Interview: Matthew Israel on how the Art Genome Project is making the world of art more comprehensible

Matthew Israel will speak at the Englert Theatre for Mission Creek's Tech + Innovation conference on April 5 at 5 p.m.
Matthew Israel will speak at the Englert Theatre for Mission Creek’s Tech + Innovation conference on April 5 at 5 p.m. This event is free and open to the public.

Matthew Israel, art historian, author and director of The Art Genome Project, will be giving the closing talk for the first-ever Mission Creek Tech + Innovation Conference on Saturday, April 5 from 5-6 p.m. at the Englert Theatre. He spoke with Little Village about this ambitious project and the role of classification in art.

Little Village: How does the Art Genome Project work, and what does it offer casual Mission Creek attendees who might not be otherwise knowledgeable in art or art history?

Matthew Israel: I think for those attending the conference, The Art Genome Project, which is the search technology behind Artsy—a freely-accessible site whose mission is to make the art world accessible to anyone with an internet connection—is a great tool for finding, learning about and collecting art. Apart from Artsy’s database of over 100,000 works from major museums and galleries around the world, [The Art Genome Project is] the other major educational resource we offer. Its primary use on the site is to provide suggestions to users based on what they search for, like on Pandora. We think this is really helpful since the art world can be very intimidating and it gives people a place to start, a way to navigate. From the suggestions you get, you can then start diving into Artsy to see our many other features, such as coverage of the latest art exhibitions, art fairs and benefit auctions; biographies on artists, and the ability to connect with galleries and museums.

Illustration by Jacob Yeates
Illustration by Jacob Yeates

The Art Genome Project is based around classifying and categorizing, or tagging, art down to a fundamental level. Do you see an urge to classify or categorize as a natural human impulse?

There’s a great quote by the writer Stephen Gould that was given to me a few years ago which addresses this topic. Gould explains: “Taxonomy (the science of classification) is often undervalued as a glorified form of filing—with each species in its folder, like a stamp in its prescribed place in an album; but taxonomy is a fundamental and dynamic science, dedicated to exploring the causes of relationships and similarities among organisms. Classifications are theories about the basis of natural order, not dull catalogues compiled only to avoid chaos.” In essence, Gould’s getting at the paradox of classification. On one hand it is simplifying—putting things in boxes. Yet at the same time, it is absolutely necessary for understanding how we live in the world and what we’re interested in.

Can you talk a little bit about your background as an art historian and what brought you and your collaborators together to do this ambitious project?

After studying art history in college and working in various capacities in the New York art world (primarily working for galleries and writing for magazines) I decided I wanted to pursue being a college professor and began working on my PhD in Art History and Archaeology at the Institute of Fine Arts, NYU. I finished my PhD in January 2011 … and started looking for a permanent teaching position. In the process … someone who I had been a teacher’s assistant for when I first started teaching at NYU got in touch with me about taking on a role at Artsy. She said they needed an art historian to help them with something called “The Art Genome Project.” I was immediately very intrigued by the project and really impressed by Carter Cleveland, Artsy’s founder, as well as Sebastian Cwilich, the President and COO. That was now over three years ago. Since then I’ve felt incredibly lucky to work at Artsy and with the amazing people that have joined Artsy since to work on The Art Genome Project, as well as the many other projects we are engaged with.

What’s the future of the art genome project?

In many respects, The Art Genome Project is still in its infancy. On one hand, I think we’ve made great strides in the three years I have been here (and in the less than two years since we launched the site in October 2012). We’ve created a similarity search for art that works—which I consider no small feat—and we’ve created a vocabulary of over 1,000 genes to identify art from all time periods. On the other hand, we want to continually improve the genome and push much further in the future to make our connections better and better and get more artworks on the site from the greatest museums and galleries around the world. We also want to make sure that the genome works for those using the site to collect art—since it’s these users which allow Artsy to become a viable business and The Art Genome Project (as well as our other broader educational initiatives) to exist.

Additionally, I think the whole site is moving towards greater personalization, and The Art Genome Project will have a large role in this, since it helps us identify so many more ways in which to make connections for our users. I’m also really excited to see The Art Genome Project be used as a learning tool in schools. Along with our freely-accessible database of images, we hope that students around the world will use it to start understanding art. We’re really proud of our Digital Ready partnership with the New York City Department of Education, which has brought Artsy into 14 high schools around the city, and we look forward to more ways in which to reach students in different ways around the world.

Can you explain a little bit about your role at Mission Creek? What will you be doing?

I hope to end the conference on an inspiring note. My talk will concern historical attempts to help people fall in love with art; what we’re doing now in this area and what we can do better in the future.


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As a side note, I’m really happy to be speaking about tech innovation outside of New York and San Francisco and thus engage with talented people in the Midwest working in the field. I also love the fact that this conference engages both the art and technology audiences and think this is a great fit for Artsy.

Lastly, are there any parts of the festival you’re looking most forward to?

To be honest, I haven’t had a chance to finalize what I am doing and I think part of this is every time I look at the list of events I want to go to them all. I have to say, though, that I’d love to be able to catch Rachel Kushner, Of Montreal, The Head and the Heart, Philip Glass, Warpaint and going to the book fair and the lit crawl.

Russell Jaffe is a genealogically dissonant man doing genealogically dissonant things.

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