Discovering Art the Art.sy Way
The first time you visit the Art.sy site you might think that you've stumbled onto a modest labor of love, created by those with a passion for art. In this you'd be only half right, since it turns out that there's some serious horsepower behind the initiative, which has no less of a mission than "to make all the world's art freely accessible to anyone with an Internet connection."
Yes, this does sound somewhat like the Google Art Project, launched last year to display high-resolution images of artwork from global partner museums and galleries, which now number 151. Visitors can use the site to tour the various institutions using Google's proven Street View technology or simply search by artist name to to view all the works by an artist in the entire collection, which now exceeds 32,000. The approach is useful enough for those with a taste for the classics, and the high-resolution nature of the photos makes it possible to zoom in to the point where you feel your nose is about to bump into the canvas, but for me there's still something missing.
I wasn't able to put my finger on what that missing element was until a recent visit to Art.sy, where it immediately become apparent — discovery. Just as one of the strengths of the Web is its ability to help us discover related content that we didn't know existed, Art.sy is attempting, with some success, a similar approach. It's worth pointing out that the two founders of the site provide a nice balance between the visual arts and technology. Carter Cleveland is a Princeton computer science grad with an art historian and collector father, while Sebastian Cwilich held an executive post with Christie's auction house. The two have managed to attract millions in venture backing, which they've invested in building an artificial intelligence-based system for categorizing artworks that serves as the discovery engine for the site.
Dubbed the The Art Genome Project, this tags works of art from a database of 800 characteristics, creating interesting connections between the 17,000 works currently on the site. In contrast with the Google Art Project, Art.sy sources its images from a broader network that includes private galleries and collections, with an emphasis on contemporary art. The business model of the site is to make a commission on sales, so in wandering through the works you'll find yourself moving from an Old Master to a recently-created work, based on criteria in the database. Some might find that jarring but it felt right to me, since it's the connection between works that really brings them to life. In fact, I'm already spending far too much time on the site, so it must be doing something right.