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The Fine Data of Fine Art

Here at SolarWinds, it’s clear to us that proper database monitoring is “an art.” Beyond simple, raw power, navigating and understanding a database takes finesse, insight, and, often, a kind of eloquence. On special occasions, though, the artistry of database monitoring becomes a little bit more literal, and we get to see how the functions of big data can be applied to the actual world of Fine Art. Such is the case now: this summer, New York’s world-class Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) decided to publicly post an enormous CSV file on GitHub, which contains various data sets for more than 125,000 pieces in the museum’s collection. Essentially, with this document, a scholar, museum guest, or artist now has access to huge swaths of information about the art at MoMA -- short of an image of the piece itself. While the ultimate experience for most aesthetes would be to visit a museum and stand face to face with, say, Adele Bloch-Bauer or a French postman, all art is naturally framed by a complex profile of data. In the case of the MoMA’s recent data dump, this includes a piece’s name and its artist’s name (of course), biographical info about that artist (birthplace and birthdate), physical dimensions of the piece (its size, what materials compose it, how many parts it contains, etc.), its history (the date and location of its composition), the details of the museum’s acquisition (who donated it, who previously owned it), and even a URL where an interested art fan might learn more. It's true that as the CSV file currently exists, it's not as accessible, easy to leverage, or easy to explore as it otherwise might be. But all that data is available to be processed however a user sees fit. In this post on Medium, MoMA’s Digital Media Department writes extensively on some of the decisions leading to and surrounding the data release. For instance, MoMA has elected to classify the data under Creative Commons Zero for scholarly citation purposes, which ties it into a project that Arfon Smith is now leading, to help strengthen GitHub’s engagement with academics. Significantly, the post goes on to point out that the database hasn’t even been “curator approved,” which means that there is a good chance that its contents contain errors. The post explains, “There is established evidence that researchers want online access to collection records as quickly as possible, ‘whatever the perceived imperfections or gaps in the records.’ We therefore decided that we would share this work in progress in order to provide a more comprehensive view of MoMA’s collection.” Periodical updates will reflect future research. This is truly open data, for both its keepers and perusers. An SD Times article from earlier this week speculates how MoMA's release -- in conjunction with other museums taking similar steps -- can easily lead to important, previously impossible projects. The article's author speculates, "Perhaps the best long-term project for using all this metadata would be to construct an index and map of all the world’s important artworks. A worldwide searchable database of art would be useful to tourists, researchers and museums alike." In other words, a brand new map. Is it too grandiose to point out that just as art has historically inspired us to see the world in new dimensions, data is now doing the same? For us at SolarWinds, we're thrilled to see such stereotypically disparate universes coming together in ways that we think are both inevitable and incredibly positive. Big data and big-deal art? The layman might think it difficult to connect something so subjective and expressive as an abstract painting to a function so inherently ordered and defined as a database system. But, of course, that’s not the case. Big data is everywhere, and we think it’s impossibly cool when, at moments like these, we’re allowed to see how a small sample from the MoMA’s file can coexist with a Jackson Pollock painting.
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