Open Access is transforming the way the public explores art

Cleveland Museum of Art is now an Open Access institution, making world-renowned works of art from its collection—along with a wealth of metadata—available online for the public to share, reuse, remix, or simply explore.

The Cleveland Museum of Art (CMA) was founded over a century ago with the mission to create transformative experiences through art “for the benefit of all the people, forever.” Today, the museum is bringing that mission into the digital age with its Open Access initiative, which uses the Creative Commons Zero designation to make over 30,000 images of artwork from its world-renowned collection—along with metadata for 61,000 works of art—accessible online for free. The images are downloadable as JPEGS and TIFS, which means the public can reuse, remix, and share these public domain artworks for virtually any purpose—personal, scholarly, and even commercial.

As part of their Open Access initiative, CMA focused on making the process of searching through its vast online collection of 61,000 artworks more intuitive. The museum turned to Microsoft AI to help everyone from historians to enthusiasts dive deep into the collection using keywords and metadata in a way that’s accurate, informative, and fun. Search for “food” to find art about eating across eras and continents. Start typing in any area of interest and be inspired by a host of suggested searches. The idea is to help the public discover new artists, engage with old favorites, find surprising connections, and share the art in a way that fosters a deeper understanding and appreciation.

With Open Access, the museum makes its collection of art from all periods and parts of the world easier to access and more relevant to the public.

William Griswold, Director, Cleveland Museum of Art

Open Access is part of CMA’s larger goal of making art more accessible through technology in a way that feels effortless, like play. Two years ago, the museum launched its second iteration of an innovative, interactive gallery. ARTLENS Gallery uses gesture-sensing, eye-tracking, and facial-recognition technology to help visitors view art through the lens of composition, symbols, purpose, gesture, and emotion—and along the way, develop a framework for looking at art more broadly at CMA and beyond.

Visitors stands next to a large bronze sculpture, Hercules and the Hydra, re-creating Hercules’s strained, twisted position in the game “Strike a Pose” to experience the movement and energy of the sculpture.
Young girl stands in front of a screen displaying a pottery wheel.
ArtLens Exhibition

This experiential gallery encourages engagement with 20 masterpieces of art on a personal, emotional level. Visitors interact with the art through 16 games with gesture-sensing technology that responds to body movement and facial recognition, immersing viewers in the experience. Photo credit: Scott Shaw Photography

ArtLens Studio

This hands-on studio uses innovative technology to give visitors the opportunity to connect to the collection through movement and play. They’re invited to create, and then share, their own digital works of art using traditional artistic techniques seen throughout the collection. Photo credit: Fusion Filmworks

ArtLens Wall

The 40-foot interactive, multitouch wall is the largest of its kind. This digital visualization of the collection allows visitors to browse all artworks currently on view, as well as a few others. The Wall curates and groups selections of artworks in dozens of ways—by type, theme, purpose, shape, and color. Photo credit: Local Projects

ArtLens App

The award-winning ArtLens App uses current technology and innovative design to surface a wealth of content for every work of art on view at CMA. The App’s interface is intuitive, featuring a responsive map that uses over 240 iBeacons throughout every gallery to help visitors explore the art organically. Photo credit: Cleveland Museum of Art

CMA also has a variety of partners who are experimenting with the online collection and metadata to envision what’s possible when tapping a resource like Open Access—from an AI-powered Art Explorer tool from Microsoft to a series of greeting cards that reimagine works of art from American Greetings. Other examples include bots that share daily tweets of “fun facts” from the curatorial department or a daily work of art from the American Painting and Sculpture department; an interactive visualization that explores the way CMA writes about art; and a mixed-reality art gallery created by Case Western Reserve University.

Artsy, the world’s largest online database of modern and contemporary art, is incorporating into its database CMA’s images, along with the metadata and background information. This will allow Artsy’s one million global users to explore and learn about CMA’s collection through Artsy’s innovative product offerings and services for the art world, including an augmented reality feature.

Experimentation and collaboration are fundamental to Open Access. That’s why CMA’s collection can be accessed through an API, with collection data being made available to the public through a GitHub repository. In other words, the information and metadata behind each work of art in the collection can be updated by anyone. This gives the public the power shape the way they experience art and how collections are grow online—now, and for years to come.