SFMOMA has some 34,000 pieces of art in its collection. But the museum has room to show only about 5 percent of it. Wanna see the rest? Text them.
This is how it works: Text the number 57251 with the message “send me” and a request. For example, “send me love” or “send me flowers.” You can even insert an emoji. I tried it on a Friday afternoon and so inserted a beer emoji and hit "send."
“Once the SFMOMA text bot receives that text, it turns it into keywords to search,” explained Keir Winesmith, the head of digital at SFMOMA.
In my case, the bot searched the museum’s database of artwork to find all the pieces that have the word “beer” in their description.
“We get back some number of works, often a hundred or two hundred if it’s a really common phrase,” Winesmith said.
It sent me a photo of an artwork by Tom Marioni. It shows shelves lined with beers and an old-timey refrigerator in front of it. The work is called “FREE BEER (The Act of Drinking Beer with Friends is the Highest Form of Art).”
While the text bot took only a week to program, it builds on a decade of work by the archivists. During that time, SFMOMA digitized about half of its 34,000 artworks to include a description and photo. The text bot culls through that data.
Winesmith said the idea behind the text bot was to reach new audiences. They wanted to reach people who might not know about SFMOMA or might not feel comfortable going to museums.
“We wanted to do it in a way where they didn’t need to know art history, they didn’t know art language,” Winesmith said.
They simply need to know how to text. To get the broadest reach, SFMOMA shied away from developing an app, which requires a smartphone.
SFMOMA’s text project is part of a larger trend among arts organizations, says Graham Dunstan. He's the vice president of marketing at Americans for the Arts. Bringing in new audiences has been a challenge for many arts organizations and increasingly, they’re experimenting with technology to do it.
“I think for so long arts organizations have said, ‘Hey we have a 7 p.m. performance' or a ‘limited exhibition engagement,’ ” said Dunstan. “But these kinds of uses of technology allow people to participate the way they want to participate.”
At the same time, projects like the SFMOMA text bot can help drive ticket sales. Dunstan lives in New York and said he kind of forgot about SFMOMA. But after trying out the bot, he put the museum on his list to visit the next time he’s in San Francisco.