Art in a Modern World

Posted by on May 19, 2016 in People and Culture

Continuing what has turned into a theme in the past few weeks—life in a digital world—btw looks at how “old institutions” are shifting operations in a modern world. Our lens this week is the re-opening of the newly renovated/expanded San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA), which many are saying, “push the boundaries of what a museum can be and do.”

Paving the Way

Closed for three years, SFMOMA spent $305 million adding a 10-story addition to its existing five-story structure. Stretching a full city block, the gallery space was expanded nearly triple its original size and will house around 3,000 works, including a 100-year loan from the private collection of Donald and Doris Fisher, the founders of The Gap and avid collectors of modern art. In addition to its work and programming, SFMOMA has taken deliberate measures to make sure its spaces are more accessible to both the community as well as those in the arts “across all categories.” Sustainability is another forward-thinking feature of the renovation, reducing its greenhouse emissions and increasing energy efficiency, in both the way the building is operated and in the way work is presented.

Fractal light trails -abstract render. Shutterstock / Jaswe. MHE World.

Credit: Shutterstock / Jaswe.

Art created and displayed digitally is not the only use of technology at SFMOMA. Interaction with guests through touchscreen displays and apps for mobile devices is at the heart of the visitor experience. Some experiences include traditional audio tours, while others are enhanced with audio “reflections on or responses to” the art, as well as behind-the-scenes featurettes. The museum’s Web site has also been redesigned to be more interactive. This change is a recent shift from museums asking patrons to refrain from using their devices in what was once considered “sacred space.”


In addition to acquiring and displaying art, museums are charged with the responsibility of maintaining and preserving the works in its collections. With an increasing number of artists working in technological mediums, this poses a significant challenge. According to the director of digital media at the Berkeley Art Museum, computer technology can become obsolete on a roughly 18-month cycle. This means that the art created using a certain version of software may be altered or unable to run at all when updates are made to that software. The same challenges exist with the medium on which the art is saved to (disk, flash drive, external hard drive). While this type of dilemma is specific to technology, it can be argued that it is the same thing as trying to keep paintings, photographs and textiles from fading and ultimately deteriorating.

What Do You Think? Go to the most prominent museum located the closest to you. (If you cannot make a trip in person, visit its website.) Find out the ways that they are using technology in both the art itself and it displaying or preserving the art. If that information is not readily available (or if you are not within reasonable driving distance), call the museum and ask those questions. Write a few sentences about what you’ve found.