Putting exhibition text into your phone is nothing new. Big institutions, from the National Gallery to the Netherlands' Rijksmuseum, have had dedicated apps for years, combining audio tours with factoids on collections, artists' lives and specific compositions. The Museo Nacional del Prado's app, for example, goes so far as to let viewers zoom into 14 masterpieces in Ultra HD, and see X-rays that reveal sketches beneath famous works of art.
What arguably holds these apps back, however, is the fact they're tied to specific collections in specific buildings. New app on the block Smartify wants to address that, by creating a single platform for gallery-goers to scan artworks to access information and expert commentary across a range of different galleries and museums.
“It's actually only the larger museums who can afford to create bespoke apps and have in-house staff to manage these sorts of projects,” says Thanos Kokkiniotis, Smartify's co-founder. “The vast majority of museums, galleries, fairs and other venues across the UK and internationally cannot offer multimedia apps to users, so the first benefit of a platform solution like Smartify is that any art venue can feature, offering information to more visitors in more places.”
Kokkiniotis pitches Smartify as a cross between Spotify and Shazam. Using image-recognition software, the app uses a phone's camera to scan and identify artworks, then surface text and audio commentary about the piece. Scanned art is saved in your Smartify collection, akin to a playlist, and can be pulled up later, long after you've left the gallery walls.
“You really can't beat looking at a physical artwork in a museum or gallery and feeling drawn into it – the work itself, its colours and textures, but also the story of the artist and why and how it was made,” says Kokkiniotis. “However, it's that extra storytelling that turns looking at an artwork into a memorable experience and creates a unique connection with the artwork.”
Smartify has so far partnered with a number of galleries, fairs and individual artists, including the Sluice Art Fair in New York, Laguna Art Museum in California, and London's National Portrait Gallery. Image permissions are naturally a crucial part to these partnerships, although Smartify is playing its cards close to its chest when it comes to copyright. I'm told that the company currently has agreements with specific artists and galleries.
As well as saving artworks, Smartify also lets users share art they've discovered. “It's about building up personal taste and a collection from different experiences, in a similar way one does with music on Spotify,” says Kokkiniotis.
Taking another page from Spotify's book, there are plans to recommend exhibitions based on art you've viewed in the past, similar to the music app's Discover feature. Favourite a Turner painting at the National Gallery, for example, and the app could let you know there's more of his work at Tate Britain. It's not yet been put into action – and presumably relies on the app making partnerships with enough galleries – but it has the scope to be a useful guiding hand for culture trips.
Being able to scan and keep Caravaggios and Turners may be a handy way to build a cross-gallery reservoir of art – or turn gallery visits into a Pokémon Go-like masterpiece hunt, if that's your thing – but the real crux of Smartify seems to be its focus on mixing the collections of smaller galleries alongside big, national institutions.
Encouraging crowds to learn more about famous works such as Manet's A Bar at the Folies-Bergère is relatively straightforward; more interesting is Smartify's ability to surface information about contemporary works. When I saw the app at a recent Digital Catapult showcase, it was shown alongside a set of paintings by Michael Cox, featured as part of the Bloomberg New Contemporaries 2016 exhibition. As well as providing details about the work's composition, alongside artist commentary, the idea is that Smartify's social portion spurs users to share and recommend works by new artists they've come across.
“A platform like Instagram is great, but isn't really fit for purpose as the images can be manipulated or stolen, and it's hard to discover artists you don't already know,” says Kokkiniotis. “We want to give artists the same exposure but also make information available in real-time, when audiences are looking at an artwork for the first time.”
(Above: De Beauvoir, 2015. Credit: Michael Cox)
Providing supplementary material in a museum-gallery context is one thing, but offering it for contemporary shows is another. Depending on how you feel about text-in-galleries will likely dictate how comfortable you are with having your art cut up for you. From an artist's perspective, do you want to relay your own interpretation? Would you rather leave the dissection to the viewer's own minds? That said, sweeping this text into an invisible, digital layer arguably frees up the gallery to be a space for objects, dislocated from small rectangles stuck on walls.
Regardless of the interplay between text and art, Smartify's social and recommendation plans could end up convincing crowds to venture beyond the walls of the National Gallery. For visitors, this means a way into the often-inscrutable world of contemporary art. For young artists, this means exposure. If played intelligently, this could be Smartify's greatest asset.