By Albert Samaha
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It was with no small measure of ambition and an unprecedented $6 million grant from Intel that the Whitney Museum of American Art produced its two-part exhibition "The American Century: Art & Culture 19002000"an attempt to chronicle "a century born from thick black clouds of soot and molten steel buffed to a blinding gleam and rolled out to save, lead, dazzle, move, and change the world forever." According to the exhibition's prefatory sermon, the last century, under the influence of two major social forcesimmigration and technologyhas been "the most amazing, complex and bewildering 100 years the world has ever seen." Fueled by an exaggerated sense of historical relevance, "The American Century," which opened Friday, is a sprawling survey of 20th-century American art (part one, 19001950; part two, 19502000) whose scope and relevance are not only amplified but justified by its collaborative online project with Intel.
The exhibition is underscored by a certain thematic technocentrismpart two will likely include some multimedia and interactive installationsbut Whitney director Maxwell Anderson saw to it that interactive media did not insinuate itself into the physical gallery displays. Museum visitors will remain "unmolested" by digital enhancements in the exhibition, Anderson says (though there is a room filled with PCs, where museum visitors can access the Web site). "I'm very old-fashioned in that regard. I'm thought to be this wired museum director, but to me that connects with the Web, that doesn't connect with being in a gallery." Anderson has attempted to usher the museum and art community into the digital age with two previous online projects (also sponsored by Intel)AMICO (Art Museum Image Consortium, amico.org) and exCALENDAR (excalendar.net)that aggregate an archive of images from various major collections worldwide and establish an international exhibition database.
The Whitney and Intel, along with Razorfish, have developed a Web site so elaborate that it rivalsand in some ways, outdoesthe physical exhibition itself. "It's an interesting relationship that the digital version has with the real-life version," says Razorfish's chief creative officer, Peter Seidler, "because online you can't smell oil paint and the experience of the art is reduced along sensory channels, but it also significantly enhances what you can learn, and what narratives you can develop." The site, housed on Intel's online exhibition network, ArtMuseum.net, features a selection of 100 works (from the 700 included in the exhibition's first half) and embellishes each with historical background and in some cases in-depth cultural context, along with a description of the artist and the specific circumstances and relevant artifacts surrounding the production of the work. In the margins of the digital reproduction of George Bellows's Dempsey and Firpo, for instance, you can stream RealVideo footage from the 1923 prizefight that inspired the painting.
The site's filter feature is particularly useful given the exhibition's immense purview; visitors can select a politics, pop culture, and/or art filter to surround a particular work with whichever events and movements appeal to their personal or academic interests. The site also offers a valuable click-and-zoom tool that magnifies and examines certain details of the paintings that might otherwise get swallowed up in a harried gallery environment. There's also the opportunity to follow a RealPlayerG2-generated tour of Anderson's favorite selections, or tailor your own trajectory through the exhibit.Visitors can amass all their favorite works and historical details and house them at a personal URL, which they can then send to friends or, if they are students, submit to their teachers.
Intel sees its collaboration with the Whitney as a nonprofit project predominantly intended to advance its educational programs. The company is working closely with the Whitney educational branch to develop both specific curricula and general-use educational tools. And though it's not likely Intel will see any immediate returns on the considerable sum it forked over, there is, of course, profit motive lurking beneath the philanthropic veneer. For one thing, there's a promising Artmuseum.net business model down the line: "The idea is that this becomes the place where all the great blockbuster exhibitions are housed, the ones that really drive the eyeballs," says Dana Houghton, Intel's corporate affairs director, who was chiefly responsible for signing on to the Whitney project. "This will be a high-profile demographic, an audience that will be very attractive to other companies." The merchandising options are also promising: already Intel has set up an e-commerce model for the "American Century" online gift shop.
The most compelling and potentially remunerative product innovation inspired by the Whitney exhibition is the pad PC devicedesigned by Mitsubishithat Intel is adapting to reinvent the audio museum tour. Development is still in the research stage, but the company will introduce six prototype models for the exhibition this summer (most visitors will not get to demo the technology) and if successful will pursue production more ambitiously. The idea isby next year, hopefullyto have a wireless, handheld device that museumgoers can carry, allowing them to download all the contextual Web content on the fly with wireless LAN (local area network) technology. The tool would be especially appropriate for a broad exhibition like this one, which surveys a huge expanse of art and examines such an unwieldy concept that it can often feel disjointed without contextual info to fill in the gaps. This could be the ideal way to integrate the purity and serenity of a museum exhibit with all the supplementary material. And, as Houghton points out, the device could have much more dramatic resonance: "If it's useful in a museum, there could be a thousand other uses for it."