How Museums Are Dealing With New Media Art: Part 1

The Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington DC is one of the first well established  art institutions to experiment with new media artworks. Source: www.boomsbeat.com

The Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington DC is one of the first well established  art institutions to experiment with new media artworks.

Source: www.boomsbeat.com

New media art constitutes a growing share of contemporary artists’ production, and responding to this trend, a number of U.S. museums have begun to offer commissions. However, selection and exhibition of these works in museums demands radically different thinking.

My research analyzes how museums can cope with the varied challenges presented by such works, and their role in adapting to different needs.

When talking about new media art, there is no single definition. According to a 2001 research study by the Rockefeller Foundation, media artworks can be defined according to nine common elements: fluidity, intangibility, liveness, variability, replicability, connectivity, interactivity, computability, and chance. New media art is a very general and broad category and includes many subcategories. Among these, net art, digital art and plurimedia art are the most common within the visual art field. Nevertheless, the meaning of new media is constantly evolving.

Museums face multiple issues when it comes to presenting these new and varied types of new media art. Cultural producer and media consultant Susan Morris has categorized the largest challenges as follows:

· Control and Policy. No standard licensing policy exist to manage artwork on an online server. Responsibility must be assigned for maintenance of links on museum's websites or the art’s standalone page, if applicable.

· Conservation. Depending on variability of the media used, what are the new issues for conservation? How can institutions ensure they will be able to present new media works 100 years in the future?

· Selection. The Internet provides broad visibility to every artist wishing for it. As a consequence, curatorial selection is becoming more and more difficult. There are a seemingly infinite number of works to choose from. Which criteria should curators adopt to choose artworks featured in museums collections, rather than solely on the Internet?

· Display. How should new media art be displayed? Should museums put an effort into showing works physically in galleries, or should they be displayed online only?

· Format. Sometimes artwork’s formats aren’t acceptable to museums, causing some works to be rejected. For instance, a project that crashed the user’s browser on purpose was rejected: although it didn't damage the computer, any unsaved files would be lost and the museum could not assume the liability.

There is no one clear solution to any of these issues. Institutions must approach issues case-by-case, executing radically different solutions dependent upon the individual exhibitions and artworks.

Taking this into account, my research investigates three American museums that faced the challenges of new media art uniquely: The Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Museum of Contemporary Art in San Francisco and the Smithsonian Art Museum in Washington DC. My next posts will analyze each case more in depth, seeking insights into how each organization faced and solved challenges related to presenting new media art.