In February, Google presented art lovers with a giant valentine. The company launched the Google Art Project, a website that makes collections from 17 major art museums accessible to anyone with a computer and an internet connection.
The concept isn’t particularly new—art museums have been posting parts of their collections online for years. What’s remarkable about the Google Art Project is that it puts so many works of art from different institutions in one virtual place—and that it uses Google Street View technology to replicate the experience of visiting an actual museum. Users can walk the halls of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York or the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, then click on individual works to zoom in and see them in immense detail.
The user experience is extraordinary. With a few clicks, you can visit the Uffizi in Florence and view Botticelli’s Birth of Venus in incredibly high resolution, then wander to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to peruse El Greco’s View of Toledo, and then stroll over to MoMA to inspect Van Gogh’s The Starry Night. In some cases, examining the artwork online can be more revealing than looking at it in person. Zooming into the 12-gigapixel presentation of Aleksander Ivanov’s Apparition of Christ to the People, for example, allows the viewer to see a group of people peering at Jesus from behind a tree—figures practically invisible to the naked eye. The online collection has drawn praise from art critics and technophiles alike, with the New York Times calling it “a mesmerizing, world-expanding tool for self-education,” and PC Magazine declaring the site “as elegant as it is intuitive.”
The Google Art Project represents an avant-garde trend in philanthropy: the use of for-profit vehicles for charitable ends. The project is not officially philanthropy, as it is a part of the corporation proper, rather than its nonprofit affiliate. (Google’s official charitable efforts, housed at google.org, include humanitarian projects like Flu Trends, which monitors influenza outbreaks around the world, and charitable giving to nonprofits and universities.) But the project is not-for-profit in a more fundamental sense: it does not, and is not intended to, create a revenue stream for the company. As with nearly all of Google’s products, the Art Project is free for users. And unlike other products, such as Gmail or standard Google search, googleartproject.com does not generate revenue through online advertisements.
But although the project doesn’t create revenue for Google, it does help the company achieve its mission “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful,” says Amit Sood, a Google product manager who is in charge of the project. “We share a goal with our museum partners to make art more accessible to more people,” he explains. “At Google, we’re lucky to have access to incredible technology . . . and to have colleagues who love a challenge.”
Indeed, although Sood would not disclose how much the project cost to build and maintain, it clearly relies on a wealth of company resources. It began in mid-2009 as a “20 percent project”—Google engineers are encouraged to spend one day per week working on something outside of their job descriptions. “It started when a small group of Googlers who were passionate about art got together to think about how we might use our technology to help museums make their art more accessible, and it grew from there,” says Sood. The original team was made up of four Google employees, and then expanded to involve people who work with Google products Picasa (for photos) and Street View. The project also makes use of YouTube, which is owned by Google—several of the featured works have video commentaries in the sidebar.
Corporate philanthropy is not without critics, of course. “The social responsibility of business,” Milton Friedman famously argued in the New York Times Magazine, “is to increase its profits.” But Friedman was willing to make allowance for corporate philanthropy that served a business objective. According to corporate philanthropy expert Mark R. Kramer, that is very much what the Art Project is doing. He calls it “a wonderful example of shared-value creation” because it furnishes a social good while bolstering Google’s competitive positioning. It increases the number of offerings available on a Google search, which is good for the company, while also making art available to people who might not otherwise get to see it—which is good for society at large.
“Whether or not they make money off it, they’re using the company’s core capabilities to create a social benefit that it is probably in a position to do better than any nonprofit,” says Kramer.
Google, of course, is not a nonprofit, and it must weigh financial goals along with philanthropic ones when it makes decisions about its products. The company has seen an earlier well-intentioned but costly project go defunct because of financial concerns. The Google News Archive launched in 2006 with ambitious plans to digitize newspapers and magazines dating as far back as 200 years. But in May, the company announced it was abandoning the initiative so it could focus its resources on Google One Pass—technology that allows publishers to charge users for news content, with a cut for Google.
The Art Project is not in danger of suffering the same fate as the News Archive, according to Sood. In fact, he says, Google is now in the process of building out a team that will take the project to “phase two”—which will include tweaks to the current offerings as well as possible partnerships with new museums.
So for now, art lovers can simply enjoy being transported from anywhere in the world to galleries in Florence, London, New York, Moscow—and discovering new details in paintings they thought they knew by heart. “Few people will ever be lucky enough to be able to visit every museum or see every work of art they’re interested in,” Sood says. “But now many more can enjoy 1,000-plus works of art and explore galleries from 9 countries, all in one place.”
Eleanor Barkhorn is an associate editor at the Atlantic, where she edits online culture coverage.