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Robust App, Weak Tours: My WSJ Review of SFMOMA’s Technological Transformation

I seem to have landed the museum-tech beat on the Wall Street Journal‘s “Arts in Review” page. In tomorrow’s Personal Journal section (online now), you can read: At SFMOMA, Tech and Culture Meet—my mixed review of the newly expanded San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s digital transformation.

In my previous digital adventure—The Brave New Museum Sputters Into Life—I groused that several art museums’ high-tech interpretive aids were “unintuitive, inadequately explained, or exasperatingly dysfunctional.”

SFMOMA’s robust new app, by contrast, works remarkably well. Particularly impressive was its precise location awareness, providing visitors with almost flawless navigational guidance throughout the galleries.

For this, these two SFMOMA staffers deserve much of the credit:

L to R: Keir Winesmith, head of web and digital platforms; Chad Coerver, SFMOMA’s chief content officer Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

L to R: Keir Winesmith, head of web and digital platforms; Chad Coerver, chief content officer
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

What exasperated me this time around were SFMOMA’s vaunted “immersive tours” of works on display. My article’s subhead suggests what went wrong there: “When it comes to museums’ digital offerings, content is best left to curators.”

Here’s how Gary Garrels, SFMOMA’s senior curator of painting and sculpture, described how he reconciled himself to the app’s eccentricities, during our wide-ranging conversation (not primarily tech-related) when I visited the museum in June:

I am not a purist. I think there are lots of ways for people to look at art. I don’t think there is any one right way. I don’t think there is any one right interpretation about a work of art. So I gave my colleagues in “content” [Winesmith and Coerver] a lot of leeway.

I have to say, they didn’t expect and didn’t ask to get involved in the curatorial decisions about what was in the gallery or how galleries were laid out. So I think there is a mutual respect of each others’ areas of expertise.

Gary Garrels Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Gary Garrels in his office
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

When I asked him how much of the app’s audio he had listened to, Garrels replied:

Not a lot….I have certainly been told what they were intending to do and who they were talking to and the different types of interpretations that were going to be provided. I do respect them and I am not an expert at how to approach a general audience. I have been involved with contemporary art for so long that I am, I guess, what you would call an insider. So I’ve got my blinders on, in certain ways.

With a long, distinguished track record of organizing serious, appealing exhibitions (including the current Bruce Conner retrospective, now at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, before traveling to San Francisco), Garrels should have given himself more credit. Along with the other curators, he should have assumed a lead role in determining and narrating the tours’ contents. Instead, many of the “insights” are offered by amateurs.

When I frankly discussed my misgivings about the tours with Chad Coerver, who was a Renaissance art specialist before shifting to publishing, he told me this:

You are not the target audience….The big sea change over the last few years—and it took our curators a few rounds to get used to it—is moving from authority to expertise….The key is: What cool story or what cool voice could go with that artwork in such a way that it would open it up to new possibilities?

Brandishing SFMOMA’s latest magnum opus—the weighty tome for the Conner show—Coerver confided that “as long as we still make Gary [Garrels] happy with very large, beautiful catalogues that speak to the scholarly community, he’ll let us invite a few crazy people to talk about art on the app. The audience for the app and that for the Bruce Conner catalogue are not the same, but we need to serve them both.”

I hope to have more to say about the app, along with more information on its many features and on the museum’s other digital initiatives, in a future post.

For now, you can read tonight what many WSJ readers will be seeing in tomorrow’s paper, and get to meet some of the “crazy people” who “talk about art on the app.”

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