Reviewed June 2014
Evan Towle, Librarian for Reader Services
Philadelphia Museum of Art
Philadelphia is a sprawling city of residential neighborhoods with a compact “Center City” nestled at the convergence of two rivers. Shooting like an arrow away from this center is the Benjamin Franklin Parkway lined with museums and Fairmount Park, one of the country’s largest city parks, which features important public artwork and monuments throughout its approximate 4,600 acreage. Art further dots the rest of the city, and smaller boutique museums sit within the central grid of squares and streets.
With Art Philadelphia (WAP), a web project by Philadelphia’s tourism corporation Visit Philly, enables visitors to experience Philadelphia’s art destinations virtually, through thirty organizations and collections, including the world-renowned Philadelphia Museum of Art and The Barnes Foundation, as well as the smaller but venerable Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA) and The University of Pennsylvania’s Institute for Contemporary Art. Individual works of art such as Charles Wilson Peale’s “Artist in His Museum” (held at PAFA) and Claes Oldenberg’s outdoor “Clothespin” are also presented as destinations themselves. A number of museums and sites presented on WAP are not strictly art spaces, though certainly they may host arts events and installations. Sites like the Schuylkill River and Eastern State Penitentiary reveal a problem in the relationship between WAP’s name and scope. One or the other should be better defined.
The visual organization of the site is that of an endless board of images. The visitor can mouse-over any image to reveal details about that specific site. Users are invited to “Curate Your Own Experience” by adding destinations to a list. That list can then become a map, a tweet, a Facebook post, or a slideshow. Preset popular tours are also offered such as “Family Favorites” and “Impressionist Masterworks” to assist those who would rather not play curator. The site is designed for visitors or locals looking to physically experience what it presents, and so aids the mission of Visit Philly to build and enhance tourism in Philadelphia. Though the arts-savvy tourist will want to do additional homework to plan a satisfying visit, WAP is a solid point of departure.
The graphics-heavy site is a bit slow and oddly presented with a very lateral orientation, possibly an accommodation for tablet-users. The “Curate Your Own Experience” feature is a tad buggy, but it offers what is really the most useful feature of the site – a custom map for the visitor whereon all selected destinations are marked.
WAP is easy and intuitive to use, with helpful menus at the top of the page. As it grows to include more events and artworks, the current interface may not prove scalable. WAP currently lacks any sort of search functionality, relying instead on a browse-only interface which has its own set of limitations in terms of discovering content. While WAP’s goal is not to serve as a union catalog of the region’s art holdings, one is reminded that no such resource exists despite the presence of strong professional organizations and world-class museums. Perhaps someday there will be a kind of ARTstor that will serve as a union catalog of collection holdings and allow users to search by a work’s current geography. All Matisse paintings in Philadelphia? Here. But that is some time off.
The site is a serious investment on the part of its sponsor, and it achieves its goals of communicating the vibrant Philadelphia art scene with a well-designed presentation of highlights. May it in the future present even more of the region’s riches.