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Lorenz Pöllmann, Professor at the HMKW, Berlin, and co-publisher of the anthology “Der digitale Kulturbetrieb” (“The Digital Culture Industry”), in conversation with Chantal Eschenfelder, Head of the Department of Education and Communication at the Städel Museum and of the Liebighaus Sculpture Collection, as well as member of the Städel Museum’s digital think tank, Sarah Fassio, art historian and Research Associate in the Department of Cultural Management at the European University Viadrina Frankfurt (Oder), Clara Herrmann, Head of Junge Akademie der Künste (Young Academy), Berlin, and co-publisher of the anthology “Der digitale Kulturbetrieb”, and Holger Volland, Founder of THE ARTS+ and author of the non-fiction book “Die kreative Macht der Maschinen” (“The Creative Power of Machines”). Comments by the discussion participants.

As a result of digitalisation, the cultural landscape – like many other sectors – finds itself in the midst of a distinct, perhaps even radical, transformation. Yet this transformation is not linear: While cultural institutions have already been grappling for some time with digital communications opportunities, such as social media, for example, other projects, such as comprehensive digitalisation (of collections, for instance) or digital work processes, are still a new challenge for many cultural institutions. In this respect, cultural institutions also see themselves as being to some extent dependent on rapidly developing technological developments like those in the field of artificial intelligence, in particular. Yet the aim should be not only to depend on the digital developments of others, but also to position oneself as a progressive driver of innovation and to advance digital models, applications and tools.

We can define various strategic areas of activity for cultural institutions: One goal is to digitalise artistic-creative content, using digital documentation formats such as those seen in the digital Städel Museum or Digital Concert Hall of the Berliner Philharmoniker, for example. Another is to also consider the role of visitors and new possibilities for participation, since visitors today are no longer passive recipients, but are becoming increasingly involved in processes co-creatively.

Additional strategic areas of activity include expanding the digital infrastructure, and the question of how to use and protect the data generated in the process. In addition, internal processes are also changing, making it necessary to plan digitalisation from an internal organisational perspective as well: What changes are brought about by agile management approaches, the digital competence of young cultural managers and new software applications? And how are new technologies, such as artificial intelligence, for example, changing cultural administration as a whole?

Lorenz Pöllmann: Mr Volland, why is artificial intelligence currently causing such a stir in cultural and artistic contexts?

Holger Volland: The use of AI in creative processes and projects is generating widespread debate at the moment. After all, creativity is considered an exclusive domain of the human spirit and a sign of our cultural independence. As a result, machines that compose music, paint pictures or write novels are prompting extremely polarising discussions. Even so, many artists are also experimenting with the new technologies and constantly continuing to explore how to implement AI creatively.


Lorenz Pöllmann: But can AI even be creative?

Holger Volland: A clear yes and no: Creativity defines the ability to create something original that also has utility. Yet creativity is not one-dimensional: We differentiate between creative results and products, creative skills and the creative process. The skills that necessarily accompany creativity include problem awareness, resourcefulness, flexible thinking, improvisation, adapting solutions to reality and the distinctiveness of an idea. We humans practice all of these skills from the time we are in kindergarten, making us able to solve extensive problems later on. For us, creativity is a process that begins with the desire to solve a problem and ends with a carefully evaluated result.

Yet the creative accomplishments of AI work differently. They don’t require a process, but instead immediately generate a creative result based on clear specifications. Yet to many people this looks just like the product of human creativity, even though it was reached along a different path.


Lorenz Pöllmann: Artificial intelligence is one of the many new digital possibilities that the culture industry needs to tackle. Digital literacy is often mentioned in the context of the overall skills cultural institutions need to obtain for digital cultural administration. What does it mean?

Clara Herrmann: To date, there isn’t a standardised definition of digital literacy; it also depends to a large extent on what sector you’re talking about. But, basically, it’s obviously derived from the term “literacy” and is virtually the digital equivalent – in other words, literacy of the digital world, the skills needed to navigate it. To some extent, it also refers to media literacy, when it’s a matter of understanding and interpreting digital text, though the spectrum of skills digital literacy encompasses is much wider. It includes understanding computers and algorithms and our digital living environment as a whole, since we no longer only encounter computers and “computer performance capacity” – as the Internet representative Gesche Joost has called it, in reference to digital literacy – in the form of laptops or smartphones, but everywhere around us. That also includes knowledge of the conditions and laws of digital culture or the “culture of digitality”, as media scientist Felix Stalder described it in his book of the same name (“Kultur der Digitalität”).

Other important building blocks of digital literacy are questions of data protection and network policy – cultural institutions obviously also have a responsibility towards their users in this respect. But, ultimately, it’s a question of being able to make decisions: What technologies do you use? How do you deal with them? Where is political debate necessary?


Lorenz Pöllmann: How can digital skills become embedded in the culture industry?

Clara Herrmann: In his contribution to the anthology “Der digitale Kulturbetrieb”, Holger Simon describes how the culture industry can implement digital skills through innovation, for example. Through interdepartmental projects, digital knowledge can become embedded in the production, distribution and reception in all areas of the culture industry – either through incremental innovations that digitalise existing elements, or through disruptive innovations – that is, completely new digital products. However, these innovations and the necessary digital know-how require open learning environments and informal formats for exchanging knowledge and learning within the culture industry (such as laboratories, workshops, etc.), as well as a different kind of more flexible project management, as several other authors in the volume also recommend.

In my opinion, ideally this will involve artists, who tend to be the very first to react to social change, adopt digital technologies and themes and, above all, have alternative answers, beyond economic usability, at the ready. The Internet art of the early 1990s already grappled with the urgent questions regarding the web and our living environment that have become more topical than ever today. Here, too, cultural institutions can be centres for co-learning, exchange and encounter for co-creating the culture of digitality together with their visitors.


Lorenz Pöllmann: The Städel Museum is a digital pioneer amongst German cultural institutions, yet it chose not to establish its own “digital department”. What led to the decision to take on digitalisation as a holistic mission?

Chantal Eschenfelder: It quickly became clear that a digital revolution would only be possible for a mid-sized institution like the Städel by transforming all of our institutional structures. Moreover, the risk seemed too great that creating our own digital department would cause the museum to split into an analogue and digital part. Instead, we looked to examples from other sectors and companies, as well as to the Scrum method and its agile project management. We created a digital core team to formulate a strategy as well as interdisciplinary project groups for each individual project, with representatives from each department relevant to the project. It was only thanks to this that we were able to realise so many projects in such a relatively short period of time.


Lorenz Pöllmann: How would you describe the Städel Museum’s digital strategy?

Chantal Eschenfelder: At the heart of our strategy is the goal to expand our educational mandate to the digital realm. We want to reach new target groups, make our collection more accessible and use new technologies for the museum’s core activities. In this regard, the Internet serves as a cultural platform for presenting strong educational content in addition to offers from commercial suppliers. In this way, we want to enable as many user groups as possible to have specific access to art and culture. Using technological possibilities that exploit the particular advantages of the digital medium, we were able to realise an innovative and comprehensive approach to knowledge transfer that more strongly emphasises interactive, participatory and narrative elements. This opens up new paths for exploring, representing, recounting and disseminating art – ones that more fully take into consideration its re-contextualisation. 


Lorenz Pöllmann: How have visitors – or rather, visitor behaviour – changed in recent years in the light of digitalisation, and how is the Städel Museum reacting to this?

Chantal Eschenfelder: Digitalisation is accompanied by profound social change: More and more people – and not just young ones – don’t exclusively get their information from traditional media and institutions anymore. Other areas of life – including in particular our private lives and leisure activities – are taking place increasingly in the digital realm. Museums also need to stay abreast of these changes if they want to continue to satisfy their educational mandate and be seen as socially relevant in the future.

We reacted to this by creating corresponding options in the digital realm to complement our in-house education programme. These include not only a digital collection, “digitorials”, an online course in modern art and a game for children aged eight years and older, but also WiFi in the museum, an extensive film programme and much more. Our visitors can now experience our services on several channels – analogue and digital – simultaneously. This expands the so-called “visitor journey”, which now no longer only begins at the museum ticket counter, but already at home, where you can prepare for and follow-up with more in-depth information regarding your museum visit. There are also many visitors who live geographically too far away to visit the Städel, yet whom we are now able to reach digitally with our content. In short, thanks to the digital expansion of the Städel Museum, we’ve been able to vastly increase the reach of our services, allowing a much wider circle of users to participate culturally.


Lorenz Pöllmann: Digital transformation doesn’t just affect the products and services of cultural institutions, but also changes the structures of the associated economic sectors. In the culture industry, digitalisation can promote transparency and new forms of cultural participation, as the example of the Städel Museum’s digital collection shows. The art market operates less in the direction of these aims and follows other principles, with lack of transparency seemingly inherent to its logic. But how does this happen and how could digitalisation help to counteract it?

Sarah Fassio: The biggest players in the art market – above all galleries, art dealers and auction houses – benefit significantly from the lack of transparency in pricing in this market segment. The price of an artwork is usually determined by a small insider circle and, seen from the outside, doesn’t seem to follow any clear logic. Size, colour and material can be – but aren’t necessarily – criteria. Often prices are only communicated upon request, making it difficult for outsiders to gain access to this exclusive market.

These inhibition thresholds could be reduced through greater transparency – yet a large part of this insider market is not very interested in seeing this happen. After all, transparent structures would also make it possible to compare individual art prices, thereby putting an end to arbitrary pricing and lobbying in the art market. In addition, it would become much easier for potential buyers to compare the offers of individual suppliers, thus putting them under even greater competitive pressure. This could mean the end for small and mid-sized suppliers in particular, which would further strengthen individual market monopolists.


Lorenz Pöllmann: How can digital opportunities promote transparency and processes of democratisation in the art market?

Sarah Fassio: The app Magnus, which is meant to help make the art market more transparent, has caused quite a stir in the scene the last two years. In a similar way to Shazam, the app allows users to photograph a given artwork – in a gallery, for example – in order to then receive background information on the artist or similar works with the help of a database. In 2016, the Association of German Galleries and Fine Art Dealers (BVDG) even called for a boycott of this app and filed a complaint with Apple – a clear sign that the current market is opposed to increasing transparency. Platforms like the online service provider artnet or the online art price database Artprice also give their users greater insight into the art market. Besides the growing role of big data, cryptocurrencies that use blockchain technologies also hold unknown potential.

The introduction of payment methods such as Bitcoin, for example, offers greater security, since individual transactions can be traced, in theory making it possible to prove the provenance of an artwork. In the field of digital art in particular, blockchain technology will offer major advantages in the future as regards questions of authenticity and copyright. So, in the long term, processes of digitalisation in the art market are clearly contributing to greater transparency, thus also making it easier for players who are not particularly familiar with the market to gain access to the art world. It will be exciting to see how the market’s commercially operating players react to these developments, since things are beginning to crumble midfield in particular in the art market right now.


Lorenz Pöllmann: What role do artworks created with the help of AI currently play in the art market?

Sarah Fassio: At the moment, at Christie’s in New York, a work of art created by artificial intelligence is being auctioned off for the first time in the auction house’s history. The estimated auction price is between 7,000 and 10,000 USD. The art world is following this event with great interest since it could be a key moment for AI and the art market. After all, with this particular lot, Christie’s is entering new territory, since to date AI-inspired artworks haven’t been represented at auctions and only rarely in galleries. No doubt one reason for this is that AI art is still a very new field of artistic activity and, as such, first needs to make its way from the studio to the gallery or auction house. At the same time, in the art market, the question of the “marketability” of the art product is also always an issue. In the case of a Christie’s auction, for example, a traditional print is easier to reproduce in an auction catalogue than a video sequence or digital art.

The latter field in particular stands to benefit significantly from the digitalisation of the art market since these works, created in the digital realm, are obviously much easier to present online. So the question is, will AI-supported artworks also grow in importance as digitalisation advances? In this context especially it’s exciting to see that traditional auction houses like Christie’s or Sotheby’s are continuing to expand their e-commerce business. And, as new players on the art market, online galleries in particular could play an important role in the sale of digital art in the future.


Lorenz Pöllmann: And in which areas is AI already being used in cultural institutions?

Holger Volland: Other than in artistic debate, at the moment it’s being used above all in curation, scientific work with collection objects and in the creation of audience experiences. In these areas, some of the strengths of machine learning and AI are being brought to bear particularly well: analysis, comparison and event-driven compilation of large quantities of data are ideal areas for the application of algorithms. And, for many institutions, dealing with large data, and structuring, analysing and publishing it, represents a difficult problem. AI can be a solution. A number of museums today already use AI-supported analysis and image interpretation of large quantities of collection objects. And, naturally, AI is also used in institutions’ marketing, communications, administration and infrastructure management.


Lorenz Pöllmann: We have now seen new formats in museums and on the art market. Yet we also find them in funding for artists: The international artists’ residency Academy Schloss Solitude, Stuttgart, has transposed the concept of artists’ residencies into the digital age. How exactly does the online funding programme “Web Residencies” work?

Clara Herrmann: Web Residencies” are web grants for artists who use the Internet as a production site. From early Internet art to social media art, a mostly interdisciplinary community has been working on and with the Internet to create new artworks, disseminate them and, in so doing, also reflect the conditions of the Internet. This basically makes museums and galleries obsolete as gatekeepers. Which is in fact one of the principles of the culture of digitality – namely, that anyone can be a producer and a gallerist, that the range of works and references increases along with collective production – a principle associated above all of the Internet art of the 1990s. Institutions need to react to this in new ways. As a result, the Academy Schloss Solitude thought about how it could support these communities and make them visible in an institutional context, so that it would also be able to function as an artist residency in the digital realm.

The aim was to create a relatively open and flexible programme without an established exhibition platform, to allow the ideas of artists, designers and technologists to influence and help us determine what a web residency can be. Three times a year we invite Internet curators from all around the world to design a call – on digital colonialism, feminism or technologies like artificial intelligence, for example. We receive up to 200 submissions from over 70 countries, and here, too, we try to integrate all perspectives on web culture, technology and the Internet. Four artists then receive a grant and work from home on websites, bots, social media campaigns and collaborative web art exhibitions – in virtual reality or even on the darknet. Naturally this means that you have to relinquish control to some extent, so it’s a question of trust as an important resource for collaboration. We provide feedback in the process and connect artists with the Solitude Community and with the art business. The programme is very dynamic, which allows it to survive, as it were, in the attention economy of the Internet.

The Centre for Art and Media (ZKM) Karlsruhe has been a partner of the programme since 2017. Together, we established the new Internet art award HASH, an 8,000-euro production prize that allows one of the web residents to work on something bigger. It’s awarded at the event Virtual Goes Real, where the community meets for the first time. What we as institutions can learn from the artists is vast – as regards our work practice, themes and technologies, but also with respect to the role of cultural institutions in the age of digital (re)production.