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The Art Genome Project

News & Features | October 22, 2012

When Carter Cleveland was a student at Princeton, the one thing that his dorm room lacked was unique, interesting artwork. To some, this wouldn’t particularly matter, but Cleveland found the endless Bob Marley and Scarface posters in his dorm maddening. Although he wanted a cool new piece of art, he had a difficult time finding anything once he started looking. That was when he thought of art.sy, an online repository of fine art that allows users to search for pieces by category, style, size, and more.

Cleveland’s startup essentially aims to do for art what Pandora does for music and Netflix does for movies: it makes personalized recommendations based on ratings and previously viewed works. If you like Jean-Michel Basquiat, art.sy might recommend select pieces by Banksy or Shepard Fairey. A high rating for Claude Monet’s “Impression, Sunrise,” on the other hand, might lead to a discovery of Edgar Degas’s “A Cotton Office in New Orleans.” Personal preferences will ultimately lead to new findings and an artistic education. The website even allows you to purchase select pieces by putting you in touch with a broker.

The website is largely banking on the assumption that the general public is, by now, fully accustomed to image-driven platforms such as Pinterest or Tumblr. It has 275 galleries and 50 museums as partners, and its database already has over 20,000 images. Cleveland, only 25 years old, has managed to collect millions of dollars in funding from prominent figures in both the art and technology communities. Investors include Peter Thiel, founder of PayPal; Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google; Jack Dorsey, founder of Twitter; Larry Gagosian, owner of the Gagosian Gallery chain; Dasha Zhukova, founder of the IRIS Foundation; and Wendi Murdoch, wife of media giant Rupert Murdoch.

This list of investors is symbolic of art.sy’s position as a joint venture with just as much to do with technology as it does art. Like Pandora, art.sy is going to be judged in part by its ability to make expedient and appropriate suggestions to its users. But the success of such an endeavor relies heavily on the use of technology.

The website’s team of art historians and programmers has worked together in order to create an algorithm-based system of identifying and distinguishing between the different paintings. The art historians manually apply certain labels to each painting, and the programmers add codes that refer to those specific labels, allowing the computer to recognize the similarities and differences between paintings via cross-referencing.

This reference system is called the Art Genome Project (derived from Pandora’s Music Genome Project), an appropriate title considering the fact that it is fundamentally based on human characteristics. It looks at all the paintings and separates them in a qualitative manner, rather than simply using numbers. But this system also runs the risk of attaching highly subjective labels in its attempts to succinctly describe a painting in great detail. A computer doesn’t know if a painting is “epic” or “warm.” These are the issues that art.sy will have to fine-tune when pushing the limits of technology.

There are other issues art.sy has to resolve, too. Just because Pandora and Netflix have prospered with similar structures doesn’t mean that art.sy will automatically experience the same level of success. Music and film have a much wider demographic than art, and people don’t search for new art as often as they would look for new music or movies. As a result, it will be a challenge for art.sy to maintain consistent traffic on its website. Even if it does attract users, it will not be necessarily easy to monetize its success, as seen by other startups’ struggles in the past.

In addition, a similar search platform, the Google Art Project, has been running since February 2011 and is available in 18 languages—not to mention that it has over twice the number of images in its database than art.sy currently has. Furthermore, other startups such as Paddle8 are also attempting to digitize art to reach the masses, and websites such as Zazzle and Art.com have already been making strides in commercializing affordable art.

But Cleveland is not discouraged by the daunting task ahead. He ambitiously claims that his goal is to make all the world’s art accessible to “anyone with an Internet connection.” And while it is still not completely clear whether art.sy is merely an online gallery of images or more of a tool designed to encourage the public to broaden their artistic spectrums, it should resonate with people simply due to the fact that it was designed to cater to an audience of the digital age.

The website’s ability to constantly improve its technological capabilities will ultimately determine whether or not it succeeds, as users will undoubtedly ditch the platform if it is not convenient to use. But regardless of its future, art.sy is an important next step for the evolving relationship between art and technology.