Send me a masterpiece: the museum texting its artworks to anyone who asks

San Francisco Museum of Modern Art facade


Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Send me a masterpiece: the museum texting its artworks to anyone who asks” was written by Dale Berning Sawa, for theguardian.com on Friday 21st July 2017 10.07 UTC

If you fancy receiving an artwork from a world-class gallery, all you now have to do is ask. Liberating itself from the confines of physical space, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art has launched a service that has already gone viral. You simply take out your phone and text it a request, keying in “Send me” followed by a descriptive word or an emoji. Send me mountains. Send me sadness. Send me something orange. It will text back an image selected from one of the 34,678 artworks in its vaults.

SFMOMA was aiming for 100,000 texts over the summer. On Monday last week, it clocked up 385,000. By the end of the week, it had passed 2m. Browse through some of the exchanges and you quickly see the potential. It’s beautifully simple – and consistently surprising. “Send me a Warhol” won’t get you a Warhol: the artbot doesn’t search by artist, nor by title. Asking for Kardashians won’t get you anything, either. But if a match can’t be found, texters don’t emerge empty-handed. Suggestions will be given instead. Maybe try “Send me the ocean” or “Send me San Francisco”.

How it works: SFMOMA’s Send Me project explained

In one request, @camrynlarwill asked for the world, only to receive a beautifully abstract US Army reconnaissance view of the ocean, taken on D-day, 1944. And when she asked for the universe, back came a wall drawing by Matthew Ritchie, an artist whose goal is to represent just that – the entire universe – in an encyclopedic project spanning decades.

The artbot works by searching the digitised collection by descriptive words. This tagging has been a manual (ie human) process, one requiring a crash course in emoji use and double meanings. The challenge has been to stop the search being overly literal and to make it alert to emotion and subjectivity. A request for good vibes, or sending the rainbow emoji may result in a Martin Parr shot of spongecake with colourful sprinkles. However, an emoji bearing the rainbow flag, symbol of LGBT pride, could net you Robert Arneson’s portrait of Harvey Milk.

Then again, it might not: the service is automated and no two searches are intended to yield identical results. “Send me cats” gave a friend in New York an image of Robert Rauschenberg’s Catastrophe, a work featuring worn stone columns and the statue of Dionysus. But it also summoned Carole Schneeman’s Infinity Kisses, a multimedia piece documenting her morning reunions with her cats.

Send me oceans
Send me oceans … Henry Wessel’s Waikiki Beach, Hawaii, 1975

The project comes with two aims: to get us looking, and to make us think about what it is we are looking for when we look at art. Some searches have more surprising results than others. Showing a talent for boundary-pushing associative wit, a request for Donald Trump, from writer Caleb Pershan, scored an actual golden spoon – a 2005 piece entitled Coke Spoon 02, by Tobias Wong and Ju$t Another Rich Kid. Their gilded take on the white plastic spoons you get at McDonald’s was summoned because the chain’s name runs up the spoon’s side (containing within it the word Donald).

The museum, like the Rijksakademie in Amsterdam and London’s V&A, has been consistently upping its digital game. At any given time, you will only ever see – in the flesh – about 5% of the collection. But with resilient thumbs, a dictionary and a decent data plan on your mobile, it is at least theoretically possible to peruse the rest from the comfort of your own couch.

So long as your couch is stateside, that is, since the service is restricted to the US. Art lovers, and fans of the kind of poetry the internet sometimes surprises us with, can only hope that Send Me SFMOMA has global expansion in its sights.

  • To try Send Me SFMOMA, text your wish to 572-51 from the US. SFMOMA may extend the project globally in the future.

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