A Museum in the Palm of your Hand

SF MOMA text art project
Am example of the "Send Me SFMOMA" project
via SFMOMA

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) recently made headlines with its digital campaign to make art go viral with their Send Me SFMOMA project. The project is simple in theory, though not in scope: interested users text 572-51 and simply state “send me” followed by a word, phrase, color, or emoji regarding a specific theme or reference they’d like to see. Then the museum responds instantly with a work from its 34,678-piece collection. SFMOMA has received much acclaim for not only shedding light on its collection in a creative way, but also for making art so accessible.

SFMOMA’s text message experiment recalls an earlier traveling art museum, known as the Artmobile, from 1953.

The idea of bringing artwork to the people is not new. Historically, other museums have grappled with the desire to make art more accessible to people and places that don’t otherwise have museum and gallery spaces. Such historic predecessors include the first traveling art museum, known as the Artmobile, which was started in 1953 by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and other traveling Artmobiles like the Visual Arts Project in California started in 1968.

In 1969, Wayne Dean, the director of the Visual Arts Project in California, wrote about the success of their Artmobiles, traveling artist talks, and newly dispersed exhibition sites in his article “Museum without Walls.”

Dean described the underlying motivation and reasoning for traveling art and artists, arguing, “Today’s art students must know original art works of quality in order to develop their design sensitivity….They need experiences with art works that will inform them in making personal and public decisions about art, whether they are decorating a home, purchasing a car, or voting on an urban renewal project.” 

The idea behind the Visual Arts Project was to create a “museum without walls” to offer a number of unique services (including Artmobiles, artist visits and talks, and a number of travelling art exhibitions), made specifically to bring services to constituents in its museum-deserts such as San Bernardino, Inyo, and Mono Counties.

In the program’s first year, 52,000 students were “introduced to original art works by the Artmobile program.” But beyond the numbers, Dean noted that increased interest in art was an immediate and important outcome. “That interest in art is being aroused is indicated by increasing student enrollment in art classes where artists have made several visitations.”

Student feedback after experiencing the art and meeting the artists in person was also important. Dean recalls a story of a fifth grader who “was puzzled by the life-sized cast bronze sculptures of World War I pilots by John Battenberg. ‘I thought they were supposed to be smooth,’ he said to his friend, feeling the rough, encrusted surfaces with surprise. ‘That was just in the photograph,’ said his friend. ‘These are REAL.’” There is a Velveteen Rabbit-like touching moment here, when a child’s interest in — and even belief in — art is heightened because he experiences it firsthand.

What remains to be seen is if digital projects like SFMOMA’s “Send Me” can create these kinds of meaningful connections.


JSTOR Citations

Museum without Walls

By: Wayne Dean

Art Education, Vol. 22, No. 1 (Jan., 1969), pp. 28-31

National Art Education Association

Ellen C. Caldwell

Ellen C. Caldwell is an LA-born and -based art historian, writer, and professor. She writes about visual culture, the arts, and popular media for publications including New American Paintings, KCET's Artbound, Riot Material, Desert Jewels, and more. Read more of her writing at eclaire.me.

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