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Smartify App Launches at the Royal Academy

SEEN was fortunate enough to attend the launch of the Smartify app at the Royal Academy recently. Will Dallimore, Director of Public Engagement at the RA, welcomed us at a time of great transformation. They’ve had a huge construction project going on, which means that there will be a 70% increase in new public space at the institution. New temporary galleries will house the work of Tacita Dean while permanent collections remind us that the RA is an art school with Royal Academicians very much at the centre of things. A grand lecture theatre will also be unveiled to encourage discourse and debate about art.

Smartify is a new collaboration with the RA and is already in Sackler and other galleries and institutions across the globe. SEEN has also seen it in action for Sculpture in the City. Anna Lowe, a co-founder of the app spoke of the app’s capacity to make art more discoverable. By downloading the app onto your device, you can use it to scan artworks and discover extra information about them. You can hear audio from the artist, curatorial research, hidden stories… all within the presence of the artwork itself. This should make it easier to connect with the art, making it more relevant and personal to the viewer.

Despite Brexit, Anna maintained that Britain is still a great place to start a business, particularly one that seems so well-attuned to the future and the changes in the way we view art. A Panel discussion then ensued, chaired by Will Gompertz, the BBC’s art editor. Lucy Crompton-Reid, CEO of Wikimedia UK, Fran Sanderson, head of the Arts, Culture and Creativity team from innovation charity Nesta, Chris Michaels Digital Director of the National Gallery, and Dr Xavier Bray, formerly of Dulwich Picture Gallery, now Director of the Wallace Collection.

Will Gompertz told the panel and audience that he’d heard from Anna Lowe about Smartify and thought it a great app that improved the visitor experience no end. Smartify are young entrepreneurs who, strangely, have encountered some resistance despite the democratisation effect of digital tech.
Will Gompertz asked the panel if they thought there was a shift in attitudes in museums; less building of own their brands and more sharing.

Chris Michaels thought that Individual museums want to stay open, but the transformative effect of the Smartify app is that it’s free to use, therefore there is no sale for the museum. Either museums must turn away from the challenge, or learn from it and apply own commercial agenda by developing their own alternative app that they charge for. Will Gompertz then wondered if there was funding at Nesta to help institutions bridge the gap, but Fran Sanderson thought not as the subsidy would be for institutions to develop alternatives to act as revenue streams.

Will Gompertz asked Lucy Crompton-Reid about resistance to sharing. How do you overcome it? Lucy sympathised with Chris Michael’s view, but acknowledged that there is a ‘digital dissonance’ at play here: artworks have been viewed 16 billion times via the internet, so if museums are committed to audience engagement they must serve audiences who can’t reach them physically. There are clearly complex decisions and Smartify must work sensitively.

Will Gompertz asked Dr Xavier Bray, up in the high echelons of museums, where does Digital sit? It used to be a tough sell. Dr Bray said it was about establishing priorities. The Wallace Collection never lends; the art lover must visit and engage personally. Interestingly, Wallace is anti-label in order to create a purely visual experience for their visitors. This approach allows different contexts in which to appreciate the art. The revamp of the Wallace website means that the digital imprint of the art is almost the same size as the entire website, the maintenance of which brings its own financial implications.

Will Gompertz then asked Chris Michaels what budget the National Gallery has for Digital. Chris Michaels replied that the basic economic imperative of the NG was to make money back on what you do, so it was beneficial to have specific digital experience to create a digital platform. He also felt that the nation owned the digital footprint of the National Gallery. Fran Sanderson opined that it was a big-scale question. How do you connect it up with departments that can’t have public data? For the big institutions it makes no sense to have digital silos within organisations. Instead maybe they should have digital champions, a scenario addressable by revolving museum boards and getting new skills in.

Lucy Crompton-Reid added that it was about looking ahead at what’s on the horizon. Will Gompertz wondered what we were in for. Lucy Crompton-Reid pondered global trends in education. In one sense it was scary to assume that progress will be linear. Not always so. There are forty countries that don’t have an uncensored Internet. Rapid development in immersive tech and AI means that there is potential to have an truly immersive experience in art. Digital natives of the future will expect much more than we do at present. The whole arena is open to innovation.

Will Gompertz wondered what were the digital priorities for the Wallace collection. Dr Bray thought that it would be possible soon to enter paintings via Virtual Reality, which seemed pretty gob-smacking to SEEN. But, a balance is essential. Young patrons use Smartify as a trail. Digital can be educational. Dulwich Picture Gallery used a Transformer in a digital version of one of their paintings to demonstrate the tech and engage younger patrons. Collections that are free should have outreach and decide who is their priority audience? Audio guides aren’t used very much in a visual culture. Advertising properly to ensure take-up would be the next step.

Will Gompertz wanted to know how museums will change. Chris Michaels thought It should expand the museum, not subtract from it. In some ways the worse thing to happen was the screen of the smartphone, but Smartify gets the interaction and synthesises the viewing experience into something more meaningful. It’s still about viewing, but in a sensitive way; If tech directs the act of looking it’s no good, it should enhance it.

As Will Gompertz said, half the population is disenfranchised from the museum experience, so the use of tech is obvious to engage that audience. What should museums be doing with it? Fran Sanderson thought that Smartify will pull that potential audience in. You don’t have to be there to experience the museum, ordinarily, if you just go on the website – Smartify will draw people physically. But there is a massive funding gap. Steps to engagement of the potential audience will be interesting. Thinking about the process, it’s a huge opportunity. But there is a gap between expectations and funding.

Will Gompertz asked Chris Michaels if the NG was ahead of the curve on digital. It’s hard for museums with less funding than purely commercial operations, but Chris felt the whole arena was still nascent. He felt that in an increasingly sectarian society museums have a part to play in bridging the gaps between us and, interestingly, tech has a role to play but is not the whole answer.

Will Gompertz made an interesting point about monetisation: tech can make money by providing data on customers. How high a proportion of museum activity should be devoted to money making, or should money be spent on outreach? Fran Sanderson made the salient point that pragmatism and enterprise must co-exist. There’s a capacity issue, and in an age of austerity you have to work out how to make money. Dr Xavier Bray had the last word (SEEN

Royal Academy
Burlington House