The DIA opens its vault to the web
"I, tried to make the experience very similar to what it's like walking through a gallery," says Stephen Goodfellow, perched in front of his Macintosh Quadra 650 with dual monitors and a Powerbook which he gleefully pumped up to 34 megabytes of RAM earlier in the day.
Scrounging through a closet in his modest Highland Park home for a RAM doubler like most of us look 'for socks, the British native adds, "If I had my druthers, I would have the floor creak as you moved along the screen."
In between making coffee, petting one of his five cats, creating a memorial website to honor his grandmother, discussing theories on autism and cold fusion in the same breath and playing fetch with his hyper dog Ricky, the frenetic artist today has assumed the role of docent for a guided tour of the 8 week-old Detroit Institute of Arts Visual Resources "diamondial"; the on-line gallery he helped create.
(That's http://www.diamondial. org on your URL dial.)
Click "by category" and you're asked what medium and geographic location you wish to enter. In minutes (how many depends on the time of day you surf), you can scroll horizontally and view images of photographs, sculptures, paintings and decorative arts; click any one of them for a larger image and written details 'of the work, such as year created, dimensions and title. Type Chagall, or any artist's name, and a few thousand bytes later, a microgallery of their works emerge.
Want to know what artwork has the word "death," "blue" or "dance" in the title? A partial string search will excavate several of each including Rembrandt Peale's "The Court of Death," Frederick Carl Frieseke's "The Blue Gown" and Joan Miro's "Dance Costume."
Along the way, swing by the "Rivera Archive" and see photographs from the 1930s when Diego Rivera painted his frescoes and murals. Add items to "my gallery," and create your own virtual tour of the DIA.
"My friends, who are artists, have works, like mine, that are hidden in the vault in the DIA where no one gets to see. All of a sudden this is available, not only to the public in Detroit, but all over the world," says Goodfellow, clicking on one of his micropointillistic paintings. "It's a mind blower."
GOING on-line is nothing new for art galleries. More than 3,000 museums are on the Internet, and many galleries and auction houses have their own sites- the DIA has had a web page for years.
But besides its sophisticated graphic design, What's unique about diamondial.org is its searchable database. While most gallery sites are linear and follow one path, this one has hyperlinks which allow you to choose what you are going to see and what you are going to build.
"As far as I know this was the first gallery to have a searchable database," says Dirk Bakker, who, as the DIA's director of photography, launched this program.
The idea came earlier this year when the DIA signed a nonexclusive contract offering 1,000 of its most known and important works in digital form to Corbis, a publishing subsidiary of Bill Gates' empire, which is amassing the largest visual database in the world. Already Corbis has obtained digital rights to museums and photo archives worldwide; just this year, it negotiated exclusive rights to the entire Ansel Adams collection- some 40,000 pictures.
Revenue will come from licensing images to electronic publishers
for use in online magazines, programs and CD-ROMs. But since the DIA has control over the images licensed to third parties, Bakker says he woke up one morning and thought, "If Corbis can do • it, why can't we do it ourselves?" Robert Hensleigh, a photographer and data systems expert at the DIA, says the department had already begun scanning transparencies into digital form for the building-wide collections management system, a central database for the museum's 60,000-plus objects.
"Our primary goal was to have these images so that when you looked up the 'Wedding Dance,' you could see a picture of it as well as the data or tombstone information," he says. (Right now, just over half of the DIA's collection is documented in visual form.)
"When the technology started growing, we said we should put this online. Let's see what it takes." What it took was a digital imaging technician, Sandra Marsh, to transfer the color transparencies into the digital domain a task requiring persistence, patience and a keen eye for maintaining the artwork's integrity. If too high a resolution is used, the image appears bright and bold- sometimes better
than its true state. And while flaws like specs of dust and shadows are edited out, care is taken not to improve on natural imperfections or changes caused by age.
Once the bank of images was scanned, Goodfellow was contracted to create the overall look of the site. He, in turn, got Alan Gutierrez to write the code for doing searches and accessing images. (diamondial.org now has just- over 1,000 works and is constantly updating its database.)
"I thought of Stephen because I was aware of his website (http://goodfelloweb.com), and his involvement with the Cybercafe," says Bakker. "He has a wonderful mixture of high technology, the
geeky thing and the look of an artist. I've always admired his sense of humor, too."
Those who remember the Ongoing Michigan Artists Program (OMAP) in the 1980s might recall a bit of humor Goodfellow had at the DIA's expense. He and some 50 local artists launched a protest claiming the museum was ignoring the Detroit art scene. During their demonstration, they projected slides of their work onto the museum's wall.
"Yes, we've not always been the best of Friends," says Goodfellow with a somewhat fiendish chuckle.
"To their credit, they started paying attention. I expected the meanness one would get from a bureaucratic establishment, and it wasn't there." In fact, Goodfellow was one of nearly 50 artists invited to display their work side-by-side with the DIA's permanent collection during last year's "Interventions" exhibit.
And, he says, having the opportunity to design the museum's website was a labor off love- a diplomatic way of saying the pay was Ear, far less than the going rate.
"It was absolute shoestring," he says, "The job was worth at least $25,000. You don't want to know what I got paid."
Indeed, the design of a website can range from less than $100 using basic software to more than $150,000 for a complex interactive one.
BUT the incentive, other than
to see if it could be done, was to bring images out of obscurity and onto the screen. Even Bakker's series of playfully witty photographs are here, though on his guided tour through diamondial.org, he instead clicks on the museum's latest acquisition "Flowers in a Glass Vase," an 18th century oil painting by Dutch
artist Rachel Ruysch.
Graphic files and data for diamondial.org are collected in its server in Florida, which provides an analysis of how many "hits," or clicks, the site gets per day, and where the audience is from. In the last week of October, 500-2,000 hits per day were recorded, with the majority of the audience from the United States, although a few checked in from Singapore, and even Latvia.
"The whole idea behind this was to find another audience, perhaps one even larger than what comes through the museum doors," says Bakker.
And that does hold a potential for revenue The DIA's Visual Resources department gets more than 2,000 requests yearly for publication rights for catalogs, calendars, books and other commercial ventures.
With the website, customers can use the searchable database to find a particular image, and order it by email. Researchers can use it to conduct searches on particular areas of interest; for art lovers, it's yet another medium to absorb.
"After having created it, I come back to this all the time," says Goodfellow, looking to see what turns up when "winter" is the keyword. "It is so delightful to look at these and let my eyes rest awhile."
Obviously, it's no substitute for seeing the works in person.
"The picture on the screen can only whet your appetite," says Bakker, refuting critics who say museum audiences will drop as more art goes online. "I can't imagine a day where I'd sit at home and say, 'Well, I could go to Paris and see all the great things in a museum, but why bother? I can just sit at my monitor and pull it up on the screen."'
True, being on the Internet is hardly an aesthetic experience, but for those who never make it to the Louvre, or don't- even get to the DIA as often as they'd like, online galleries are an intriguing adventure.
"Who knows where this will be in five years? Every day is a month on the Web," says Goodfellow. "At the moment, though, it's all so wonderful."
Alice Rhein is a frequent contributor to Metro Times. E-mail her at email@example.com
November 6-12 1996 METRO TIMES Page 24