It is the stated aim of Tate, the institution behind the Tate Britain and Tate Modern galleries, to “increase public knowledge, understanding and enjoyment of British, modern and contemporary art”.
Until recently, its principal platform has been the walls of galleries, but the web offers it a broader reach. Tate is therefore in the midst of an IT transformation with the goal of “bringing art to as wide an audience as possible”.
That begins with the digitisation of its entire collection. Tate has a team dedicated to photographing every artwork in its possession, producing high-resolution images each over 100Mb in size.
More than an online catalogue of its collection, Tate wants its website to a be source of supplementary information that allows visitors to interact with the artworks. “We want everything on the webpage to relate to content across all of the organisation,” explains Rob Gethen Smith, Tate’s information system director.
The challenging part of this making sure the image is coupled with all the necessary supplementary information during the process of digitisation, he explains.
“There’s a digital access management system that holds all the technical administrative metadata, and there are collection systems that hold all the context and content metadata, that describes what the image is,” Smith says. “All of that has to be captured at the same time as the image is taken, so it’s a production line of seventy thousand works of art.”
Smith acknowledges that there are opportunities to use its digital content to make money (Tate is 40% funded by the government, and makes up the rest in donations, exhibition ticket sales, merchandise and food). However, the organisation must first improve the data its collects about visitors, he says.
“The next big shift for us will be to become more audience-centric,” he explains. “Whether its catering, retail, merchandise, donations or funding, we need to join that data up so we can look for our most valuable prospects. We’re really only on the first rung of that ladder.”
Supporting all of this is Tate’s web infrastructure, which it recently migrated onto a web-hosting platform from NTT Communications. Managing the technicalities of a scalable web platform is precisely the kind of work Smith is happy to outsource.
But when it comes to IT that directly impacts users – in his case, the gallery’s curators – he is an advocate of maintaining in-house capabilities. “Having an in-house IT team is huge value for money for the curator,” he explains. “My team has people that understand art, and what’s at the disposal [at the Tate].”
Smith’s attitude to IT innovation is informed by the Tate’s mission. “Where technology is just supporting the business of doing business, if it’s fit for purpose, it’s fine,” he explains. “But where technology is supporting the artistic endeavour, education and access to art, we want to take risks and go out of our way to be the best.”