From side project to full-time job, the Google Art Project founder on rights, reservations and deferring to museum directors.
Hi Amit, what can you tell me about the Google Art Project? What is it and what is its mission?
The Google Art Project is an online platform where you can access high-resolution images of artworks. It started as a 20% project within Google in 2010 and had its first public showing in 2011. It was 17 museums, coming together in a very interesting online platform, to allow users to essentially explore art in a very new and different way. This was back in 2011 when high-resolution zooming was really in its infancy on the web.
Since then the project has become a proper product within Google – part of the Google Cultural Institute – and we have over 300 partners in around 44 countries who actively contribute to the project, putting up anything from street art in Sao Paulo to some of the most important impressionist painting of our time.
The difference between this and a lot of other websites is that every single image is in extremely high resolution, as well as enriched with a whole host of tools and meta data. For example you look at a museum’s Vermeer, zoom into it, compare it with another one, and then take a virtual walk through the museum by using our street view technology.
It really started out as a question: how do you take all these different tools that Google has and alter them for the cultural sector? I stopped doing it as a 20% project and it became a 100% project for me about a year and a half ago.
You’ve got a whole host of galleries and museums from all over the world on board – were there any that had reservations about digitising their collections?
Oh definitely. I’d be lying if I said there were no reservations; there were plenty. But I think it’s very simple – the museums involved wanted Google to come to the table, but to respect certain things important to them and the sector.
One thing was curation. We really didn’t want to come in and say: hey, we’re going to curate all of this for you. The idea was that we would give the museums the technology, and then they choose what they want to put up online. The other thing was that all of this had to be non-commercial. We created the Google Cultural Institute and the Art Project as a completely non-commercial endeavour, so it’s legally in the contract that we can’t make any money out of any of the content.
The final thing was the rights. Essentially, who owns the rights? We worked really hard with our legal teams and the museums so that we could say to them: you will always own the rights and you have the right to take down content at any time. Once you cross those perceptual, legal barriers, that’s when it gets interesting; that’s when the excitement begins.
I’ve written before about the meeting point of physical art and digital media, and the main criticism is always that projects like these might threaten bricks-and-mortar museums and galleries – what do you think?
For museums, this is a record year for physical attendance. Some museums are genuinely overwhelmed with the amount of people who are focusing on them and other museums as a place to visit. Why is that? We can’t correlate it directly, but one of the reasons I think is that there is a renewed interest on the internet about art and culture. And not just the Google Art Project; there’s Pinterest, where Getty are putting up some of their collections, and there are iPad apps and so on.
Art and culture – it’s more in front of you; you’re more exposed to it, and you’re more inclined to want to go and see the real thing. I’ve said it a hundred times, but you can never replicate the experience of seeing a work of art online. I still prefer seeing van Gogh’s The Starry Night in person.
How are Art Project users engaging with the site?
One of the big things we’re noticing is social engagement. We’ve been experimenting with posting on specific birthdays of artists, or on landmark occasions – always casual and simple – and we’re starting to get immense engagement on the posts. In some cases, 100 comments and hundreds of re-shares. If you work in social media, that’s pretty high traffic. That’s the kind of traction that brands like Coke and Pepsi pay a lot of money to get, and we’re just getting it based on these beautiful works of art.
What about the educational potential of the Art Project?
I’ll be honest, we haven’t done a lot in this area, as we wanted the community to do it themselves. That might change, but when I started the project, I didn’t want it to feel like Google was coming to solve everything. That’s a perception we deal with in so many other areas, so instead we started doing these simple beer and pizza evenings for teachers, and we asked them: what’s good about the project, what’s bad? One of the features, called compare, actually came out of one of these sessions.
I like that philosophy, of not coming in and telling everyone how to do their own job…
A museum director told me something a long time ago. He basically said, listen Amit, museums directors and their museums have been around for hundreds of years, and you’ve been around for only 10. He told me to always keep that in mind when I spoke to other museum directors. He said: we’ve seen many trends, even wars, come and go, but we’re still here. And that’s something that really stuck in my head. You have to work with them, otherwise there’s no choice.
The sector seems to be making real headway in incorporating digital into how they present and curate work – is this a golden age for digital and the arts?
I just look at the way my conversations with people in the sector have changed over the years. Three years ago the conversation was all about fear, and fear of the web. Then, around a year ago, the discussion changed to definitely needing the web, but working out how to handle the whole rights issue. Today, the conversations I hear are more about piloting, experiment and seeing what works.
But I still don’t agree that we are in a golden age; I don’t think we’ve reached it yet. We talk about the culture sector with a very American and European bias, and that’s because a lot of the leading museums and galleries in the world are based in Paris, New York and so on. But when you start travelling to the other cultural hubs – Korea, Japan, Australia, Brazil, Mexico – everyone is at a different understanding of what the web can do for them. We’re just not there as yet; there’s still a bit of doubt.