Last week, the Whitney Museum massively overhauled its online database. The museum of American art expanded its online collection from a paltry 700 works to around 21,000. The digital reserve now includes over 3,000 pieces by Edward Hopper, in addition to offerings from a wide swathe of art from the United States, including the likes of Mike Kelley and Martin Wong.
This virtual expansion comes on the heels of Matisse, a cinematic rendering of the Matisse cut-out show on display at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) through February 10. The film, which includes footage from both the MoMA show and the earlier exhibition at the Tate Modern in London, is part of the “Exhibition on Screen” project, which “brings blockbuster art exhibitions from galleries around the world to a cinema near you,” according to the initiative’s website. “Exhibition on the Screen” is one of many such projects that have cropped up in recent years: the Live in HD series from the Metropolitan Opera, “National Theatre Live” from the British National Theatre, and “Live from Stratford-Avon” from the Royal Shakespeare Company in Warwickshire are just a few of the initiatives designed to make high art more accessible to broader audience.
In his canonical essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Walter Benjamin wrote that “even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space.” His sentiment is shared by contemporary purists about gallery- or theater-going. Something of the authenticity and power of an original artwork is lost in its cinematic or photographic translation, Benjamin et al. might claim when confronted with live-streamed performances or digital databases of museums’ collections.
But when Benjamin penned his essay, he could hardly have imagined the technologies that make the reproduction of a performance or exhibition deeply experiential, even from afar. Projects like “Exhibition on the Screen” wed the democratization of art with the preservation of its sense of immediacy — and allow those who cannot afford to travel to cities like New York or London, much less live in them, to share in the arts.
The Whitney’s move towards digitalization comes at an especially convenient moment: the museum is closed to the public until early May, when its holdings will move into a new building located at the intersection of Washington and Gansevoort Streets in the Meatpacking District. According to the Whitney’s website, the new building will feature close to 50,000 square feet of indoor gallery space and 13,000 square feet of outdoor gallery space.