Thursday 30 April 2009

Coulda been a contender ...

Two tales from the "what might have been" files

On 31 May the Henry Moore Foundation opens Art in Public Places: The archive of the PADT, an exhibition of proposals for public art works that never eventuated, or projects that were abandoned unfinished. The Guardian has a lovely slideshow, including this gem, Marc Brunel's 1843 proposal for a carriageway under the Thames - I only wish the Foundation had a searchable archive (or website with URLs that behaved sensibly).

And from New York Magazine's real estate section, a "portrait of a city that never was" in a photo gallery of unrealised building projects, including the above 75-story tower intended to contain luxury apartments, a hotel, and 3 floors of exhibition space for MoMA.

Tomorrow Best of 3 heads to the Auckland Art Fair ... see you next week.

Tuesday 28 April 2009

Wish I'd been there

Last year I was lucky enough to go to the Museums & the Web conference in 2008 in Montreal. This year I didn't make it to Indianapolis, but I've been catching up on the write-ups.

As Mia Ridge observed, "some of the most important ideas weren't about presenting new, flashy things but rather reflected a maturity in approach, and a consolidation of the role of the web in museums." Some of the things that really tweaked my interest were:

  • Discussions around APIs (application programming interfaces, which allow you to, for example, let other people make web applications using your collection records) especially Richard Morgan's paper challenging the assumption that your collection data is your most interesting asset.
  • Geo-everything, particularly Aaron Straup-Cope: I love that feeling you get when you just start to grasp the enormity of an idea, and I get that from his presentation, even at a distance.
  • Questions around whether your digital and physical experiences and attitudes should try to match each other, or not - see this earlier post.

Here's a selection from some of the people I follow:

Virginia Gow, DigitalNZ: sites and projects to check out, recommended papers, why Twitter ruled the conference.

Seb Chan, Powerhouse Museum
: Apart from noting that "Indianapolis is a flat city surrounded by endless corn fields which accounts for the injection of corn syrup into every conceivable food item", Seb muses on the opportunities offered by cloud hosting, APIs, geolocation, and the online/physical experience debate.

Frankie Roberto, Rattle: recaps his workshops (which some really useful observations about what/how he'd do things differently), and talks about the occasions where we might be asking - so, we *can* do this, but *why* do it?

Mia Ridge, Science Museum: this was the first MW to feature unconference sessions (where time and rooms are set aside for people to fill with spontaneous topics for discussion, cf. the usual call for papers->presentation slot conference organising method) and Mia recorded the session on failure. Failure is hugely popular with museum web developers - check out Nat Torkington's presentation from Webstock this year to see why we're all so keen to talk about it.

Monday 27 April 2009

Monday web muster

George Oates, ex-The Commons on Flickr, announces her new role with the Open Library - prepare for awesome.

Richard McCoy, who does a fantastic job of bringing the work, concerns and joys of art conservators to lighe, muses on his paper on "the potential for conservators to find news to work together to preserve cultural property with the help of museum visitors."

Who said artists had lost their activist streak? New York artists take on illegal billboards; Wooster Collective & CronicasBarbarus.

And via Tyler Green: 175 art people, places & things to follow on Twitter (divided into 'Texas' and 'elsewhere'...bring on the Chch version)

Thursday 23 April 2009

You're all winners

but four of you are 1stfans winners - yay!!!!!!

I'll be getting in touch with Brooklyn Museum to sort these out today. Thanks everyone for your interest, and support; it's been much appreciated over in Brooklyn.

Wednesday 22 April 2009


If i hadn't just spent the last hour doing what I had to do, I totally would have been watching IMA director Maxwell L. Anderson's opening address to the 2009 Museums and the Web conference (on ArtBabble, woot!!)

I was going to watch the clip anyway, but my interest was further piqued by Nina Simon's latest blog post, where she muses on Anderson's theme, "Moving from virtual to visceral", and contrasts her web and physical visitor experiences of the IMA. From Nina's post:

I was thrilled by Max’s talk and looked forward to seeing how the physical site reflected the transparency and engagement he spoke about. I showed up at the IMA expecting innovation. Instead, I found a standard art museum. Nice art. Impersonal guards. Lovely grounds. Obtuse labels. Interesting architecture. There was nothing that connected me to the visceral, exciting institution Max had sold in his talk, the institution that exists on the web.

Is this a problem? I think so. I felt like I had met someone online, someone sexy and open and intriguing, and then on our first date that mystery museum turned out to be just like all the others. This is a problem that many of the museums doing the best work in social media may soon confront. You join the Brooklyn Museum’s posse. You tag your brains out on the Powerhouse online collection database. And then you show up in person and feel jilted. Where are the friendly, open, participatory experiences you came for? Where’s the museum you know and love?

At the end of her post Nina summarises: "I want museums to be open, participatory, dynamic, and relevant in all places, not just online. If we only do it online, it doesn’t force us to fundamentally change how our institutions work and present content to visitors." It's a situation I've been thinking about - somehow, the web has become interlinked with - even synonymous with - innovation, and this thinking doesn't seem to be permeating museum and galleries' physical offerings.

At work, I spend some time reaching out to & responding to visitors to our various sites, but it's not my job to have that kind of interaction with real world visitors. Online, I'll ping people interesting links on Twitter: onsite, I'd never run up to someone who was flicking through photos and say "Hey - you're looking at ships, had you seen this great shot ... and the info about it here ... and the video here ... oh, so you've got stuff about that too? Awesome!!".

My dream job morphs every couple of weeks. A few weeks ago though my idea was that some museum or gallery would employ me to do just this (in a slightly less invasive manner, maybe). Just like online I connect people to collection items, related material, and related people; I could do that offline as well.

Say we'd be corresponding on the blog, and you were planning to drop by - I'd arrange that you could see that painting you were interested in that's in storage. I'd give you a tour of my five favourite things on a Wednesday. I'd help you use the collections database for your research in person instead of via Twitter. I'd get that installation dude to talk you through how they did the lighting. It's kinda like Public Programmes or Public Relation, only with the person, not at them.

Monday 20 April 2009

Thank you for being a friend

One of my friends is in trouble, and I want to help them out.

If they were a colleague having a stink day, I'd take them out for coffee. If they were a friend having trouble at home, I'd bake them something. But they're an art museum, and so I'm giving them what counts - my support as expressed through cash.

At the end of last week, the Brooklyn Museum announced major cutbacks (warning, PDF). Like most arts institutions in America, they're struggling as a result of the economic crisis. Their endowment has been devalued, their operating support has been cut, and their membership and fundraising revenue is shrinking.

Among the measures the Museum is undertaking, some directly affect the visitor. A major planned exhibition has been pulled; a special-exhibitions gallery will be closed; and the suggested admission fees have been raised.

And some measures directly affect staff (and thus have a roll-on effect for visitors). Staff have been told to take a one-week furlough; some are being asked to take paycuts; and a voluntary separation package is being offered. All this is being done in an attempt to "reduce personnel costs sufficiently to avoid or minimize any subsequent layoffs".

In somewhat bittersweet timing, at the same time that these announcements were being made the Brooklyn Museum was being feted at the annual Museums and the Web conference for the awesome work they do online. (If you're a regular reader of of this blog, you're probably already sick to death of hearing me go on about this .)

At the conference, Nina Simon put out a call for people to show some tangible support for the Museum, and buy a 1stfans membership. The Museum describes 1stfans as a "socially-networked" membership; it offers both 'physical' benefits to visitors to the Museum, and 'virtual' benefits to those who follow it online.

And I thought, yeah - that's the least I can do. So Sunday afternoon NZ time, I pulled out my credit card and spent US$20 on a 1stfans membership. Obviously, I don't live in New York. In fact, I've never been there (here's hoping that airline prices keep falling though). BUT....

The Museum feels like one of my friends. I've been following them online for years. They keep me updated on what's going on via Flickr and Twitter. I've learnt more about how I should be doing my job from their blog than from any course I've ever done. And I just about bloody wet myself when this year I was able to arrange for the amazing Shelley Bernstein, the Museum's 'chief geek', to drop into Wellington for a frantic 50 hours on her way back to the States from speaking in Australia.

Within hours of purchasing the membership, I'd heard from both Will Cary (Brooklyn Museum's membership manager) and Shelley, thanking me for signing up: god knows what time it was in New York. And this is exactly the kind of thing that inspires me about the Brooklyn Museum staff. Those people eat, sleep, breathe and dream the Museum: everything they do is focused on the Museum's community.

So here's what I'm doing for my friend

I'm offering to shout 4 more people a 1stfans membership. Just leave me a comment with your name & email address*, and at the end of this week, I'll draw four names out of a random number generator and get you signed up.

I know most of you are New Zealanders, and therefore this mightn't seem this relevant. So - if you know someone else who might like a membership, feel free to ask for one for them instead. If I don't get enough takers here, I'll offer the offer on to Brooklyn Museum directly, and they can give them away themselves.

And if you want to help out too, you can sign up or gift a 1stfans membership yourself.

Thanks heaps. Look forward to hearing from you.

* Don't worry, I pre-moderate comments on this blog, so your name & email won't be published. I also won't sell your contact details on to telemarketers or social media mavens.

Update: 21 April

Just backing up all the stuff I had to say already; the BM's "acceptance speech" for its Museums and the Web awards.

Thank You! from Brooklyn Museum on Vimeo.

Sunday 19 April 2009

Hello, world

I started this blog at the end of 2006, when I was just starting to work on the web, and had no idea of how it really worked, technically, socially, intellectually or ethically. Everyday I would go out on the web and try to learn about something, then blog about it to reinforce it (yes, I appear to have a fairly rigid learning style).

That quickly got tired, and I ended up writing more and more about the visual arts in New Zealand and responding to international art coverage. It was good timing and I felt in great company, with Over the Net, Peter Peryer and One Moment Caller all being bloggers I admired and followed.

I'm conscious that posting on Best of 3 is relatively sporadic this year. That's partly because 2009 is turning out to be one of the best and busiest years of my life, and partly because I do more and more of my short-burst conversations on Twitter. However, I think it's also because over the past two years, my working life interests (social media, access to content/data, community engagement, openness, sharing, transparency and generosity on the web) and my non-working life interests (NZ visual art, the operations of public and dealer galleries, art criticism, community engagement) have come closer and closer together, and now they overlap in such a way that attempting to keep them separate by running Best of 3 anonymously seems fruitless (thanks, Twitter, for undermining these boundaries irrevocably!). I'm spending an increasing amount of time, both at work and out of it, talking to people about the opportunities I see for cultural organisations on the web, and thus I feel less need to agitate for for action by writing about it here.

I've never been that concerned about anonymity on Best of 3. It used to be that the people I wrote for/talked too here were quite separate from the people I talked to / wrote for when I have my work hat on (this is no longer the case, and there's been a few times over the past months where I've shamefacedly outed myself as Best of 3 to people who I know perfectly well in my other 'real' and online worlds). I knew many of my readers offline, and I've always figured that if you don't know me but continue to visit the blog nonetheless, you've come to trust me as a source of a certain kind of information, idea and opinion.

But. This week I'm gonna do something on the blog that I think requires readers to know who the "real me" is. So - here goes. My name is Courtney Johnston. I live in Wellington. If I were forced to choose one word to describe my relationship to the NZ art world, I would probably pick 'collector', closely followed by 'interested&informedobserver'. I work at the National Library, but I try to keep my work stuff out of Best of 3, as I already write about it elsewhere.

So. There you go. One small blog post opens up a whole new world. Thanks for reading.

Tuesday 14 April 2009

Art is the event

I made a tactical error in my Easter reading mission, and started off with the thickest book on my pile, instead of the thinnest. Thus by the end of the weekend I had polished off Neal Stephenson's Anathem, but only got to chapter 3 ("The Fair") of Sarah Thornton's Seven Days in the Art World.

The division between practice and theory, do-ers and thinkers, in Anathem got me thinking about Barnett Newman's epigram “Aesthetics is for the artist as ornithology is for the birds.”* I've yet to have that kind of connection through Thornton's book - and I think I may it to the end of the book without doing so, much in the way I enjoyed but didn't have to think very hard about Adam Lindeman's Collecting Contemporary.

However this morning I stumbled over a link to this 2005 piece by Philip de Montebello in the comments on a blog post, and had one of those reflecting moments, much like the Stephenson/Newman one, where someone says or writes something that sits you back on your heels:

Another reason art museums matter is that, unlike historical facts and events, works of art exist not only in the present, but also in the past, the past that transmitted them to us. Events, on the other hand, can be retraced but they have no presence; we can't experience them. Archives and documents refer to events but are not they. However, the work of art, as Bernard Berenson put it, is the event.

Aptly, the blog post in question, by Nina Simon, was an argument for why cultural institutions should be taking a measured, but serious, approach towards social media:

Whereas the Web of the 2000s was dominated by search, we are entering a time when more and more people are using social media as their gateway to the Web. Ask a college student what her homepage is, and you are likely to see Facebook, not Google, pop up on her screen.

... For people who are deeply immersed in social media, social networks are already a much heavier influence on personal choices--where to visit, what concert to attend--than traditional advertising. Which means that your organization's website--a brochure out in the wilderness of the Web--is only going to remain relevant and useful as a marketing piece if it is being referenced in the social context of your users' lives.

*It was a bit of a relief to find out that this quip was a honed version of a much longer statement - I'm always reading interviews and memoirs and being bewildered by the elegant bon mots that people apparently toss off unthinkingly as they saunter through life. It's nice to know we can edit for posterity.

Saturday 11 April 2009

Good company

He may have only scored half a page in 501 Great Artists, but Colin McCahon is the youngest* of the 10 artists on Matthew Collins' Easter art top 10 list, represented by Will he save him? (1959, Auckland Art Gallery).

*Youngest? Most recent? Most lately deceased? I need to go back to grammar school.

Wednesday 8 April 2009

Two bits of awesome

Bit One

The Indianapolis Museum of Art (IMA) has thrown open the doors to ArtBabble, a delectable site that hosts art-related video from a range of organisations, including the IMA, MoMA, LACMA and SFMOMA.

Not only is the content awesome, the design is really very lovely (although I have some minor quibbles about the navigation). Read more about the project on the IMA blog, or in this NYT article.

Bit Two

The Powerhouse Museum mark 1 year on The Commons on Flickr today, and to celebrate they've released a gorgeous little print-on-demand book that presents a selection of the photos they posted to Flickr along with the commentary left by Flickr members.

This book is a lovely example of the increasing blurring of online and offline behaviour and existence: physical objects were digitised to allow virtual viewing; real people left information & responses to them online; and now these digital objects and online commentary are repackaged as a physical item (that - bless - saves cost & waste by only being physically created when someone ponys up for it).

Tuesday 7 April 2009

Get a (good) free website

Are you a non-profit organisation with a tired website? If so, you might be interested in applying for Full Code Press, the 09 edition.

Full Code Press is a trans-Tasman competition that pits the cream of the Australian and New Zealand web development communities against each other to build a brand-new website for a non-profit organisation in 24 hours. From the site:

Each competition sees a charitable organisation selected to be the recipients of fully functional websites at the end of 24 hours. Emphasis is placed on ensuring that, as far as possible, the charities will be able to leave with websites they can use immediately.

You can find out more & register your organisation for consideration on the Full Code Press site. Entries close on April 17 2009, and the competition will be held in Sydney on 12-14 May.

Monday 6 April 2009

10 things

I picked up this link to Ten things every journalist should know in 2009 on Twitter a few weeks ago. If I was a consultant, I'd be ripping it off and running an expensive workshop for gallery and museum directors and HR mavens faster than you could could say "churnalism".

In the list, John Thompson notes that journalists should:

-- be using Twitter and RSS feeds to find readers, monitor news, and build community

-- understand that you don't need to own (or hell - even understand) the technology that will let you mingle with your readers online

-- acknowledge that "Multimedia for multimedia’s sake rarely works, and is often embarrassing."

Here are the adaptations I'd make:

-- before you employ a comms person nowadays, you should ask to see examples of their work with social media, as well as their traditional print work.

-- if your comms team/person isn't using RSS feeds to monitor mentions of your organisation and its work online, they're missing out on immediate and informative feedback that you should be using.

-- beware of boundless enthusiasm for all things Web 2.0*. Your comms team/person should know who should be putting what content on which platform, and why.

-- your comms team/person should be trusted to respond to blog posts, tweets, Flickr photos and whatever other online chatter appears relating to you & your work. They should also know when to respond, when to just listen, and when to use another approach (Flickr mail rather than a comment, etc).

-- any of your staff members who are using any form of social media site and talking about any aspect of their work are now your comms people as well. Don't freak out at them. Support them by offering simple and fair guidelines, and encourage them to share their enthusiasm for their job & their workplace.

*In fact, beware anyone who uses the phrase Web 2.0 without any irony. Especially if they pronounce it "Web Two Point Zero".

Thursday 2 April 2009


I just realised this morning the NZOnScreen has my favourite passage from 'Getting to Our Place', Gaylene Preston's documentary about the gestation and birth of Te Papa, up online for free viewing.

For anyone who's ever squirmed through a branding presentation that went horribly wrong, or who's had clients that can never make up their minds, or was a kid in the 80s and didn't realise that grown-ups' glasses really were *that* big, this snippet is pure gold.

As a side serving, here's Over the net, pinpointing the actual digit that is now Our Thumb.

Semi-critical mass

Twitter has certainly reached the art crowd in NZ, with more institutions and bloggers popping up everyday. Here's a list of some of the people out there (I think I've excluded everyone who locks their feed, as a matter of courtesy)

Over the net

Cheryl Bernstein

Auckland Art Gallery

Christchurch Art Gallery (imminent)

Auckland Museum


And if you're looking to find more ....

My top two Brits

Ben Goldacre

Neil Gaiman

And top three Americans

Tyler Green

Richard McCoy

Brooklyn Museum