For museums to make the ‘digital shift’, does the art/artefact market itself have to change?

Seb Chan has just written a great post positing the idea that museums will not truly begin to incorporate the digital into their core operations and institutional DNA until they have significant born digital collections. He writes:

Born-digital no longer requires ‘buildings’ and that’s when things becomes interesting.

He’s right – it is interesting. However, I think it is only scratching the surface of the question, because in order for most museums to view born-digital as being significant for collection, the very art/artefact market likely needs to change. (Note: I am mostly thinking through this issue with the art market in mind.)

Somaya, a commenter on Seb’s post, writes:

Born digital suffers from both impermanence and the ability to be everywhere all at once. Either there is only one copy (which is lost easily) or millions that are everywhere and likely to turn up in collections multiple times (not a good approach of every organisation is spending their resources preserving the same thing).

Until there is a basic shift in fully embracing digital collecting plus preservation, management and provision of access – through policies and strategic directions of these organisations – digital will slip to the side of other more traditional collecting workflows.

Her point, that the born-digital artefact is both impermanent and able to be everywhere at once, seems to run completely counter to the way art markets create value, with their emphasis on rarity, longevity and physicality (and therefore, good prospects for return on investment). A 2008 article from the NYTimes on the sale of a version of the Magna Carta exemplifies this sentiment.

Just when digital reproduction makes it possible to create a “Rembrandt” good enough to fool the eye, the “real” Rembrandt becomes more expensive than ever. Why? Because the same free flow that makes information cheap and reproducible helps us treasure the sight of information that is not. A story gains power from its attachment, however tenuous, to a physical object. The object gains power from the story. The abstract version may flash by on a screen, but the worn parchment and the fading ink make us pause. The extreme of scarcity is intensified by the extreme of ubiquity.

The object, thus, potentially could become more valuable for museums in the short term, and in fact until museums begin to build the digital into core operations and value. There could be both a backlash against the potentially ubiquitous nature of born-digital art/design/architecture etc, and an urge to cling on to what museums have that is different from that which is available everywhere else online, particularly because there is a known and quantifiable value that can be placed on objects in a way that has not yet (to my knowledge) been defined for born-digital artefacts.

Beyond this however, museum collections are undoubtedly influenced by the art market and the interests of private collectors, whose willingness to spend money on acquiring works of art by particular artists will often drive the reputations and careers of those artists (and therefore make them valuable for museums, too, to collect). Such a system is thus a kind of informalised method for vetting those works or artists that a museum should seek to acquire, because those objects (should) have a more likely ROI.

This article explaining the art market by James Panero captures this idea:

The art market has a unique talent for promoting art about the market. Since exhibition history enhances value, the collectors of what we might call “market art” have a vested interest in seeing their work take up space in traditional public collections. They often have the financial leverage to make it happen. In this way, the hedge-fund collector Steven A. Cohen could place Damien Hirst’s shark tank on temporary loan at the Metropolitan Museum. The oversized trinkets of Jeff Koons start appearing at the same time in the museum’s rooftop gallery.

Curators defend such expensive contemporary work as relevant to the commercialism of the age: the market gives meaning to the art.

A quote from Leo Steinberg in the article is also useful.

Art is not, after all, what we thought it was; in the broadest sense it is hard cash. The whole of art, its growing tip included, is assimilated to familiar values. Another decade, and we shall have mutual funds based on securities in the form of pictures held in bank vaults.

What we don’t yet have, then, is the way for equating born-digital art/artefacts with hard cash, and a proven sale/resale history to demonstrate ROI.

In some ways, I am sure this cannot be far away. In the Internet age, information is becoming valuable in ways that were previously unimaginable. The Real Time Report recently reported that estimates put the market value of a Facebook user at between $89-$118. Here, the seemingly intangible has tangible or real value. What the art market, and museums, haven’t yet done is find ways to assess/communicate the intrinsic value of born-digital materials. We don’t yet know what the ROI is, either for private collectors or institutional ones.

And there’s the rub. While Seb is probably right, and it’s not until institutions hold substantial born-digital collections that they are likely to build digital into core museum practice, it might not be until the art/artefact markets begin to intrinsically value born-digital artefacts that they will become a collecting priority.

What do you think?

10 thoughts on “For museums to make the ‘digital shift’, does the art/artefact market itself have to change?

  1. There’s a definite and growing market for digital art – and I think there is much to be gleaned here from the trajectory that the acceptance of ‘video art’ by the market and gallery system has taken.

    But leaving the art world aside, it is going to be fascinating to see how history museums collect and, in the future, exhibit the ‘memories’ of contemporary disasters like the Japanese tsunami, or, even the Queensland floods – where much of the documentation of these events has been born-digital.

    This is where Mia’s Twitter response is so telling – “but museums seem to be ceding digital collecting to lib, archives” (!/miaridge/status/178634719133564929)

    1. Seb, I agree that the art world’s acceptance of video art is likely instructive for digital art, and that the market will (continue to) grow as the value of such pieces becomes more certain. But I wonder how much the problem for museums with collecting born digital is that issue of vetting, of knowing what to keep and collect and what not to. The art market example is one whereby there are definite indicators that an artist or a work is likely to be valuable and thereby collectable. But how do history museums/curators decide which born digital artefacts to acquire, when there is now so much produced?

      Do you think that has an impact? That the sheer amount and fast pace of information being produced makes the process overwhelming? With objects, museums can often collect retrospectively. Is that harder with BD?

      I could be off-base here. I haven’t spoken to curators significantly about born digital collections, so maybe these aren’t actually issues at all.

  2. I think the problem goes beyond just whether or not museums can or should collect “born digital” items. What stops me from collecting those same things on my own? What stops wikipedia? What stops anyone? When dealing with born digital items, why do we need a museum at all when the same items can be archived or collected at dozens of different places? It seems obvious right now that some kind of organization will have to collect this stuff for posterity because the necessary storage and bandwidth is just slightly out of reach of the individual (or a collective of individuals, like a P2P network).

    But that’s a minor hurdle in the overall scheme of things, one that will be overcome. What do we offer in our collections of born digital items that can’t be duplicated by a non-museum entity? What processes do we bring to the table that add value to that collection beyond what anybody can get from gathering that same collection of items themselves? What do we need to do to add value to those born digital collections because I don’t think just collecting them is going to be enough.

    1. Matt, those same questions probably apply to a lot of things collected by history museums etc. Anyone could collect lots of the objects in many institutions. So surely what museums bring to the table with born digital collections is (or should be) the same ones that they bring everywhere – that of selection, preservation and dissemination. It’s not so much that they are the only ones who can collect (and store) objects, but ideally that they should have the expertise to decide what *should* be kept. But it’s there that maybe the process is harder, because maybe the traditional ways of vetting what should be kept don’t necessarily work in context of the scale, fluidity and simultaneously local/global nature of the Internet.

      1. I agree but with caveats. Collective curation has become more common and more widely acceptable to the audience. I agree that a group of experienced curators with a particular process are going to come up with different and often better results, but will the audience agree? Will the audience care? Our problem has shifted from just doing our jobs to really thinking about the processes of our jobs and then exposing those processes to the public so that they understand why museums are still relevant.

        But if we expose our processes, than what’s to prevent the audience (or collective institutions like wikipedia) from doing the same thing we’re doing? It’s like how the advent of DVD commentary tracks suddenly made film school seem much less valuable (except maybe to grant access to resources you wouldn’t otherwise have, but those resources are affordable now so I guess film school is really only good for meeting other people so they can work in your movie). This shift in value hasn’t fully occurred yet, but it’s happening. What started as a few tips about directing on the commentary track of a Scorsese movie has turned into thriving online communities of young directors and actors sharing information and resources to improve their craft, sometimes completely skipping the traditional institutions that used to serve that role. The tools and knowledge of the film-making process are becoming increasingly affordable and available, and at this point it seems a far gone conclusion that the traditional institutions of that industry will have to change or die.

        Expertise has always been a commodity, but it used to require the exchange of actual experts. Now it can be recorded, transmitted and traded without physical presence. I know it’s a long long way off, but what is the eventual result for museums when the difference between us and everyone else is process and that process is totally transparent? Don’t misunderstand this, I think we need to highlight our processes and be transparent about them, but I’m still uncertain where that ultimately leads.

      2. Matt, I’m not sure I agree with that conclusion – physical presence is and will continue to trump mediation. The problem facing museums, though, is that they rely on mediation (through the construct of the exhibition, the website, the publication etc).

    2. I think we offer the same thing we offer now: curation, context, and interpretation. Sure, anyone could get a copy of a digital object, but if that same object is curated into a museum collection its status / cultural importance changes. Moreso then if we offer context (the “why” of its importance) and interpretation (“how” it matters, etc). So that piece of “born digital” doesn’t seem too different to me, and it’s actually where I think a lot of institutions should be turning their focus: becoming an authority online and starting to expand their idea of a collection.

  3. Disqus is not letting me reply directly to your post @sebchan so it’ll have to go here.

    I can still see physical presence trumping mediation for traditional collection objects and the domain knowledge related to them. But when we start talking about born digital objects, the lines between direct experience and mediation start to blur. I’m not sure digital collections share all of the same constraints as other collections, and a lot of what museums have traditionally done for their collections was defined by those constraints.

    Does a born digital collection follow the same rules? Maybe. Certainly some of those constraints will remain, but equally as certain some will not. This is why I keep hammering on the analysis of process. Because I think it’s only through an in depth reconsideration of what museums do and why that we’ll be able to approach some of these issues more meaningfully.

    1. @polackio I think we’re on the same page. You use the word ‘process’ when I use the word ‘mission’. Born-digital forces a change in the relationship of the collection/objects to the service of the mission.

      “What are museums for?” has been something that people inside and outside of museums have been asking since museums first began. Certainly the idea that they are there to ‘preserve memory’ and ‘educate future generations’ is very much up for grabs now. Have a read of the Elaine Gurian paper I posted in the comments on Ed Rodley’s recent post. (Let’s keep the inter-blog commenting alive!)

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