Is ‘Open’ Relevant to Art Organisations?

Fine Arts Museum Houston Texas

Open Source, Communities & Authority


Jo Healy, part of the team behind Art of Digital London writes about this ahead of their next event.

Using open source software to build websites and, increasingly, CRM databases has become the norm. Open source seems the perfect fit with audience-centred, community-focused public sector cultural organisations.

At Wikimania 2014, Lori Lee Byrd drew parallels between the two cultures using Eric Raymond’s analogy for open source, the Cathedral and the Bazaar: “The Cathedral model, in which source code is available with each software release, but code developed between releases is restricted to an exclusive group of software developers; The Bazaar model, in which the code is developed over the Internet in view of the public.”

Fundamentally these distinctions are about how knowledge is shared and created, whether to be authoritative not authoritarian. The more content there is to wade through, the more important expertise becomes. But there is a need for a spectrum of authority. In much the same way open source doesn’t negate the need for developers, curatorial expertise is still needed – but it is more accountable and has a perhaps more active role in its community, working more collaboratively.

Sharing Knowledge Comes at a Price

However, none of this is free – you’ll still need to pay developers, and indeed curators – and is relying on a community the most effective way to bring about technical/cultural innovation? Is it really so different or as effective as its proprietary counterpart?

In terms of developers, you won’t be locked into a relationship with the developer who created the proprietary CMS. Instead, you’ll have a choice, and be able to move on when you need to. In terms of technical development – if you are part of the community the chances are you’ll share the same needs and have the same problems.

More importantly you’ll know what everyone’s needs and problems are – so you’ll be able to benefit from others innovations and insights. As opposed to when you are stuck with a developer who works with a proprietary code, all the problems you have are yours alone to be paid for by you – and their true technical innovation will be driven by other better resourced clients.

At a time when organisations are being increasingly pitted against each other in a diminishing and therefore increasingly competitive funding environment, surely there is a need to group together and work through common problems?

Cultural Production

What does ‘open’ mean in terms of cultural content produced in collaboration? Well its important to remember the difference between communities and the significantly different from the idea of crowd as in ‘crowd sourcing’, something Jimmy Wales has dismissed as a horrible idea: “The term ‘crowdsourcing’ is related to the term ‘outsourcing’. The basic concept of outsourcing is to locate work where labor is cheaper. The idea behind crowdsourcing is to seek the cheapest labour of all by getting the general public to do some work for you.”

It would seem it’s all about working and fostering your community. But – obviously – communities are made of individuals who will undoubtedly share some – not all of their objectives. How do communities stay motivated, focused, thereby remaining effective? How do you keep a community from being distracted by politics?

What was notable about many of the projects discussed at Wikimania 2014 was how many of the projects were achieved by a small group of highly specialised, motivated and disciplined individuals, who worked within strict guidelines and had formed around a specific project with defined outcomes. These were inevitably driven by a focused individual.

Finally how does the idea of ‘open’ affect content? In a cultural context, content does equate to knowledge – and in a public cultural organisation there is something very troubling about this not being free, there to be used, enjoyed and added to. But how can content production be supported if content is free? This brings us back to the thorny issue of copyright. It also brings us back to the idea of a cultural organisation’s responsibility to the whole of its community – the cultural producers as well as its audience.

The next AoDL Meetup is themed “Open Source, Communities & Authority” and will take place on Friday 27 March 2015, 6.30pm-8.30pm at The Photographers’ Gallery. The Line Up includes: Jamie NoviqCompucorp; Ruth Catlow, Furtherfield; Ashley Van Haeften (Fæ). RSVP here.

 

Written by

Jo Healy

Image Credits. Top: Dustin Gaffke, “Art Appreciation II”; Below: Horacio Maria, “Fine Arts Museum Houston Texas” (all images Creative Commons)

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