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5 Ways Google’s Art Project Bests Other Virtual Art Viewers

by Kyle Chayka on February 1, 2011

Botticelli's “La Primavera (Spring)” (1481-82) (image from googleartproject.com)

In another giant leap for art online, Google has released Art Project, a collaboration with a group of 17 international art museums, including New York’s own Metropolitan Museum, Frick Collection, and Museum of Modern Art, to put their collections online. But this isn’t just a rehash of some online slideshow. Museums participating in Art Project can be digitally toured in two ways: as a Google Street View-style walking trip through the physical museum itself, as well as an artwork-by-artwork tour, with masterpieces of museum collections viewable in a slick image window. Over 1,000 pieces by 486 artists are viewable in high resolution through the project.

A virtual tour is nothing new, but what makes these online art experiences innovative is not their concept, but their execution. Judged purely on the basis of the experience of viewing art online, Art Project comes out the clear winner of the recent crop of online art viewers. Here’s what Art Project does better than any other digital art viewer out there, from VIP Art Fair to Artlog to museum websites and online slideshows:

1. Well-Designed User Interface

Google has always excelled at simple interfaces, and Art Project is no different. A main window shows a view of the gallery space currently being visited or functions as the main view of the artwork under examination. An informative sidebar in easy to read white and orange on gray includes facts on what gallery a work is in, the layout of a museum or the historical details of an object, all without skipping a beat of loading time.

2. High-Resolution Images and Zooming

All of Art Project’s images are high resolution, but 17 lucky artworks received the deluxe treatment: “gigapixel” photography that exposes every last detail of a work for a grand total of 7 billion pixels. These iconic works were selected based on their reputation, but familiarly with the image doesn’t make zooming in on the impassioned impasto of Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” (1889) at MoMA any less awesome. The level of detail in these larger images verges on the scientific, while the slightly-less high res normal images are good enough for us non-conservators. Zooming also works smoothly, loading an entire image in gradually more high resolution layers in a way far less jerky (yet more detailed) than VIP Art Fair’s viewer.

Detail shot from the “gigapixel” image of Van Gogh's “Starry Night” (1889) at MoMA (image from googleartproject.com)

3. Customizable, Shareable Collection Building

Art Project does online collection-building right. It’s simple and clear to push a single button and add a work of art to a custom-named collection that is immediately visible on a lower tool bar. There’s even an option to save specific detail shots of the works into your collection, a tool that will doubtless come in handy for professors. Collections are also easy to make public: a single link, much like saving a map in Google Maps, is all you need to share your collection with friends. In contrast, it wasn’t even possible to view VIP Art Fair without first signing up, much less see someone else’s collection.

4. Integrating 3D Gallery Space With Flat Images

Part of what makes most website-based art viewing so nondescript is its lack of any intimation of three-dimensional space. The art exists in a 2D plain the thickness of a pixel. Google’s interior-shooting cameras solve this lack of context. Traveling through the galleries by means of direction arrows, Art Project gives viewers a very physical sense of how large works are and how they are presented next to each other. Granted, the physical gallery has to exist first for this process to work, but it’s a huge step up from VIP Art Fair’s anonymous digital space.

Image of the Tate Gallery viewed from Art Project (screenshot by author)

5. Public Accessibility

Where other online art viewers exist as commercial products or as ways to sell the works they display, Google’s Art Project exists simply to be used and explored in whatever ways viewers see fit. It is easily viewable in a standard web browser, totally free and effortless to set up. Starting a collection account is easy given the omnipresence of Gmail accounts. This accessibility and transparency makes it possible to see Art Project as a public tool for education and research rather than as a product.

Any Downsides?

I can see this Art Project being used for any number of things: art history lessons, lectures, research or just for fun. Still, the system still lacks an attendant social network. What if this turned into the Yelp of artworks? Could we rate Botticelli over Chris Ofili, or the Tate over MoMA? Could we leave comments on a Caravaggio, creating an art critical forum open to an international community? The possibilities are endless. This is digital art at its vivid high point, at least for now.

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  • Derek

    digital art at its vivid high point? seriously?

    • Vartanian

      Kyle followed that with “for now” … I have to say that my current reaction is that looking at the paintings soo closely is quite lovely … almost freakishly lovely, in fact. I do want the program to do more than it does but I assume with time it will.

    • http://twitter.com/chaykak Kyle Chayka

      Definitely only “for now” as Hrag pointed out. For my money, this is far and away the best public digital art viewer around. Are there any others that can compete?

  • http://twitter.com/Artseeka Artseeka

    “Still, the system still lacks an attendant social network. What if this turned into the Yelp of artworks? We’re working toward a solution where @artseeka could provide that community engine for the likes of Google Art Project. Out of curiosity – what kind of social features would you want to see implemented here, besides the obligatory social lineup of Share, Comments and Ratings?

    • http://twitter.com/chaykak Kyle Chayka

      Maybe the ability to have profile pages that show your “collections” and make it easier to share/see others’ collections? An ability to tag collections and individual works with extra info or interpretations, some way to build bibliographies around pieces… that would be quite an academic resource.

      • http://twitter.com/Artseeka Artseeka

        Great thinking Kyle. But, yes, bibliographies are almost anti-social. :-)

  • Morgan

    Great link / makes sense they would come out with something like this. The “create an artwork collection” was really buggy/confusing when I tried to use it. Also the google maps street-view style of the museum tour is clunky — it would be cool if from google maps you searched for an artwork and it zoomed into the actual museum though.

    I agree with Vartanian, the zooming in is really seductive. One of the best slideshows I’ve seen.

    The design is good, but actually feels busy for some reason. Left/right navigation arrows are also fairly hidden — you should be able to navigate using left/right arrows on the keyboard as well.

    But, really awesome job overall. Cool to see people working on this type of project.

    • http://twitter.com/chaykak Kyle Chayka

      Yeah I was kind of annoyed you couldn’t click directly into an artwork while you’re in the gallery space. And @JBraun, the photos in the gallery reviews are much much worse, which is too bad.

      I haven’t had any trouble with the collection function, but maybe that’s just me.

  • J Braun

    I just gave it a little trial run. I haven’t used other tour sites, so maybe this is relatively good, but I found moving through the spaces pretty awkward. The art on the walls was skewed and I had to keep fiddling to try to be in front of something. Also, the colors seemed dull in the room views. Maybe I need more practice.!

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  • Bettypieper

    I’d like to see a comparison of, for example, Night Watch, to a copy such as the one at
    ARKELL in Canajoharie…which during WWII was feared to be “the” Night Watch if
    the real deal was destroyed.

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  • Robin White Owen

    I think it’s a great project, as I wrote on my blog http://www.mediacombo.net/blog/2011/02/google-art-project/. One feature I’d love to see is information about scale. When you’re zoomed in all the way on the gigapixel images, are you looking at the image 100x bigger than the artist him/herself could have seen it? 50x or 1,000x? When are you looking at the lifesize image, seeing what the artist saw?

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