Art-Talk at the Digital Water Cooler

Written and Curated by Erika Hirugami, MAAB. | January 21, 2020

The Writing-Master of the Old Schoolmaster
Franz Seraph Hanfstaengl. German

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Confined to my home by the COVID-19 pandemic, I found new ways to engage with the collection at the Cleveland Museum of Art (CMA).

Confined to my home by the COVID-19 pandemic, I became obsessed with remotely viewing the photogrammetry collection at the Cleveland Museum of Art (CMA) . To my surprise, I discovered that the CMA has also curated content within the Slack environment (a digital project management platform to help teams to streamline their workflow). I use Slack constantly to manage many of my projects, and now I can digitally partake in water cooler art-talk with my colleagues. 

The more I engaged with the CMA collection via Slack, the more questions came up for me. So I decided to ask the experts of the tech team responsible for creating this feature. Jane Alexander, Chief Digital Information Officer, and Haley Kedziora, Digital Project Manager, joined me in conversation to discuss how the Cleveland Museum of Art’s expansive open access collection provides a moment for art appreciation in the busy workday.

Erika Hirugami: How did the idea to create ArtLens for Slack come about?

Jane Alexander: When the museum shut down on March 14th due to COVID, we were in the middle of preparations for a major scholarly mixed-reality (physical and digital) exhibition originally set to open in October 2020. The closure upset the museum’s exhibition schedule and forced us to quickly adapt to solely producing digital content. We wanted to do more than simply move the museum experience online. We wanted to think differently about the future of museums and how online experiences make art matter.  

I had already reached out to creative technologists and partners from across the country whom I had worked with in the past on different versions of ArtLens Gallery, the CMA’s digital collection, and I challenged them to conceptualize a new type of initiative that would inspire, engage, and connect audiences. One of the first ideas we implemented was a proposal by Phillip Tiongson, principal at the Potion design studio, to use Slack to create a daily art-themed prompt. We focused on remote workers, since we had all recently become remote ourselves. ArtLens for Slack is an app that sends daily prompts to individuals on a team and helps them curate daily exhibitions as a group. The concept, meant to leverage virtual platforms into an online stand-in for the office “water cooler moment,” hit home for us, as we were lacking our usual art-filled surroundings and feeling isolated from the rest of our team.

To my surprise, I discovered that the CMA has also curated content within the Slack environment, and now I can digitally partake in water cooler art-talk with my colleagues.

Haley Kedziora: In the late spring of 2020, when we launched the app, we focused on content related to things that felt prevalent at the time. Prompts like “Social Distancing Like a Pro,” “Working Without Clothing,” and “Personal Protective Equipment” referenced the new reality we found ourselves in and made light of some of the more novel topics that were suddenly unavoidable parts of daily life. There are still plenty of call-backs to the remote work experience.

EH: How does ArtLens for Slack work?

HK:  Every Monday through Friday morning (but not weekends), the app sends team members a new prompt, with multiple-choice options for selecting artworks related to the topic at hand. For example, if today’s exhibition is “A World Without Zoom,” the prompt looks as follows:

If you choose “messenger bird,” the app gives you an artwork from the collection related to your choice—for example, a ceramic pigeon or an etching of a soaring hawk. An artwork is selected by clicking “I like it,” or users can shuffle to see more options related to the term. Then team members have the option to write a comment to share thoughts, say why you picked it, or add a funny observation, fun fact, or whatever else feels relevant.

Over the course of the day, ArtLens for Slack gathers the artworks and comments selected by your entire team. At five o’clock, the app sends you an announcement of the exhibition opening. You can head over to the exhibition to see your teammates’ selections and comments. For us, doing this daily has brought our team closer and inserted humor into long, exhausting days. We’ve gotten to know each other better, too. Some of the funniest comments we’ve seen were from those who are quietest in meetings. Not to mention, any artwork you see has a direct link to the collection online, allowing users to explore the depth of content available online for each artwork they come across. 

EH: As an encyclopedic museum with an impressive collection, you are asking the public to make daily selections on a pre-curated platform. How do you curate Slack-specific content? What makes artworks ideal for the Slack environment? How did you begin to think about specific daily prompts?

HK: Our goal with each prompt is to keep the content lighthearted and relevant. We focus on topics ranging from recent news to popular shows on Netflix, from weekend plans to the challenges of working from home or social distancing. Because we are bridging current topics with open access artworks that span from antiquity to the 20th century, there is sometimes a little imagination required when creating each prompt. Sometimes, an event that happened the day prior provides the perfect setup. For example, on the first day of school for many distanced learners, there was a nationwide Zoom outage. Naturally, the next day’s prompt would be “A World Without Zoom.” Other times, responding to the news directly feels too heavy, or outside of the goals of ArtLens for Slack. Occasionally, the message serves as a reminder to shake up a routine, to take a break, or to carve out time for a staycation. No matter what the theme is, the choices related to the prompt have to connect to the artwork to make it successful. For example, if a prompt is about a daily commute—or lack thereof—the first thought might be to include artwork that references modern-day cars. But those relevant artworks are produced too recently to fall under public domain and be included in the open access collection, so instead a commute might take place in a chariot or carriage, or on the back of a horse. 

Because we are bridging current topics with open access artworks that span from antiquity to the 20th century, there is sometimes a little imagination required when creating each prompt.

When I’m sitting down to start a prompt, I begin by looking in a variety of places for inspiration. Some days it starts by scrolling through trending topics on Twitter, or from a coworker’s off-hand comment in a meeting. Occasionally, inspiration strikes from a moment of self-reflection—thinking about what’s been on my mind lately, and the kind of content I’d like to see at the beginning and end of my workday. After writing out a basic theme, next comes finding the artwork that supports it. To choose artworks that align with a selected theme within an expansive and encyclopedic collection of more than 36,000 objects, we leverage our open access application programming interface (API) to build specific searches. For example, if we want to make a prompt where one of the multiple-choice options is “beach,” we will direct the app to display artworks that have the word “beach,” “ocean,” or “sea” in their title. That way, the user receives a wide variety of beach-themed artworks, from paintings of dramatic whitecaps to prints of Victorian beachgoers in their period swimwear. 

EH: What is the next level in the evolution of this project? How do you see it growing?

JA: We’d like to ultimately see the concept grow to other platforms, such as Microsoft Teams, which over 500,000 organizations use. We see this project as one that can be seamlessly incorporated into nearly any traditional or nontraditional workday, regardless of the specific productivity platform being used. To us, the app offers daily engagement with world-class art that enriches remote workplaces with a new type of meaningful conversation. 

The app offers daily engagement with world-class art that enriches remote workplaces with a new type of meaningful conversation.

We also see ArtLens for Slack expanding to collaborate with other open access API museum collections. Just imagine the wealth of cute puppy images you might see in a prompt about pets if it was pulling themed objects from not just the CMA’s collection, but also those of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Smithsonian, and the Rijksmuseum.

EH: I enjoy this tool daily from my home in Los Angeles. I wonder what community your museum serves, and has this tool helped you reach an audience outside of this original community, even outside of Cleveland?

JA: The museum at large serves audiences on a local, national, and international level. The CMA is known for the quality and breadth of its collection, which consists of over 61,000 artworks spanning 6,000 years, and is viewed and studied by users around the world. We even have open access dashboards that visualize the traffic coming to the Collection Online, open access API, and Wikipedia. While most activities have had less traffic while the museum has been closed, those areas specifically have increased to all-time highs, especially compared to the same period a year ago. Now that everyone is online, the location playing field is leveled, and our resources are being used worldwide like never before. Toolsets like ArtLens for Slack contribute to raising awareness by reaching a specific audience where they are.

EH: Slack is a niche tool made for a specific type of professional. What alternative ways to engage with the Cleveland Museum of Art exist today? How can the essential worker who is not tied to a screen all day engage with your museum offsite?

JA: Since the launch of ArtLens Gallery in 2012, the CMA has been a leader in creating digital connections to art. There is a wealth of ways to engage with the Cleveland Museum of Art virtually and from afar. We’ve created toolsets and a suite of content to enjoy the museum digitally from anywhere with the campaign “Home Is Where the Art Is.” We’ve included not just the new initiatives but also showcased ongoing projects, like our collection of 3-D photogrammetry objects. Our homepage itself is a testament to everything that is available, and it is constantly shifting to reflect new offerings.

As an institution, we are constantly trying to ask ourselves, “What’s the museum of the future?”

Since shortly after the museum’s closure, the CMA has been releasing weekly video series where curators, educators, and more dive into topics ranging from a specific artwork or current exhibition to interviews with performing artists. Additionally, the museum holds regular virtual events, including a live program on Wednesdays that people can stream on their lunch break (or watch on YouTube later) and a bimonthly virtual dance party. There are also numerous educational activities, perfect for parents, educators, and students alike to engage with the CMA’s collection. As an institution, we are constantly trying to ask ourselves, “What’s the museum of the future?” 

EH: In closing, link me to the CMA immediately, please. And thank you!

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