New Revenue Streams for Museums in the Digital Age?

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These days, art lovers have a growing number of options when it comes to viewing art or even building their personal collections. But for a quicker alternative to negotiating with dealers, or navigating the frenzy of traditional and digital auction houses, consumers can leisurely shop or stream from online galleries of digital works.

Marketplaces like Sedition feature digital versions of art available for download with strong focus on contemporary works.

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Image: Examples of pieces & formats available at Sedition.com

Sedition has secured partnerships with many contemporary art museums like The Broad, Stiftung Museum Kunstpalast, Astrup Fearnley Museum, Stedelijk Museum, ICA London, MACBA, and also features work from household name artists like Damien Hirst, Yoko Ono, Shepard Fairey, and Jenny Holzer.

Startups like Electric Objects (update: shutdown in June 2017), Depict, and Meural offer still and moving images in a slick platform that grounds an interactive display in a familiar format: a wooden frame.

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Electric Objects has collaborations with Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum, New Museum, Museum of the Moving Image, the New York Public Library showing that museums and cultural institutions are exploring.

But with all of these marketplaces and screens for digital art and seemingly impressive partnerships in place, are there opportunities for new revenues streams for museums?

We asked a few #musetech thought-leaders for their take on this topic.

Will the cultural “consumer,” art lover, and casual museum-goer alike pay to buy digital reproductions of museum content for their devices and digital frames?

“I think this is unlikely, given the current market,” says Koven Smith, Director of Digital Adaptation at the Blanton Museum of Art. “The price point is high enough that the kind of person likely to want this is also likely to want higher “quality" and probably more “unique” work than these startups can usually afford to get with their partnerships.”

Critics agree that the combination of a disposable income and a taste for digital files seems unlikely, and are skeptical that the model will provide any sizable revenue streams for most institutions. Sales trends from Electric Objects in 2015 suggest that when it comes to digital art content, consumer tastes lean more towards GIFs and post-internet genres.

“Does anyone really want a monitor screen on their wall?” questions Ben Vickers, Curator of Digital at Serpentine Galleries in London. “My sense is that there will be a big shift when we get the equivalent of e-paper for canvas,” with a nod to the aluminum-mounted Giclee prints of Francis Bacon’s Q5 at Serpentine. “But, is there really a market?” he asks. “I think this is highly questionable.” 

What is the impact of a museum’s decision to license its collection to an online marketplace? Will it benefit museums? 

Referencing trends in Europe and the UK, Vickers cites a “deep drive coming from state funders and audience research to adopt/adapt” to these digital platforms. “The bottom is falling out on funding streams; add to this, that corporations are insisting on getting more and more from their ‘partnerships’.”

“As a result,” he explains, “museums are increasingly desperate to find new funding sources. If ‘tech land’ can guarantee workable models that offer reasonable deals for new revenue streams, [revenue from digital content] could very much happen.”

“I’m pretty skeptical about these platforms,” says Smith. “I don’t see this as a likely revenue stream for museums, particularly since most [museums] are headed more towards a free-use model as far as their digital assets are concerned.”

“I’m skeptical as to the likelihood that these platforms could become significant revenue streams for museums,” says Smith. “That said, I could imagine them being a wonderful way to spread content into new domains, the way that the Google Art Project has done by making museum content available on Chromecast. I think this kind of distribution is more likely based on a free-use approach rather than a subscription-only or other paid model. Then again, I didn’t think the New York Times’ paywall would work either, so who knows?”

But, in the end, it all might come back to what matters most.

“I strongly support art on as many interfaces as possible,” says Neal Stimler, Third Party Partnerships Producer at The Met. “We’re moving away from only one place to look at art. Works of art change and how we interact with them changes. Experiences with artworks move between and beyond any one place or platform.”

Stimler’s bottom line stresses the importance of accessibility to artworks whether they are encountered on digital displays or museum gallery walls: “A work of art is something that is made to be shared with the world.”

One of the optimal ways for museums to provide access to collections today is directly on the public’s own digital devices and displays.

What’s your forecast for the future of art collecting, streaming digital art to your own devices, and new revenues streams for museums? Let us know!