"Technological Revolutions and Art History": Four-Part Symposium Weighs Urgent Questions in the Field

Color photograph of Dr. David Stork presenting at the 2018 conference, "Searching Through Seeing."

In the spring of 2018, the Frick Art Reference Library’s Digital Art History Lab hosted a two-day symposium examining how recent advances in technology were motivating changes in art-historical research. “Searching Through Seeing: Optimizing Computer Vision Technology for the Arts” convened about 160 professionals from the fields of computer science and art history to explore image-based searching as a tool and a methodology.

Starting this fall, the Frick is continuing this evolving discussion with a second symposium, “Technological Revolutions and Art History,” organized in collaboration with the Museum of Modern Art. Similar to its predecessor, the goal of this virtual event is to bring together art historians, computer scientists, and cultural heritage professionals to examine how advances in computer vision technologies are impacting the fields of art history and heritage studies and how scholars and museum professionals might influence future developments in digital imaging, data curation, and artificial intelligence (AI). In particular, presentations will consider how current practices—from digital preservation to photography and 3D modeling to blockchain—are affecting art-historical research, as well as how gaps in access to vital digital tools might be addressed. The collaboration with MoMA (whose library is a partner along with the Frick’s and Brooklyn Museum’s in the New York Art Resources Consortium) enables a wide breadth of topics, including issues related to digitization and museum practice.

Color photograph of Dr. Emily L. Spratt presenting at the 2018 conference, "Searching Through Seeing."

The conference is divided into four sessions that will take place online on October 15, 2020; November 12, 2020; January 14, 2021; and March 11, 2021. Anyone interested in these pressing and relevant subjects is invited to attend the symposium via Zoom. Please sign up for one or all four live sessions through the Library Programs page.

Drawing on notable takeaways from the 2018 symposium, such as the importance of collaboration and the critical role art historians must fulfill in the development of computer vision technologies, the first and second sessions are designed to encourage curators, art market professionals, and art historians to connect with the computer sciences. The keynote lecture by Jessica Riskin of Stanford University will analyze how the sciences and the humanities were inextricably linked until the dawn of modernism, a presentation that will set the stage for a spirited discussion of how technology has historically played a critical role in the way art historians interact and work with images.

Color photograph of Dr. John R. Smith presenting at the 2018 conference, "Searching Through Seeing."The third session of the symposium will explore the ethics of digitization and how issues of access and discoverability affect art-historical research. Participants will debate the potential for technology to expand audience engagement with cultural heritage institutions and their collections yet also, ironically, to omit context, introduce bias and legal restrictions, and problematize concepts of ownership and authenticity. The fourth and final session of the symposium will highlight recent computational art history initiatives that promote increased interaction with the digitized collections of a variety of cultural heritage sites and institutions.

Fostering dialogue between seemingly disparate audiences in the computer sciences, art history, and digital preservation fields is an ambitious project, but until all of these groups communicate regularly, problems will persist in how art professionals and researchers digitize, catalog, document, and preserve our cultural patrimony. This symposium hopes to be a first step toward useful and ethical advancements in these areas and more, which promise to reshape and improve how scholars and the public interact with and understand the rich resources of art history.

Dr. David Stork presenting at the symposium, "Searching Through Seeing: Optimizing Computer Vision Technology for the Arts," on April 12, 2018. All photos by George Koelle, The Frick Collection

Dr. Emily L. Spratt delivering the 2018 keynote address

Dr. John R. Smith presenting at the 2018 symposium

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