Photography by David St George, courtesy of Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki

What we learnt from designing a digital space for art

A look at our work on the Auckland Art Gallery website

Auckland Art Gallery, located in central Auckland, holds one of NZ’s largest and most significant collections of NZ and international art. Since 1888, the Gallery has acted as a cultural custodian for both Auckland, as well as New Zealand, housing and exhibiting thousands of artworks over nearly 130 years. Their permanent collection now sits at some 16,000 artworks.

As part of their ongoing vision of enriching the community and facilitating ideas and conversation around art, the Gallery identified the need to extend their collection beyond the gallery walls and into people’s daily lives. This was not possible with their existing site, and required a new solution.

“More than a digital catalogue of information, the new site needed to be an extension of the gallery itself, mirroring its atmosphere and nuances.”

We were approached by the Gallery and Regional Facilities Auckland to design and develop an entirely new website and platform- one that would provide visitors with an immersive experience reminiscent of the in-gallery experience housed within the Gallery’s magnificent building. More than a digital catalogue of information, the new site needed to be an extension of the gallery itself, mirroring its atmosphere and nuances.

Photography by David St George, courtesy of Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki
“We needed to build an architecturally elegant, spacious frame for the Gallery’s content”

Before beginning work on the site, we were taken on a guided tour of the Gallery and spent many hours exploring its collection and spaces. What struck us most about the experience was how the building pulls together the beauty of its location and of the art, creating a stunning sensory experience. This was our inspiration for the site design- we needed to build an architecturally elegant, spacious frame for the Gallery’s content- a space that would bring together imagery and ideas, creating new connections and sparking unique ideas.

“We decided to build their digital space a solid foundation.”

However, this project was about more than simply creating a visual masterpiece. The Auckland Art Gallery pride themselves on being thought leaders and innovators- they are constantly on the look out for new ways to inspire and inform their community. Their existing site, with its dated technology, was holding them back. With this in mind, we decided to build their digital space a solid foundation. Rather than swapping out their existing technology for a newer version of the same thing, we built them a highly flexible, open-source solution.

What we learnt

At the end of every project at Pixel Fusion we like to take a step back and reflect on the myriad of lessons learnt along the way- obstacles overcome, new techniques mastered, and new ways of thinking uncovered. The following are just some of the things that the Auckland Art Gallery taught us.

Embrace constraints- they lead to creative solutions

Every project comes with its own unique constraints, and this was particularly true of the Gallery. We consulted extensively with the Gallery regarding art sensitivity and conventions that would need to be followed when displaying art online. While these kinds of constraints (for example, not being able to crop images to a uniform size) may feel as though they stifle creativity, what they really do is force us to consider alternative options. Rather than fighting constraints, we embraced them and allowed them to push our designs in previously unconsidered directions. Our art grid is a perfect example- our initial design concepts contained regular, symmetrical grids. However we believe that the final grid, with its undulating, irregular top line and solid baseline, adds a sense of dynanicsm and reflects the rhythm of walking through the physical gallery.

Bring the content forward to encourage engagement

One of the key goals for the Gallery with this project, was to encourage engagement with the breadth of their collection. Art galleries have, in the past, often been perceived as elite and inaccessible. The Auckland Art Gallery aims to change that perception, creating an open and welcoming environment for people with all levels of interest and knowledge. Our challenge then, was to find a way to bring the art forward and make it accessible, both to those with professional or expert interests, as well as the casual browser. Our solution was to weave related content and artworks throughout the entire site, encouraging users to meander through the content organically. In addition, we made use of tags to give users relatable ideas to browse through, rather than expecting them to already know what they were looking for. Of course, for those with specific enquiries, we overhauled the advanced search functionality. The result is a site that, much like the Gallery itself, presents a visual, curated experience on every page.

Freeing content via an API turns a project from an end into a beginning.

For many of our clients, having a new website designed and built is a once-off, stressful piece of work. They get it designed and built and launched, and then forget about it until 5 years later when it’s out-dated and neglected. At that point, there’s nothing to do but scrap it and start all over again.

For the Gallery we wanted to do something different to what other providers offered. As a forward thinking, innovative organisation, they already knew that this website would need to be different- that it would need to be maintained and grown on an ongoing basis. So rather than building them a stand-alone system that would need to be completely rebuilt in a few years, we worked with them and Regional Facilities Auckland to build an API driven platform. The platform integrates directly with their collection management system Vernon, allowing the Gallery (and anyone else they see fit) to surface all of their data quickly and easily, and in a format that can be consumed by any application, service, website or tool. At the same time, the platform could also integrate with Regional Facilities Auckland’s other business units, providing common capability across organisations such as the Auckland Zoo, Auckland Conventions, Auckland Live and Auckland Stadiums. Now, rather than wrapping up their new site and forgetting about it for another five years, they have a brand new platform on conjunction with RFA from which to kick off their digital revolution.

Check out the new Auckland Art Gallery site here. Designed and developed by Pixel Fusion.

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