Imagine pulling up a stool next to the lonely diners of Edward Hopper's "Nighthawks" or dipping your fingers in the basin of "The Child's Bath" by Mary Cassatt.
These familiar images, along with the sunbathers of George Seurat's "A Sunday on La Grande Jatte" and the somber figures of Grant Wood's "American Gothic," are among the 32,000 works of art that Google is releasing in digital format Tuesday.
The technology giant partnered with 151 institutions worldwide on the Google Art Project (googleartproject.com), an online platform for virtually viewing artwork and museum galleries. The company selected the Art Institute of Chicago as the initiative's North American launch site and will be hosting museum directors from across the country at a private event Tuesday morning.
Participating institutions, from the White House to the Museo del Oro (Gold Museum) in Bogota, Colombia, selected works from their vast collections to contribute to the Google Art Project. Of this group, 46 museums had their galleries photographed using Google Street View technology, which compiles a 360-degree panorama to create a virtual-tour experience in a high-definition format called gigapixel. Some of the works in Google's online collection are also rendered in gigapixels.
"The gigapixel imagery of 'La Grande Jatte' was truly mind-boggling," said Sam Quigley, vice president for collections management, imaging and information technology at the Art Institute. "They took something like 702 images, little pieces of the painting, by photographic technique and stitched together a big mosaic so you'll be able to zoom incredibly close and see the individual points of paint that the artist used to create that work. It's really quite something. That's a technology leadership role that really only a few corporations like Google could provide."
Many art museums already have digital images on their websites. The Art Institute has about 52,000, Quigley said. But Google is providing superior technology and the heft of a well-known brand whose broad mission is to "organize the world's information" and make it accessible. The Mountainview, Calif.-based company has applied this mandate to everything from books to recipes to government data.
"The diversity of the institutions is key," said Piotr Adamczyk, head of data for the Google Art Project. "It's about finding partners that are eager to put their content online."
The art initiative grew out of a group of Google employees' "20 percent time," a company policy that encourages workers to tinker on personal pursuits one day a week. The project was launched in February 2011 with 1,000 works from 17 museums. It enables users to save their favorites in personal collections and share them with friends via social media tools such as Google+and Facebook.
Adamczyk, a graduate of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, previously served as the Metropolitan Museum of Art's liaison to Google for the first round. He had been the New York institution's resident "data nerd," helping curators mount special exhibitions such as last year's Alexander McQueen retrospective.
Adamczyk and Quigley said they expect online visibility of museums' art collections to encourage, rather than cannibalize, offline visitor traffic.
"Everyone worries that when we publish something, (people) won't want to come to the museum," Quigley said. "It's the opposite. The more we put works of art in public venues, it seems to have a positive impact on people coming to see the real thing."
Google also reached out to local schools, hoping the art database could be a useful teaching tool. Aurora University's Institute for Collaboration plans to incorporate the Google Art Project into the after-school and summer programs run by its Mathematics and Science Education Center for middle schoolers.
"It will prove to be an amazing example of what we want to have in terms of integrated discipline," said Sherry Eagle, executive director of the institute. "Science and math don't stand alone. They stand with the humanities."
The Google Art Project does have some conspicuous absences. None of the Art Institute's Matisse or Picasso pieces made it into the database. Participating museums were responsible for securing intellectual property rights for each work they wanted to contribute to the online collection, and not every copyright holder gave permission.
Backers of the project, however, said they expect it to grow. Adamczyk said taking the collection from 1,000 pieces to 32,000 took just a year of work by a London-based team of four Google employees.
"That kind of growth is something I haven't seen in the academic or museum worlds," he said.
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