Humanizing Technology

Mapping the Art Genome

By Elizabeth Randolph

You have probably heard of Pandora’s Music Genome Project, which uses a sophisticated taxonomy of musical classifications to help listeners discover music they may like. But you may not have heard of the Art Genome Project, which is establishing a set of more than 900 ways to categorize contemporary art (as well as design and architecture) and make it easier to access online.

The Art Genome Project, under the direction of Matthew Israel ’00, is the think tank and research group that powers Artsy (artsy.net), a user-friendly website for those interested in discovering and/or collecting art.

Artsy’s mission is to “make all the world’s art accessible to anyone with an Internet connection,” to link visitors—from collectors to the casual museum-goer—to artworks and artists they might like. The site starts with users’ interests and then helps them to expand their knowledge.

Artsy.net has become a valuable educational tool, as well as a commercial tool for collectors. Visitors can explore about 50,000 artworks by more than 11,000 artists. That makes the website one of the largest collections of contemporary art available online. And after the September release of Artsy’s popular app for the iPhone and iPod touch—downloaded at a rate of about 10,000 a day in the first week alone—it’s even easier to access content.

“Many people are intimidated by galleries and museums, and we want to provide an intermediate step for people to access information in a sophisticated way,” says Israel. “We are trying to create a system where if someone is interested in art, but is uncertain where to start, we could provide a helping hand in allowing them to see connections.”

Every artwork and artist in the Artsy collection has a genome or list of “genes,” explains Israel. And just as genes in humans can point to our appearance and underlying structure, art “genes” can illustrate the formal aspects of, ideas behind, and connections among art and artists. When someone searches for something, Artsy’s algorithms present comparable artists or artworks that the viewer otherwise may not have known about. Also, users who search for an artist are given a vocabulary to help them understand the work. And users who search for an art item are able to browse numerous examples from Artsy’s inventory.

The classifications that inform Artsy’s algorithms are made by staff members with input from Artsy’s gallery and institutional partners. The Art Genome takes into account such characteristics as medium, technique, style, movement, geography, appearance, content and concepts, among others.

Those who search for “Warhol,” for example, might be led to Claes Oldenburg, James Rosenquist, or Tom Wesselmann, as well as other artists not as directly associated with Warhol, but whose work shares common attributes.

After the Art Genome Project was initially presented to galleries and the site was launched (in October 2012), critics voiced concern about how the “genomic” model might affect the explanation of art.

It’s an entirely understandable concern, notes Israel. He explains: “The problem with any type of categorization—which is common in (and foundational to) art history—is that inevitably you lose some of the nuance. Artsy’s challenge is to retain the complexity of the artists, artworks, and ideas involved, while allowing people an accessible vehicle to browse and see how such artists, artworks, and art terminology are understood and relate to each other.”

Being a start-up, Artsy had to prove itself to established institutions, including the Guggenheim Museum, which like all galleries and artists must grant permission for its works to be shown. But, as the company becomes more established, Israel says, people have begun to trust and really engage with the platform. Artsy partners with more than 500 leading galleries and more than 140 museums, foundations, and artists’ estates.

Israel’s own pedigree as an art history educator as well as his experience in the New York art world didn’t hurt. After receiving a degree in English from Vassar, Israel earned a PhD in art history and archaeology at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts—his dissertation became his first book, Kill for Peace: American Artists against the Vietnam War. In between Vassar and his PhD, Israel also taught art history at NYU, Parsons, and the Museum of Modern Art, New York; worked for prominent New York artist foundations, estates, and galleries, such as Matthew Marks Gallery and Gagosian Gallery; and contributed essays to art magazines such as Artforum, Art in America, and Frieze, as well as to catalogues on contemporary artists.

While education has always been central to Artsy’s mission, Israel and his colleagues recently made an effort to provide supplementary content and features for teachers—efforts that recently resulted in Artsy’s “Digital Ready” partnership with the New York City Department of Education.

Artsy’s blogs are another educational component of the site. They allow curators and critics who wish to share additional information about an artist, movement, or specific piece to add their commentary. It’s one of the ways Artsy builds a bit more nuance into its information about artists and artworks, says Israel.

He makes sure to do his part. One can learn about the art of portraiture, the art historic significance of Constantin Brancusi's sculpture Bird in Space, and more by visiting Israel’s Artsy blog.

For more information on Artsy, visit artsy.net. You’ll find Matthew Israel’s blog at artsy.net/matthew.