By fourth-year Richard Zacharias
Photo by Heather Eidson

The Smart [Museum] is excited to experiment with technology and to see what happens. That openness is perfect for collaboration.”
—Cornelia Bailey
IT Services

It’s impolite to stand around an art museum staring at a tablet computer. Well, it used to be.

A new exhibit at UChicago’s Smart Museum of Art called Go Figure features works of art that interpret the human form from a very diverse group of contemporary artists. As in previous summers, the exhibit helps to showcase the museum’s collection, in which figurative art is a strong suit. But with the help of Associate Curator of Contemporary Art Jessica Moss, new technology helps tell the exhibit’s story.

In addition to the conventional labels that describe each artist and his or her works, Go Figure features wall-mounted iPads that add another dimension to the artistic information. The tablets are loaded with curatorial videos that complement the written interpretation.

Moss was inspired to create the videos after conversations with Melissa Kinkley, her former colleague at the Smart Museum. “It’s a privilege as a curator to meet artists, to hear them speak about their own works,” Moss explains. She wanted to give every museum-goer the chance to hear directly from the individual artists.

The exhibit features a wide array of contemporary paintings and sculptures spanning 60 years. Only steps from the nearby Warhol exhibit, Go Figure delves into feminism, race, and larger shifting cultural attitudes through the lenses of nine distinct artists.

Adding multimedia displays made sense because some of the art had a direct connection to performance art, dance, and music that would go unseen and unheard by those who were not present for the opening night’s live performances.

A new partnership

The chance to partner with the Smart Museum on a creative use of computing intrigued Cornelia Bailey, User Experience Consultant for IT Services. After a meeting with IT Services and Smart Museum officials, it was clear to Bailey that “the Smart is excited to experiment with technology and to see what happens. That openness is perfect for collaboration.”

They hoped to use mobile technology, both to get people into the gallery and to engage them once there.

One early prototype would have let people electronically rate artwork, but when the concept of incorporating video was introduced, ideas began to blend. “Our goal was to present interactive features unobtrusively,” Bailey says. Because the space is intimate, blaring television sets were not an option.

What emerged was a unique collaboration among departments. IT Services donated 10 iPads. Web Services put together a simple, touch-friendly website to house Moss’s newly made videos. A special application was custom-designed to house the website. The wireless Internet capabilities inside the museum were boosted.

“We’ve historically designed websites for desktop computers and mobile devices. Those sites aren’t tied to a specific time or place,” Bailey explains. “With this exhibit, our task was completely different: Make it effortless and inviting for gallery visitors to understand the art in front of them at that moment.

“In the past, a gallery-goer might have relied only on a brochure or placards to make sense of what they see during their visit,” Bailey adds. “Videos are far more expressive, and now it’s simple to make those available in the same context.”

By hosting the videos online, Bailey and others were able to collect detailed usage statistics. Within two weeks, they saw 2,000 hits, signaling that visitors were watching.

The ‘curatorial privilege’ unlocked

The Smart Museum has traditionally tried to incorporate the art-making process into exhibitions, for instance by including studies made in advance of completed works. Now, the artist can show visitors the process, the studio, and the ideas that fit into the final product.

To illustrate, Moss turns to The Turkish Bath, an iconic feminist painting by Sylvia Sleigh. Moss speaks admiringly of the dignity and the individualism Sleigh grants her subjects.

The artist passed away last year, but because of the videos Moss made, her delightful and revealing comments regale visitors. In the videos, Sleigh carefully relates how each of her models was placed into the painting, laughing about her use of nudes.

Nearby, two wild sculptures stand in the middle of the room. They are Nick Cave’s Soundsuits—fanciful costumes made from an array of found materials. They stand motionless, yet with overwhelming texture, and visitors might well wonder how a person could wear the outfits.

But at the tap of a screen, visitors can watch and listen to a trio of Cave’s performers snake and cavort their way through the exhibit’s opening night, and perform on streets around the country. Sometimes they improvise; sometimes they dance in tight choreography. But they’re never still.

Such videos expand the ways in which different audiences can enjoy art, Moss says. She believes the technology could be a fit in other spaces as well within the Smart Museum. Web Services is interested in assisting other departments across campus enhance their spaces in a similar fashion.

Bailey can attest personally to the usefulness of such displays. She says that despite having little background with contemporary art, after a minute or two of watching Cave’s videos, something clicked for her.

“I remember thinking, ‘So that’s the big deal!’ Thank goodness for these videos!”

Originally published on August 8, 2011.