Modern Art Meets Modern Software Development at the SFMOMA

How do you re-engage art lovers who've stopped going to the museum? Bring the museum to their phones.

Andy Warhol once said, “Good business is the best art."

For any museum, the business of luring art lovers through the doors has never been more challenging than it is today. Potential visitors are pulled in dozens of directions, new diversions enticing them at every turn. Faced with a free afternoon, do you stream Netflix, hit up Spotify or slog downtown to look at some art? The answer is in the numbers: Britain's Tate galleries lost 20 percent of its domestic audience from 2009 to 2014. Museums everywhere are feeling the pain.

So, how do you get a culturally inundated populace to re-engage with art? The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is taking the battle for mindshare directly to the people. The strategy: If you want people to pay attention to art, bring art to where they are—specifically, on their phones.

In 2016, the recently reopened SFMOMA launched a digital strategy with the goal of integrating technology into the museum experience. Those initiatives include an SFMOMA mobile app, a podcast called Raw Material, and PlaySFMOMA, a program that “encourages the development of avant-garde and experimental games." These projects and more have been shepherded by Jay Mollica, who sports the museum's unique job title of creative technologist.

“My role as creative technologist involves exploring new technologies, as well as supporting SFMOMA's existing digital platforms," Mollica says. Nowhere is that role more visible than in one of the museum's most widely used digital efforts, a program called “Send Me SFMOMA."

Now Featured: Digital Curation

SFMOMA has the same problem as any giant art museum: Its collection is so large that it can only show a fraction at a time. Even in its new, expanded space, a mere five percent of the collection is on display. The museum would need 121 miles of wall space to exhibit every work in its archives.

But wall space is unlimited in the digital realm, so SFMOMA set out to determine how it could deliver physical art to its patrons by way of technology. The result: Send Me SFMOMA.

“One of our goals as a museum has been to bring SFMOMA's collection to the public in new and perhaps unexpected ways, and encourage further exploration," Mollica says.

To use the system, you simply text the museum (at 572-51) with the words “send me" followed by, well, anything. You can ask for a color, a keyword or a random emoji. The museum's servers will match your request with an appropriate artwork and send you a picture of it to ponder wherever you might be. At press time, Send Me SFMOMA had texted more than four million such images.

A Museum, an API, a Revamped Digital Strategy

The SFMOMA's digital efforts, including Send Me SFMOMA, are based around a homegrown API that provides the public with access to museum data. Similarly, the museum's app, which has more than 100,000 downloads, offers in-person visitors free audio tours and other ways to experience the space interactively. The end goal is to expose the collection to a larger number of people—ideally encouraging them to visit the museum after getting digital samples of what's available—and giving a more immersive experience to those visitors who do step through the physical doors.

Says Mollica, “For many people, an art museum is a complex and intimidating place to visit, and many people are precluded from visiting due to geographical or financial means. Initiatives like Send Me SFMOMA leverage the egalitarian nature of technology to provide a museum experience to people who may not otherwise get to visit."

And if they happen to visit the gift shop (either offline or on), well, all the better.


All images courtesy SFMOMA. Banner image by Emily Robbins.
Christopher Null
By Christopher Null | September 28, 2017

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