Come see the sites

It appears that museums and art galleries have finally realised that a decent website can yield high dividends. Bridget Stott surfs the home pages of some prominent institutions

Art galleries, like so many public institutions, have not been quick to exploit the Web. However, these slow starters are now racing ahead in their efforts to win the public’s attention, with useful information presented in an innovative and visually stimulating way. As well as on-line art, a good website has massive commercial potential and the power to encourage its audience to keep up with gallery information and make regular visits to its exhibitions, cafés and shops.

The Tate in London and the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York are two art world heavy-weights keen to exploit the power of the Internet. They announced plans last week for a joint website that will offer a myriad of services to appeal to both the public and specialist groups. This site will be built on the back of a huge surge in public interest in art generally, with more than five million visitors to the galleries each year. Their individual websites receive around four million international users annually.

“We hope to become a premier Internet destination for individuals to access, understand and purchase the best in modern art, design and culture,” says MOMA director Glenn D. Lowry.

Much of the success of websites such as this will depend on the quality of their design. At this year’s Design Week Awards, best information website went to the Design Museum. Its director Paul Thompson says that Fred Flade, design director of Deepend London created a visually-appealing site with a strong image to ensure brand integrity. A bold concept, clarity of design and relevant information that’s fast and easy to access, have all contributed to the success of our website,” says Thompson.

Thompson advises against re-creating a gallery visit. “Galleries and museums need to exploit the interest that already exists. Add-ons, teasers, and animated images provide new and exciting opportunities, without giving the game away entirely,” he says.

Deepend’s design for the Museum website makes the most of visual gimmicks to encourage return visits to the site and ensure people stay on-line while waiting to download information.

Once galleries realise the opportunities for creating sophisticated communication platforms using the latest designers and graphic applications, it’s possible to create sites that could almost be described as works of art in their own right. The Institute of Contemporary Arts has gone a step further and commissioned artists and graphic designers to work together to create a range of innovative pages and screen-savers for users to enjoy.

ICA Web producer Tom Holly brought in Object 1 to work with him on the ICA website, and as it grows, so does the potential. “We are working towards a portal for contemporary art aimed at both the public and more specialist groups, including international artists, gallery owners and curators,” says Holly. In the future, the ICA website should include on-line events, an e-bookshop, a chatroom, virtual tours of the building, interactive artworks and animated representations of up-coming events. It also wants to offer members a free e-mail service and a cyber salon discussion forum. “By offering a good range of options we hope to generate interest from a wider audience and attract sponsors,” says Holly.

The National Portrait Gallery also wants to increase public awareness and extra revenue through its website. In-house Web editor, David Saywell, is working closely with Cognitif Applications to re-style the existing picture gallery, exhibition, e-commerce and visitor information, and design new pages spanning everything from loans and regional partnerships to artist interviews. The new site will hold in-depth education and a special educational needs section, including a site for the visually impaired, who will have their own text-based site. There will also be a Net-accessed database with a full on-line catalogue of all the Gallery’s exhibition and archived pieces, from paintings to etchings.

“We believe that offering a complete catalogue is an important part of the gallery’s duties,” says Saywell.

The Hayward Gallery on London’s South Bank is focusing on creating a truly flexible template. Designers at Syzygy are working with in-house website editor Malcolm Rycraft, who describes the future Hayward website as one that will contain events-based information. The site will also provide details of the Hayward’s history, plus general information about individual and touring exhibitions with visual samples to encourage visitors to the gallery.

The website isn’t quite ready for viewing yet. “We want it to convey a message of diversity, which means there’s still a lot to add and it takes time to develop,” says Rycraft.

But however long that may be, the way of the Web is on fast forward and there’s no point ignoring its influence on the public, both now and in the future. To stay ahead of the competition, galleries will need to find the best Web designers it can afford to create slick, modern and innovative sites which deliver the correct “message”.

As Thompson points out, many galleries now realise that they are on the cusp of something huge which would be extremely foolish to ignore.

URL’s

  • National Portrait Gallery – www.npg.org.uk
  • Institute of Contemporary Arts – www.ica.org.uk
  • Design Museum – www.designmuseum.org
  • Hayward Gallery – www.hayward.org.uk
  • Tate Modern – www.tate.org.uk
  • MOMA NY – www.moma.org

Latest articles