2 minutes to read Posted on Wednesday January 23, 2019

Updated on Wednesday September 30, 2020

portrait of Douglas McCarthy

Douglas McCarthy

Collections Engagement Manager , Europeana Foundation

Open access arrives at the Cleveland Museum of Art

The Cleveland Museum of Art (CMA) is one of the United States’ largest art museums, with renowned artworks in its encyclopaedic collection. Today, it has made images of its public-domain works available to use without restriction, bringing its mission to be 'for the benefit of all the people forever' firmly into the digital age.  

Jane Alexander, Chief Digital Information Officer at the CMA, gave Douglas McCarthy the inside story behind the announcement.

main image
Title: Portrait of Dora Wheeler, 1882-1883
Creator: William Merritt Chase (American, 1849-1916)
Institution: The Cleveland Museum of Art, Gift of Mrs. Boudinot Keith in memory of Mr. and Mrs. J. H. Wade
Country: United States of America

Congratulations on the Open Access initiative! What key aspects should our readers know about?

The Cleveland Museum of Art is making all images of public-domain works in its collection available under Creative Commons Zero (CC0). This provides access to as many as 30,000 high-resolution images of artworks from the CMA’s collection to use without restriction, as well as the associated metadata and scholarship for the entire collection – over 61,500 works. We are offering both high-resolution JPEG and TIF files, enabling a greater range of uses of images for commercial and non-commercial purposes than has previously been possible.

CMA’s Open Access initiative brings its mission into the digital age. As with our ARTLENS Gallery and other digital initiatives, we’re offering the most complete and accessible digital package at launch. We’ve redesigned our collection pages to display over 35 fields of metadata, including descriptive text and provenance. The publishing of descriptive text with Open Access creates more possibilities for semantic relationships, contextual interpretations, and translations related to artworks in the collection.

Title: Twilight in the Wilderness, 1860
Creator: Frederic Edwin Church (American, 1826-1900)
Institution: The Cleveland Museum of Art, Mr. and Mrs. William H. Marlatt Fund
Country: United States of America

We have designed the website to allow visitors to choose the view that is best for them, whether that be text-heavy or image-focused. We have also launched a refined elastic search to make finding artwork simple and intuitive. This new search allows users to search by fields such as provenance, exhibition history, and catalogue raisonné, providing art historians and enthusiasts alike an opportunity to dive deeper into the collection.

Finally, we have also created a well-documented, public API and a GitHub repository to allow data scientists to incorporate our collection into their data-visualisation and machine-learning projects. This allows us to be a highly sought-after dataset for developers to use around the world.

What are the motivating factors behind the CMA’s new policy?

Our Open Access initiative is tied directly to the CMA’s mission and helps to advance our institutional goals as a museum of the 21st century. Our art has always been and always will be for the people. We truly believe that there is something for everyone in our collection. Beyond fulfilling our mission, this project allows our collection to be used and recognised more broadly around the world.

Open Access is a continuation of the investment the museum has made in advancing digital engagement and making art accessible to all. It was the logical next step that celebrates the collection, as well as curators, research, and scholarship.

Title: Irises, 1700s
Creator: Watanabe Shiko (Japanese, 1683-1755)
Institution: The Cleveland Museum of Art, Gift of The Norweb Foundation
Country: United States of America

A noteworthy detail of the CMA’s initiative is the release of its descriptive text, provenance, and catalogue raisonné information as open data. Why is this important?

Open access to artwork information like descriptive text, provenance, and catalogue raisonné enables users to explore the context of artwork at new levels, something not possible with other initiatives that limit metadata open access to identifying or 'tombstone' data.

Descriptive text is often where connections are discovered and meaning is found for works of art. For example, the CMA is a leader in research for Nazi-era provenance and in promoting the history of collecting. The open sharing of provenance data acknowledges the importance and generosity of the museum’s donors. Catalogue raisonné numbers are also relevant, as CMA works may now be linked with artworks in other collections that have also catalogued these important index numbers, migrating research practices from analogue to digital methods.

The elements of description, provenance, and catalogue raisonné are part of an enhanced and enriched metadata offering that can be especially useful for data scientists and art historians alike.

Title: Hunting near Hartenfels Castle, 1540
Creator: Lucas Cranach (German, 1472-1553)
Institution: The Cleveland Museum of Art, John L. Severance Fund
Country: United States of America

Over the past year, it’s become apparent that open access is now a significant global phenomenon in the GLAM sector. In your view, how does it connect with the role of museums in the 21st century?

Open access is the ability for a museum to easily share its collection with the world. Openness becomes part of an institution’s fundamental identity. Openness becomes a core trait of an institution’s internal working culture through collaboration across divisions and teams. Openness informs how an institution carries out scholarly practice with respect to cataloguing, research and publication.

Openness becomes a mantle for executive leadership of the institution. Openness that promotes the conservation of the institution through a greater and more resonant connection with its public. Openness, especially through copyright-waived public-domain assets, publications, and projects with Creative Commons, powers engagement in an interconnected and global 21st-century society.

How was CMA’s Open Access initiative developed?

The initiative required building consensus and conducting educational work with key stakeholders. Thorough explanations from the ambassadors of the project helped to drive home the meanings and nuances of Open Access and Creative Commons legal tools. People are familiar with copyright but often have been trained to fear it as a punitive rather than inspirational instrument for making new culture.

Title: Portrait of Hottō Enmyō Kokushi, 1286–1333
Creator: Japan, Kamakura Period (1185-1333)
Institution: The Cleveland Museum of Art, Leonard C. Hanna, Jr. Fund
Country: United States of America

Who was involved?

Our entire staff had to support this initiative for it to be a success, especially the leadership team, and a collaborative cross-team enabled the overall success of this project. The team includes representatives from the Digital Innovation and Technology Services and the Collections Management Department, with support provided by the chief curator as well as the CMA’s director, William Griswold, in consultation with our legal counsel.

Beyond the museum, we were fortunate to consult with Neal Stimler, senior advisor at the Balboa Park Online Collaborative, and to have the guidance of Creative Commons to ensure best practices were implemented. The museum gratefully acknowledges the CEO of Creative Commons, Ryan Merkley, as well as Jane Park, Director of Product and Research, and Diane Peters, General Counsel, for their critical contributions to this initiative. The CMA recommends working directly with Creative Commons when designing and implementing an open-access initiative.  I am personally grateful to Loic Tallon, CDO of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, for openly sharing the strategy and data that underpins their Open Access Program and for helping transform the conversation about Open Access in the museum field.

What advice would you give to museums considering a similar initiative?

Open access demands an institution make a commitment to accepting and facing dynamic change. The absolute support of a director or chief executive is a must for an organisation’s open access initiative to advance successfully from a potential internal conversation to a fully and publicly implemented project. Director William M. Griswold’s support has been certainly important to bringing Open Access to the public. A director who supports such an initiative is a leader among leaders.

Infuse your organisation’s project with expertise by bringing in external help and the support of community leaders who are experienced, knowledgeable and steadfast. The project needs to be socialised within an organisation to rally enthusiasm and build confidence, and internal colleagues need to be supported as they become more comfortable with the idea of open access. Peer allies give the initiative the greatest opportunity for success at important stages of development in the internal process.

Title: River and Mountains on a Clear Autumn Day, c. 1624-1627
Creator: Dong Qichang (Chinese, 1555-1636)
Institution: The Cleveland Museum of Art, Purchase from the J. H. Wade Fund
Country: United States of America

A common argument that museums make against open access is, 'We don’t charge admission fees so we can’t afford to give our images away for free.' The Cleveland Museum of Art is free to the public, so what’s your take on this?

Admission to The Cleveland Museum of Art is free of charge. The decision to provide existing high-resolution images of public domain artworks in CMA's collection to the public, without an additional fee or restriction of any kind, is aligned with the museum's mission 'to create transformative experiences through art for the benefit of all the people forever' in the 21st century. The accessibility to, engagement with, and usability of CMA's artworks in the collection, as manifest through images and data, are the decided and firm priorities for the museum.

As Director of The Cleveland Museum of Art, William M. Griswold, remarked in his opening address of the Open Access program: 'Open Access with Creative Commons Zero will provide countless new opportunities to engage with works of art in our collection. With this move, we have transformed not only access to the CMA’s collection but also its usability—inside as well as outside our museum walls. Whenever, wherever, and however the public wishes to use, reuse, remix, or reinvent the objects that we hold, our collection is available; we are but caretakers of these objects that belong to the artistic legacy of humankind.'

Title: Head of Amenhotep III Wearing the Blue Crown, c. 1391-1353 BC
Creator: Egypt, New Kingdom, Dynasty 18, reign of Amenhotep III
Institution: The Cleveland Museum of Art, Gift of the Hanna Fund
Country: United States of America

Image revenue has steadily declined over the years. CMA does not see this significant trend reversing. Users take what image is already available on the internet at no cost to them because it is easy and expedient. It is better for CMA to acknowledge that this shift in user behaviour and revenue has occurred and work to provide the best quality images from the museum itself to be used by the public. It is expensive and inefficient to administer burdensome rights and permissions for artworks in the public domain. Costs are saved by institutions who reallocate staff time and labour to more beneficial activities that build possibilities for new growth and understanding of the collection, such as more in-depth and complete cataloging of the collection, as well as the development products in strategic partnerships with new commercial ventures that spread awareness about the artworks in CMA's collection.

Image rights and production fees have been well studied and documented with publications by: Simon Tanner (2004); Kenneth Crews (2010-12); Kristen Kelly (2013); Effie Kapsalis (2016); Andrea Wallace and Ronan Deazley (2016).

Title: Mont Sainte-Victoire, c. 1904
Creator: Paul Cézanne (French, 1839-1906)
Institution: The Cleveland Museum of Art, Bequest of Leonard C. Hanna, Jr.
Country: United States of America

How important are partnerships to this initiative? Who’s on board?

The CMA has invested in developing partnerships with allied institutions and organisations, such as Europeana, to spread the access and the impact of the Open Access initiative to relevant communities of practice. These partnerships include art-world, academic, commercial, community, and technology partners. A full list of partnerships is on the CMA’s Open Access home page.

The cognitive search tool created by our partners at Microsoft is so powerful that we applied it to our newly redesigned collections search. This tool has allowed our partners to access our collection and create something meaningful for our launch. Here are a few examples:

  • Wikimedia has all of the CMA’s Open Access images and they feature in the Sum of All Paintings project

  • Internet Archive is uploading the museum’s public domain artworks to its website

  • Artstor is expanding the CMA images available through the Artstor Digital Library, which includes millions of high-quality images for education and research across disciplines from a wide variety of contributors around the world

  • Artsy is integrating the museum’s artworks into the augmented-reality feature on the Artsy iPhone app, allowing users to virtually 'hang' two-dimensional artworks to any vertical surface

  • Hyland Software, headquartered in Cleveland, is using a Microsoft HoloLens to allow users to place holographic images of two-dimensional artworks in the space around them

  • American Greetings is using CMA Open Access images as part of a collage workshop during an all-associates event in February to reimagine images from the collection, designed to inspire and cultivate creative community in the building and within Cleveland

Partnerships are important because they build community, provide demonstrable examples of the benefits of open access, and magnify impact and reach beyond the museum’s own website and subdomains. Partnerships place our content directly in the hands of users who can create, remix, and share their engagement with the museum’s collections.

Keep your eyes on the CMA’s Open Access homepage for updates on our activities and follow the hashtag #CMAOpenAccess.