Digital Art History Comes to The Frick!

  • Posted on Jun 20, 2016 by

Reflecting on the potentially transformative effect that digital technologies hold for the discipline of art history, members of several departments of the Frick Art Reference Library launched the Digital Art History Lab (DAHL) in the fall of 2014 to address the needs of art historians in a digital age. The founding mission of the DAHL is to:

  • Provide researchers with the digital tools and data necessary to explore new methodologies;
  • Stimulate collaborations between art historians and specialists from a variety of fields, from computer science to historical geographic information systems (GIS);
  • Make the data sets amassed by the Frick Art Reference Library available to the public to encourage developers, researchers, and others to create tools that are freely available to the community.

Our first step was to create a webpage that would outline the DAHL’s founding statement and a preliminary reading list. The reading list is a primer for those interested in digital art history, providing both theoretical and practical perspectives. It also highlights digital art history projects of interest. As the DAHL broadened its scope, the website expanded to include lists of workshops, lectures, and digital art history projects it launched. 

The next step was outreach. In the spring and summer of 2015, we held informational sessions about the DAHL that included a discussion of selected digital art history tools and projects at New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts (IFA), The Museum of Modern Art, and The Frick. These sessions laid the groundwork for more focused, hands-on workshops on specific tools useful for digital art history practitioners. 

The first workshop took place at The Frick in November of 2015. Dr. Titia Hulst presented Cytoscape, an open source software platform for visualizing networks. Dr. Hulst gave a brief overview of her project using Cytoscape to understand the market for contemporary art in New York in the mid-twentieth century and then walked participants through a demonstration of how they could use Cytoscape on their own data. Dr. Hulst’s workshop was followed in December by an introduction and overview of the collections management and web publishing platform Omeka by Dr. Kimon Keramides. In the spring 2016, we hosted workshops on Carto DB, a web-based mapping and data analysis tool, and Palladio, a data visualization tool. The DAHL plans to hold additional workshops this coming fall. 

Omeka Workshop, Frick Art Reference Library, December 11, 2015.

Omeka Workshop, Frick Art Reference Library, December 11, 2015.

In 2015, the DAHL teamed up with members of the NYC Digital Humanities group to form a new subgroup for Digital Art History (NYCDAH). As part of NYC Digital Humanities week (February 9–12, 2016), the NYCDAH held a digital art history day at the IFA. The morning session consisted of lectures and presentations, and was followed by a “Digi Café” where researchers could talk to experts in the field about the benefits of various digital tools and analytical techniques. On hand were experts in Kimono, CartoDB, Cytoscape, Zotero, and ARIES (see below). The morning session was well attended, with approximately fifty paticipants, half of whom stayed through the afternoon.

A natural outgrowth of the workshops was the offering of lectures by scholars in the field at The Frick. In April 2016,  Matthew Lincoln, University of Maryland PhD, presented his lecture Specialization and Diversity in Dutch and Flemish Printmaking: A Computational Approach, and in May 2016, Emily L. Spratt, Visiting Lecturer, Department of Art History, Rutgers University, discussed The Art of Seeing in the Digital Age: Aesthetics at the Intersection of Art and Science. These lectures attracted large audiences and posed a number of fascinating questions for the field.

Concurrently with outreach and lectures, the DAHL is actively developing new tools for art-historical research and originating its own digital projects to serve as teaching tools and models for the field. These initiatives rely on collaboration with computer programmers, engineers, and specialists in a range of disciplines, including historical GIS. Launched in 2014 with New York University’s Tandon School of Engineering, our first collaborative project is ARIES: ARt Image Exploration Space. Currently a prototype, ARIES is an interactive image manipulation system that allows for the exploration and organization of fine art images (of paintings, drawings, prints, sculpture, etc.) taken from multiple sources (e.g. websites, digital photographs, scans) in a virtual space. ARIES provides a novel, intuitive interface to explore, annotate, rearrange, and group art images freely in a single workspace environment, using organizational ontologies drawn from existing best practices in art history. The system allows for multiple ways to compare images, from using dynamic overlays analogous to a physical light box to advanced image analysis and feature-matching functions available only through computational image processing.

Our second collaboration, “Mapping the Frick Photograph Campaigns, 1922–1967,” is with Hunter College’s Center for Advanced Research of Spatial Information (CARSI) and Department of Geography. For this project, we hope to produce a web-based, interactive tool using GIS technologies to document the movement of Frick Art Reference Library photographers across the United States as they recorded paintings and sculptures in private collections and little-known public collections from 1922 to 1967. The resulting 35,000 negatives from these photograph expeditions, all of which have been digitized, are one of the most valuable resources in the Frick Art Reference Library’s Photoarchive, documenting many objects that either remain inaccessible to the general public or have been lost, destroyed, or altered in the intervening decades. The maps and visualizations developed by CARSI in collaboration with the DAHL will not only trace these journeys but also link location to object in an effort to identify the authorship of unattributed works (of which there are hundreds) and visualize patterns of collecting in the United States.

Recent projects for the DAHL include the creation of datasets on the provenance, attribution, and exhibition histories of the paintings of the Spanish artist El Greco (1541–1614) and the Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer (1632–1675) and visualizations from data collaboratively produced by The Frick and The Metropolitan Museum of Art from Harold Lancour’s American Art Auction Catalogues, 1785-1942. We will make these datasets freely available to the public on GitHub, Datahub, and DAHL webpages alongside pre-existing Library datasets, including the Montias Database of 17th century Dutch Art Inventories, the Spanish Artists from the Fourth to the Twentieth Century: A Critical Dictionary, and the Photoarchive.

As new projects, workshops, and lectures are developed by the DAHL, we will be posting them on our webpages. We look forward to collaborating with you and/or seeing you at an upcoming event!

Louisa Wood Ruby; Head, Photoarchive Research/Member, Digital Art History Lab Committee, Frick Art Reference Library

Banner image: Digi Café at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University, NYC Digital Humanities Week, February 9–12, 2016.

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