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Research Spotlight: Shedding light on the work of women artists through technology

April 30, 2020

As institutions around the world go digital to adapt to living during a global pandemic, a new app is doing the same with art created by women artists.

The new, +Archive: Dorothy Mead app, is an application produced by Dr. Ana-Maria Herman, opens in new window, assistant professor of Information Technology Management at the Ted Rogers School of Management, in a research-based collaboration with the School of Arts and Creative Industries at London South Bank University. Her app delves into the life and work of artist, Dorothy Mead.

Dr. Herman’s research focuses on how digital technology can be used to display artwork created by women and how Canadian art institutions employ digital and novel media to exhibit collections.

Dr. Herman answered a few questions about her new app, why she chose to feature Dorothy Mead and how the digitization of artwork has become even more relevant during a pandemic.

Here is what she had to say: 

1. Can you tell me about the +Archive: Dorothy Mead app?

The +Archive: Dorothy Mead app presents a biographical view into the life and work of mid-20th century British artist Dorothy Mead (1928-1975). The app features 17 of Mead’s oil and acrylic paintings and one charcoal drawing, and it offers a ‘zoom in’ function to allow users to take a closer look at each artwork. These particular works of art by Dorothy Mead are part of the A David Bomberg Legacy – The Sarah Rose Collection, which is held in a storage archive at London South Bank University (in London, UK). The app is now available and can be downloaded from the App Store, external link for free. 

2. What was the inspiration for the app?

There is a long back story as to how I came to create the +Archive: Dorothy Mead app. It began with my doctoral studies from 2011 to 2016 at Goldsmiths, University of London. Though I was studying in London, UK, my interest was in how Canadian art institutions (i.e. museums, archives, libraries and so on) were using apps and other (often related) digital technologies to display their collections.

After finishing my PhD, I held a post-doctoral research residency at the Women’s Art Library at Goldsmiths Library and a Visiting Research Fellowship at the Centre for Invention and Social Process also at Goldsmiths, where I was rather keen to create an app for research purposes. My interests had now turned to the problem of making women’s art more visible and, to this end, I created (with the help of a developer) a ‘prototype app’, called the WAL App. I experimented with the app as a way to ‘tell the stories’ of seven women artists whose artworks were held in the Library’s archive. Using text, images and audio recordings by the artists, the app became a vehicle to make their art and voices ‘travel’, so to speak. 

And ‘travel’ they did - the app was downloaded around 3,000 times around the world. That was a great number of downloads for a ‘prototype app’ made with three small university grants. Eventually, it was noticed by Theresa Kneppers, curator of A David Bomberg Legacy – The Sarah Rose Collection. Theresa contacted me in late 2018 and asked me whether I would be interested in creating a similar app for the Collection. She was tasked with finding new ways to display the Collection digitally, and I was interested in continuing my research on apps. Thus began a one and a half year collaboration that produced the +Archive: Dorothy Mead app. 

3. Your research explores how apps can be used to tell the stories of women artists. What do you seek to discover in your research? 

My interests are twofold. Firstly, my focus on women artists and their art has always been deliberate, as there is a well-known, yet historically little addressed problem: women artists tend to be less exhibited in museums and galleries (and are therefore less known), are typically paid less for their artwork, and their works of art are usually resold at auctions for significantly less than their male counterparts. So, part of my research investigates how to do something about this longstanding and persistent problem. Making apps that feature women artists was one step I could take, albeit a tiny one! So secondly, I am interested in how apps can act as vehicles to promote (pun intended) women artists and their art. I want to know everything about apps – how they can be designed and made, how users interact with them and what the outcomes and implications are of using apps to feature women artists and their art. 

4. How is this research and the app relevant to current news and events? 

All news channels are currently attuned mainly to the debilitating effects of COVID-19 and the unprecedented ways in which it has impacted our lives, economies and health around the world. Sadly, this is the event of the year. In most countries, citizens have been asked to socially distance themselves. And, among the organizations that have had to temporarily close, cultural institutions – including museums, galleries, libraries and archives – have had to also shut their doors. Under the circumstances, these institutions have turned to digital tools and media – relying on apps, websites, blogs and social media to communicate with the public and provide access to collections. Perhaps fittingly, some have called this movement ‘art in isolation’. But as a recent Globe and Mail article, external link suggested, “going digital [is] not easy for cultural institutions.” Copyrights and a lack of time and funding stand in the way of creating quality digital images and the acquisition of necessary tools. So, the +Archive: Dorothy Mead app offers a tiny contribution to existing digital collections and for those that download the app, I hope it may provide a momentary reprieve from the dismal headlines and the unfortunate events we are experiencing. 

5. What is the most exciting function of the app? 

For me, the most exciting feature of the +Archive: Dorothy Mead app, overall, is that anyone with an iPhone or iPad can download and view works by Dorothy Mead in less than a minute – and this is amazing considering these works physically reside in a closed storage room in London. Before the app, there was little (if anything at all) published on Dorothy Mead and her work. So, here we finally have something that tells at least part of her story. This is thanks to Theresa Kneppers, the curator of the Collection, who wrote the fantastic biographical texts for the app. But, if I had to pick one function inside the app, I would have to say that it is the ‘zoom in’ function. It allows for a close-up view of the brushwork on the featured paintings, in a way that just wouldn’t be otherwise possible if physically standing in front of the artworks.

6. Why did you choose to feature Dorothy Mead? 

A David Bomberg Legacy – The Sarah Rose Collection features artworks by several members of the Borough Group, and includes two women founding members, Dorothy Mead and Edna Mann. Given my interest in presenting women’s art, I had to pick one of these artists. The Collection featured a good number of works by Mead and this became the starting point for the +Archive: Dorothy Mead app. During the year and a half that we worked on the app, I think that what helped motivate everyone who got involved in this project was that they also saw how truly remarkable Mead’s work is. What drives my research, is my desire to inform the public about such noteworthy, yet historically underrepresented, artists like Mead. 

7. Why do you think an app is the best way to tell the story of Dorothy and other women artists? 

This is a good, yet tough, question to answer! I don’t necessarily think apps are the best way to tell the story of female artists. To begin with, ‘telling the story’ is always a tricky thing to do no matter what technology you use – one thing a background in sociology teaches you is that you should always ask, who gets to tell the story, how are they telling it and what are they saying? Having said that, apps can offer some attractive features. Firstly, they can certainly provide improved access (albeit, limited) to collections in archives, as well as to museum collections held in storage facilities, where, I might add, much of women’s art is often located (as the Guerrilla Girls have pointed out for the last three decades). Further, once the +Archive: Dorothy Mead app is downloaded from the App Store to a device, the app is not dependent on Wi/Fi nor data plans – users can enjoy it at any time. Lastly, and in general, apps offer multiple ways to tell a story and share information on artworks (such as through text, image, voice and video), which can help in telling more evocative stories. For example, like I mentioned before, in the WAL App I included audio recordings of women artists explaining their own art. This offered users more than static textual descriptions and visual images of art – it provided a ‘live’ auditory experience of artists’ voices and their own words tell the stories behind the art. At the same time, there are many limits to ‘telling the story’ with apps, which is what I am working on currently, as part of my research write-up on apps.

The public, if interested, can follow this research via the blog www.plusarchiveapp.com, external link and my Twitter account @herman_anamaria, external link where I will soon be posting more about these findings.

Dorothy Mead application graphic