Art for all

As a medium for preserving and promoting access to art, the Internet has great potential. Yolanda Zappaterra takes a look at four websites that harness user-generated content to create debate about contemporary art

THERE ARE few areas of creativity on which the Internet hasn’t had a significant impact; its potential for interactivity, accessibility, information dissemination and archiving has been healthily exploited by all areas of culture. In fine art in particular, some recent databases, exhibition microsites and listings sites have successfully tested the ability of new media to put art on-line in a meaningful way, by using the potential of the medium – and the explosion of user-generated activity – to its fullest. Here are some of the best.

ArtRabbit – launched 2007
Bureau for Visual Affairs, the design consultancy set up by Simon Piehl and Tom Elsner, has worked for the National Gallery, Whitechapel Gallery and the Tate, and brought this expertise to bear when it launched ArtRabbit, an art listings site that it claims to be ‘the most accessible and widely used companion to the world of contemporary art’. The comprehensive listings and spare, neutral design are impressive, but it’s the content and functionality that make it stand out. ‘It’s a platform with a bottom-up approach,’ says Piehl. ‘Both users and galleries can submit events, and there’s a minimal amount of moderation or editorial control from our side. This means everything that is contemporary art can be featured; our users then decide what’s most relevant by clicking on events, rating and reviewing them and by making events their “favourites”,’ says Piehl.

From the outset, BfVA wanted to make the information available in as many different ways as possible, opening it up to all kinds of uses. Content can thus be viewed using a number of criteria. Some are obvious, such as ‘opening soon’ and ‘closing soon’, others are more esoteric and imaginative. ‘People can see what’s going on according to other people’s opinion, or what’s happening near to where they live,’ enthuses Piehl. ‘They can decide to view certain disciplines only, or view the events on our UK-wide Artmap. Or they can do a “visual browse” and get inspired by just looking at the imagery.’

A Database – launched 2007
A Database, from James Moores’ Arts Council-funded A Foundation, bis another good example of this new wave. Far more than an art database in the traditional sense, it aims to provide a permanent and safe archive for contemporary art and related information. It offers users linked and indexed data to enable free access to ‘an art history that will be a unique experience’, says site creator and programmer Geoff Laycock. A Database uses a semantically simple search terminology of ‘who, what, when and where’, to enable users to browse easily. An open-source system of entry and cataloguing should ensure the longterm digital preservation of all the work. This should also encourage galleries and artists to archive art work themselves, and eventually link to their archive area directly from their own websites. It’s an ambitious project, whose strength will lie in its scope and handling of data. As Laycock says, ‘The more that data is broken down, defined, refined and controlled, the more usable and searchable it becomes. So what works as a simple searching tool also becomes a method for exploration.’

Museum of Illustration – launching 2008
Of similar ambition is the forthcoming website for the Museum of Illustration, designed by De-construct. As part of the museum’s digital strategy that De-construct was appointed to develop last year, the website will eventually develop interactive tools enabling the audience to get involved and experiment with illustration, and also serve rich educational content. De-construct creative director Fred Flade believes the possibilities of the medium will always outweigh the complexities arts organisations face in creating on-line ventures. ‘Sometimes art organisations face tougher financial challenges compared to commercial industries, which can make it more difficult [for them] to produce rich content or implement the latest technologies,’ he says. ‘But the non-commercial nature of art websites really can open up meaningful communities and stimulate user-contribution.’

24 Hour Museum – launched 1999
Jon Pratty has certainly found that art websites can create on-line communities, following his experience as site editor of 24 Hour Museum, an art hub launched in 1999 as the UK’s ‘national virtual museum’ by then Culture Secretary Chris Smith. The site now has one million visitors a month, and its success may stem from its early decision to exploit the social networking possibilities of the Web. Back in 2003, it started soliciting user-generated content from readers, but now it also uses the Web to gather venue, event and exhibition details directly from participating museums, galleries, libraries and archives, explains Pratty. He is justifiably proud of the site’s impressive functionality, but is less effusive about his dealings with Web designers. ‘As a publicly funded website, we try to be as accessible as possible, and expect to follow Jakob Nielsen’s basic principles for Web usability,’ he says. ‘But we’ve found it frustrating, occasionally, that Web designers aren’t taught much about accessibility at college. We’ve had to do our own testing to validate pages, and have also had to recruit our own user groups to test the pages. We’ve often had to specify the levels of access and usability required, leading designers to solutions when we would reasonably have expected them to be the experts.’

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