Where in the world is modernism?

What if the nationality of every artist represented in the Museum of Modern Art’s collections could be mapped to illustrate the Museum’s geographic diversity through time? Watch the data visualization below of 121,823 artworks at MoMA.

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Introduction

“The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) acquired its first artworks in 1929, the year it was established. Today, the Museum’s evolving collection contains almost 200,000 works from around the world spanning the last 150 years. The collection includes an ever-expanding range of visual expression, including painting, sculpture, printmaking, drawing, photography, architecture, design, film, and media and performance art.

“MoMA is committed to helping everyone understand, enjoy, and use our collection. The Museum’s website features 79,870 artworks from 26,215 artists. This research dataset contains 135,804 records, representing all of the works that have been accessioned into MoMA’s collection and cataloged in our database. It includes basic metadata for each work, including title, artist, date made, medium, dimensions, and date acquired by the Museum. Some of these records have incomplete information and are noted as ‘not Curator Approved.’

“The Artists dataset contains 15,757 records, representing all the artists who have work in MoMA’s collection and have been cataloged in our database. It includes basic metadata for each artist, including name, nationality, gender, birth year, death year, Wiki QID, and Getty ULAN ID.” – from MoMA’s website.

I have downloaded this dataset as a spreadsheet, imported the data into a visualization software called Tableau Public, and then proceeded to dissect this data to answer the following question:

What can big data reveal about the history of curating and the growth of museum collections?

The results are presented below in three case studies with accompanying infographics. Hover over the graph or toggle the buttons to explore the data in depth.

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Case Study One:

Geographic and Gender Diversity

The map below visualizes the nationalities of ~15,757 artists whose work is displayed at MoMA. There are 121,823 data points below. The data can be browsed by year or by department. This illustrates the constantly evolving geographic breadth of collections. Beginning in the 1930s, over 80% of artworks were from the four key countries of the US, UK, France, and Germany. Beginning the 1960s, the museum acquired some of its first works from Latin America and Japan. And, post-1991, the museum acquired the bulk of its collections from Russia and China. Recent years have seen a slight growth in African art.

An important distinction: This map does not show where each artwork was made. Rather, it shows where each artist is from. Nationality and national identity are, depending on the artist, an important influence shaping the unique perspective artists bring to their work.

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The bar chart below shows the gender distribution of artworks by date. On the horizontal axis: the date acquired. On the vertical axis: the number of artworks acquired in this year. Each bar is divided into three colors: Blue for artwork by a male artist. Pink for art by a female artist. Grey for art where the gender of the artist is not known.

This data can be explored by year and by department. Across departments, male artists comprise the large majority of holdings. The departments with the greatest number of works by female artists: Photography and Drawings. The department with the least female representation: Prints & Illustrated Books. The department with greatest number of works where the artists’ gender is unknown: Architecture & Design. However, across departments, the representation of female artists has slightly increased over the past few decades from around 0% to somewhere closer to 20%.

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Case Study Two:

Do newer acquisitions tend to be smaller?

The two graphs below plot the relationship between year produced, year acquired by MoMA, and the dimensions of each artwork (width in cm). I’ve plotted 12,250 points. They are color coded with the same blue, pink, and grey system as the previous chart.

In the first graph, we see how new artworks are becoming progressively larger and larger. In 1929, the year of MoMA’s founding, the width of the average work being produced was less than 100cm. Today, the average width of newly produced works in the collection is around 400cm – and is steadily increasing.

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In the second graph, we see how MoMA’s new acquisitions are becoming progressively smaller, even though newly produced artworks are larger than before. In 1929, the average width of a new acquisition was over 300 cm. Today, the width is less than 150cm.

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Contemporary artists seem to be working in ever larger dimensions – at least the contemporary artists whose work MoMA acquires. But, newer acquisitions tend to be smaller. Does this reverse correlation indicate that the growing costs of buying and storing art have priced MoMA out of larger artworks? What is the relationship between size and the decision whether or not to acquire a work?

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Case Study Three:

Is the scope and definition of modernism expanding to include older artworks?

The challenge facing any museum dedicated to modern art is: keeping up-to-date. Modern art is constantly being produced. Like any leading museum, MoMA is:

  • growing its collection of newly-produced contemporary works

  • while also enhancing its collection of older works

  • and expanding the geographic and national representations of artists and artworks

The graph below compares the relationship between production year and acquisition year for 7,797 items. The red trend line is the average of the acquisition (horizontal) and production (vertical) axes. Dot color indicates gender. Dot size indicates the number of works by this artist acquired in this year.

In 1929, most new acquisitions were produced in the 1920s – modernism was a new movement and a new idea. Today, new acquisitions range in date from the late 1800s to the early 2000s – the definition of modernism has grown to encompass both newer and older works. But, the average date of new acquisitions is between 1950 and 1960. There is modern art recently produced, and then there is modern art that is not as new but can reveal the history and birth of “modernism.” This is, so to speak, the history of the present.

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Modernism is not a geographically limited phenomenon. With globalization and the march of capitalism, the area effected by modernity is growing. And as new regions of the world come into contact with modern technology, materials, and ideas, the qualities of their respective art and the practices of their artists will change. Cultural institutions, particularly museums dedicated to modern art, are positioned to curate these global trends through the kinds of works they acquire and display in their galleries. More broadly speaking, the kinds of stories museums and curators can tell about history may reflect the geographic, gender, and temporal strengths (or weaknesses) of their collections.

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Links to Resources

The original datasets can be viewed or downloaded below:

  • MoMA’s dataset from GitHub is free to download here. It is published with the following license: Creative Commons Public Domain (CC0). The information presented above reflects this dataset as of 17 October 2018. New entries after this date are not included as these infographics are not updated in real-time.
  • The dataset, derived from MoMA’s, is also free to download here from Tableau Public.
  • These infographics are not affiliated with MoMA. MoMA does not endorse the conclusions of the authors, who themselves take sole responsibility. The conclusions presented below are limited by the scope of MoMA’s published metadata.
  • This author is aware that, according to some definitions, gender is not a binary. Yet, the colors pink and blue code for traditional gender norms. This color palette is for visual clarity; it does not represent an endorsement or rejection of this gender binary.
  • I have created similar data visualisations analysing:

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