To immerse yourself in the Albright-Knox Art Gallery’s latest exhibition, there’s no need to cough up $12 for admission, dig out your scarf and warm up the car or, for that matter, even change out of your pj’s.
Just pick up your nearest laptop or smartphone, point it at albrightknox.org, and you’ll have instant and unlimited access to two new interactive tours that reanimate the historic streetscape of downtown Buffalo and reveal hidden aspects of the gallery’s extensive collection of outdoor sculptures.
It’s just the latest local evidence of a museum world trend, now accelerating at institutions across Western New York and the country, to expand audiences by putting more art, information and scholarship into the digital realm and making it available for free. The gallery also has launched a series of interactive timelines exploring its long history and educational programs.
These online exhibitions, designed by Albright-Knox Digital Media Manager Kelly Carpenter and launched in late November, are the latest in a series of projects meant to bring the gallery’s deep trove of art and information to a wider audience that may not have the time, money or even desire to visit the historic institution at the western edge of Delaware Park.
“A few years ago, we recognized that it wasn’t just the fine arts collection that was important to share; it’s also our supplementary collections, including the media collection,” said Carpenter, whose excitement about the projects and their potential to entice Western New Yorkers to explore the gallery’s collection was evident in a recent phone interview.
“When I found this awesome find in the archives, I thought, ‘We have to be on Historypin, and we have to share it with everybody,’ ” she said, referring to the Web-based software she used to create the tours.
On the virtual journey through downtown, users can pause at Lafayette Square and look south along Main Street, where the dark brown exterior of much-maligned Main Place Mall extends southward from the towering Liberty Building like a shrunken limb. But move a slider in the lower-right corner of your screen, and suddenly the beautiful Italianate facade of the former Adam, Meldrum & Anderson department store comes into view directly on top of the mall that was built in its place.
Stand your virtual self on the bleak plaza in front of One Seneca Tower and you can see the former clothing factory called Gothic Hall sandwiched among other brick buildings, all of which vanished long ago to make way for what is now a mostly empty skyscraper, currently scraping the sky to no apparent purpose.
The trend to digitize art collections and information is by no means limited to the Albright-Knox. Across the street at the Burchfield Penney Art Center, the ambitious Arts Legacy Project, which chronicles the artistic history of Western New York, was launched last year. Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center has been making its archives available online for several years and is collaborating with the Burchfield Penney and several other organizations on Migrating Media, a program that will bring thousands of analog videos to a digital audience.
It’s clear that museums and galleries with long histories and limited space – both of which apply especially to the Albright-Knox – must find new ways to bring their work to public eyes. Much like newspapers, these institutions are learning that they must constantly adapt and experiment in order to capture the increasingly divided and distracted attention of their audiences.
“There’s so many conversations we haven’t even had yet, and so much stuff comes online daily that we just want to keep the momentum going,” said Maria Morreale, Albright-Knox public relations and marketing director.
For Scott Propeack, chief curator and associate director at the Burchfield Penney, the need to make museums materials accessible to more people is about much more than just building audiences. It’s about meeting a minimum obligation to the public the museums were created to serve.
“Museums, as an average in the industry, only exhibit 3 percent of their collections,” said Propeack, who is overseeing the Burchfield Penney’s extensive digitization project. “It’s an ethical responsibility, as I see it, to make the public aware of what it owns.”
His colleagues in the art world, Propeack said, seem to have finally gotten over their concern that putting too much information online would prevent people from actually going to museums and thus hasten their demise.
“I started telling people that it was more like the turn-of-the-century practice of taking trips to Egypt, taking photographs and having slide shows for your friends when you came home,” Propeack said. “It didn’t make them feel like they went to Egypt. It made them feel like they should go to Egypt. It’s not a substitute for the object.”
Carpenter, who has poured a good deal of personal and professional time into the online tours and timelines she described as “labors of love,” is most excited about their potential to reacquaint Western New Yorkers with their flagship cultural institution. She echoed the suggestion of recently arrived director Janne Sirén that the internationally recognized gallery may suffer from a shortage of local regard.
“We are a part of Buffalo and have been here for quite some time,” she said. “And I think people need to kind of recognize that.”