Team Context

by , October 2015

On October 30, SFMOMA and Stamen Design hosted Art + Data Day at the new Gray Area Art and Technology Theater in San Francisco. The event was formatted as an “unhackathon,” focusing on collaboration and problem solving — rather than competition and speed — as a way of testing an alpha version of SFMOMA’s new API. Since public sharing is a focus of SFMOMA’s API, all code created during the event has since been posted to GitHub, and all of the projects will be summarized on SFMOMA Lab in the coming weeks, continuing with Team Context’s project.

Scott Murray, University of San Francisco assistant professor of design, was our Captain Context for the day, leading a team that explored ways to connect individual artworks with the context of the larger world in which they were created. The rest of the team consisted of me, Dan Rademacher, a project manager for Stamen Design; Mathieu Stemmelen, a designer at SFMOMA; Stella Lochman, a program associate for public dialogue at SFMOMA; and Victor Powell, a data visualization artist.

We started by making a mind map and looking at how we’d move out from the artwork into the infinitely complex world beyond. The map covers everything from the artist’s personal relationships and artistic influences to political and economic data to the weather to the year’s World Series winner (hey, the Giants’ recent win was on our minds!).

We then asked ourselves this question: How do we start to get our heads around such a vast array of possible avenues of pursuit beginning from any one of the seventy thousand artworks available through SFMOMA’s API?

First, we decided to focus on two pieces, one by Bay Area artist Robert Arneson and one by globally famous artist Pablo Picasso. In choosing these two artists, we hoped to determine whether the context might be too thin for Arneson and too overwhelming for Picasso — plus, we wanted to make sure we had enough data to work with.

As it turned out, the context for Arneson’s self-portrait sculpture California Artist from 1982 was rich enough, and since we only had one day, we decided to focus solely on the Arneson sculpture.

Here’s where we ended up:

The three columns at the top represent 1) the regional context of the work (and Pantone colors from 1982!); 2) the work itself, with data about the material and size from the API; and 3) the beginnings of biographical context about Arneson.

Along the bottom is a timeline of Arneson’s life (1930–1992) with the works in SFMOMA’s collection placed along the line. Larger circles indicate that more works were created in that particular year. This timeline reveals that the majority of Arneson’s works contained in SFMOMA’s collection were created when the artist was in his late thirties.

Below that timeline is the first attempt we made to chart other data through the lens of Arneson’s lifespan. This chart shows the change in California’s population from 1930 to 1992, though the Y axis might be a bit compressed to give a sense of just how much the population changed in that time.

And here’s how the team worked:

  1. Designers Scott and Mathieu worked on wireframes and the final sketch;
  2. Stella scoured the Internet for context sources;
  3. Victor, a creative technologist, and I pulled data out of the API and started charting it.

The artwork and artist in the API

Here’s where we started — this is what a search for the term “California artist” looks like in the API:


"_id": {

"$oid": "5418a96ea45f887a02000004"
"accession_id": "83.108.A-B",
"accession_method": "Purchase",
"accession_year": null,
"artwork_id": 5,
"collection_group": "",
"components": null,
"copyright_type": "",
"creators": [
"$ref": "artists",
"$id": {
"$oid": "54189f35a45f8874c6000007"
"artist": "Robert Arneson",
"artist_id": 32,
"attribution": "",
"date": "",
"extent": "",
"place": "",
"remarks": "",
"role": "Primary"
"credit_collection_sfmoma": "",
"credit_line": "Gift of the Modern Art Council",
"current_location": "CC : Two : Room 210 : Unit 001 : Floor",
"custodian": "",
"dates": {
"creation_date": "1982",
"display": "1982",
"display_alt": "1982",
"earliest": "1982",
"latest": "1982"
"dedication": null,
"departments": [
"Painting and Sculpture"
"description": "20th-century USA sculpture",
"dimensions": {
"extent": "overall",
"depth": "20 1/4 in.",
"display": "68 1/4 in. x 27 1/2 in. x 20 1/4 in. (173.36 cm x 69.85 cm x 51.44 cm)",
"height": "68 1/4 in.",
"weight": "",
"width": "27 1/2 in."
"display_medium": "stoneware with glazes",
"display_title": "California Artist",
"donor_id": 112,
"edition": {
"flag": false,
"id": "",
"number": "",
"proofs": "",
"size": "",
"type": ""
"embark_datestamp": "2014-08-27",
"file_id": 121435,
"getty_ulan_id": "",
"image": {
"aspect_ratio": 0.582,
"image_url": "https://api.sfmoma.org/images/83.108.A-B_01_d04.jpg",
"file": "83.108.A-B_01_d04.jpg",
"type": "JPEG",
"height": 1024,
"width": 596
"is_component": null,
"legal_status": "accessioned",
"marks": "",
"medium": "stoneware with glazes",
"mult_artists": null,
"n_components": 2,
"object_type": "sculpture",
"origin": {
"getty_tgn_id": "",
"continent": "North America",
"country": "United States",
"state_province": "California",
"city": "Benicia",
"neighborhood": "",
"historic_name": ""
"percent_owned": "",
"sort_artist": "Arneson, Robert",
"style": "",
"sub_medium": "",
"support": "",
"support_detail": "",
"temp_id": "83.108.A-B",
"title": "",
"title_markup": "",
"two_dimensional": false,
"url": null,
"verified": true,
"whole_object": 0

And here’s what Arneson looks like in the API:


"_id": {
"$oid": "54189f35a45f8874c6000007"
"_slugs": [
"artist_id": 32,
"artist_label": "",
"artworks": [
"verified": true

What is context?

Stella and I took slightly different directions in the search for context. Stella dug into Wikipedia and the New York Times API, unearthing gems about Arneson’s friends, rivals, and influences. She also gathered information from more general data sources, such as data.gov. My thinking was that going after general data sources would lead to context sources that could be used across more artworks and artists, as opposed to a specific artwork — population, economic outputs, demographics, that sort of thing.

Here’s the full list of places we looked for context, beyond the API itself:

We quickly discovered that rich context is plentiful even for lesser-known artists. Turning that context into relevant data, however, is much more challenging. Economics and population data are easily associated. For example, we know Arneson’s piece was created in 1982. What were the most recent census records for the population of California in or around that year? What about the state or national GDP in or around 1982? But how much meaning does this context really give us? Stella found much richer data in the New York Times archive and on Wikipedia. But whereas linking to those queries is easy, turning the results into meaningful data or interpretation is hard.

At the end of the day, I was excited about where we ended up: the timeline placing the work within the context of an artist’s own lifespan is simple and compelling, and easily done with the API as it stands. Adding more layers of context from there remains a mostly human-driven endeavor, rather than a data-driven one. In the near term, there’s no danger that automation will replace the careful work of curators and interpretive staff in pulling out relevant bits of history and helping us connect those points to create rich stories.

Dan Rademacher

Dan Rademacher

Dan Rademacher is a project manager for Stamen Design.
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