The art of technology

While the new Frank Gehry-designed Art Gallery of Ontario is a visual feast for the eyes, not everyone has access to its downtown Toronto location. So the AGO is taking it to the public with a variety of interactive social networking initiatives over the Web. But whether in its redesigned galleries or in virtual spaces, technology is being used everywhere, from collections management to restoration of artwork.

The purpose, though, is to make art accessible to all. When the AGO temporarily closed its doors to undergo a $276-million renovation, part of that included revamping its online presence to make art more accessible — a big challenge for a public-based organization. The AGO’s collection now transcends the gallery space, allowing anyone to interpret it, in any way they choose, through Web 2.0 and social networking technologies.

“One of the barriers we worked to overcome is people’s sense there’s a right answer,” said Judy Koke, deputy director of education and public programming with the AGO. “What matters is your response, the ideas that bubble up in you as you look at these pieces.”

The AGO is also deploying a new collections management system, which will keep track of its many works of art — there are currently more than 60,000 objects in its collection — but it will also be a tool for public access. “We can only show a small percentage of those on the floor in the gallery at any time,” said Ian Rubenzahl, manager of new media design with the AGO. “So this is going to help us open up the vaults in a virtual way.”

Working with the collections management system, the Web site will tailor access to the AGO’s collection in different ways for different audiences, from art students to tourists to collectors looking to buy reproductions.

It’s in the midst of a site redesign — doing usability testing — with partner Devlin eBusiness Architects. “That helps us understand what will speak to the audience,” said Rubenzahl. It’s also deploying an open source content management system, specifically for the Web site, called MODx, which will help maintain the site and keep it lively and fresh, but will also allow colleagues in the museum to get involved in the work of updating that content. “We need content and we need it up-to-date, so a content management system plays a critical role there.”

The AGO is also experimenting with social networking under its Art is Social umbrella. Regular blogs, at, include posts from bloggers-in residence, Teens Behind the Scenes and others, and serve as a community voice for the arts. Its Facebook page (with updates on gallery news, events, photos, videos, reviews and discussion boards) has more than 4,000 fans, and its Flickr group has hundreds of cool photos of the AGO taken by the public, as well as the In Your Face portraits group (with portraits inspired by exhibitions).

AGO Mobile provides mobile alerts such as gallery updates, coupons other special offers. Bringing its entire collection online is a long-term project, but Collection X is a prototype of how the collection will ultimately become more interactive.

Collection X was launched in April 2007 and has since attracted more than 3.6 million hits, 128,000 visits and 63,000 unique visitors. It came about as a grant from the Virtual Museum of Canada, which provides funding to bring heritage into the home. Historically the VMC has funded Internet-based representations of exhibitions, but Collection X was always envisioned as having a Web 2.0 quality to it.

“The desire was to use it as a way to make selected works from the AGO’s collection available to the public online, but also to create a framework that would invite people to upload and contribute their own content as well,” said Colin Wiginton, manager of education programs with the AGO. “It really is about storytelling.”

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Collection X includes an online exhibition editor, so anyone, from professional artists to students, can take content they find on the site, select layouts, create exhibitions and add their own text. The site functions with three different levels of interactivity: collect (where you can collect raw content, such as images, audio and video), connect (where you can weave it together into online exhibitions) and create (where you can create a user profile and show what you’ve contributed or created). “We try to be as hands-off as possible,” said Wiginton. “We do monitor the site for appropriateness, but beyond that it’s quite a range.”

The AGO is upgrading its collection management system, which is a “big honking database” that holds information about all of the AGO’s works of art, said Virginia Vuleta, manager of IT at the AGO. This includes information about objects on loan or in custody, as well as data on acquisitions, insurance and conservation work. “It’s very much an academic database because it holds all of the intellectual property about the works of art,” she said, but that data will eventually be fed to the Web site.

The AGO was previously using a series of standalone databases, but that started to get unwieldy, so it’s now deploying TMS (The Museum System, by Gallery Systems of New York) as its primary database, as well as eMuseum, Web-based software that integrates with TMS and other collection management systems to publish information to Web sites, intranets and kiosks. The IT team is in the process of high-level data mapping, a hugely complicated process that can take years.

It’s also undertaking the digitization of all works of art. This involves upgrading its digital asset management system to scale up its capabilities and Web-enable it, as well as deploying a storage-area network to handle increased file sizes. “The system we are rolling out internally is an intranet portal so staff can access digital images of works in the collection from their desks,” said Vuleta. Similar to the collection management system, the digital asset management system will also feed the Web site with high-resolution images.

The AGO’s conservation department uses technology in its work, from digital photography to 3D digitization. Analysis of artwork helps determine what kind of remedial action must be taken to preserve or repair art. “There are some fascinating things they find out when they put paintings under the light,” said Rubenzahl —in some cases, even a painting beneath another painting.

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