Art by text message, and other brilliant ideas

Text a word to SFMoma and the museum will reply with a work of art

Genius idea: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art will text you a relevant piece from its collection, such as Nam June Paik’s Bakelite robot, in response to a text message

Genius idea: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art will text you a relevant piece from its collection, such as Nam June Paik’s Bakelite robot, in response to a text message

 

Art museums can be intimidating, which isn’t surprising when you think of their origins. The Louvre in Paris was once a royal palace, while the Uffizi in Florence housed the offices and judiciary of the ruling Medici: hardly places designed to put you at your ease.

For almost 200 years the designs of those in charge colluded with the buildings to put visitors in their place. Art is something you whisper in front of. It is expensive, nay priceless, and it shows just how powerful and cultured our rulers are.

Even our newer-build museums were at it. If ascending to culture via steep stone steps is intimidating, it’s got nothing on pristine white boxes for art: the type of places where you feel untidy just walking in.

Things have changed. Visitor numbers are key and outreach is everything, which is understandable when you have taxpayer-funded subsidies to justify. But is any interaction worth it, or does quality count when it comes to putting people in front of art?

In Ireland we excel at preaching to the converted but fall down when it comes to more innovative ways to open up the rarefied art world

In Ireland we seem to excel at seminars, workshops and talks, and attendance figures bear out their appeal, but they are preaching to the converted. Where we fall down is when it comes to more innovative and interesting ways to open up the rarefied art world.

This isn’t a question of dumbing down. Instead it’s about making art fun, turning it from a valuable, distant object on the wall into something that stays in your mind, something central to your life.

It’s about paying more than lip service to the idea of the value and importance of creativity in everything we do, and there are some brilliant ideas out there to get our own institutions going.

Sleepovers

Imagine waking up with dinosaurs? New York’s Natural History Museum hosts sleepovers. With separate events for adults and children, you can curl up in your sleeping bag and let the presence of the collection seep into your dreams. Imagine doing something similar with the Crawford’s lovely Laverys.

As European Capital of Culture in 2011, the programmers at the Finnish city of Turku came up with cultural prescriptions. A visit to your GP could result in the prescription of tickets to cultural events. It’s a gorgeous idea, and one which featured in the Three Sisters’ (Kilkenny, Waterford and Wexford) bid for Ireland’s 2020 Capital of Culture designation (which was eventually awarded to Galway). Perhaps this is a project for Creative Ireland to pick up.

All you have to do is text ‘send me’, plus a word or an emoji, and the museum will text back with an image from its collection

The most genius idea of all came from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) last month. Send Me SFMOMA uses text messaging to open up the museum’s collection of around 34,000 works of art. All you have to do (though unfortunately you have to be in the US) is text 57251 with the words “send me”, plus a word or an emoji, and the museum will text back with an image from its collection.

The project quickly went viral: in one week more than two million text messages of art were delivered as people requested images relating to everything from robots to love, cats to rainbows, family to horses, sadness to that emoji of a pile of poo.

Some of the connections are obvious – a Jim Dine image of a heart (Blue Clamp) sent in response to the heart emoji.

More oblique

Some are more oblique. As Jay Mollica, the museum’s creative technologist who conceived the project describes it, “send me the ocean” might get you Pirkle Jones’ Breaking Wave, Golden Gate; “send me something blue” could result in éponge (SE180) by Yves Klein; and “send me flowers” might return Yasumasa Morimura’s An Inner Dialogue with Frida Kahlo (Collar of Thorns).”

The beauty of it is that you won’t always get the same image. Another request to “send me flowers” could just as easily result in Hiroyo Kaneko’s Picnics #1.

For Mollica, Send Me is a way of opening up the collection, including the works in storage, and doing it in a way that is accessible, friendly and personally meaningful.

Search terms become more intimate at night, giving an insight into how people are relating to the art works they receive by text

“In a world oversaturated with information, we asked ourselves: how can we generate personal connections between a diverse cross-section of people and the artworks in our collection? How can we provide a more comprehensive experience of our collection?” He also asks, how can we turn art into a habit – which is an important set of questions for any museum.

The most requested Send Me terms are, unsurprisingly, love, happiness, flowers, dogs, cats and the ocean. Interestingly, the cactus features among the most popular emojis.

Connections

Search terms become more intimate at night, according to Keir Winesmith, head of web and digital at the museum, giving an insight into how people are actually relating to the art works they receive by text, and how even though a text can never match up to the real thing (in relationships as well as art), personal connections are nevertheless being made.

The code itself is open source, and SFMOMA is working on making it accessible from other countries. But wouldn’t it be wonderful if we did it ourselves? Let the ideas, and the art, move away from the rarefied, insider whispers, and flow.

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