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Art on demand: how museums are engaging the public

An example of SF MOMA's
An example of SF MOMA's "Send Me" SMS service.
KPCC/Lori Galarreta

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That's right, no need to hop on the 405 to visit the Getty or take a trip down the miracle you can get some fine art by sending a text.

Case in point: San Francisco's Museum of Modern Art's "Send Me" SMS service.

It's just another way museums are adapting to engage with the public.

"Send me" is the brainchild of Keir Winesmith, MOMA's head of digital, and creative technologist Jay Mollica. Keir spoke with A Martinez via Skype about how the project came about.

But first, A had to try out the texting service for himself. So, while he texted his request, ("Send me baseball.") Winesmith explained what was going on:

"So in the background, your text message is arriving at our 'Send Me' application which is then searching inside our collection with something that features baseball in some way. It's usually finding somewhere between five and some cases 100 things and it's picking one at random from those. And then it's turning it into an image and it's texting it back to you to tell you how it looks like and who made it."

A's request ended up producing a photo from a Larry Sultan series titled 'Pictures from Home.' At first glance, it seems a bit random that this photo would turn up for a baseball request.

A Martinez's
A Martinez's "Send Me" request. Look to the left, see the Dodger player on TV?
KPCC/A Martinez

But Winesmith explained these results are associated with keywords, that have been assigned to all pieces from the museum collection over the course of 10 years. So, although it may not seem apparent, there's a reason these pieces are generated with specific requests.

Sure enough, upon closer inspection A realized, there's someone off to the side watching a Dodger's game. "Wow," said A when he noticed the baseball connection, "I'm so sorry for even doubting you for a second, Keir."

In addition to phrases, folks can send requests using emojis, which proved to be a bit more challenging.

"It's definitely tougher because emojis, it turns out, both have subtext but are also subjective. So, what you use an emoji for might not be the same thing that I use an emoji for..."

Although the service was quietly rolled in June, it didn't go viral until this past weekend. When asked about the genesis and inspiration behind this service, Winesmith explained it's all a part of the digital shift museums are currently going through:

"We've been thinking about ways to make our collection more open for many years now, even decades you can say. Over the last few years, we've been really trying to focus in on reaching people who can't physically visit the museum.

Whether that's because they're not in San Francisco or they can't travel, or the timing isn't right or they possibly can't afford to come and wanted to do something that was about looking at the work in the collection that usually hidden from view." 

To listen to the full segment, click the blue play button above.

Update: This copy has been updated to reflect the contributions of Jay Mollica, who programmed the "Send Me" SMS service.