April 9-12, 2008
Montréal, Québec, Canada

ArtPad: Here’s the Collection – Did We Make a Connection?

Quyen Hoang and Melanie Kjorlien, Glenbow Museum, Canada


ArtPad: A Collection. A Connection has ambitious goals. At its core is the on-line presentation of works from the Glenbow Museum’s contemporary art collection, an exceptional collection that is not often presented to the public. Simple enough, but we also wanted to present the collection to an untapped audience for the museum: teenagers. Further, we strove to present the content in an educational context, yet in a way that high school art students would want to receive and interact with the artwork, with each other and with the museum. Ideally, this balance of (presented) museum content and Web 2.0 functionality will create user dialogues about the artwork featured and contemporary art in general, and user reactions to the art they can create and post on ArtPad. 

The needs and preferences of the intended user were at the fore during development of ArtPad. Sample audience groups were consulted throughout the development process, and research was conducted on how this audience group learns and prefers to receive information.

This paper will focus on the user evaluation process employed to develop the site, the features and components developed specifically for the target audience, and the Web 2.0 components used to create and build discussion around contemporary art practice. ArtPad dispenses with the traditional curatorial stance – that of one authoritative voice – and instead opens the discourse to users.

Keywords: contemporary art, teens, education, interaction, artists, create

ArtPad: Drawing Youth In

When news moves slowly, the paper has time to provide perspectives, background, and interrelations for the news, and the reader is given a consumer package. When the news comes at a high speed, there is no possibility of such literary processing, and the reader is given a do-it-yourself kit. (McLuhan, 2003)

In 1959, Marshall McLuhan advised a thousand educators at a Chicago gathering sponsored by the American Association for Higher Education to dramatically change the educational system to give students the “perception and judgement” necessary to handle this fast-paced technological age. He insisted that educators should act much in the same way as industry: use consumer research to learn what motivates their students so they may become co-authors and co-producers, “that the new teaching must increasingly cast the student in co-teacher roles.” (McLuhan, 2003) Rather than being consumers of packaged information, students become motivated participants in their own learning, masters of the do-it-yourself kits.

ArtPad attempts to provide a do-it-yourself kit while giving students the necessary tools to process the information and make their own connections to contemporary art. Focus groups, user testing and literary reviews helped frame the site as a space that would respond to their needs and interests and visually engage students to learn and explore the myriad of issues, histories and stories offered by the selection of artworks.

The site is designed to allow users to engage with the artworks in an open-ended and active way. This approach embraces a more fluid relationship between art and audiences and frames art within a relational context. ArtPad users are invited to explore, analyze and transform the conditions under which they understand and appreciate the art they experience.

Our front-end testing revealed that students wanted all of the information about the work accessible, such as the motivation, the story, the meaning, how it was created and what the different media were, but they did not want to be inundated by copy. This was in line with our desire to create a space for a more self-directed approach to learning. We built the site with layers of information that would allow them to explore as many layers as they needed to understand the work or as their levels of interests would dictate.

Arthur C. Danto has written, “Ends of stories belong to stories, not to reality” (Danto, 1992),  meaning that there may be ends in our texts but not ends in our history. ArtPad embraces a fragmentary and causal way of connecting parts to a story that resists the static structure of a beginning, middle and end. ArtPad encourages users to explore further contextual information within the site as well as beyond to appreciate the complexity of each work. The site is designed in a way that allows users to approach the works from a number of different contexts. They can go directly to the gallery and select different artworks to explore, see all of the artworks on a timeline in relation to other world events, or see artists interviewed for more insight into their works. By not dictating a specific route, the site encourages a more independent and self-directed style of inquiry. There is no specific order to follow, only fragments and parts to explore and hopefully, connections to make.

Teens, Contemporary Art and the Need for Evaluation

I have often wondered how my generation will be remembered and be identified and whether people will even care in 50 years. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking of some common bond that we all share, some new trend or cultural change that we pioneered. I couldn’t think of anything that my generation would be known for, so I popped in my earphones, played a relaxing song on my iPod and Googled the answer while I texted my friend’s cell phone asking if he wanted to go to the new Wi-Fi coffee house to get a raspberry mocha flavored soy latte. That’s when it hit me: my generation will be known for having an abundance of absurd latte flavors! ( (Mike L., an American teen )

ArtPad brings together two things many have difficulty understanding: teens and contemporary art.

Before further defining the ArtPad experience, we needed to know more about our target audience. A literature review revealed some encouraging external research on youth in the target age group: our target audience is more interested in ideas linked to objects than the objects alone (a good potential fit for contemporary art, which incorporates both idea and object) (Kelly and Bartlett, 2000).

This same study, although published pre Web 2.0, identified preferences youth have for traditional museum experiences that coincide with one of our goals: to incorporate two-way communication experiences on ArtPad. From here we could begin to envision ways youth might be able to interact with each other and with the site’s content. According to the research findings,  youth are preoccupied with three main things:

  • developing their sense of personal identity (not so much the nation’s identity)
  • developing their relationships (sharing views with friends and partners);
  • building on skills and talents (current works, techniques, advances and designs) (Kelly and Bartlett, 2000)

From the Mouths of Teens…

“Why stick dresses in with bees? Like, how does a person decide to do that?” (ArtPad focus group member, responding to “The Officiator” by Aganetha Dyck).

The front-end evaluation conducted for ArtPad was by far the most useful evaluation we conducted for the Web site. Our approach was to use a mix of strategies. First was a questionnaire completed by individuals in the focus group. In these questionnaires users were asked about preferences for on-line resources and technologies and questioned regarding their on-line habits.

Two additional evaluation strategies elicited specific feedback about the artwork being featured, and corresponding user preferences. In order to find out what users would want to know about the art and how they would like to interact with it, we showed the focus group six images from the contemporary art collection. For these, the project curator provided some basic information about each work and the artist. We then asked the students what questions they had about the work. What more did they want to know? What didn’t they understand? After this round table question-and-answer session, the students wrote down additional questions they had (this accommodated students who may not have spoken up in the question-and-answer session).

Six additional images were then shown to the focus group, without any curatorial information. The students then responded to what they saw. Here we wanted to capture the questions students had when first seeing a work, without any context.

Our greatest learning from this exercise was the need for context. Not a great surprise, but the breadth and depth of that context did challenge our assumptions. For example, one of the works the students looked at was an installation entitled The King vs. Picariello. The title refers to a man named Picariello who was tried and hanged for the murder of a police officer in Alberta in the 1920s. Students in the focus groups wondered why or how a “king” figured into this. What king? Presumably not exposed to the legal system in school, the students did not understand this reference to the legal head of state, nor to the specific monarch, King George V. Picariello was a bootlegger during prohibition, which figures strongly into the story, but students also had no knowledge of why alcohol was illegal.

Upon seeing the work and hearing more about it, the students’ first reaction was often to titles. Titles of works can seem literal but are not; they can give the illusion of insight but provide none. The title of a sculpture by artist Eric Cameron naturally raised many questions. In Alice’s Rose, the viewer does not see an actual rose, but rather layers of gesso covering a rose. The focus groups wondered who Alice was and why the artist chose to cover a rose. They wondered why the sculpture was white and where the rose petals were. Finally, they wanted to understand why the artist created the work.

We established that the need for context was necessary, but we had to find a balance between providing context and giving information in a format and language that was not intimidating. Therefore content on the site was kept short and focused and was written and edited for the target audience. We also used a heading system for copy, so the copy was hidden until you clicked on the heading. That way the user was not visually inundated with reams of copy upon looking at a page.

It’s important to note that although we wanted to provide context, we did not want to provide definitive readings of the work. Rather, our aim was to provide users with enough information so they could read or engage with the work on another level, if they chose to do so. 

A timeline that provides a linear and more contextual way to experience the work was developed to allow users to explore the social realities around the production of each work. We decided not to limit the timeline only to art-related events because we wanted to demonstrate that art is steeped in the lived realities of its producers. We included references from every aspect of the contemporary culture: literature, politics, science, music, media, as well as the visual arts. The art of the 60s was influenced by a more open attitude, and artists no longer felt restricted to one particular style. But it was also a time where political activism questioned the limited definitions of gender, culture and race. To illustrate this, we highlighted events such as the First Nations vote in Canada in 1960; the Royal Commission on the Status of Women in 1967 investigating the living conditions of women in Canada; and the takeover of Alcatraz by Native American students in 1969. These events are placed in the timeline alongside historical art events such as the introduction of Pop Art which changed people’s expectations about what art had to look like, and the formation of the art collective General Idea in 1969 who were considered the pioneers of Conceptual Art in Canada. We wanted to demonstrate that all of the different and unrelated events created a social climate that had a huge impact on what artists produced. Jack Shadbolt’s Northern Emblem #21 is a response to a fiery debate around Canada’s adoption of a new flag, but also reflects tensions in the artist’s artistic vision.

At the end of our focus group session, members of the project team sat down with small groups of students at computers and asked  the students to show their favourite Web sites and tell us why they liked them. This was a better strategy than simply asking them this question on a survey (show me versus tell me). From to MySpace to MetaCafe to, a consistent theme emerged: students wanted to contribute their own content and interact with others around like topics.

Other key findings also emerged from this session and influenced our design for ArtPad. Students were not familiar with some of the media types on the site, such as installations and collages. So a glossary of art terms was added where definitions of media types and other terminology were provided. These terms help users to navigate through the myriad of styles, movements, techniques and concepts that could be daunting otherwise. Through various ways, the site helps users learn about the issues, concerns and ideas contemporary artists explore, the various materials and approaches to artmaking and the numerous ways one can come to understand and find meaning in a work of art.

Contemporary art utilizes a variety of styles, genres and media. Because of this, familiarity with how the work was created can be important to its understanding. In addition, students were not familiar with some of the processes and simply required an explanation of this. So for each work of art in the Gallery, there is a category called How Was This Made? Here the materials and processes involved in creating each work are identified. Having access to that knowledge is empowering. At the same time, it reminds us that the process, the skill and the labour are just as important as the end result, and sometimes even more interesting than the final product

Our work is so specialized that we tend to forget that art may seem to have little relevance to others outside of our field. By demystifying some of the language and key concepts, we can nurture a sense of belonging and ownership that may encourage a desire to engage in, participate with or perhaps, re-write the presented ideas. ArtPad recognizes not only that we all respond to art in different ways, but also that we need certain tools in order to have a starting point. The Looking at this Work section attempts to provide some entry points into the work by asking some formal questions about each piece to activate a more critical gaze. The questions help users to consider juxtapositions, patterns, incongruities, and their own physical and emotional experience with the work and its associated ideas. For example, Harry Kiyooka’s The Agean #6, a pale blue square with classical architectural detailing around the edges, requires more context, more time and a questioning of one’s experience of the work to appreciate. Some of the questions invite users to explore how the shapes and colours play with our perceptions of space and their personal experience of the sea.

Students wanted more information on the story or meaning behind the work. We knew from our evaluation that we could not simply present the works and expect the students to derive their own meaning or understanding just by looking at the work. Curatorial comments on each work are offered as interpretive responses under the subheading Finding Meaning and are offset by the Insight from the Artist section, which affords the artists some control in the way their works are discussed or interpreted. For instance, with Eric Cameron’s work, Alice’s Rose, a rose engulfed in thousands of layers of gesso and acrylic paint, the curatorial statement focuses more on Cameron’s rigorous process which seems to conflict with the organic and fluid nature of the resulting form. This is a nice contrast to the artist’s insight into the work describing the narratives behind the work, such as how he came to paint a red rose with white paint, its reference to the Wars of the Roses, as well as to the passage in Alice in Wonderland where the gardeners were ordered by the Queen to paint the white roses red. Cameron’s comments insert  elements of humour and personal history that are key in the reception of the work, which at first glance may seem a bit alien and inaccessible.

Visual access to the images was important to our users. Students wanted to see images up close and established the need to understand the size of the works in real life. And for three-dimensional works, the need to see the work in the round was identified. To address this we added a zoom feature for each work so students can see the work close-up. We videotaped all three-dimensional works so the users can play a short video that shows the work from all points of view, and we added a scale visual for each work so users can get a better sense of the size of the artwork. (In one case, we replaced an artwork with another by the same artist because the original work could not be truly appreciated in a flat, two-dimensional form on the Web.)

Art is not merely a visual or textual representation of ideas; its meaning arises from its  engagement with the everyday, with its audience and its social context. The ability to relate art to the context of the users is an integral part of the curatorial approach. To this end, we invited a group of high school students (our target audience) to conduct video interviews (in focus group testing, students identified video and audio as two preferred modes of receiving information) with five artists from the site: Chris Cran, Ryan Sluggett, Katie Ohe, Greg Payce and Jane Ash Poitras. Groups of two to three students were assigned an artist to research. To ensure that the content would be relevant to their own interests, they had to formulate the questions about the work and then conduct the interviews themselves. This process provided students an active role in the production of content. 

We also created an audio-based activity called The Players where students can learn more about the art world and the different people involved by listening to conservators, curators, dealers and artists talk about five works of art featured on the site. The Players serves to demystify the art world and helps to demonstrate how different individuals can add or change the meaning of a work of art. This section features four different perspectives on a single work of art. Through audio interviews, this section examines in detail the five works of art from the perspectives of four “players” in the art field - the artist, a conservator, a curator and an art dealer. The responses from each “player” demonstrate the various ways one can see and appreciate art. A conservator describes a work of art differently than the artist does because the conservator is interested in the preservation and longevity of the materials, how different materials relate to each other and the long-term storage implications the piece may have. The artist may not be as interested in those matters, but will describe the work much more conceptually. Each “player” is also asked to respond to the work on a personal level;  unexpected answers brought new and less obvious meanings to the work. Our paper conservator, Lee Churchill, when asked about the challenges to Linh Ly’s photo-tapestry Our Vietnamese Restaurants, focuses on the instability of the dyes in the photos and the fragility of the work overall. However, when asked to respond to the work on a personal level, the mixed media combination of canvas and photography, once an “inherent vice”,  becomes a point of interest to the work visually, highlighting the often paradoxical relationship between art and preservation.

Connecting to the Curriculum

World’s a different place. No longer a need to teach kids how to learn about Hopi indians, because you can Google it...but there is a desperate need to teach kids how to think critically… (
– Vinod Khosla, Founding CEO of Sun Microsystems)

A member of our project team was a high school art teacher who also specializes in teaching art via distance education. She created the teacher resources for the site and was involved with the team in the site conceptualization process. Early in the process, we identified inquiry-based learning as the educational approach we wanted for ArtPad.  Inquiry-based learning is a student-centered and student-led process. The purpose is to engage the students in active learning, ideally based on their own questions. Each question leads to the creation of new ideas and other questions. It is directly evident in the teacher resources and in features like Good Question (a list of questions or starting points of inquiry on the site). But it’s also evident in the Finding Meaning questions on the site that prompt further thought and discussion, and in the many connections within the site (and externally) that extend the point of inquiry.

One of the challenges with developing ArtPad for a high school audience was the high school art curriculum in Alberta. There is nothing in the curriculum that speaks directly to contemporary art practice. Because the curriculum is vague in its approach, it was difficult to make direct connections between our resource and the curriculum, a common best practice when developing any resource for educational purposes. So we focused instead on the curriculum outcomes related to understanding and discussing art critically, and directed much of our development efforts to demystifying contemporary art by helping the target audience

  • learn about issues, concerns, style and ideas that contemporary artists explore;
  • learn about the different ways art can be made – materials and processes;
  • learn the visual language so they have tools to critique and interpret art; and
  • learn how to view art and understand how the viewer adds to the meaning of the work.

An Outlet and a Meeting Ground

Caught up in a quest for identity, teens are looking for ways to define who they are. They are working out a persona they can settle into and present to others. On-line spaces can be very useful in helping them attain this goal. Some Web sites are outlets for individual self-expression while others are meeting grounds of like-minded peers (  PBS parents’ Web site).

ArtPad aspires to be both an outlet for individual self-expression and a meeting ground of like-minded peers. When we began the ArtPad project, we had two known perameters: that the project would showcase Canadian and (primarily) Western Canadian contemporary artworks from the Glenbow’s art collection, and that we had to include at least two, two-way communication interfaces. Both of these were contingent on our federal government grant.

Through various modes of engagement, users are introduced to contemporary Canadian art in a way that moves away from hierarchies that often dictate the way information is presented and received. Glenbow’s contemporary art collection is highlighted in a way that recognizes its diversity. The selection of works spans a 40-year period and range in subject matter, media, and style. The artists featured reflect a diverse mix of issues and ideas and reflect different generational, gender, ethnic and personal histories. The scope of this collection can open up various discussions about a wide range of issues and ideas. The Talk Back, Ask the Curator and The Studio (where they can create their own artworks) are features where students can respond to the content, issues and ideas with their own opinions, questions or personal  creations. As well, there are links to additional sources beyond the site so they can further explore contemporary art or specific issues that strike their interest. These features not only give the students a forum but also show that the content and the site are not static and that engagement with art should be a dialogue.

In TalkBack, the two-way communication feature, students have an opportunity to express their opinions about the works and engage in dialogue with other users. (This function is moderated.) However, during site development we realized that it wasn’t enough to simply include an opportunity to add content to the Talkback feature. How could we ensure the content in this feature was more than a series of “This sucks” and “Wow, that’s cool?” So the content team created questions to prompt discussion within the TalkBack section. Formative evaluation further reinforced this requirement. Because many of the students had limited exposure to contemporary art, their ability to discuss it with each other would require more than an open invitation to contribute any comment whatsoever. For Alan Dunning’s Einstein’s Brain we added this question: “Have you ever looked at something that reminded you of something else?” And for Eric Cameron’s Alice’s Rose we prompted discussion with this question: “In this work, Cameron covered a rose with layers of paint and gesso. What object would you cover in the same manner? What final shape do you think it would take?”

When asked what would make them come back to a site that featured contemporary art, students singled out the user-generated content features: the Talkback feature, My Opinion, and Ask the Curator sections. Students also said that they would stay on the site if they could make their own contemporary art. In development we struggled with what kind of artmaking activity we could create on-line that would be authentic and not replicate software that already existed (i.e. a “Paint” program). We needed an activity that was within project scope, yet gave users enough choice and control in their experience that it was meaningful. The end result is The Studio, an on-line artmaking activity. Students can choose between two media types (installation or mixed media sculpture) – media types we knew the students were not as familiar with. Here they could experiment, explore and work with art forms they may not have utilized in the past. In creating  The Studio, we also had the advantage of working with four post-secondary students from the Alberta College of Art and Design. Their input in terms of issues users could explore or respond to in this activity was invaluable as they were closer in age to the target audience than our development team was. They also aided in the creation of the interface design and choice of assets for this activity, again ensuring that we were developing an activity that our target audience would respond to on a multitude of levels. 

In The Elsewhere Community, the 1997 CBC Massey Lectures, Hugh Kenner explores the Western fascination with traveling abroad for new experiences, from the Grand Tour where the eighteenth century British upper class, mostly young men, travelled across Europe before settling on a career, to the age of the Internet where encounters with new people planet-wide can be made from your computer screen. While the computer allows you to be the “invisible tourist,” it is an experience that is greatly limited. “Full two-way interaction – person-to-person/in-person is something tourism makes possible.” (Kenner, 1998.) He advocates for an Elsewhere Community that combines both virtual and physical presence. ArtPad is an on-line experience that seeks to engage teenagers with contemporary art so they may also find themselves at the museum doors to experience the art in person, at an art college to become artists themselves, curating exhibitions or buying art from a local gallery. ArtPad seeks to draw students in and help them process contemporary art from their own perspectives, but it also seeks to build an audience for contemporary art for both virtual and physical communities.


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Cite as:

Hoang, Q. and M. Kjorlien, ArtPad: Here's the Collection – Did We Make a Connection?, in J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds.). Museums and the Web 2008: Proceedings, Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics. Published March 31, 2008. Consulted hoang/hoang.html