Prior investments pay off in innovative new programming during COVID
Among art museums around the world, the Cleveland Museum of Art (CMA) has invested in digital capacity far more than others. Beginning in 2012 with the Artlens Gallery (formerly Gallery One), which includes ArtLens Studio, ArtLens Exhibition, ArtLens Wall and the ArtLens App, the museum has been creating multi-faceted in-gallery experiences, encouraging museum visitors to engage with the collection in new ways. In 2016, pre-pandemic, CMA began designing its digital experiences for the digital native, using eye-tracking, AI, and gesture based interactive displays in their in-gallery digital experiences.
Thanks to previous investments in the back-end systems that power in-gallery projects, CMA already had robust resources available when lockdowns began. These included an Open Access API, an internal collaborative process for project development, and an integrated collections management and digital asset management systems that facilitated new programming.
Jane Alexander, chief digital officer, says, “We were able to put our energies into creating new, innovative toolsets to break the monotony of digital content during the early months of the pandemic.” CMA grouped these new digital resources together under the “Home Is Where the Art Is” umbrella in order to allow online visitors to easily find relevant resources. The content created under this initiative was for a range of audiences, including students, teachers, families, and members, to help those around the world navigate the year and connect with art in new ways.
“How did the CMA respond quickly to create new content during the pandemic?” Alexander asks. “We collaborated with creative technologists and partners who we’d worked with in the past from across the country, and challenged them to conceptualize web-based initiatives that would inspire, engage, and connect audiences.” Examples of work launched include online collection based tool sets ArtLens AI, ArtLens for Slack, Open Access Dashboards, a redesigned homepage as well as live virtual programs, a video series with over 45 individual videos ,and updates to existing digital tools such as CMA’s Collection Online and ArtLens app.
“The pandemic leveled the playing field,” Alexander continues. “It didn’t matter that we’re not a coastal museum. Audiences were looking for high-quality experiences and we provided them.” Usage surged. For example, there have been 22 million API downloads from March 2020 to when CMA staff returned in March 2022, and 68 million views to collection objects via Wikipedia last year.
Among the many projects CMA created was ArtLens for Slack. “This experience was designed for remote workers after our own team realized we were missing moments of connection and discussion during our remote workday.” ArtLens for Slack helped teams working remotely who were looking for a moment of inspiration or levity in their day. The Slack app sends daily art prompts to individuals on a team, and together they can “curate” daily exhibitions as a group based on CMA collections.
CMA’s extensive pandemic programming demonstrates how long-term investment in digital capacity and learning can pay off. As online engagement continues to grow, curators of in-person exhibitions also are taking note and more boldly integrating digital media in their work. The Museum’s recent Revealing Krishna exhibition featured four digital galleries, each designed around a set of learning goals and created with different technologies, including immersive projections, interactive 3D models, and a mixed-reality walking tour using Microsoft HoloLens 2’s.
CMA’s investments have not gone unnoticed. ArtLens for Slack was a finalist for the Fast Company Innovation by Design Awards in the workplace category “for projects that reveal an inspiring vision for a better future,” and Home is Where the Art Is won a special jury award for “outstanding pandemic pivot” from the GLAMi Museums and the Web Awards.
What’s next for this digitally-adventurous organization? “We’re using digital to create meaningful experiences through art. By using emerging technologies we can extend the life of an exhibition and create informative, inspiring experiences. We want to expand the reach of our collection, and elevate our digital assets on 3-D virtual platforms. We think all museums will benefit when we share resources,” Alexander notes. “We are excited to spur field-wide progress and innovation.”