VanGoYourself, one year on: an interview with Jane Finnis
A year ago, we interviewed the team behind VanGoYourself, a playful site that lets you recreate your favourite paintings. The brainchild of Culture24 in the UK and Plurio.net in Luxembourg, it is part of the Europeana Creative project promoting greater re-use of of cultural heritage in Europeana by creative industries. As momentum behind their new crowdfunding campaign grows, we catch up with one of the two founders, Jane Finnis from Culture24.
The project is now over a year old. Taking a moment to look back, what have been the main highlights of the last year?
The biggest buzz has actually been seeing the recreations coming in from all over the world and realising that people have been inspired enough by the idea to actually take action and be creative. Sometimes people go to a lot of trouble, you can see that they have really thought about it and that makes me happy as it’s what the project is all about – connecting emotionally to art in a personal way.
Image: VanGoYourself, CC BY-SA.
Being invited onto the BBC’s Breakfast TV is also one of the high points. I was interviewed at the start of the show and we asked people to send in their recreations – and they did – dinner ladies, students, couples, all ages and all sorts. I also managed to get the two presenters to have a go with a rather good result.
Can you tell us about some of the influential supporters you’ve attracted since you started out? How have different organisations and individuals reacted to the idea?
We now have 29 different museums from 13 different countries and more joining all the time - from big nationals like the Rijksmuseum, National Gallery of Denmark and National Gallery of Ireland to smaller ones such as Royal Pavilion Museums, Villa Vauban and Stadtmuseum Simeonstrift Trier.
The key thing is that all the paintings from these different collections must be open licenced so we are restricted in what we can take and it is a slow process to convince the museum and gallery community that taking a more open approach to their content is the right one. But I do think we are helping to shift people's thinking in this area and people are realising how the possibilities for the re-use of collections can be really exciting and engaging.
I’m really proud that in our own way we are helping to make the case for this kind of open approach and my belief is that this is only a temporary problem. In five to ten years the benefits of openness will be well understood and there will be more institutions allowing people to get creative with their content than not.
What advice would you give to a creative or other similar kind of project starting out? What do you know now that you wish you’d known in May 2014? What might you do differently, if anything?
It’s hard work trying to build something new from scratch, grab people’s attention online and convince them to go and do something (in our case recreate a painting). Having an idea that you genuinely love, that you enjoy working on as the producer and that you have a connection to is really important. If you are going to pour your soul into something it has to be something that really moves you or going the extra mile just won’t happen.
What were the biggest technical challenges to overcome when building the tools and website?
The biggest challenge was not to over-complicate it. There is always a tendency to think we could add this and that and link to this information etc. But all of this just complicates the core idea and often confuses the user. The need to add more is often about meeting the needs of the organisation making the thing, and not the needs of the audience. I am really pleased that we managed to fight off this urge and keep the ideas really simple and focussed.
Image: VanGoYourself, CC BY-SA
You've released the twinning software as a free Wordpress plugin. Can you tell us a bit about why did you do this and who you think might use it?
The twinning software is the only really clever bit of code on the site, the rest is simply Wordpress pages and posts so it was the only bit of tech that we could share. It was also a really compelling idea, twinning one thing with something else and we thought it would be great to not just give something back to the developer community but also suggest a way of creating comparisons or juxtapositions that might inspire other ideas.
There are all sorts of people on VanGoYourself, from the very young to the more distinguished. Do you gather any statistics about who is using it, where and when?
One of the great things about the project is that you can literally see your audience in the recreations they submit and there really is a broad range of ages and types of people - teenagers, kids, hipsters, groups of friends, business colleagues, couples and of course the many selfies!
Each month the site gets around four thousand visits and other than those that just come in from somewhere to view one page and leave, the rest on average stay for five minutes and look at four to five pages each. The percentage of people who then go on to VanGoThemselves is about 2%, which is kind of average percentage for this high level of engagement required.
What does the future hold for VanGoYourself? What’s in store for it next?
Our ambition is to get 100 more paintings onto the site from across Europe and to champion the value of releasing cultural content on open licenses. We want to create a shift in how museums and galleries think about their digital collections and show them that they can have more value if they are open to re-use.
But most of all we want to get more people VanGoing themselves and would love to see the project become synonymous with having fun with art. I’d like to see museums all over the world holding their own VanGoYourself events and inviting the public to recreate their art in any way they want to.
Can you tell us a bit about making a project of this nature sustainable? How important is crowdfunding as a way for entrepreneurs to operate without funding? What benefits, outside obvious financial ones, might it offer?
Sustainability is tough and I’m not sure I believe it is even possible financially without some kind of commercial partnership which at the moment we don’t have. I also believe the value of the project is how it can help people to engage with art in personal ways. Our challenge is to see if we are able to translate that into some kind of income stream, which will take time. Meanwhile, we want to build a community of art lovers who share our belief in open data and ask them for their support.
Last of all, there are almost too many brilliant recreations to choose just one, but if you had to pick, which is your all-time favourite?
I love the ones that I have been a part of, either helping to direct a big group into a complicated scene (I’ve done quite a few of these a different events) or being in a recreation myself, in particular the one I did in Rome of the Sarcophagus of the Spouses. It really is a lot of fun to recreate a painting, play around with the meaning and put yourself into the picture.
Image: VanGoYourself, CC BY-SA
But if I had to pick one out of the others that I haven’t been part of it would be the Dying Adonis VanGo'd by Jordan Assi. I love the contemporary twist on this and the comment “This is a modern day “Dying Adonis”. He is surrounded by all the technology available in today’s society and it has consumed him.
Image: VanGoYourself, CC BY-SA
VanGoYourself is asking the public to help them get more artworks online by launching a new crowdfunding campaign to help free up more of the world’s greatest paintings so people can recreate them. You can also catch them in Vienna at #CultJam15, the final conference of the Europeana Creative project.
We hope you'll join us in supporting the campaign. #VanGoForIt!