For many in the museum world—and perhaps beyond—the term scholarly collections catalogue can conjure some pretty daunting impressions: a book about a museum’s holdings, it involves years of collecting, researching, photographing, and writing, all to create a tome that, in most cases, is out of date the moment it hits the shelf. That’s what happened with the Walker’s most recent permanent collection catalogue. An ambitious, beautiful 616-page hardbound book, it was published in 2005, a follow-up to the previous collection catalogue produced 15 years earlier, and—given the expense of both time and money involved in a reprint—it hasn’t yet been republished to update its contents. It’s frozen in time.
“The minute you publish a collections catalogue, it’s out of date,” says Robin Dowden, Head of Technology and Director of New Media Initiatives at the Walker. “A painting goes on loan, new work is acquired, someone makes a discovery that affects art history.” Andrew Blauvelt, Senior Curator, Design, Research, and Publishing, concurs, adding, “As a contemporary arts center, the Walker is constantly acquiring new works of art, and scholarship about new artistic practices is always evolving. This kind of growth and fluidity flies in the face of publishing information only once every decade or so.”
The conundrum of collections publishing is at the heart of a project undertaken by the Getty Foundation in Los Angeles, which asks: Isn’t the online realm a better space to do this kind of publishing? With The Living Collections Catalogue, the Walker has its answer.
Focused on the Walker’s multidisciplinary collections, this online and ongoing serial publication aims to create a scholarly catalogue that can be used anywhere—via smartphone, tablet, or personal computer—and updated as changing scholarship dictates, while providing readers with a rich, even seductive experience. Launched on June 30, 2014, the initiative was funded by the Getty Foundation as part of its Online Scholarly Catalogue Initiative, a nine-museum consortium charged with creating “models for online catalogues that will dramatically increase access to museum collections; make available new, interdisciplinary, up-to-date research; and revolutionize how this research is conducted, presented, and utilized.”
The Walker’s response to the challenge arises from collecting practices that are part and parcel of its 75-year history as a multidisciplinary art center. For decades the Walker’s permanent collection has included sculptures, paintings, drawings, and other art objects, but in more recent decades has grown to include performing arts commissions, moving image works (through the Ruben/Bentson Film and Video Study Collection), artists’ books (the Rosemary Furtak Collection in the Walker’s library), and net-based art (the Digital Arts Study Collection). The Living Collections Catalogue seeks to animate these holdings while tackling complex questions about what it means to collect, preserve, and contextualize such a wide range of objects and ideas.
The online catalogue allows for focused consideration of particular artworks and artists as well as exploration of expansive themes and broader ideas across a wider array of the Walker’s holdings. As Blauvelt explains, “Instead of producing one static volume, we can now issue multiple volumes on demand, over time compiling a set of publications that is both deep and broad—something that was previously a trade-off in a print publication.”
Each volume consists of a set of objects within the collection, plus a series of themed essays. For instance, the first volume, On Performativity, explores performance-based works in the Walker collection and their relationship to the visual arts. Works by Trisha Brown, Eiko & Koma, Tino Seghal, Hélio Oiticica, and Yves Klein are brought to life through essays by Walker curators and guest scholars, including Philip Auslander and Shannon Jackson. Subsequent volumes will focus on the Walker’s Fluxus-inspired exhibition Art Expanded, 1958–1978, coming out in fall 2014, and a volume dedicated to the Walker’s acquisition of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company Collection, in 2015.
For scholars, the volumes offer incisive, original thinking about art in the Walker’s collections and its relation to other works, both within the art center and outside of it. Like a print book, each volume will be editioned, but there’s a key difference: pushing out a new edition of The Living Catalogue will be quicker, cheaper, and less resource-consumptive than publishing a new print catalogue. This serial publication leaves room for adaption as new thinking emerges. “What we tried to do,” says Dowden, “is create a framework that gives us the opportunity to evolve.”
But while the volume’s text could just as easily appear in a static publication, The Living Catalogue presents it within an interactive design framework that takes advantage of today’s digital storytelling technologies. Or, as Dowden puts it, “The audience we’re trying to serve is indeed academic, but we’re hoping that the presentation, as well as the writing, will have a broader appeal to arts enthusiasts. To that end, we created a design and functionality that borrows ideas from some of our favorite long-form journalism, lifestyle, and news sites.”
For instance, in-page features, including rich media, variable image sizing, and pull quotes, create a textured and eye-engaging landscape for readers, while the site’s navigation and table of contents hearken to online magazine layout instead of the tenets of academic publishing. A responsive design means the page scales depending on the device it’s being accessed through: a one-column view on a cellphone expands to optimize viewing on a tablet, laptop, or desktop computer. And its custom authoring tool gives editors the ability to modify each essay to best fit the content being offered or to appeal to readers in unique and diverse ways.
The authoring tool, as well as other site features, were created with the intention of using them on the Walker’s content-rich homepage, Dowden notes. In fact, much of the thinking behind The Living Catalogue’s design and technical features sprang out of the thinking that guided the redesign and relaunch of the Walker homepage as a news-style hub for ideas about contemporary art and culture in 2011. With that design, says Blauvelt, “we helped pave the way for museums to think of the web as a publishing platform and a hub for the exchange of ideas. The Living Collections Catalogue deepens our commitment to publishing by connecting the art we collect to the larger world of ideas and the issues that animate both curatorial practice and artistic practice.”
The Living Collections Catalogue title is meant to better express the project’s ever-evolving nature. Content can be changed on existing volumes as new research dictates, while new technologies and features will be added as new volumes are released. “It fits the Walker’s mission to be contemporary,” says Blauvelt. “Whether in approaching the art of today or revisiting art history, we can do so in ways that are flexible, responsive, and, most importantly, ever-alive and ever-fresh.”