In 2000 the Washington DC based Smithsonian American Museum of Art announced the creation of the New Media/New Century Award.
The project was originally meant as an opportunity for photographers to enrich the museum’s collection of American landscape paintings, creating artworks through a “new medium.” Even if photography can be considered a recent medium when compared to painting, its invention dates back to 1893. At the time, the new medium was totally revolutionary. Today, photography is widely accepted as an art form. As the museum’s photography curator Merry Foresta wisely explained “it seemed it was not the best idea to limit the call to photographers, that we might be missing out on people who were not necessarily defined as photographers, but, media artists who use photography and other tools in their work.” They decided on a general call.
The New Media/New Century Award became one of first projects to support new art created for the Web. The museum accepted proposals for original Web-based projects that explored the subject of American landscape, and how the new medium of Web art affected the American landscape as a subject.
Though the project is over 10 years old, it demonstrates the early and exceptional sensibility of the Smithsonian’s curators. They understood the growing relevance new media art and especially Web-art, and its impact not only on people’s everyday perceptions, but also on the art scene as a whole.
Curator Merry Foresta reported that “new media was transforming the way artists looked at the land, and technology encouraged new interactions with the subject.”
The New Media/New Century Award case at the Smithsonian represents an early solution to the issues of selecting, commissioning and presenting 21st century new media art, with the aim to integrate it into a traditional museum collection.
First of all, curators decided to forget about any selection criteria and left the call general and open to any media artist who used photography and other similar tools in their work. This decision might be seen both as a good and not-so-good one. On the one hand, the number of applications was daunting, and considering the few selection criteria, it was incredibly difficult to decide on one artwork over another. On the other, a general call guaranteed the inclusion of those artists who hadn’t still been able to categorize their works (or didn’t want to) because of a high degree of experimentation. They also chose to put out the call for works to places like Rhizome, demonstrating a distinct effort to cultivate new media practitioners.
The winning artworks were presented on Helios, the museum’s American Photography Center on the Web. This decision was the simplest but most effective way to integrate Web-based artworks into the museum’s collection. In fact, over 10 years later, the works are still free and accessible on the Web. Unfortunately, we don’t know what would happen in case of digital obsolescence, either of the website or of the artworks themselves.
The Smithsonian's New Media/New Century Award took place between 2000 and 2001. With energy company Dominion as the only funder, it is very likely the award call wasn't renovated because of funding issues. However, the case can be considered successful when investigating the way arts institutions promote and deal with new media art. The Smithsonian curators created one of the first mainstream opportunities for digital artists, and tested new channels of communication both with artists and with their audiences. Only a few years later, similar awards were established following the same model, such as Rhizome's Commissions starting 2002.