The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) has received a $500,000 challenge grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). The only art museum in the United States to receive an NEH Challenge Grant in the 2001 fiscal year, SFMOMA was recognized for its leadership in the development of digital initiatives for the interpretation of art. “As a museum dedicated to the study and enjoyment of modern and contemporary art, SFMOMA continually seeks to expand the audience for art through the use of new approaches to its presentation, including the innovative use of new technologies,” comments SFMOMA Director David A. Ross. “We are honored that the NEH has rewarded our current work in this area with a grant that will help us remain at the forefront of cutting-edge digital initiatives.”
As NEH chair William R. Ferris noted in his award letter, “NEH challenge grants are awarded only after a demanding peer review process. [SFMOMA’s] proposal was reviewed by art historians, anthropologists, technical experts and individuals experienced in long-term planning for the humanities. These evaluators were especially impressed with the museum’s commitment to new technologies and their potential for greatly expanding access to art and the understanding of art.”
The NEH grant is based on SFMOMA’s proven track record in pushing the boundaries of interactive media use in the service of education. For example, in order to increase public access to the Museum’s rapidly growing permanent collection (now numbering over 20,000 objects), SFMOMA will soon present Points of Departure: Connecting with Contemporary Art. On view March 23 through September 16, 2001, this exhibition will feature four innovative educational technology prototypes: Smart Tables, which feature touch screens that allow visitors to view commentary on the exhibition’s themes and video clips of artists discussing their work; iPAQ Gallery Explorers, handheld computers that display video clips of artists talking about or making their works; kiosks in the galleries featuring Making Sense of Modern Art, the Museum’s substantially updated multimedia guide to modern and contemporary art; and a “Make Your Own Gallery” activity that allows visitors to create their own virtual exhibitions drawing on the works on view.
“This exhibition was jointly deployed by a team of curators and educators to prototype the ‘museum of the future,'” states Peter Samis, SFMOMA associate curator of education and program manager for interactive education technologies. “While we don’t anticipate that every exhibition in the future will have this range of technologies, we do want to try them out and get visitor feedback. What kind of information do our visitors want and when? How do they want it delivered to them? We view Points of Departure as a lab in which to assess some of the ways we will communicate with our audience in the future.”
As part of an institution-wide digital initiative planned over the next five years, the NEH endowment will enable the Museum to accomplish five primary goals:
• expanded production of SFMOMA’s award-winning digital interpretive programs—including the recently revamped Making Sense of Modern Art and special Web sites produced collaboratively with artists whose work is represented in the collection—for delivery on the Internet, at in-gallery computer kiosks and via CD-ROM–based media;
• continued partnership with SFMOMA’s extensive network of public school teachers to create related curriculum and Internet programs for classroom use;
• greater public and scholarly access to SFMOMA’s collections database through the creation and expansion of a Collections Management Department dedicated to record verification, digital imaging, online accessibility of images and extended captions and the addition of this information to the Art Museum Image Consortium;
• enhanced ability to produce digital exhibitions of works from the collection, including presentations of electronically based artwork, in-gallery kiosks, online and digital exhibitions and access to works that are infrequently on view due to their vast scale or fragile format; and
• the creation of new humanities-based distance learning opportunities related to the Museum’s permanent collections, such as e.school, an interactive arts education resource for teachers.
Awarded to institutions in every state, NEH grants aim to foster the excellence, diversity and vitality of the arts and make them available to citizens everywhere. Designed to support endowment and cash reserves, challenge grants require institutions to raise four nonfederal dollars for every one federal dollar. According to this matching arrangement, the NEH endowment stipulates that SFMOMA raise $2,000,000 in new nonfederal contributions over the course of the three-year contract. As Samis states, “The imprimatur of the NEH and the comments of the review panel will go a long way toward securing the additional funds necessary to accomplish our ambitious agenda. The fact that we were the only art museum to receive an award this year is a great honor. As a result we look forward to exploring a range of digital publishing options to showcase the rich humanities content of modern and contemporary art. SFMOMA is committed to providing a national (and international) gateway into this fascinating realm of culture.”