An Online Art Collection Grows Out of Infancy

I don’t know how many wonders of the world there are by now, but it is possible that the Google Art Project will someday join the list.

The greatly expanded second iteration of this online compilation of self-selected art museums and artworks was unveiled last week. It makes available images of more than 32,000 works in 31 mediums and materials, from the collections of 151 museums and arts organizations worldwide, forming a broad, deep river of shared information, something like a lavishly illustrated art book fused with high-end open storage.

But world-wonder status will not happen tomorrow. The project has plenty of limitations and some bugs to work out. Numerous important museums have remained aloof, for one thing, including the Louvre, the Prado, the Centre Pompidou, Stedelijk in Amsterdam, Topkapi Palace in Istanbul and every Swiss museum of note.

Others, having joined, participate grudgingly, whether protective of their own Web sites or unwilling to deal with copyright permissions that apply to art not yet in the public domain; this includes vast quantities of 20th-century Modernist material, which remains in very short supply here.

To cite one glaring gap: Although there are now more than 6,500 names on the list of artists (cumbersomely alphabetized by first name, with no option to reconfigure by last name), the site still does not include a single work by Picasso. There is also apparently nothing by Georges Braque, Marcel Duchamp, Kazimir Malevich or Max Beckmann and only a single painting by Matisse, thanks to the Toledo Museum of Art. Postwar American and European art fares no better; none of the main Abstract Expressionists are represented. No Beuys, Fontana or Manzoni. Nothing notable by Johns, Rauschenberg or Warhol (although the Art Institute of Chicago has managed put up a very nice 1961 painting by Twombly).

But that will undoubtedly change. One of the glories of the Google Art Project is that it is a collective, additive work in progress that allows any museum or art-related organization to join and upload as many — or as few — high-resolution images of artworks as it chooses. At some point some museum somewhere is going to tackle the Picasso rights problem.

In the meantime the grand potential of the project and of its collaborative structure is fully evident in the new version. In all, it ranges through several millenniums of art history and also across actual space in ways that boggle the mind, and it ushers in a new era of interconnected access both to world art and among the institutions that preserve it. It is light-years beyond the first version, which had its debut early last year and featured 17 participating museums from Europe and the United States and a selection of just over 1,000 works in a single medium — painting — that represented but a few centuries of Western art.

At the time the air was thick with wait-and-see caution. Now museums large and small from around the globe have jumped aboard, joining early adopters like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin and the National Gallery, London.

Some newcomers are similar in stature and location, including the Kunsthistoriches in Vienna, the Art Institute of Chicago, the National Gallery of Scotland, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, the Musée d’Orsay in Paris and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Others are much further afield in terms of geography or mission. There are major museums from Mexico City, Australia, Japan, India, Taiwan, Australia and Israel, as well as the new Museum of Islamic Art in Qatar. There are several artist museums, including those dedicated to Edvard Munch (Oslo), Frida Kahlo (Mexico City), Norman Rockwell (Stockbridge, Mass.) and Fernando Botero (Bogotá, Colombia). And there are definite moments of weirdness. The Ayala Museum in Makati, the Philippines, has uploaded 15 images of painted dioramas depicting scenes from Philippine history. The 20-year-old Olympics Museum in Lausanne, Switzerland — the single Swiss participant — is displaying lots of fairly awful statues of athletes.

There seems to be a general consensus that 50 to 250 images of artworks per museum is the appropriate number, but there are some wonderful, slightly insane exceptions. The top contributor is the Yale Center for British Art, which has uploaded images of 5,414 paintings, sculptures, prints and drawings by 580 artists — about 10 to 12 percent of its entire collection and everything in the public domain that appears on its own Web site — including scores of works by John Constable and J. M. W. Turner. The J. Paul Getty Museum has come close to the number of works it usually has on view at its two sites in Los Angeles, with 3,325 images of works by 713 artists — including a large and dazzling portion of its photography collection and, for some reason, battalions of small terra cotta oil lamps dating from the first to the fourth centuries.(Curatorial quirks like these may make you pine for the ability to view works in a museum’s collection organized by artist or medium, but that’s still not an option. The option to organize by nationality or culture would also be nice.)

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