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Art museums, in Baltimore and beyond, let the internet pass them by. Now, they're starting to catch on

We never noticed before, but David Letterman is a dead ringer for Henry Walters, co-founder of the local museum that bears his name. Maybe it’s that Old Testament beard. And Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh bears a striking resemblance to a woman with a flower in her hair captured in Diego Rivera’s 1955 watercolor, “Ín the Market of Papantia.”

And John Waters? That one was almost too easy. Apparently, the artwork the filmmaker most closely resembles hangs in the National Portrait Gallery. It’s a painting the artist Joseph Sheppard created of — wait for it — John Waters.

These conclusions are courtesy of a new feature on an app of the Google Arts & Culture project that allows users to find their (or a friend’s) art-world look-alikes by comparing selfies with portraits from the project’s online database. Since that feature was added to the app last month, it has become a cultural phenomenon. More than 30 million Americans, including such celebrities as actress Kate Hudson and television personality Ryan Seacrest have searched for and found their art world twins. In the process, they’ve often been introduced to artworks they didn’t know existed.

The speed with which the app became part of the cultural zeitgeist demonstrates that ordinary people are interested in encountering art online. And the program — the brainchild not of museum professionals but of computer geeks — illustrates the extent to which technology represents a huge missed opportunity for art institutions seeking to reverse a worrisome decline in physical visits and prove their relevance in today’s world.

Art museums are perhaps the last major institution in America to fully embrace the internet. They have taken at best baby steps to serve a potentially massive online audience. Too often, they behave as though the World Wide Web didn’t exist — both internationally and in Baltimore, where just 23.3 percent of the total artworks are online.

“I don’t think museums really understand how huge the Internet is or how much attention and curiosity a couple of billion people can have,” said Michael Peter Edson, co-founder of the United Nations’ museum-in-progress. “There’s just an enormous, humongous, gigantic audience out there connected to the internet that is starving for good ideas, authentic ideas, and they want to learn.”

That’s why Edson founded the Museum for the United Nations — UN Live. When it launches sometime this year, the museum will primarily focus on engaging a global online audience, though people will eventually also be able to visit a building in Denmark.

About 77 percent of American adults own a smartphone and more than half own a tablet, according to a survey conducted in November 2016 by the Pew Research Center. Slightly more (78 percent) own a home computer. Some of these users are eager to experience old and new art world masterpieces. But they prefer to do at least some browsing online.

For instance, the visual arts are essential to 19-year-old Ruby Miller, who grew up in Baltimore and attends art school in New York. Paintings, sculptures and photographs are how she makes sense of the world. But Miller consumes most art online. Though she occasionally visits museums in person, it’s mostly to fulfill class projects. For Miller and her friends, the traditional museum world moves too slowly.

Read Part 1: In Baltimore and nationwide, art museums fight sharp declines in attendance »

“I enjoy museums,” she says, “but they’re a bit impractical because of the time it takes to visit. I follow a lot of different artists on Instagram and get updates on their progress. A lot of art being made these days doesn’t need to be seen in person.”

Before museums can even begin to interact with an online audience, they first have to put something onscreen for that audience to look at. So, taking digital photos and posting them online is the essential first step for museums seeking to connect with the Ruby Millers of the world.

Right now, that’s a problem. The only way to experience most of civilization’s treasures is by hopping on a plane to the country where they’re located. Today, just a small fraction of the world’s cultural treasures can be viewed onscreen. No one knows precisely how small that fraction is, because no one has ever counted how many artworks exist globally. But it’s safe to say it’s tiny.

Google Arts & Culture is the most ambitious art digitization initiative in history, but it more or less started from scratch. In 2011, the Google Cultural Institute persuaded 17 major museums to put super high-resolution images of about 1,000 gloriously detailed artworks online. Now, about 1,500 museums internationally are participating in the project. With a few taps on a smartphone, users can get close enough to about 2,000 of the 400,000 pieces to examine individual brush strokes.

But that’s still just one-fifth of the paintings and sculptures owned by a single institution, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

“Our collecting institutions have a moral obligation to step up to the challenge,” Edson said. “If we can’t do that, then we should get out of the way and give the money and reputation and artworks to someone who can.”

In Baltimore, just 34,000 of the 146,000 paintings and sculptures owned by the city’s four major art museums are online. An even smaller number — about 6,650 — are on display in the city or are on tour and can be viewed when the host museums are open.

That means roughly three out of four artifacts are essentially unavailable to the public.

Experts say that museums are doing a gigantic disservice — not just to potential audiences, but to themselves.

“To succeed in today’s world, museums must combine the physical and digital experiences, the visits in-person and online,” said Sreenath Sreenivasan, a consultant on social and digital media to cultural institutions such as the Louvre. He’ll also be a featured speaker at Light City, Baltimore’s annual festival of illuminated (and illuminating) artworks and ideas, on April 20.

“What people want more than anything are experiences,” he said. “They want to learn about things online first, and then go in person. Every other industry has understood that and is pushing ahead. If museums don’t learn how to make those connections, they won’t be part of the global cultural conversation and will continue to fall behind.”

Read Part 2: Free admission hasn't stopped attendance slide at Baltimore art museums — and other solutions prove elusive, too »

He said that when museums have tiptoed into tech, they’ve tended to focus exclusively on designing apps that enhance the experience of those already inside their walls instead of hooking people who are exploring online what museums have to offer, people who potentially could be enticed to visit in person.

As he put it: “Museum officials need to think about the before, during and after of their visitors’ journeys. Too often, they’re just thinking about the ‘during.’ ”

It’s only since Google Art was launched in 2011 that museums have made a serious effort to put their collections online.

“Six or seven year ago, we were still having to argue pretty forcibly that digital public online access was a critical part of museums’ mission,” Edson said. “Museums were so used to having total control over rights and reproductions that they were very concerned about the consequences of letting people use ‘their’ collections without their permission. There was a concern that the public might misinterpret the materials or use them in unapproved ways.”

Part of what confuses museum officials is that the geographic boundaries on which they have traditionally relied are dissolving at bewildering speed. Museum directors have always thought they knew who their audiences were — those who lived close enough to encounter the paintings and sculptures in person.

Today, a museum’s audience is both worryingly smaller and, potentially, exponentially larger than directors of the past would have believed possible. For example, the Baltimore Museum of Art has put about 400 objects online through Google Art. Since June 2016, those artworks have been viewed 112,678 times by people from 60 countries, according to a museum spokeswoman.

“It’s as though we have two audiences,” said Scott Stulen, the former curator of audience experiences and performance for the Indianapolis Museum of Art. “We have this one audience in our backyard, and this whole other audience thousands of miles away who will probably never step foot inside our museum.”

In addition, people who work in museums are those for whom three-dimensional objects are paramount, so it’s difficult for them to grasp the appeal of a virtual experience. Other forms of popular culture such as television or film have always reached viewers through screens, so their jump to a digital world was much more natural. But public galleries lag behind even their museum-world counterparts when it comes to embracing new tools.

“Art museums have been slower than science museums or children’s museums to adapt certain technologies,” said Preston Bautista, the Indianapolis museum’s deputy director for public programs and audience engagement. “Our collections sometimes handcuff us. For example, only in the last five years did we change our policies to allow photography in our galleries.”

In a way, digitizing artworks is like creating the alphabet. Once the basic building blocks have been assembled, they can be combined in countless creative ways. It’s only a matter of time before software engineers design other digital experiments that will exert a mass pull similar to the art selfie app. The only question is whether museums will be ready to take advantage of these opportunities.

The Walters is the clear front-runner in the Baltimore digitization marathon, with about 40 percent of its 35,950-item collection online for public viewing. The Baltimore Museum of Art has 20 percent of its 95,000-item collection available to art lovers with an internet connection.

Trailing them are the city’s other two art museums: the American Visionary Art Museum and the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture, which own 15,000 artifacts combined. The grand total that have been digitized? Zero.

It’s not that museum directors don’t want to give the public access to their artwork. But, it’s not quite the no-brainer it seems.

Photographing ancient and fragile artworks is difficult, expensive and time-consuming. The cost alone has prohibited the Lewis from putting its collection online, director Wanda Q. Draper said.

Museums that show works by living or recently deceased artists are hampered by intellectual property right laws. (AVAM director Rebecca Hoffberger said copyright infringement concerns will prevent her institution from ever putting its entire collection online.)

Some curators resist because “they think if they put art online, people won’t show up at their museums,” Sreenivasan said, adding that they’re concerned that digitization cheapens the viewing experience.

BMA director Christopher Bedford plans to keep putting his museum’s artworks online. But, he’ll do it with the goal of enticing Ruby Miller and her counterparts through his front door.

“I want everything we do to be in the service of drawing people into the physical experience,” Bedford said. “Do I think virtual exhibitions are valuable? Yes. But do I think that the physical manifestation of those ideas is more valuable? Absolutely. A work of art is transformative, and I don’t think people can get an authentic experience by viewing art on a computer at home.”

Sunil Iyengar, who directs the National Endowment for the Arts’ Office of Research & Analysis, thinks that viewing art online will increase foot traffic in museums instead of becoming a substitute for it. His data shows that adults who consume the arts online are far more likely to physically visit museums or attend performances than adults who don’t.

It’s from that point of view that the jump in traffic to the Walters’ website from 274,304 unique visitors in 2008 to 600,743 in 2017 starts to seem meaningful. The BMA’s website visitors increased by 39 percent in one year alone, to 331,500 in 2017.

Some museums have responded by mounting shows that can be viewed only online.

For example, the BMA has launched two small online exhibits in partnership with Google Arts & Culture: a show of 18 African-American masterworks and a collection of a handful of Japanese kimonos and obi (sashes). Both shows have been viewed 5,371 times, a museum spokeswoman said — but only by visitors to Google Arts. The BMA’s website doesn’t link to either show, so visitors to artbma.org wouldn’t know that either exhibit existed unless they happened upon the press release.

But a carefully curated online show can pack a wallop. More than 2.5 million people have viewed “Letters from Camp” by the Smithsonian’s Asian Pacific American Center since the online exhibit opened in May 2016. In the three-minute video, letters from the 1940s written by Japanese-American children incarcerated in World War II internment camps are read by contemporary Muslim youths. Listening attentively are now-elderly Japanese-American survivors of the camps, who remain silent.

On the video, a boy named Zaid reads: “One discouraging thing which occurred here is the building of a fence. Now, there is a fence all around this camp. I hope very soon this fence will be torn down.”

Adriel Luis, the Center’s curator of digital and emerging media, said that public response was muted during the four years the letters letters previously were on view in the Smithsonian’s National Postal Museum. That changed in a big way when the short film was posted.

“That video plays into conversations that we’re having right now about immigration,” Luis said. “We were able to reach people through putting that exhibit online we never would have been able to reach in any other way. Those letters had an impact they never had when they were sitting inside a museum display case.”

mmccauley@baltsun.com

twitter.com/mcmccauley

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