Aaron Radin, the CEO and co-founder of Toura, a mobile app company, came up with the idea for his arts-based start-up while visiting a Joan Miró exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in January 2009. Radin noticed that some of the contemporary work was referential—harking back to Vermeer, say, or Raphael. No fine-art connoisseur himself, he felt limited in his ability to understand the origins of what, exactly, he was looking at. He wanted to know more, so he pulled out his iPhone.
Disappointed in what he was able to dig up, Radin had an epiphany: to form a company that would design iPhone apps for museums, galleries, and other art institutions—places that were, as Radin puts it, “ripe for technological transformation.” In May 2009, with a former co-worker from CBS’ digital-media division, he launched Toura, raising about $1.5 million by March the next year. Radin wasn’t the only entrepreneur to come up with such an idea, either. In fact, Toura is among a fast-growing number of start-ups currently developing apps for the art world.
“It’s like the Wild West right now,” said Nancy Proctor, head of mobile strategy and initiatives at the Smithsonian Institution. “It’s our own mini-dot-com boom.”
While some museum-based apps came out about a year ago, the majority of them have just started to hit the market this summer. Toura’s first app, for example, was released in conjunction with The Pace Gallery in May 2010. Since then, the company’s produced a slew of others—one for the Smithsonian’s Hirschhorn Museum, another for the Royal Academy of Arts in the U.K., and two more for Pace—with apps for the Art Institute of Chicago and Pace’s 50th-anniversary retrospective set to come out in September. On top of that, Toura plans to release apps not just for iPhones, but also iPads, Androids, and eventually BlackBerrys.
Gallery: Most Popular Art Apps Available
Toura’s business, as is the case for many other app designers these days, appears to be on the upswing. Estimated smart-phone and app sales provide proof of a bustling industry: Consumers will spend $6.2 billion in mobile application stores this year, according to Gartner, a technology research and advisory company, and Wall Street predicts that 50 million iPhones will sell in fiscal 2011.
All of which helps explain why museums are hopping on the mobile-app bandwagon, exploring ways in which to implement burgeoning smart-phone technologies. “We’ve definitely seen that there are a lot of museums that are beginning to learn about, think about, and use mobile technologies broadly to deliver content to visitors,” said Robert Stein, chief information officer of the Indianapolis Museum of Art. “Nobody’s doubting mobile devices are a flash in the pan anymore.”
For most museums, though, technology itself isn’t new. Guided audio tours, after all, have been around for decades—whether in the form of audiotapes, digital files, or podcasts. What is new, however, is the platform—iPhones, iPads, Androids. As David Grosz, who heads up The Pace Gallery’s mobile initiatives, puts it, “Apps are just another means of disseminating information. The revolution here is not that it’s an app; it mostly has to do with portability. What’s particularly useful about apps is that the content can be accessed on mobile devices.”
Another reason apps stand out: social-media. “Social-media makes the experience of the device very, very personal. And very intimate,” said Proctor. “The fact that there’s a two-way pipe is what’s important.”
For many arts institutions, this two-way pipe—be it Twitter, Facebook, Foursquare, or other social-media networks—serves not just as a way to enhance the gallery experience, but also as a marketing tool, allowing users to spread word about a museum, an exhibit, or a particular piece of artwork. “Museums are always advertising, and they always have something to talk about, and they always want to bring people back to the museum,” said Chris McLaren, CEO of Tristan Interactive, an Ottawa-based app company. “What we’ve realized is that an app can do that.”
Some administrators, curators, and others remain wary of smart-phone apps, however, despite the multiple advantages for using them. Apps are not simply an innovation, they say; they can be a distraction, too. “The danger is that you distract from the actual art-viewing experience,” said Grosz. “I think that’s a real fine line. We don’t want a situation where we’ve got 50 people in the gallery staring at a screen. It’s not meant to replace the art.”
Perhaps such worries have caused some old-guard museums to enter the mobile-app space slowly; the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Guggenheim have yet to release apps, and the Whitney’s first app has not yet debuted, though they do have plans. “When you’re a start-up, all you do is take risks; when you’re a mature organization, all you’re generally doing is avoiding risks,” said Radin. “I won’t say it’s a conflict, but it is a healthy dialogue.”
Tristan Interactive builds the apps for as little as $5,000—or for free, if the museum wishes to share the revenue—while Toura builds for free with a promise of 50-50 revenue splits. What it costs to the museums depends on how broad and intensive they want an app to be. "We’re not charging for the 50th anniversary. It’s a free app. The other ones aren’t. I don’t know going forward. We would like to make them all free. That seems the sensible way to do it. We’re not making apps to make money off of apps, that’s for sure," said Grosz.
For the majority of the art world, the pluses for using apps continue to far outweigh the minuses. Pace’s 50th-anniversary exhibit app will include maps, explanatory texts, 20 to 30 audio and video interviews with artists and art historians, and a GPS-guided walking tour, which shows how art-related apps can alter the way people think about and view art. “It has informational value,” said Grosz. “It has entertainment value. It adds to the exhibition, supplements it. When people can’t make it to the exhibition, the app can even replace it. It can do all these things.”
Smart-phone technology is still nascent, according to Radin, with many more iterations to come. “This is the first version of [art apps],” he said. “Version two will have twice as many features.”
Spencer Bailey works for The Daily Beast and has written for Bloomberg Businessweek, Esquire.com, VanityFair.com, and elsewhere.