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Text for Art

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art makes its entire collection available to people as responses to text messages.


In today’s digitally connected world, has art become accessible to everyone, or do people now think they are all artists? Anybody can create music using the device in their pockets, and filtered selfies are increasingly replacing museum portraits in the public eye.

But the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) begs to differ. Its Send Me SFMOMA text message service has made waves in the art world and across social media for creating a bridge between fine art and the Instagram generation.

“In a world oversaturated with information, we asked ourselves: how can we generate personal connections between a diverse cross-section of people and the artworks in our collection? How can we provide a more comprehensive experience of our collection?” says Jay Mollica, the museum’s creative technologist, who spearheaded the project.

The museum decided to meet art lovers where they spend a massive proportion of their time: on their smartphones. To participate, a user texts the number 572-51 with the phrase “send me” and a keyword, a color, a mood or even an emoji. In return, the user receives the image and caption of a related piece of art from the museum’s collection as a text message. For instance, “send me ocean” might get the user a painting of a wave or “send me” with a flower emoji might yield a Frida Kahlo portrait in which she wears a flower crown.

“Popular emojis include hearts, cats, dogs and sunglasses,” says Mollica. Closer to Halloween, they received a lot of pumpkins, ghosts and clowns. “It’s been interesting to watch the requests evolve in tune to the cultural zeitgeist,” he says.

The popularity of the service was staggering: the museum sent two million texts in just five days after the launch of the Send Me SFMOMA project. “We’ve received over 4.2 million text messages since June [2017],” says Mollica.

In fact, Send Me SFMOMA proved to be so popular during its beta testing phase that many major mobile carriers blacklisted the service’s phone number, thinking that it was a spam service.

The vast majority of a typical museum’s collection sits in storage, including pieces that are rarely on view to the public. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is no exception. The museum has only about five percent of its collection of 34,678 artworks on view at any given time. It estimates that if someone were to walk past each artwork on view right now, the person would walk about 11 kilometers. But, to view all of the works at once, one would have to walk about 195 kilometers.

The Send Me SFMOMA program has allowed these “hidden” works of art to reach audiences in ways that would have been impossible even 10 years ago.

“People’s methods of communication are constantly changing,” says Mollica. “We are interested in reaching people on platforms they are familiar with. Of the dominant methods of communication today, SMS seems to be one of the most personal. Using SMS as the foundation for the service lent it a familiar feel.”

This informal, highly personal framework, in turn, opens people up to new art experiences, he adds. It allows the museum’s full collection to be accessible, and encourages exploration and creativity in a very approachable way.

“Most people search for art using famous names, which limits discovery. Send Me SFMOMA allows people to search in a semantic and personal way, allowing for more opportunities to discover new artists and artworks,” says Mollica.

The method by which art is sent to a user is a multi-step process utilizing a custom application programming interface (API). It runs a search on the museum’s collection and, then, returns a work of art to match the user’s request. Another user, however, could send the exact same “send me...” text and get a completely different artwork.

“Each artwork was provided with descriptive keywords by SFMOMA’s collection specialists,” says Mollica. “The emojis were mapped to keywords by our content strategy and digital engagement team during the development process. So, the emojis are mapped to descriptive words, not directly to artworks.”

Even the most brilliant system has its limitations, however.

“There are some popular emojis, such as the alien head, that don’t really correlate to any artwork in our collection,” says Mollica. “Apparently, we just don’t have any aliens.”

Also, the five-digit phone number (572-51) used to ensure the service wouldn’t be rate-limited or blacklisted is not available to all carriers, nor is it available outside the United States. The museum has, however, begun partnering with cultural organizations inside and outside the country, providing them with the structure, code and takeaways from the project. So, even if you cannot access Send Me SFMOMA, a museum in your city may soon start its own “send me” service to bring to you its entire collection of artworks.

 

Candice Yacono is a magazine and newspaper writer based in southern California.