Pierre-Auguste Renoir, "Le Jardin de la rue Cortot à Montmartre" (1876), oil on canvas. It's one of the paintings included in the Carnegie Museum of Art's Art Tracks initiative on art provenance (via Carnegie Museum of Art/Wikimedia)

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, “Le Jardin de la rue Cortot à Montmartre” (1876), oil on canvas. It’s one of the paintings included in the Carnegie Museum of Art’s Art Tracks initiative on art provenance (via Carnegie Museum of Art/Wikimedia)

Label text rarely describes the life of a painting before it arrived at a museum, yet there’s a whole narrative of ownership in a painting’s journey from an artist’s studio to a static place on the wall. The Carnegie Museum of Art (CMOA) in Pittsburgh is including this provenance data in a new initiative called Art Tracks. The first phase was recently installed alongside the museum’s Impressionism collection with a digital interface that traces the history of the artworks.

“The touch-based interactive lets visitors ask the question, ‘How did the artwork in this gallery get here?’” Jeffrey Inscho, who heads the Innovation Studio for the four Carnegie Museums, told Hyperallergic. “Visitors are then able to track the artwork’s movement across time and space, watching each work eventually end up on the wall of the museum. It’s our first stab at engaging visitors with Art Tracks, but the future potential is great.”

The Art Tracks interactive installed in the Carnegie Museum of Art (courtesy Carnegie Museum of Art)

The collaborative project involved CMOA’s Digital Media Lab, education, and curatorial departments. Louise Lippincott, CMOA curator of fine arts and the main curatorial presence on Art Tracks, said that the project is a tool to answer common visitor questions about authenticity, as well as concerns about responsible acquisitions. She explained to Hyperallergic that a big reason the museum did the Impressionism research was concerns about Nazi provenance issues. “It’s a way for us to demonstrate that we are maintaining the ethical standards of an American museum that has art of this kind,” she said.

Screenshot from an in-gallery Art Tracks pilot, showing art that can be explored (courtesy Carnegie Museum of Art)

Screenshot from an in-gallery Art Tracks pilot, showing a timeline and location for an individual artwork (courtesy Carnegie Museum of Art)

As a major industrial center in the late 19th and early 20th century, Pittsburgh was at that time a center for Old Master painting collecting. Although locals Andrew W. Mellon and Henry Clay Frick had their collections go elsewhere — to the National Gallery of Art and the Frick Collection respectively — a concentration remained in Pennsylvania. Many of the CMOA painting donations date to the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s, and Art Tracks can recall this hometown industrial heritage, as well as the greater cultural context of the art. It can also offer some surprises, like when curators examined a painting in storage which Lippincott said looked “totally like a fake,” and through work with a conservator and a provenance researcher proved to be an authentic 16th-century portrait of Isabella de Medici.

“At the moment, we’re just doing our own collections and own provenances to tell the story of how our paintings got to Pittsburgh, but a lot more museums can share their data, and then an art historian could ask much more general questions, like how many Monet paintings were in New York in 1960, or track a work from Berlin to Paris in 1937,” Lippincott said.

With phase one in the museum, it’s now concentrating on connecting with other museums to broaden the scope of Art Tracks. CMOA authored a standard data structure for provenance, and also created an open-source tool called Elysa so that other museums could similarly structure their provenance, with the ability to connect the data across institutions. This November, CMOA will host a “hackathon” to involve software developers in the potential of Art Tracks.

“The more museums that participate, the more detailed picture of global history we can paint via the movements of artwork,” Inscho said. “How did the industrial revolution impact art production in areas of the world? There could be a visualization for that. How has the digital age impacted regional art markets? There could be a visualization for that. Where are all known Van Goghs at this moment compared to 20 years ago? There could be a visualization for that. The possibilities are endless.”

Claude Monet, “The Sea at Le Havre” (1868), oil on canvas (via Carnegie Museum of Art/Wikimedia)

Phase one of Art Tracks is installed in the Impressionist galleries of the Carnegie Museum of Art (4400 Forbes Avenue Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania). 

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Allison Meier

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print...

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