Reviewed August 2014
Ashley Kelleher, M.S. LIS / M.S. History of Art Candidate
Begun in 2011, the Art Genome Project is an iterative taxonomy of terms describing artworks, artists, and art historical movements. The Project's team creates a unique, dynamic metadata scheme that classifies content in Artsy, a freely accessible discovery platform for users to learn about, research, or collect art. Descriptive terms generated by the Project are informed by art historical scholarship, on-going scholarly discourse, research conducted by the Project team, and feedback from Artsy’s partner galleries, museums, and users.
The Project's vocabulary currently includes over 1,200 terms referred to by the Project as “genes.” Approximately twenty-five genes are applied to each art image, which in turn are donated to Artsy by its various partner museums and galleries. A Robert Mapplethorpe photograph, for instance, may be mapped with related genes such as “Art of the 1990s,” “Sexual Identity,” “Black-and-white Photography,” and “Focus on Social Margins.” The Project further assigns each term on a scaled value from zero to one hundred to reflect the relative importance of the term to an Artsy image. This approach of classifying an object, of applying a nuanced “gene,” is highly innovative for relational mapping, and provides the user with a unique way to interact with and learn about different kinds of art; Artsy’s record for Mapplethorpe’s photograph of Lydia Cheng (1996) directs the user to “Related Artworks,” featuring nudes by dozens of other artists including Chuck Close, Richard Phillips, and Harry Callahan.
Artsy’s image collection is comprehensive in scope and spans all art historical periods; artworks out of copyright are available for free downloaded through Artsy. Artsy’s strongest asset is its collection of contemporary art images. One can browse through any number of partner galleries with the A-Z listing. Artsy also covers modern and contemporary architecture but on a much smaller scale, with approximately 215 works classed as “Architecture.”
The Art Genome Project’s ability to map Artsy’s content based on such taxonomic relationships sets it apart from existing vocabularies, where authoritative terms may focus strictly on the subject or artwork at hand rather than link its relationship to other works or, more broadly, position it within a greater artistic concept, e.g. "Focus on Social Margins." A quick comparison with projects such as those within the Google Cultural Institute or collections databases such as the New York Public Library’s Digital Gallery will show how the Project’s taxonomy combined with the Artsy collection offers a unique approach to exploring artwork, while museums worldwide provide online access to their physical collections, and sometimes consortially.
The very component that makes Artsy valuable to a researcher is, at times, the source of its criticism. Arsty, with the help of the Art Genome Project’s language, promotes the artwork that partner galleries are showing or trying to sell and Artsy does profit from sales of these artworks. But this reviewer feels that such a criticism is far outweighed by the unprecedented, free access that Artsy makes to art and in particular, contemporary art held by major institutions as well as small, local galleries. Moreover, the way in which this artwork is made available, the way it can be searched and discovered, is a huge advance. And as Artsy’s collections continue to grow and diversify as new partner galleries and museums contribute their images, it will become all the more important a research resource as well, perhaps, as a commercial avenue for the art trade.
For educators, the platform also offers something far more dynamic than a visual resource digital collection: a novel structure for engagement with not just a specific artwork but also its relation to other artworks, galleries, exhibitions, and featured shows. Due to Art Genome Project’s taxonomy, Artsy users can engage in a seamless flow of visual content generated by their general interest, a specific artist, or a random keyword. And while the taxonomy is critical to the experience, Artsy’s platform is highly intuitive and visually stimulating, making for an well-engineered experience. While the Art Genome Project and Artsy are two distinct efforts, it is difficult to imagine one with out the other. As the Project grows, so to will Artsy, through its own collaborations with galleries and museums which will continue to provide a unique and engaging experience in exploring art, particularly contemporary art for years to come.