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Art Bytes brings technologists, others to Walters Art Museum for art-inspired hackathon

Before the weekend is out, before a sizeable gaggle of artists, technologists and “creatives” have decamped from a makeshift coworking space set up in Statuary Hall of the Walters Art Museum—the museum Baltimore City owns —there’s a reasonable chance that an unsafe quantity of energy drinks will have been consumed, leaving a metaphorical china shop […]

Before the weekend is out, before a sizeable gaggle of artists, technologists and “creatives” have decamped from a makeshift coworking space set up in Statuary Hall of the Walters Art Museum—the museum Baltimore City owns —there’s a reasonable chance that an unsafe quantity of energy drinks will have been consumed, leaving a metaphorical china shop teeming with Red Bull-hopped hackers.

This is the way it is, with hackathons.

Tonight begins the first-ever such event, Art Bytes, at the Walters Art Museum, when hackers, coders, designers and creators convene “to build programs and applications inspired by art or to address specific challenges faced by museums.”

Register for Art Bytes here.

“The Walters is pretty committed to trying to understand how technology can help enhance the visitor experience here,” says James Maza, 60, the museum’s chief technology officer. “One of the best ways to do that would be to really work with people who have a sense of the technology.”

Planning for the hackathon started in the spring after the Walters’ committees on audience and community engagement began pondering how to intersperse technology among suits of Medieval armor and 19th-century Impressionist paintings.

“The question was how do we get technologists and entrepreneurs interested in the museum,” says Scott Burkholder, 32, director of the Baltimore LOVE Project and one of those helping to organize Art Bytes. “Let’s solicit the creative community … let’s start looking at how technology and general creativity can improve the public’s experience of this institution that they own.”

Then again, for a nearly century-old physical repository filled with some 35,000 objects Carly Rae Jepsen-listening tweens might call boring, the Walters’ existing efforts aren’t too shabby.

In March, the museum received a $265,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to digitize 45,000 pages of illuminated Medieval manuscripts from Flanders. Two months later, the Walters uploaded more than 19,000 images of artworks to Wikimedia Commons. Opened in June was the Walters’ summer exhibition, Public Property, a completely crowdsourced curatorial effort in which people voted digitally on the exhibition’s name, its theme, and the works of art displayed.

“The whole exhibition was designed from decisions made by the public,” Maza says. “That’s the point we’re trying to get across here: we are a public institution.” (The artwork, in addition to the Walters itself, is owned by Baltimore City.)

Much of that technological outreach, says Burkholder, is the work of museum director Gary Vikan, who is stepping down in June 2013.

“Gary Vikan is being visionary,” he says. “He has just given me the opportunity to think about the purpose of the museum, the purpose of cultural centers in the city.”

Check out GBTC’s chat with Gary Vikan during episode nine of Baltimore Weekly:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sOQvBlZ98PE&version=3&hl=en_US]

Therein lies the rub, so to speak, of the Art Bytes weekend, which will follow a fairly typical hackathon schedule: Friday night, participants meet at the museum, begin sharing ideas and form teams, from 10 a.m. until midnight Saturday, they’ll code and design at designated locations and on Sunday, each team will present its creation to a panel of judges, who’ll decide how to dish out the $5,000 in prize money the Abell Foundation is contributing.

“There’s a level of vulnerability about exposing what the issues in the museum are,” says Burkholder. “That willingness to be open and say we might not be relevant, we’re not attracting people to the resources we have and they’re missing out.”

Burkholder says the organizers of Art Bytes have kept it as inclusive as possible, including soliciting ideas from museum staff and curators, who will be present throughout to contribute and offer insight on how they organize exhibits within the museum. What’s more, participants in the weekend need not code or program some app or piece of software—they’re open to create works of art that could possibly be put on display. On Saturday the museum will remain open to the public, the intention being, says Burkholder, that some wandering Baltimoreans will be tempted to join in on the hacking revelry.

“In an ideal world,” says Maza, “we want people to think of it as their museum, not as something that other people are responsible for and you attend it in some sort of passive manner.”

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Andrew Zaleski

Andrew Zaleski is a freelance journalist in Philadelphia and the former lead reporter for Technical.ly Baltimore. Before moving to Philadelphia in June 2014, he was a contributing writer to Baltimore City Paper and a Tech Check commentator for WYPR 88.1 FM, Baltimore city’s National Public Radio affiliate. He has written for The Atlantic, Outside, Richmond magazine, Washington City Paper, Baltimore magazine, Baltimore Style magazine, Next City, Grist.org, The Atlantic Cities, and elsewhere.

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