It's easy to forget the basic premise of why art is created. By nature art is non-functional, intended to stimulate our emotions, to provoke thought, and to try to come to grips with the human experience when everything else fails to accomplish that. But so many things get in the way of art fulfilling this seemingly basic goal – expectation, class, affordability, intimidation, and perhaps the greatest impediment of all: access.
People have different levels of access to art – some might not have it at all, some might have it in bursts, and some might have so much of it they're not even sure where to start. But this year a delightful new interactive resource launched by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) has promised to break down the walls of inaccessibility – in whatever form they take – and bring art into the hands of anyone who owns a phone in America.
Cover image: Mike Mandel, 'Untitled, from the portfolio People in Cars', 1972, printed 2014 (prompt: Send me happiness)
Nobuyoshi Araki, 'Painting Flower', 2004 (prompt: Send me 🌼)
This is how it works: anyone with an American phone number sends a normal text message to the number 572-51. It will have to include the words "send me" followed by a descriptive term, emoji, place, or feeling. In return a digital copy of a work of art is sent back. It is extremely simple.
SFMOMA's central aim behind the project is to allow people all over the country to experience a collection so huge that it would take three solid days to look at it all in person. Only 5% of the museum's actual collection is shown physically at any given time, so this new service allows viewers to enjoy hidden masterpieces in the museum's archives that they might otherwise never encounter in their life. "In a world oversaturated with information," Jay Mollica, SFMOMA’s creative technologist said, "how can we generate personal connections between a diverse cross section of people and the artworks in our collection? How can we provide a more comprehensive experience of our collection?"
Bruce Nauman, 'This Is Fun/This Is the Good Life (script version)', 1985 (prompt: Send me something bright)
Like any other automated system in infancy, Send me SFMOMA isn't yet perfect. Users will have more than a few instances where they're requests can't be computed and no results are sent. But when that happens the autobot will provide a suggestion, and things can pick back up from there.
SFMOMA's intention is to provide people with a personally curated experience of their collection, and to create otherwise non-existing relationships between those people and the works of art they receive. But this service could have greater implications and impact into people's personal relationship with art – it has the potential to open a new gateway into the way art is viewed by people in a variety of contexts.
Alexander Girard, 'Three-Passenger Sofa', ca. 1967 (prompt: Send me the sea)
But people are already able to hunt for works of art online whenever they please – isn't that the same? No, it's completely different – for two reasons. The first is that it provides users with results they had no idea they were looking for. The artworks provided in response to prompts are hardly ever overly literal – asking for the sea might elicit an image of a sofa, asking for Pop Art could get you a still from a Simon and Garfunkel music video. It forces viewers for learn about new art, and it offers an opportunity for it to provide an emotional reaction that wasn't remotely expected.
The second reason is that – although it's a completely automated sequence – it feels strangely personal. You're not looking at something everyone else has access to. You're not browsing through a prescribed catalogue that didn't have you as an individual in mind when it was created. It's a conversation.
Arthur Wesley Dow, 'Ipswich Landscape', ca. 1895-1905 (prompt: Send me fields)
Send me SFMOMA is a leading example of a straightforward and un-intimidating way for the art world to reach out to people everywhere. It's so much more than a tool to explore a collection, it's a way to break down walls that keep audiences away from art. Here's hoping it continues to develop and expand to a global audience – because everyone deserves to get a bit of happiness.
For more information on the Send me SFMOMA service, visit the museum's website.