Last week, the Art Institute of Chicago published the first two of their online scholarly catalogues. Monet: Paintings and Drawings at the Art Institute of Chicago and Renoir: Paintings and Drawings at the Art Institute of Chicago are densely informative, interactive, close studies of the works of the two Impressionists held in the Institute’s permanent collection. Over the past couple of days, I’ve explored the catalogues; certainly the powerfully detailed zoom options allow viewers to observe details at a closeness that would not be available standing before the paintings in the museum, as well as details of how canvases are stretched, views of their reverse sides and photomicrographs that cross section the paintings’ grounds to see exactly how gesso and paint sit on the surface of the weave of the canvas. Entries on each of the two painters’ work in the collection are accompanied by in-depth curatorial essays, as well as technical reports (very compelling stuff not only for conservationists but artists and others interested in exacting accounts of how an artwork was made) as well as exhaustive accounts of provenance and exhibition history. That such detailed information about even one work is now freely available to the public is astonishing, but collected in the two books are forty-seven works by Monet and twenty-five by Renoir—a massive amount of information about some of the most precious holdings in the Institute’s collection.
These two publications begin the museum’s online series “The Impressionist Circle at the Art Institute of Chicago,” which will continue in 2015 with volumes on Camille Pissarro, Édouard Manet and Paul Gauguin. In the director’s statement published in the Monet tome, president and director of the museum Douglas Druick recognizes the world-renowned importance and indelible contribution to art historical research that AIC’s nineteenth-century holdings represent. He writes, “[A] comprehensive, systematic research project devoted to our Impressionist paintings and drawings had yet to be undertaken… This digital publication represents, we believe, a model for the future of museum publishing that brings together current scholarship and state-of-the-art imaging technology in the service of one of the world’s great collections of Impressionist art. It is our belief that this innovative online platform will make the important curatorial and conservation research that is part of every museum’s mission more broadly accessible and illuminating.”
These online catalogues are products of the Online Scholarly Catalogue Initiative (OSCI) in which the Getty Foundation has partnered with the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Art Institute of Chicago and seven other institutions—the Arthur M. Sackler and Freer Gallery of Art; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D. C.; the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; the Seattle Art Museum; Tate; and the Walker Art Center—to increase access to museum collections and revolutionize how art historical research is conducted.
In addition to more accessibility to the curatorial and conservation research that Druick describes, there may be cost advantages in the particular enterprise of making digital publications, particularly involved scholarly projects. The Institute’s director of publications Sarah Guernsey explains in an email, “Printed scholarly volumes on the collection are very costly because they usually have many pages (to fit all of the in-depth research) and have a relatively small print run. That makes for a very expensive print job. What we are learning is that yes, with online scholarly catalogues we save some money putting them online because we don’t have to pay for printing, paper, binding and freight. But we also have to consider the costs of the platform, etc.: thankfully with our version of OSCI, we now have a platform that can be used for many titles in the future, but we will have to upgrade it as technology changes… so the savings/cost is still to be determined. The great thing is that the online catalogues have the capability of having a much larger audience via the Internet. Other costs to take into consideration: it is often more expensive to clear rights for an online publication, and we can include MANY more images, which of course can cost more.” (Matt Morris)