Hacking. Startups. Innovation. Disruption. These words are everywhere right now, from Silicon Valley to nonprofit boardrooms. While they’re certainly buzzwords – and, like most buzzwords, often full of problems or hard to parse – they also reflect a larger shift, rooted in emerging 21st-century values and interconnections, that’s reshaping the way we do everything from buy food to access great works of art. It’s this last instance that’s particularly interesting to those of us who work in the cultural sector, especially because the intersections at which forward-thinking technologies and approaches meet collections (so often perceived in terms of the past, rather than the future), can yield exciting results. In some ways, the long-established processes that drive work in museums are not so different from the systems and structures that we usually think of as “hackable.” More and more, museums are opening up their spaces to design studios and hackathons, working with entrepreneurs and other new voices, and rethinking what it means to collaborate. So what, exactly, does it look like to “hack” the structures that surround work with collections?
|Vastari Screenshots of Vastari exhibition results (left) and account summary (right).|
This is often more visible on the “front end” of museum practice – where innovative tour programs like Museum Hack and API-enabled hackathons have become more common – but behind the scenes, space is also opening up for new approaches to the relationships and processes that drive museum practice. One example comes from Vastari, a U.K.-based company founded in 2012, which has built a platform for museums to connect with collectors. According to Bernadine Bröcker, Vastari’s CEO, the impulse to launch Vastari came directly from the gap she and others in the cultural sector perceived between collectors and museum curators, despite these groups’ common interests. She explains, “While managing a gallery in London, many of the clients would come in asking why their works were not being requested for museum exhibitions and how they could make their pieces available for museum loans. A bit of research showed that a lot of exhibition loan requests were relying on auction house records and human memory rather than anything one could be proactive about. When speaking to a number of curators, we heard that they would like to collaborate with private individuals, but that the research time needed to find them, with the possibility that the individual would then not be willing to lend, means that a curator won’t go down that route. Many times a collaboration with a private individual would be by coincidence rather than a conscious effort.”
In response, Bröcker and the small Vastari team have built a product that seeks to bridge this gap and to maximize effective collaborations that don’t rely on coincidence. The product, which uses a membership model, involves search engines for both sides of the exchange, as well as security and messaging features and offline support for the many logistical issues that accompany exhibition development and loan procedures. Bröcker emphasizes that every step of Vastari’s process has stemmed from the specific needs the company’s stakeholders have identified, commenting, “Our company relies heavily on listening to our clients to develop the products. For example, as we were building up the network for Vastari we heard that curators are able to develop more exciting exhibitions with more lenders if they know it will tour to a second venue. As a result, we built VTEN (Vastari Travelling Exhibition Network). This network allows museums to register exhibitions that are [available] or require a second venue as well as search for exhibitions to fill a gap in their calendar.”
This kind of product, conceptualized and developed with clients’ expressed interests in mind, is particularly relevant to small and medium-sized museums. These institutions often have strong content and community buy-in, but may lack the resources to execute the kinds of research, outreach, and coordination that larger museums have staff and budget for. Vastari is built for a client base that includes a range of these museums, with the goal of facilitating diverse and high-level collaborations both between museums and collectors and between museums. Bröcker notes that “there is so much potential when medium-sized museums around the world work together and collaborate with private collectors – that is what we get really excited about.” Others are excited too: Vastari was recently shortlisted for Apollo Magazine’s Digital Innovation of the Year award, alongside projectsfrom Tate Britain and London’s National Gallery (among others), reflecting the platform’s contributions in (to quote the award’s criteria) “harnessing digital technology to advance access to or knowledge of art.”
When all goes well, realizing this potential to advance access and knowledge of art through innovative methods – facilitating connections of the resources, expertise, and collections of organizations and individuals that otherwise might never interact – can add up to something more than the sum of its parts. Particularly in the ecosystem of today’s cultural sector, collaboration is increasingly being looked to as an essential strategy for leveraging resources in service of shared goals, and Vastari aims to be at the center of this process. Bröcker highlights the resources that Vastari offers beyond its loan platform, such as calls for sponsorship, research collaborations, and events listings, all means of extending the possibilities for collaboration. Reflecting this wide-ranging focus on changing “business as usual,” Bröcker sums up the company’s goals: “We want to be the go-to resource for cost-effective and efficient networking worldwide.”