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 1900–2000″—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 forces—immigration and technology—has 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, 1900–1950; part two, 1950–2000) 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 technocentrism—part two will likely include some multimedia and interactive installations—but 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 rivals—and in some ways, outdoes—the 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 device—designed by Mitsubishi—that 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 is—by next year, hopefully—to 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.”
But Intel’s potential gains are much more extensive. The sponsorship represents a PR extravaganza for the company to pitch itself as the Medici dynasty of the 21st century. It’s also an effort, however circuitous, to get people to buy the Pentium III processor. Intel chairman Andrew S. Grove emphasizes his philanthropic intentions, though he doesn’t deny corporate self-interest: “We try to make our technology more useful and interesting to people who might otherwise not be interested in computers. So we have a vague and nebulous self-interest here as well… [This project] gives people a reason to use computers. The more people use computers, the more people buy microprocessors, and the more business there is for us.”
Some other examples of Intel’s promotional interests are more conspicuous. The orientation gallery is powered entirely by a new Pentium III processor tower, which is exhibited, like an art object, in a glass box. (The idea was to promote the new processor’s DVD capabilities for home entertainment.) A Whitney employee who is somewhat disgruntled with the museum’s glad-handing pointed out that Intel also issued strict branding stipulations so that the exhibition cannot appear in promotional materials without the accompanying Intel logo displayed at a certain size.
Technically speaking, the site favors Intel products as well: it can best be browsed on PC with a Pentium III processor simply because that’s the most capable operating system in terms of speed and memory capacity to accommodate such an elaborate site. Mac users may have more trouble navigating the site than PC users because the Mac operating system is less compatible with the browsers needed to navigate the site—versions 4 of Netscape or Internet Explorer. Razorfish technicians would not comment on the technology, saying only that Intel has asked to screen all statements they make to the press regarding the project.
Grove’s relationship to the Whitney project, however, is in fact more fascinating and abstruse than mere concern with profit motives would suggest. Given his legendary status as American Dream poster boy—a Hungarian immigrant who got a degree in chemical engineering from CUNY and became a visionary, blue-chip new media mogul—the Whitney folks were careful when pitching the sponsorship to stress two themes (technology and immigration) that were particularly appealing to Grove. “A lot of immigrants end up in tech fields if for no other reason than language made other alternatives more difficult,” Grove says. “I’m an example of that. Intel has more opportunities to get into sponsorship deals than we can handle, so the fact that these thematic characteristics were such a good match for us made us particularly interested.”
In the end, the gallery itself is spectacular, and the conceptual and technical advancements that have come from the Intel-Whitney collaboration are worth all the promotional fanfare. The tragic reality of the art world is that it can’t exist without patrons—if not federal, then corporate. So given the state of government subsidies for the arts, there may not be any better option than handing the responsibility over to the new-media monoliths.