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Paradigm Shift: Open Access at the Cleveland Museum of Art

By Heather Saunders, Director of CMA’s Ingalls Library

CMA’s Director William Griswold speaking at the Open Access press announcement, Wednesday, January 23, 2019. Image courtesy Scott Shaw Photography for Cleveland Museum of Art.

Have you heard the amazing news? The CMA has gone Open Access!

Bringing its mission, “For the Benefit of All the People, Forever,” into the digital age: Now you can share, remix, and reuse images of as many as 30,000 public domain artworks from the CMA’s world renowned collection for scholarly, commercial, and non-commercial purposes. Additional information on more than 61,000 artworks — both those in the public domain and those with copyright or other restrictions — is also now available.

Generally speaking, Open Access (or OA) involves sharing cultural and information resources with a global reach and without limits on use. In the context of the CMA, it means having released as many as 30,000 high-resolution digital images of works from our permanent collection as well as factual and interpretive information for more than 61,000 works with no restrictions on how data should be utilized.

Making the switch to Open Access builds on our past work. For example, since 2010 the CMA has allowed users to download low-resolution images of artworks for personal, noncommercial use from its website. As to why a library director is writing this post — not only is the CMA’s Ingalls Library and Museum Archives one of many departments to work behind the scenes in support of the Open Access initiative, but since 2016 we have posted scans of rare and unique items from the library collection that are in the public domain as well as museum publications and documents on the Internet Archive, generating an average of 20,000 hits per month. Our own digital archive of editorial images features exhibition installations, staff and visitors, and the museum campus; this hosted site also receives thousands of views each month. So we can attest to the incredible value of sharing content.

Image courtesy Cleveland Museum of Art.

For the past two years, the Internet Archive has hosted year-long visual arts residencies, organized by Amir Saber Esfahani in collaboration with Andrew McClintock, owner and director of Ever Gold [Projects]. With artists making direct use of selected open content among the Internet Archive’s holdings, the organizers aim to “show what is possible when open access to information meets the arts.”

To share a personal experience demonstrating how Open Access can enhance scholarship, I once turned down an offer to write a book chapter largely because it was so difficult to secure permission to reproduce a work of art key to my argument. As an adjunct professor, I was responsible for the fee, plus I became worn down by the extensive back and forth with the overseas copyright holder concerning details about the publication. Unrestricted downloading of said image would have been a game changer.

Ian Gill, documentation associate at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, found in his 2017 thesis for the San Francisco State University museum studies MA program, that there is “consensus on . . . a general perception of Open Access as benefitting the public, promoting scholarship, and aligning with the museum mission.” However, because “many institutions utilize technological systems and policy that best suit their own needs,” Gill concluded that there is no uniform approach. It follows that professionals like David Stuart, an independent information professional and an honorary research fellow at the University of Wolverhampton, see Open Access as meaning “a thousand different things to a thousand different people.”

Similarly, SPARC® (the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition), which is committed to making openness the default for research and education, has found, “[G]overnments, funders, universities, publishers, and scholars are increasingly adopting open policies and practices, [but] how these are actually implemented is still in flux. SPARC® inspires organizations to consider best practice.”

Accordingly, the CMA has embraced best practice by applying the global standard of Creative Commons Zero to digital assets associated with works having expired copyright and works whose copyright we own (for example, as the commissioner), allowing any user to “freely build upon, enhance[,] and reuse” the content — even for commercial purposes.

HoloLens Hyland consumes the CMA Application Programming Interface (API) to allow people from all over the globe to view and interact with art in an augmented space.

Beyond Open Access dovetailing with the CMA’s mission “for the benefit of all the people forever,” the synchronicity of the initiative’s timing is noteworthy. While some museums in the US and beyond have gone Open Access already — such as the Art Institute of Chicago, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Rijksmuseum — now more than ever in the US it’s a fitting time to go Open Access. The reason is that this very month is the first time in 20 years that works have entered the public domain, which means that they are out of copyright. Essentially, access to previously restricted works is generating a buzz of excitement. As Jennifer Jenkins, director of Duke Law School’s Center for the Study of Public Domain, comments in a recent article that explains this lag in copyright expiration, “Any artist can create and sell a feminist response to Marcel Duchamp’s seminal Dadaist piece, The Large Glass (The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even) . . .” (1915–23).

“Open Access…represents the opposite of how cultural institutions have operated historically as gatekeepers.” — Heather Saunders, Director of CMA’s Ingalls Library

Public domain designation is also the reason it’s fine for the London Art House, which I visited last month, to display a loose reproduction of Gustav Klimt’s depiction of Hygieia in a ceiling painting intended for the University of Vienna. Had Klimt painted the work recently (timeframes vary by country) and not waived copyright, it would be a different matter entirely.

The London Art House, image courtesy Heather Saunders.
Medicine (detail), 1900–1907. Gustav Klimt (Austrian, 1862–1918). Image from WikiArt. Public domain. No larger extant — destroyed in fire.

Since Open Access in the academic community is inferred by some like David Stuart to be nebulous, professionals are monitoring its development regularly. This past December, librarians, publishers, and academics gathered at the London Art House for an international collaborative forum called “Challenges in the Scholarly Publishing Cycle.” For the second year of the annual event hosted by Research Information magazine in partnership with Info International, the focus was Open Access. The day kicked off with Stuart summarizing the results of his research study, The Scholarly Publishing Research Cycle, produced by Research Information and sponsored by Highwire and Digital Science. In the 64-page report, Open Access was mentioned almost 150 times (excepting sidebars and graphs); it was ranked the greatest challenge; and one of the four closing recommendations was to cease having vague discussions about Open Access. (It is in the spirit of the latter point that I am writing with such detail here.) Next, attendees considered the needs of fellow stakeholders to bolster mutual support. Lastly, trailblazers in various disciplines gave presentations.

As I began organizing my notes from the symposium to write this post, I was struck by how emotional the categories sounded. “Fear” and “despair” were the first two on my list. Incidentally, “fear” and “despair” sound like descriptors of a sublime landscape, the genre of which romantic works like Twilight in the Wilderness (1860) by Frederic Edwin Church was part. This beloved painting is just one of the CMA’s works whose image and metadata are now available as Open Access.

Twilight in the Wilderness, 1860. Frederic Edwin Church (American, 1826–1900). Oil on canvas; framed: 124 x 185 x 13 cm (48 13/16 x 72 13/16 x 5 1/8 in.); unframed: 101.6 x 162.6 cm (40 x 64 in.). The Cleveland Museum of Art, Mr. and Mrs. William H. Marlatt Fund 1965.233

When symposium attendees’ artistic skills were put to the test in a warm-up exercise to capture our own reactions to Open Access, the sublime came through in marker on flip-chart paper: for example, one group presented a “ship of many souls” with pirates looming in the distance. Later in the day, speaker Bill Kasdorf of Kasdorf & Associates, LLC, a US-based accessibility consultant, noted that Open Access seems “extremely threatening” to publishers. (For more on significant changes in European publishing impacting many symposium attendees, check out this article in Nature.)

As the symposium drew to a close, there was agreement that scholarly publishing is in flux, but as Helen Blanchett, a scholarly communications subject specialist at the not-for-profit company Jisc Netskills, reminded attendees, “Everything is changing all the time.” A participant quipped that travel by automobile has long replaced travel by horse, but at one point in time, the idea of trading in horseshoes was unpalatable.

On the subject of driving, Open Access is not unlike the experience of being a North American tourist in London traffic. After a lifetime of driving or being a passenger on the right-hand side of the road, instinctively, I felt that my black cab was on the wrong side. Multiple times, I braced myself, convinced that we were about to be hit. It’s an apt analogy for Open Access, which represents the opposite of how cultural institutions have operated historically as gatekeepers. No wonder Blanchett referred to switching to Open Access as an ideological shift and Jeremy Frey, professor of physical chemistry at the University of Southampton, observed that “mak[ing] a change” to Open Access is “philosophical.” As Frey pointed out, though, with the internet, the concept of gatekeeping has all but disappeared, exemplified by the unregulated forum of Twitter.

As with my exposure to British passengering, skeptics should assume all will be well in flipping the current approach. Kasdorf stated that while Open Access feels precarious, it is not toxic. Moreover, he feels “open” should be deemed the word of the decade. The symposium attendees acknowledged that through trust, empathy, collaboration, due diligence, and possibility thinking, all parties can experience synergy that will move their respective professions forward. As Helen Dobson, scholarly communications manager at the University of Manchester Library, emphasized, “We’re all in this together.”

One final comparison: to return to the debatable description of Open Access as nebulous, OA is like a literal nebula. The cynical view is that it marks the death of old stars. The alternate perspective, which will surely stand the test of time, is that it denotes the birth of new stars destined to shine brightly.

All quotations, unless noted otherwise, are from the “Challenges in the Scholarly Publishing Cycle” symposium, London, UK, December 3, 2018.




Art from another angle: Stories from the Cleveland Museum of Art.

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