What is The Art Genome Project? Seven Facts about the Discovery and Classification System That Fuels Artsy

The Art Genome Project
Feb 9, 2016 5:00AM

(1) 20 Experts; 1,000 Categories; 

     220,000 Artworks

There are currently over 1,000 categories in The Art Genome Project, Artsy’s ongoing, evolving study into the characteristics and connections between artworks and artists. Spanning art- historical periods, styles and movements, subject matter, techniques, and more, The Art Genome Project’s categories, which we call “genes” in-house (hence the name “The Art Genome Project”), attempt to comprehensively capture both the conceptual and formal aspects of art, architecture, and design while making connections between artworks and artists across history.

The Art Genome Project team comprises 20 experts with art-historical backgrounds who “genome” (research and analyze) artists and artworks on Artsy; to date, we’ve genomed over 220,000 artworks and 22,000 artists—and counting.  

(2) The Art Genome Project Fuels Discovery

The Art Genome Project is just one of the many ways Artsy is making art accessible to anyone with an internet connection. It allows users to discover new artists and artworks by browsing connections and recommendations based on similarity. A student unfamiliar with Jackson Pollock might learn more about him via the splattered/dripped gene; a collector might discover Takashi Murakami in his or her weekly personalizations after following Jeff Koons; a writer may research recent trends in abstract painting by browsing the monochrome painting gene.

(3) Genes Are the Characteristics of Art: There Are 11 Different Types of Genes

To demonstrate the way these terms apply to art, think about an artwork, say Marilyn (1967) by Andy Warhol. You might describe it is a work of pop art, a screenprint, as featuring an image of Marilyn Monroe, high contrast or vivid, or as emphasizing the flatness of the image. We call these characteristics or terms (e.g., pop art, flatness, vivid) “categories.” All of the categories fall under the following types:

Works of art, architecture, and design will have multiple categories, allowing users to browse and discover artists and objects along many pathways. 

Where did all of these categories come from?

  • Centuries of art-historical scholarship of which we are the beneficiaries 
  • Discussions in books, periodicals, and online surrounding contemporary art 
  • Many Artsy and The Art Genome Project team meetings and debates 
  • Consistent communication with all of our partners, including the galleries, museums, foundations, collections, and estates that feature their work on Artsy 

(4) Genes Are Not Tags

Tags are binary—something is either tagged “dog” or not—whereas each gene is evaluated from a scale of 0 to 100 and then hand applied to an artist or artwork by a member of The Art Genome Project team. The list of genes or categories applied to artists and artworks are referred to as their “genomes.” We also use tags, and there are over 12,000 of them and counting. Tags are less strictly controlled and are used to highlight specific subject matter—the people, places, and things you see in a work of art. They range from shapes (circle, square, triangle) and place names (New York, Antarctica) to celebrities and historical figures (Kate Moss, Abraham Lincoln), and they also include common art-historical motifs, or iconography, such as the Nativity and the figure of Venus.

(5) The Project Draws on Precedents

In technical terms, The Art Genome Project is called a controlled vocabulary, an iterative taxonomy of art terms. Like art-historical taxonomies or thesauri, encyclopedias and dictionaries, and the recommendation engines that power sites such as Pandora or Netflix, The Art Genome Project creates comprehensive analyses of things—in this case, artists and artworks—by identifying a set of criteria and terms to classify them. Artsy is certainly not the first to create such a system for art; art libraries and image archives have long used classification systems. The Getty Research Institute’s Art & Architecture Thesaurus, for example, comprises over 130,000 terms for the description of cultural objects. Individual art historians have embarked on similar projects, most notably Heinrich Wölfflin and Aby Warburg. What differentiates The Art Genome Project from these precedents is its user-centric approach. Instead of being created for use by slide librarians, registrars, or art historians, The Art Genome Project is intended to fuel discovery and retrieval for non-specialists. It is a vital part of the Artsy user experience, aimed to help anyone, including students, teachers, aspiring and seasoned collectors, museum-goers, and arts professionals and enthusiasts, discover and fall in love with art.

You can learn more about The Art Genome Project’s roots here.

(6) The Art Genome Project Is Ongoing and Iterative

Rigged (Runner v1), 2014
Neumeister Bar-Am
Inert #2, 2015
Kayne Griffin Corcoran

We are constantly updating our categories, redefining them, deleting some, and adding new ones to keep the project in pace with the speed at which culture and art changes. This year alone we have added 62 genes—called categories on the front end—and are currently testing an additional 24 . Each gene is accompanied by a short, engaging description and hundreds of artist and artwork examples. Some of the recently added genes include neon and fluorescent light, post-internet art, and computer aided design. You can view all the categories here

(7) The Art Genome Project Goes Beyond Categories

The Artsy Learning team aims to make Artsy the best resource for anyone who wants to learn about art online. We work with the other teams at Artsy on educational features and content, and we have open-sourced our genomes for artworks in the public domain. We make all the genes, along with the glossary-style definitions, available in an easy-to-access CSV file on GitHub, and we interact with the educational community at large. 

Lastly, we often write about the many artists and artworks we genome. To explore articles and insights from our team—such as the roundtable on how art can change the future of race relations or a look back at the impact of Black Mountain College—check out our Artsy Profile.   

— Matthew Israel, Curator at Large and Director Emeritus, The Art Genome Project; Jessica Backus, Director of Artsy Learning and The Art Genome Project; and Olivia-Jene´ Fagon, Learning Project Manager

The Art Genome Project