Last year, the Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA) received a sizeable grant from the Henry Luce Foundation for the continued digitization of its 14,000-object collection. A far-reaching philanthropy organization with broad grant-based programs such as Theology, East Asia and The Henry R. Luce Initiative on Religion in International Affairs, the Luce Foundation heavily patronizes the development of intellectual life and cross-cultural pollination. This particular grant comes from the Luce program entitled American Art and is allowing WCMA to digitize another 2200 works from its collection, including paintings, drawings, prints, watercolors and political cartoons, 19th-century to contemporary. Some of the highlights of the set are paintings by Edward Hopper, Andy Warhol and Philip Guston, but this does not even scratch the surface of the breadth of the works. Cataloging and organizing such a vast quantity of fragile artwork is, to say the least, a demanding undertaking.
Working with a group of fine arts photographers, art handlers and studio art major Erica Li ’16, Collections Management Assistant Ava Freeman and Associate Registrar Rachel Tassone oversee the painstaking editing process necessary to create high-resolution photos that simulate viewing a work of art in person. As with any other photograph, rather than enhancing the subject, this process involves subtly balancing the light and color, a task that’s especially challenging for a photo of a painting, in order to create an image worthy of future publication or other educational use.
But where exactly do these carefully rendered photos go? On the Shared Shelf platform of a website called artstor.org. For Freeman and Tassone, the digitization project is all about accessibility. Dozens of colleges and universities have used this website to publish photographic reproductions of pieces from their own private collections, thus making them available for any student whose institution has a membership with Artstor. The benefit of this system for the College is threefold. First, no longer do students have to scour Google Images when attempting to use or cite a work of art. Now, should they need to dig up an obscure 19th century portrait, they can find it on Shared Shelf – and a quality image of it as well. Second, art history professors – or any professors integrating visual artwork into their curriculum – can be assured of the best possible image short of the real thing, which will prove an invaluable teaching tool. Third, art history students might not have to make the trip to WCMA in the freezing winter, and instead could view some of the artwork necessary for class in its digitized form. They would also be able to see works not on display at any given time. Consolidating thousands of images in one central location makes the access to a chunk of WCMA’s collection much easier. This endeavor has also benefitted the museum itself by enabling staff to sort through their holdings in a systematic fashion, barcode the paintings and link them to other art databases.
The public is currently welcome to peek in and see the photography process at work in specially designated galleries of WCMA. On Nov. 6 at 2 p.m., those involved with the project will give a presentation highlighting their progress and discussing its consequences in further depth. With a constant stream of curators’ finds, bequests from other museums and student art, the museum certainly has its hands full. But at the completion of the two-year Luce-funded project, thanks also to past grants, WCMA will have made 51 percent of its collection available in digital form. So far, out of WCMA’s American art collection, the Luce Foundation grant team has digitized 1089 works at a rate of 40 per day – only 1111 to go.