Monday, 28 February 2011

Culture Gabfest

It only takes me 20 minutes to walk to work. I count myself blessed. But because it is human nature to want what we don't have, I occasionally envy people who come in from Featherston or Masterton on the train their lovely, long, passive commute (also, I acknowledge, nasty, crowded, limited and controlled).

I envy them because the world is filled with awesome podcasts and I have no place in my life in which to listen to them. I can't listen and work, I can't listen and run, I can't listen and read. I fit in one podcast a week while I iron, and my podcast of choice is Slate's Culture Gabfest (although occasionally I will be diverted by Melvyn Bragge's 'In Our Time', NPR's 'This American Life', the Guardian's science podcast, or the New Yorker's 'The Political Scene').

Just after I talked on Nine to Noon about the Google Art Project, I listened to the Gabfest's three hosts - Stephen Metcalf, Dana Stevens and Julia Turner - cover the topic. It made me realise that I had approached the project with too many insider assumptions. I know how hard it is for large organisations (and small ones) to collaborate, I know copyright can be a bitch, I know the resources required for a project like this. But to hear the Gabfest call out museum's websites as generally a bit shit (user research everyone - read it and weep) and ask why Google Art can't simply perform the same role as Google Books - every artwork in every museum able to be found easily online - reminded me that sometimes you have to put your knowledge to one side in order to really assess the potential of a new thing.

This week, among other topics, the Gabfest covered a recent New York Times article about ebooks signalling the death of marginalia. As the three hosts noted, these stories about ebooks removing the romance of paper books are regular features in the arts sections of newspapers.

As a dog-earer rather than a marginalist, I'm not too worried about the fact that typing in a note in a Kindle edition of a book is different from scrawling your BULLSHIT!!! in a soft pencil. I can understand though that marginalia can give fascinating insights into what authors think when they read others' work, or, as one of the scholars rather quaintly puts it:
examining marginalia reveals a pattern of emotional reactions among everyday readers that might otherwise be missed, even by literary professionals.

“It might be a shepherd writing in the margins about what a book means to him as he’s out tending his flock,” Professor Jackson said. “It might be a schoolgirl telling us how she feels. Or maybe it’s lovers who are exchanging their thoughts about what a book means to them.”

As a result of using Goodreads, I have come to realise that there are only a small number of people whose opinions I am really interested in sharing when it comes to books, and that I usually find the opinions of strangers are bemusing, or simply uninteresting (and, occasionally, unintentionally hilarious). I've obviously yet to have my egg-salad moment.

Marginalia - Billy Collins

Sometimes the notes are ferocious,
skirmishes against the author
raging along the borders of every page
in tiny black script.
If I could just get my hands on you,
Kierkegaard, or Conor Cruise O'Brien,
they seem to say,
I would bolt the door and beat some logic into your head.

Other comments are more offhand, dismissive -
"Nonsense." "Please!" "HA!!" -
that kind of thing.
I remember once looking up from my reading,
my thumb as a bookmark,
trying to imagine what the person must look like
why wrote "Don't be a ninny"
alongside a paragraph in The Life of Emily Dickinson.

Students are more modest
needing to leave only their splayed footprints
along the shore of the page.
One scrawls "Metaphor" next to a stanza of Eliot's.
Another notes the presence of "Irony"
fifty times outside the paragraphs of A Modest Proposal.

Or they are fans who cheer from the empty bleachers,
Hands cupped around their mouths.
"Absolutely," they shout
to Duns Scotus and James Baldwin.
"Yes." "Bull's-eye." "My man!"
Check marks, asterisks, and exclamation points
rain down along the sidelines.

And if you have managed to graduate from college
without ever having written "Man vs. Nature"
in a margin, perhaps now
is the time to take one step forward.

We have all seized the white perimeter as our own
and reached for a pen if only to show
we did not just laze in an armchair turning pages;
we pressed a thought into the wayside,
planted an impression along the verge.

Even Irish monks in their cold scriptoria
jotted along the borders of the Gospels
brief asides about the pains of copying,
a bird signing near their window,
or the sunlight that illuminated their page-
anonymous men catching a ride into the future
on a vessel more lasting than themselves.

And you have not read Joshua Reynolds,
they say, until you have read him
enwreathed with Blake's furious scribbling.

Yet the one I think of most often,
the one that dangles from me like a locket,
was written in the copy of Catcher in the Rye
I borrowed from the local library
one slow, hot summer.
I was just beginning high school then,
reading books on a davenport in my parents' living room,
and I cannot tell you
how vastly my loneliness was deepened,
how poignant and amplified the world before me seemed,
when I found on one page

A few greasy looking smears
and next to them, written in soft pencil-
by a beautiful girl, I could tell,
whom I would never meet-
"Pardon the egg salad stains, but I'm in love."

Friday, 25 February 2011

Thursday, 24 February 2011

Split Second

If you haven't already done so, it's a good time to go check out Brooklyn Museum's latest online experiment, Split Second: Indian Paintings.

As Shelley Bernstein explains in a blog post, the project is inspired by Malcolm Gladwell's book Blink

The book explores the power and pitfalls of initial reactions. After reading it, I started to wonder how the same theories might apply to a visitor’s reaction to a work of art. How does a person’s split-second reaction to a work of art change with the addition of typical museum interpretive text? As visitors walk through our galleries, what kind of work are they drawn to? And if they stop, look, read, or respond, how does their opinion of that work change?

On the Split Second site, you're asked to interact with images of Indian paintings from the Museum's collections in three ways. First, you are briefly presented to two images, and asked to pick the one that interests you most. Next, you're asked to apply words to individual works, and then rate their appeal to you on a sliding scale. Finally, you're given a work with some interpretative text and asked to rate it.

The online aspect of the Split Second show ends on April 14. Curators will use the data collected to help determine the selection of works for the exhibition, which opens in July:

Visitors will be able to view a small selection of the paintings that generated the most controversial and dynamic responses during the evaluation process, accompanied by a visualization and analysis of the data collected.

This interest in data-driven curating calls to mind the attempt at the new MONA in Tasmania to gather visitor data through audio-tours. More subtle than a pure popularity contest (vote for what you want to see on the floor), Split Second is an interesting attempt to gauge what it is that attracts people to certain artworks, and how they respond to the contextual information presented (or left out) by museums, without a straigh-out survey. I'm looking forward to seeing the results.

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

"I would like it to have a beautiful colour"

It's not often I write about books before I read them, but I'm making an exception for Lauren Redniss's Radioactive: Marie and Pierre Curie, which just arrived in the post in all its matte-stock glory.

I impulse-bought the book on the recommendation of this New York Times review. It is as beautiful as they suggested. So beautiful, in fact, that the New York Public Library currently has an exhibition of drawings from the book. Redniss worked on the book when she was a Fellow at the Library’s Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers in 2008-2009; the exhibition brings together her original works with the collection items that inspired and influenced her. I wish our National Library had a programme for artists, illustrators, graphic novelists and data visualisers like this.

As with Ernest Rutherford, I dove into Marie Curie's life last year, as I read about early work on radiation. Alongside Rutherford's experiment hurling alpha particles at a sheet of gold foil, the image of Curie reducing a mountain of pitchblende to a few brilliant specks of radium must be one of the most enduring of 20th century science.

The title of this post comes from Lydia Davis's short story 'Marie Curie, So Honorable Woman', in her Collected Stories. It is Pierre Curie expressing his hopes for radium. Having only flicked through the book, it feels like Redniss has captured, alongside Pierre and Marie Curie's work, the faith they had in the essential beauty of their science.

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Book review: Sarah Bakewell ' How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer'

Annoyingly, I spent three quarters of an hour drafting a tremendous review of this book in Goodreads, and then promptly lost it by accidently flipping to Wikipedia (Goodreads needs an autosave feature). Here's the dim shadow of what may have been - I persisted simply because I think this is a terrifically good book.

I have been trying to read Montaigne's essays for about 12 years now. Montaigne entered my consciousness in my first year at university, when I somehow picked up the notion that every well-rounded reader should be acquainted with his writing.

However, my every attempt to grapple with the Essays has thus far left me flummoxed by the As and Bs and Cs that are scattered through the sentences, the snippets of Latin and French, and the roundabouts and whirligigs of the language. While every commentator dwells upon Montaigne's personal appeal to the reader (a dangerous seduction for those who find his writing seditious; a sense of self-identification for those who don't) I couldn't find my entry point.

Sarah Bakewell has given it to me. She notes at the end of this book that it was five years in the making, and I don't doubt that at all. Not only must the research and reading required been prodigious, but that crafting of research into the eventual structure of the book must have been a painstaking process (unless Bakewell is touched by a genius for textual visualisation).

A little background. Michel Montaigne (1533-1592) was a landowner, writer, politician and diplomat who live in the Aquitaine region of France, near Bordeaux (his father was a winemaker, and the label still exists). Montaigne lived through a period of French history characterised by religious conflict and civil war, but also an intellectual context that mirrored that of the Italian Renaissance, with great love and respect for Greek and Roman culture and philosophy.

During his life, Montaigne was perhaps better known for his influence as a politician and go-between in royal matters, but he was also known for his Essays; short pieces of that reflect from his own point of view on various topics. The word 'Essay' here comes from the French, essai, for attempt or trial - Montaigne's pieces were the first example of a new genre: short, subjective takes on a chosen topic.

Bakewell's book, as the title declares, takes the overarching question asked in Montaigne's essays - How to live? - and offers twenty answers drawn from the texts. Both the structure and the answers - Use little tricks; Read a lot, forget most of what you read, and be slow-witted; Don't worry about death; Reflect on everything, regret nothing; Be ordinary and imperfect - can sound glib. But both, when ventured into, prove to be rich, engrossing, pragmatic, and humane.

Bakewell manages to move roughly chronologically through Montaigne's life, setting his writing within his biography, his personal relationships, his work as a public servant, and his historical context. She shows us the prevailing intellectual modes of the day, and does an especially good job of explaining how Montaigne's writing has been received and perceived, used and abused up to the present day; from his contemporaries, who admired his application of Stoic philosophy and collation of extracts of classic texts, to Descartes and Pascal, who were horrified and transfixed by his Scepticism, to the 17th century libertins who celebrated his free thinking, four centuries of English readers and interpreters, who took some pleasure in adopting this son of France who was cast out from his native literary tradition and placed on the Index of Prohibited Books for 180 years, the modernist writers who wanted to replicate the immediacy of his writing, the sense of being fully-grounded in the present, and in today's world, the proliferation in the late 20th-early 21st century of the public-private personal essay in the form of the blog.

Each chapter, then, does not simply recap what Montaigne says about reading and remembering what you read, or marriage and how to raise children, or friendship, or how to prepare oneself for one's death. And it would not be that simple, as Montaigne's writing is not that simple. It would be easy to recast his writing as self-help speak: to achieve goal X, apply methods Y and Z. But that wouldn't be true to Montaigne's own approach, which was circular, occasionally contradictory, always exploratory, never authoritative, and often ended with a Gallic shrug, a wry smile, and whatever the French is for 'Eh, what do I know?'.

Underpinning Montaigne's essays - and his entire approach to life - are three schools of classic philosophy. My favourite chapter of Bakewell's book - 'Use little tricks' - lays out this territory, but to give a rough summary ...

Stoicism taught Montaigne to face up to the life unflinchingly. Scepticism taught him question everything to never take anything fro granted, to always seek other perspectives, and to avoid making or building off assumptions. And Epicureanism taught him to focus on the pleasure available in life whilst living in these ways.

All three schools, despite their different approaches, share one goal: to achieve 'eudaimonia', a way of living that is translated as happiness, or human florishing. This means living well, without fear, with the ability to enjoy every moment, by being a good person. The best way to achieve eudaimonia is through 'ataraxia' or becoming free of anxiety; of (consciously) developing the ability to move through life on an even keel. To do this, one must overcome two major hurdles: controlling one's emotions, and paying attention to the present. All three schools taught ways - little tricks - of achieving these ends. None offer an answer to the question 'How to live?'; none say that if you do X and obey Y you will be happy. Instead, all three offer a method, thought experiments and mental tricks that will help you calm yourself and bring yourself into the moment. From there, it is up to you. As Montaigne himself wrote: 'Life should be an aim unto itself, a purpose unto itself'.

So Montaigne's essays show him attempting to live out these precepts, to apply them to moments like the death of a friend, the fear of armed bandits, the passing of a kidney stone, playing with one's cat (somehow, in a way I still don't fully understand, Montaigne's sudden switch of perspective, from seeing his cat as something he played with to himself as a toy for his cat, got him blacklisted by Descartes and led to his posthumous falling-out with the Catholic church).

Bakewell's book is utterly beguiling, which makes me think Montaigne must be too. So I am going to tackle the essays again, this time feeling a little more prepare, knowing what to look for, and ready to be surprised.

Sunday, 20 February 2011

A trophy, and some thoughts on blogging

Last night at the ONYAs awards, this blog won the Best Content (Personal) category. The very kind judges said: "“Courtney's inquiring mind and catholic tastes make this site a pleasure to dip into, or to trawl through at length: rewarding at every turn.

I was so taken aback by winning that I did a complete Anna Paquin on the stage and lost all the poise I've worked so hard over the past two or three years to earn. In doing so, I rediscovered just how great it feels to be shit-scared by something (even if it's just the walk to the stage).

I was unprepared because I honestly thought either Ben Gracewood or Miraz Jordan, the other finalists in the category, would win. [My money was on Ben, because it astounds me he fits that site into his life alongside work and fatherhood, and the community he has built around it is startling.]

I was also unprepared for how I'd react to winning. It turns out that I still see this blog as a private (you know, for something that's on the internet) and somewhat amateur (in the old-fashioned sense) endeavour. The ONYAs are organised by the wonderful people behind Webstock, and supported by the same ardent community. I wasn't ready to have their attention focused on me. It was lovely, and readers who I would never have expected came out of the woodwork, but it was all most unsettling. (And - naturally - wonderful.)

I entered the ONYAs to give myself a kick in the butt about this blog. Best of 3 has been around for more than four years, and over that time I've learned a lot from writing it, derived opportunities from it, done some good things with it, and had some lovely and encouraging feedback.

Many of those things have dwindled over the past year. I was comparing notes with Robyn Gallagher (a fantastically talented writer, if you're not following her already). Both of us have noticed that comments have withered away lately, and we speculated about whether this was because people now click a Facebook like button or tweet out a link to show their reaction to something you've written. In general, blogging just feels a bit less rewarding than it used to.

The conversation came about at the Future of Blogging panel at yesterday's Wordpress Camp. I don't use Wordpress (obviously) but the organisers kindly let me drop in for this session, because I really wanted to hear what Julie Starr and Richard MacManus (along with facilitator Lance Wiggs and fellow panellists John Ford and ring-in David Farrar) had to say. In fact, I was so curious that even posted some question to the WordCamp site in advance of the event:

I occasionally run social media workshops, often in the cultural/not-for-profit/government sectors (for my sins, mind you, not because I promote myself as any kind of social media guru, ninja, prodigy or consultant).

I still regularly hear people say in these sessions that they don’t ‘believe in’ or ‘trust’ information they see on blogs (the quote I often hear is “I did a search on X but all I got was blogs and I don’t trust them”).

My gut feeling is that these people are nonetheless reading and believing materials presented on blogs (whether they recognise the website they’re looking at is a blog or not). But my question is – do blogs still have a reputation issue?

And an observation. I *do* believe in the material I find on blogs. I have learned more from reading blog posts than I did in six years of academic study. It’s been integral to the way my career has developed. And yet I’m quite worried at the moment that people are going to give up on this kind of ‘professional’ blogging, and the chatter is moving to twitter and facebook. What if in a year’s time I open up my feedreader and it’s bereft of tasty posts? Is the golden age of blogging over? (I guess that’s a question after all).

I am seriously concerned that people are going to stop blogging (and let's not even get into how worried I am about RSS). Not all blogs, of course; selfishly, I'm worried about the blogs I follow and get value from. When asked what the difference was between the way they blogged in 2009 and in 2010, almost all the panellists said they blogged less.

I have benefited hugely from the generosity of people like Derek Powazek, Seb Chan, Shelley Bernstein, Daniel Incandela, George Oates, Nina Simon, and Kathy Sierra - all people who have freely shared detailed and often entertaining accounts of what they do, how they do it, and what they think about it.

I have tried to follow in this tradition myself - more so, possibly, on my work blogs (first at the National Library and now at Boost New Media). I'm aware that I have blogged less here, and in less depth, since getting a regular spot on National Radio and since joining Goodreads. And at work I find it hard to squeeze blogging time in around client work. But the ONYA award, and the kindness of people when I won, has been exactly the kick in the ass I needed. From now on, I pledge to do better. Thank you all for being here.

Thursday, 17 February 2011

The Google Art Project

My notes from today's radio spot ...

What is the Google Art Project?

At its heart, the Google Art Project allows you to explore art museums around the world the same way that Google Street View allows you to explore streets. You can zoom and fly around the galleries, and get close-up to individual works with high-resolution digital images.

Currently it's made up of 17 partnering institutions – mainly European and American – and contains 1000 images of artworks, by 400 artists. Participating museums include The Metropolitan Museum of Art and MoMA in New York, The State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Tate Britain & The National Gallery in London, Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid, the Uffizi Gallery in Florence and Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.

Each of the partnering museums has selected a hero work, which has been photographed with gigapixel photo-capturing technology. Each of these images contains around 7 billion pixels, around 1,000 times more detailed than your average digital camera. This allows extreme close zoom: more detail than you can achieve with the naked eye. The hero images include Hans Holbein’s The Ambassadors, Van Gogh’s Starry Night, Brueghal’s Harvesters, Botticelli’s Birth of Venus.

Accompanying the artworks are various pieces of information, including written texts, audio tours and videos of curators talking about the works.

Genesis of the Project

Google is well-known for its 20% time policy, whereby staff are encouraged to spend one fifth of their time working on projects of their own choosing, rather than allocated tasks. It’s not a new way of doing things, but it does act very effectively in terms of research and development. New features for existing products, and entirely new products, have emerged from this.

The Google Art Project is one of these 20% projects. Amit Sood, project lead:

It started when a small group of us who were passionate about art got together to think about how we might use our technology to help museums make their art more accessible—not just to regular museum-goers or those fortunate to have great galleries on their doorsteps, but to a whole new set of people who might otherwise never get to see the real thing up close.

The project builds off existing technology, like Google’s Picasa photo technology and its App Engine, which allows people to build and host web apps using the same systems Google uses.

The key to it was working with the Street View technology. Remember how those cars drove around New Zealand, taking the images that turned into Street View, so we don’t need to own paper maps anymore?

The Street View team adapted this to a trolley that can be used indoors, either pulled behind a bike or pushed by a person. The trolley took 360-degree images of the interior of selected galleries in the museums. These were then stitched together and mapped to their location, enabling smooth navigation of more than 385 rooms within the museums.

Using the website

You can do a bunch of things inside the website:

You can move through the galleries the way you do on Google Street View. It’s kind of like driving a robot – you’re clicking buttons to push the ‘view’ forward on the path. You can also open up a floorplan view that lets you quickly access the different rooms that have been filmed.

When you hover your mouse over a painting (they’re almost all paintings) you can click to pull it into focus.

Clicking on the little plus-sign next to an artwork opens up a special view for it, where you can zoom into a high-res copy, and open up information about the work, the artist, find more works by that artist, jump to more works in that museum’s collection, and watch videos where they’re available.

If you create an account, you can select works to add to a personal collection, add comments, and save specific close-ups, then email or distribute links. So, for example, you might want to show people a specific detail of a painting, so you zoom in, save it, add a comment, then tweet the link out.

Reactions to the Project

I’ve read quite a few articles by art critics and journalists who have played with the Art Project.

Some, like Roberta Smith in the New York Times, are pretty positive. Yes, this can’t replace the physical experience of visiting a museum, the human scale you get when you stand in front of an artwork in the same place that its maker stood.

Yes, the quality is a bit grainy at times, and the galleries’ lighting doesn’t translate well to the screen all the time.

Yes, the number of museums, rooms and artworks is limited, but this is a first iteration, and by all accounts Google intends to expand it.

But on the upside: no airplane tickets. No entry fee. No crowds. No opening hours. The ability to dive deep deep in – valuable both to the browser and to the academic.

This is particularly apparent in the one contemporary hero image, Chris Ofili’s No Woman No Cry in the Tate Modern.

The experience of zooming into this work is almost hallucinatory. It turns into this gleaming, fractured mosaic of extreme beauty. The work includes collaged images of Stephen Lawrence, a black teenager who was stabbed to death while waiting for a bus in 1993. You have the option to switch to dark view, so you can see the glow-in-the-dark words “RIP Stephen Lawrence 1974-1993”.

Part of the reaction seems to depend on how much background research the author did. Here’s Alastair Sooke in the Telegraph:

Moreover, at the moment only a small proportion of works from each collection is available in high-resolution. One of the pleasures of exploring a museum is that you can follow your eyes, and linger in front of any work of art that takes your fancy. This is impossible with Google’s Art Project since it prescribes which images you are allowed to study in any depth. Their selection from the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, for instance, favours Neo- and Post-Impressionist painting by the likes of Seurat, Gauguin, Van Gogh and Cezanne, at the expense of modernist masterpieces.

In other words, someone else is deciding what images are worthy of study on your behalf – an impulse that surely runs counter to the “democratic” motivation of the project in the first place. Essentially, Google’s Art Project is a cherry-picking tool, but I would much rather choose the cherries I want to pick myself.

As for the choice of the “Gigapixel Artworks”, supposedly the stars of each collection, sometimes the selection is perverse. The Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid opts for a Cubist composition by Juan Gris instead of Picasso’s Guernica, which, for many people, is the only reason they actually visit the museum in the first place (the Art Project does not offer Guernica as a high-res artwork, either).

However, as it says on the website, the selections of rooms and artworks was made by the museums, not by Google. Copyright restrictions played a huge part in the decision-making, and are more than likely the exact reason why Guernica isn’t available. As Roberta Smith writes:

The Museum of Modern Art, for example, has made only one large gallery available — the large room of French Post-Impressionist works that kicks off its permanent collection displays — along with 17 paintings that are all, again, examples of 19th-century Post-Impressionism. (Oh, and you can wander around the lobby.)

On first glance this seems both unmodern in focus and a tad miserly, given that several museums offer more than 100 works and at least 15 galleries. But MoMA is being pragmatic. According to Kim Mitchell, the museum’s chief communications officer, the 17 paintings “are among the few in our collection that do not raise the copyright-related issues that affect so many works of modern and contemporary art.”

Likewise, Google approached a host of museums and, while it doesn’t say who said no, some chose not to take part.

I like the strange stuff

Playing around with this on my home broadband was an interesting experience. I loved the weird mushed shapes and blurring as you jumped around.

I got quite absorbed looking at floors and skirting boards and walls, which is the kind of things I look at when I go to galleries. Except in the privacy of my own home I could look at them even more.

I was also absorbed by the feeling of driving a person through the galleries. Maybe it was because I watched the videos that showed the filming being done, but I had this weird, out-of-body experience of guiding another set of eyes around a gallery.

Similarity to The Commons on Flickr

The Google Art Project reminds me quite a lot of The Commons on Flickr, a project to add out-of-copyright photographs from public collections to Flickr, the world’s biggest photo-sharing website.

Digitising artworks and putting them online isn’t a new thing at all, and neither are virtual tours. What sets the Google Art Project apart is the ability for museums to leverage off the technology and reach of Google. Local collaboration between museums is hard, international collaboration is even harder, but when you’re working with a company like Google or Yahoo, the egos seem to get set aside.

The Google Art Project thus brings together 17 major collections in one place. And instead of creating new technology, it builds off something people are already using. It makes this stuff more accessible in two ways – by removing geographic and cost barriers, and by making the new experience familiar to an existing one.

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Reading and driving

Apologies for the lengthy gaps between posts. February - with KiwiFoo Camp, Webstock, life, work and radio - is always a bit of a squeeze.

Over the weekend I had the privilege of attending KiwiFoo Camp, a gathering of about 170 people from fields as diverse as farming to psychology to product design. It was my third year attending, and as stimulating and eye-opening as ever. My particular revelation was Tim Bell from University of Canterbury and his Computer Science Unplugged work, which I'm hoping to write up on my work blog shortly.

One of my favourite sessions was one I co-ran with Nat Torkington; a simple session where people in the room simply make book recommendations. I've been to or run three or four of these sessions in the past 6 months with different groups, and I find the overlap and the idiosyncrasies fascinating. I've collated almost all of the recommendations into a list on Goodreads. The one missing item is The Pitcher and the Well, a memoir of an anonymous RNZAF navigator recorded as he lay dying of wounds in a German POW camp during WWII. However the full text is available online.

Later today I'll be on National Radio's Nine to Noon programme in my usual fortnightly art slot. I'll be talking about Google's Art Project and, if I get time, the ways Google Earth have been used for archaeological research. These are the links I've provided for the show

The Google Art Project site

Google Art Project YouTube channel

Roberta Smith on the Google Art Project, New York Times

Alastair Sooke on the Google Art Project, The Telegraph

Google Earth

New Scientist article on archaeologists using Google Earth

National Geographic article on archaeologists using Google Earth

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Til death do us part

Not grim but sensible - the New Zealand Law Society has put out advice and a checklist for looking after your web accounts and presences after your death:

  • Identify your “digital assets”. What online accounts and information do you have stored online. Which ones are important to you or your family and friends?
  • What do you want to happen to each of these assets after your death?
  • Email: Should anyone have access to your email after your death? Do you want your email contacts notified of your death?
  • Social media sites: Do you want someone to notify your online friends of your death? Do you want your profile removed?
  • Other online sites: Do you have photos or other personal information stored online that are not accessible anywhere else? What do you want to happen to these?
  • If you want your accounts to be accessible after your death, you might consider recording your details (passwords, login, location) in a safe place. Note that providers of some services such as internet banking do not permit you to record some details. Check the wording of the agreements you have.
The advice is particularly interesting in terms of what services like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn require to close or hand over an account. Some of the requirements seem very web (Twitter, 'A link to a public obituary or news article.') and others very retro (YouTube requires that you post or fax a copy of the death certificate and a copy of a document giving the enquirer Power of Attorney over the account).

Monday, 7 February 2011

'Growing' the pie - cultural philanthropy

The Cultural Philanthropy Taskforce's report Growing the pie: increasing the level of cultural philanthropy in Aotearoa New Zealand was published by the Ministry for Culture and Heritage in mid December last year. Last week I talked about it on National Radio's Nine to Noon show with Kathryn Ryan - these are my notes.

Growing the pie: increasing the level of cultural philanthropy in Aotearoa New Zealand

The report was commissioned by Chris Finlayson, the Minister for Arts, Culture and Heritage, from the Cultural Philanthropy Taskforce.

The Taskforce was chaired by Peter Biggs, the ex chair of the Arts Council, which governs Creative New Zealand, the government agency that distributes funding to arts organisations and artists. Alastair Carruthers is the current Arts Council chair, and was also on the Taskforce.

Other members included prominent arts philanthropists Dr Robin Congreve, Dame Jenny Gibbs, and Dayle Mace; experienced fundraisers Margaret Belich (who has worked with groups including the theatre group Indian Ink) and Jim Hill (director of External Relations at Auckland University); and Carolyn Henwood, a retired District Court judge with a history of support for theatre.

In the media release announcing the establishment of the Taskforce, Finlayson emphasised that his interest in increasing individual’s support of the arts in New Zealand was “over and above - not instead of - government funding."

He noted that New Zealand does not have the culture of private giving that is well established in other countries, and I think the strongest contrast you can draw is to the United States, which has an entirely different system of supporting the visual arts – at least – compared to countries modeled on the British institutions.

What the report recommends

  • develop a fundraising capability building initiative to mentor and advise cultural organisations on a one-to-one basis
  • promote knowledge and awareness of the recently introduced tax incentives
  • introduce Gift Aid to boost private giving
  • explore the workability of a cultural gifting scheme
  • recognise and value the generosity of philanthropists
  • reward with matched government funding cultural organisations that succeed in increasing their levels of income derived from private giving.

Looking at some of these recommendations in a bit of depth:

Gift aid

In terms of tax breaks, New Zealand is a bit different from other countries. As we don’t have capital gains tax or death duties, there are no advantages to encourage people to give money or items (such as paintings) to reduce or avoid these taxes.

One suggestion from the Taskforce was Gift aid, which they singled out as the “most significant remaining tax initiative New Zealand can consider”. It wouldn’t involve a new tax incentive, but instead would allow the giver to direct their tax break for their donation (the 33% IRD rebate), as well as the donation itself, to the receiver.

Explore the workability of a cultural gifting scheme

Apparently the Ministry and the IRD are looking into this idea already.

Cultural gifting would introduce tax incentives for the giving of physical items – rather than cash – to organisations: everything from paintings to personal papers to scientific collections. The market value of the gift would be fully or partially tax deductible.

These gifts are expected to become part of an institution’s permanent collection (and not, for example, on-sold to raise cash).

Countries with cultural gifting programmes include Australia, Canada, Ireland, the United Kingdom and the USA.

Since its establishment in Australia in 1978, over A$575 million worth of items have been donated through Australia’s “Cultural Gifts Program”. Under this programme, givers are eligible for these tax breaks:

  • The market value of the gift is fully tax deductible
  • Donors can elect to spread the deduction over up to five years.
  • Gifts are exempt from capital gains tax (not applicable in New Zealand).

Matched funding

This involves government proposing a contribution that would depend on the ability of the recipient organisation to identify a matching amount from a business, or possibly from an individual or a trust or foundation. This could also happen in reverse with a private contribution dependent on matching support from government.

For example, the Australia Business Arts Foundation operates the Premier’s Arts
Partnership Fund in South Australia, West Australia and Tasmania which doubles the value of new cash partnerships between small-to-medium businesses and cultural organisations.

The Taskforce suggests trialing matched funding initiative as a three year pilot.

What are institutions currently getting in the way of private sector/individual support?

In 2009 the Ministry for Culture and Heritage surveyed cultural organizations on their income sources for the 2007/08 tax year,

2000 organisations were invited to respond, and nearly 500 did, including most of the organisations who get recurrent funding from Creative New Zealand.

Although it’s a survey and therefore only a snapshot of the organisations who filled it out, it did have some interesting figures.

The total amount of gifts, grants and sponsorship, both cash and non-cash, received in 2007/08 by the 480 responding organisations was $383.2 million.

Central and local government contributed the lion’s share at 80 percent

Lottery Grants contributed 6.5 percent.

The corporate sector contributed 6 percent (or $22.6 million) towards total giving and sponsorship levels (that is, excluding all other types of income such as earned income from ticket sales).

Trusts and foundations contributed 4.5 percent ($16.7 million)

Individuals just 3 percent ($9.9 million).

The Art of the Possible: Strengthening Private Support for the Arts in New Zealand, October 2010

In May 2010, Creative New Zealand commissioned the Allen Consulting Group to conduct research into private sector support for the arts, and to develop an plan for increasing this support.

The report had 33 recommendations, and among the themes identified in the executive summary were the statements that:

  • the private sector is the most viable source of additional external support (financial, in kind goods and services, skills-based volunteering) for arts organisations
  • it is unrealistic to expect that the wealthy philanthropists will be the primary source of funds from the private sector
  • increasing the number of New Zealanders who give to the arts, in a highly competitive and sophisticated philanthropic market, is a worthy but long-term endeavour
  • arts/ business partnerships offer the greatest opportunity

I'd guess that CNZ will soon have a new branch in its organisational structure, a small office that focuses on training cultural institutions to raise funds from business and individuals. I also wonder if we'll see CNZ introducing criteria around fundraising for its recurrently funded organisations, as part of the revisions that are currently being made.

As payroll giving (the ability to make donations to charities automatically from your salary) has already been introduced, it seems simple to pass gift aid in too.

Overall, none of this feels world changing. As the budget and election come closer though, there'll be opportunity to test Finlayson's assertion that government funding isn't going anywhere.

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Pretend you never went to school

It might not be the "challenge [to] expectations of what music can be ... and where it should be performed" the Adam Art Gallery has planned, but someone's been making music with the Common People already (Weird in Wellington, via the Wellingtonista).

Wednesday, 2 February 2011

If, then

Alain de Botton ...

This helps us to answer what a church or a museum should, in terms of its art, be about from a Christian point of view. It should be a machine for putting before us pictures, photographs and statues that try to change us, that propagandise on behalf of ideas like kindness, love, faith and sacrifice. It should be a place to convert you.
Church window Religious art is about inspiring faith

It's this effort at conversion, at change, that interests me. I'm a complete atheist and the specific direction in which Christianity tries to change people doesn't grab me. Nevertheless, I'm very curious about the didactic approach that Christianity takes towards art. I love the way it builds museums and churches not to put pretty things in front of us, but to use pretty things to change us.

I try to imagine what would happen if modern secular museums took the example of churches more seriously. What if they too decided that art had a specific purpose - to make us good and wise and kind - and tried to use the art in their collections to prompt us to be so?

... makes people say - WTF?

I think I'm with the WTF.