt of his head. "But it wasn't like that. We did it in fits and starts, starting with the bar coding and moving on to the photographing and digitizing."

Once the database was in place, the museum's directors decided to make it available to museum browsers on terminals within the Legion's walls. "And as soon as we did that, people started coming up to us and saying, 'This is great. When can I do it from home?' " recalls Hart.

Hart and Futernick presented museum director Harry Parker with their proposal for putting a comprehensive database online, and received his immediate approval to go ahead. The issue that lit Parker's and their own enthusiasm to establish a museum Web presence was access, according to Hart. "We've invested a lot of the museum's money into improving access to the public," he says, "and the Thinker was a logical extension of that process."

And who could quarrel with such a noble goal?

Clifford Stoll, for one. The Oakland-based computer programmer, technology watcher and best-selling author of The Cuckoo's Egg and Silicon Snake Oil has himself been on the Internet since 1974, and spent the last several years closely watching what he views as the unrealistic hype surrounding the potential of the World Wide Web. Needless to say, the prospect of art museums uncritically embracing online technology alarms him greatly. "In short, I feel it's absurd for art museums to use the Web as a medium to get art out there," says Stoll from his Oakland home, his normally frenetic speaking style slowed down considerably by a sore throat.

Stoll thinks the Web is a poor technical medium for the transmission of visual art. "As an advertisement for the work, it gives a shoddy image, worse than that on a picture postcard, and has an impoverished palette of colors," he says.

"And," Stoll adds, "when people see all this art available on the Web by clicking an icon, they'll say, 'Why go to a museum at all?'"

But the Thinker's designers don't buy the argument that Web access depresses and debases interest in the viewing of art up close and in person. "If we thought for a moment that this could hurt attendance, we wouldn't be doing it," says Futernick emphatically. "But all of us believe there's no substitute for standing right before a work of art in person, and we think the experience of viewing the work online will actually inspire more people to come here."

"I don't know," replies Stoll. "Does a visit to McDonald's whet one's appetite for a meal at Chez Panisse? I think a much more likely scenario is for someone to say, 'I have all the artwork I need right here on my computer, so why should I drive to San Francisco?'"

But at least in the realm of cyberspace, the Legion continues to receive an impressive number of visitors. In its first nine days of operation, the Thinker logged over 2 million raw hits, performed 150,000 searches of its image database, and received over 600 e-mail messages from all 50 states and 40 different countries. Many of senders expressed the intention of visiting the museum in person at a later date, but it's far too early to determine what impact the Thinker will have on physical attendance. "For all the 'hits' I'm sure they're getting," says Stoll, "it'll be interesting to see how many people actually show up at the museum."

It's an oft-repeated and somewhat abstract cliche of the art world that only 5 percent or less of a large art museum's collection can be displayed at any given time. But the concrete reality behind that statement comes vividly to life while standing in the climate-controlled basement vault beneath Palace of the Legion of Honor Museum, looking at the row upon row of shelves and racks which contain the other 97 percent of the museum's works that the public rarely sees. "We have room to display about 3 percent of our collection at any given time," Futernick explains, "which is lower than some other big institutions, but not by much."

The overwhelming volume of art treasures hidden here, away from public view, puts one in mind of the last scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark, when the hard-won holy artifact is consigned to a dark corner of a vast government warehouse. The analogy isn't lost on Futernick, who laughs in agreement with the comparison. "When we started cataloguing, coding and digitizing our inventory, we found art works that no one had even looked at in 40 years," he marvels. "So our goal with this project is to provide the staff and the public with as much access to our entire collection as possible, to 'find the Ark' in a sense."

Stoll, however, remains unimpressed by the prospect of exposing viewers to heretofore hidden-away art works. "There's a reason why so much art stays in the basement," he says. "It's because most of it is gunk, and isn't something that needs to be shown indiscriminately. And by simply putting their entire collections up on the Web, curators are abrogating one of their major responsibilities, which is to select and expose in an intelligent manner that 5 percent of the collection that is worth seeing."

And in a corollary to his abrogation argument, Stoll worries about the financial resources being sucked up in building and maintaining Web sites, and frets that curators, teachers and artists are being muscled aside in favor of "computer jocks."

But at least in the Bay Area, museums have found some success getting the plethora of local high technology companies to sponsor and even build museum Web sites, often as testing platforms for new programs and applications. This was certainly the case with San Francisco's Asian Art Museum, whose recent Mongolian art exhibit was used by Cupertino-based Apple to test their Quicktime VR software. In essence, the site allowed viewers to take a three-dimensional, virtual-reality tour of the exhibit while remaining at home in front of the computer screen, in sort of a high-culture version of games like Doom or Myst. "And we got Apple themselves to build and maintain the site for us," says Asian Art Museum marketing director William Goulet.

And in the case of the Legion of Honor's site, nearly all the technical work on the project was done in-house, by staffers teaching themselves the art of programming, site design and database management as they went along. And as one would expect from such an ad-hoc effort, the creators encountered some bumps in building their information highway. "We made a lot of little errors along the way," Futernick acknowledges. "For example, we converted a lot of the black and white works into gray scale, when we really should have done them in color, which turns out to be sharper and better at compressing. But because we're doing it all ourselves right here, it's easier to respond to things and fix them as they come up."

Not as easily solved were the intellectual property issues of disseminating artwork far and wide on the Web, especially when the artist is still living or the artist's estate still owns rights to the image. "Artists' rights are very important," Futernick affirms. "And we've taken steps to ensure that they're respected. [For example], the images themselves look wonderful on a screen, but they're not high-resolution enough to be useful for anything other than computer viewing."

As an additional legal protection, the Thinker site also contains a "pass-through" screen requiring users to click on an icon to promise they will not improperly use or profit from the images on the site, one which bears more than a passing resemblance to the many adults-only sites that require browsers to electronically swear to being 21 or older. "Yeah, it's our porno disclaimer," Hart chortles.

Other museums are downplaying the intellectual property ramifications of their work (and saving themselves the chore of scanning their entire holdings) by offering only selected images or abridged versions of exhibits online. "It wouldn't be feasible to put all the images we have on the Web, but we'll put representative ones online," says the Cartoon Art Museum's Pepp.

Pepp's job is made somewhat easier, though, by the very nature of the art she represents. "The fact that we're mostly putting up black and white line art makes the site more usable," she explains. "The images are much less complicated than other kinds of art, so they reproduce on a screen better and they're much faster to download."

But the fact that the Web effectively favors bold, easily reproducible art forms such as cartooning disturbs Stoll. "By skewing things toward the simple, color-saturated images that look good on a TV screen, what's being harmed?" he asks rhetorically. "Watercolors, sculptures or a painting like the Mona Lisa look terrible on the Web. What happens to them when everyone is looking at art in this way? A computer is just a poor place to look at art."

Pressed to think of positive aspects to the museums' embrace of the Web, Stoll demurs: "Everyone else is cheerleading for the Web. My job is to ask the hard questions that no one else is interested in asking right now.

"When everyone agrees that something is wonderful, that's when you have to worry," he adds, his hoarse throat giving the words an ominous tinge. "No one in 1955 asked if nuclear power might turn out to be too expensive, or that waste disposal would be a problem."

Futernick, though, thinks that predictions of Web-induced harm to museums are overblown. "This is just another tool to disseminate art," he says. "I don't see the Web as being any different from publishing a coffee table book of our art, and books don't depress museum attendance."

And even Stoll concludes on a slightly less apocalyptic note. "I'm not saying 'stop it,' " he says. "But we need to be looking at these new technologies as they come down the road with our eyes wide open."

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From the November 1996 issue of SF Live

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