♦ New Media in University Art Museums & Galleries

New media art is here to stay and greater effort needs to be put in place to protect and respect the work even if it means adding to the traditional museum codes and procedures.”

- Gabriella Giamichael

New media art is the child of our fast moving technological revolution and we find ourselves in a very exciting juncture. Museums, including university art museums, are now facing the issue of whether or not they should commission new media art, seeing how it opens up to questions about the ways art museums have historically functioned. Museums are facing an inevitable change in their traditional methods because of new media art and the most important starting place for this “revolution” in the art world is the university art museum.

New media art is a genre of artworks created with new media technologies, including digital art, computer graphics, computer animation, virtual art, interactive art, interactive art technologies, computer robotics, and art as biotechnology.  There is no single finite definition for the term new media, but there are some common characteristics: fluidity, intangibility, “liveness,” variability, replicability, connectivity, interactivity, computability, and chance.[1] To understand new media art, it is important to look back to its origins and understand how it started.  It is a new genre and there is some debate as to where you could say new media began.  To get the broadest sense of this category of art one most look back to a very important turning point in the art world, the creation of printmaking.

With the onset of woodblock prints, etchings, and lithography the traditional concept of a work of art began to change.  Instead of creating one cherished and beautiful painting or sculpture, you could create a mass amount of prints.  It is here where the idea of master copy and original prints begin to come into play and some questions of what exactly is the work of art start to surface.  From lithography, we move to the camera obscura and photography, which was for a time the obsession of the sciences.

            Photography was a new medium and its invention during the early years of the industrial revolution created broad social discourse of its meaning and purpose, including in the art world.  Photography was introduced in August 1839 at the meeting between the Academy of Science and the Academy of Fine Arts in Paris.  It struggled for decades to gain the acceptance and respect formerly only allotted to painting and sculpture.  In almost two centuries, photography has grown to be a widely accepted form of art when artists began to use the camera as a form of personal expression.[2]

            With growing knowledge and interest in photography in the 1890s, it was discovered that if multiple still images were taken in a row and then played back to you at a fast speed you could achieve the illusion of motion, thus creating the motion picture.  Here we have another scientific revolution that carried us into our electronic and digital age and created a new medium for artists to experiment with.

                                                            1. Desmond Paul Henry. Picture by drawing machine 1, 1962.

Ironically, it is in our past that we see the building blocks and support for today’s new media art.  Formerly known as computer art, new media is quite obviously heavily rooted in the sciences.  Because it started first appearing in scientific and engineering laboratories, most of the first gallery exhibits of computer art were not done by professional artists, but by scientists and engineers who discovered its potential as artwork.3 (Fig. 1).  Dr. Michael Noll in 1962 programmed a computer at Bell Telephone laboratories who’s sole purpose was to create art work from computer generated patterns. This exploration in computer art was happening all over the world, but in particular the United States because of its technology boom and competitive interest in technological growth kick-started by the Cold War.

 Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.), founded in 1966 by two engineers and two artists, promoted and pushed for the collaboration among artists, scientists, and engineers and produced the first “computer nude.”4 E.A.T. is still involved today with interdisciplinary design and has collaborated with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to work with their program in advanced visual studies.  New media art has come a long way in just a few decades and its ability to grow and change at the same rate as our digital and electronic culture ensures its place in the art world indefinitely.  The big problem concerning the new genre now is its treatment in the professional world of art, specifically its role and relationship with museums.  Many feel that it is not the museum's role to go out and find the newest most cutting edge art out there and display it. Aaron Betsky, a former curator at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art stated in an interview with Susan Morris for her report Museums and New Media Art, that museums are conservative by nature.  They are about finding work that has been made, showing it, and allowing it to be seen by future generations.5 Betsky felt that commissioning new media art would be experimentation happening in the art museum and questioned whether or not that should be done.  He later went on to answer his own question by saying, “No, not necessarily. Art museums are, by their very nature, half a step behind. And that’s absolutely fine.”6

            Betsky holds a valid point: with new media comes new challenges and situations where brand new policies may even have to be created to incorporate new media art in museum collections in a safe and legal way.  But in no way does this mean that new media art should not be displayed in museums and if anything it lightly touches on experimentation in the art museum.  New media art is indeed art and therefore should go into the art museum to be protected and displayed for future generations.

            The larger and much more powerful museums, for example The Museum of Modern Art in New York City and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, run into the issues surrounding new media art in a much more public and business minded way.  The issues being just what exactly it is they are commissioning, often times it is not a tangible piece of work, but more of an experience.  Also there are issues that can arise with who is the exact owner of the work and how much insurance should you place on something like that.  New media art also questions museums current conservation methods, how do you protect and keep a work of art for future generations that is displayed on a medium that continuously grows obsolete as newer and faster programs and computers are created daily.  Larry Rinder of the Whitney Museum of American Art spoke on the subject stating, “Many net artworks don’t have a form; they’re interactive and ever changing. So you’re not really commissioning a thing, you’re commissioning an experience. And it’s ludicrous to have too much property attachment to that.”7

            University art museums on the other hand could potentially be forerunners in the new media art culture.  One of the most obvious reasons for this is the fact that these universities are educating and, in some sense, shaping future artists. With more and more students attending art schools and with the continuous rise in the interest of new media art as an academic field, university campuses are a breeding ground of potential talent.  Also, this current generation of college students witnessed the birth of and grew up with the Internet.  Most young adults are more computer and Internet savvy then what was once thought possible in the beginnings of new media. 

            Many Universities have already picked up on the cross disciplinary importance of new media. They have put together several research teams and, in some cases, whole departments to follow and at times question what is happening with this new art genre and culture in general.  University of California Berkeley established the Berkeley Center for New Media in hopes to, “critically analyze and help shape developments in new media from cross-disciplinary and global perspectives that emphasize humanities and the public interest.”8 Berkeley also has offered lectures free of charge and open to the public on art, technology, and culture since 1997.  The lectures present artists, writers, curators, and scholars who aim to consider contemporary issues through the new light of aesthetic expression and new technologies.9

            The University of Colorado has compiled a database of curated net art on their website Histories of Internet Art: Fictions and Factions.  Their art and art history department works in conjunction to discuss, curate and display Internet art.  As well as being an archive for different works and critical theories of what qualifies something as net art and the boundaries between using “the net as both a compositional and exhibition medium.”10

            In 2010, Olin Hall Galleries at Roanoke College in Virginia and the Eleanor D. Wilson Museum at Hollins worked together for the first time to host a dual lecture and exhibition of artist Jim Campbell’s digital artwork.  Campbell’s background is common in new media artists. Graduating from Massachusetts Institute of Technology with degrees in engineering and mathematics, Campbell found it interesting to create interactive experiences and new media artwork, but states, “I'm one of those artists that don’t believe art should be designed for an audience it's almost more like science.”11  The directors of the two institutions, Amy Moorefield and Talia Logan, wanted to join forces and work with the artists because of what they felt as under-representation of digital art in the area.12


2. Digital Arts Research Collective. Revo-oveR. Mixed media. 2008

                Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University has also taken great steps in incorporating new media art in cross department projects. In 2008 Virginia Tech's School of the Visual Arts teamed up with the university’s computer science, music and theater arts departments to create an exhibition for the Taubman Museum of Art. As a center for the visual arts, the Taubman Museum of Art focuses greatly on, “catalyzing and supporting the creation of new art,”13 while also working with the community to help encourage an “…integration of the arts into our educational, social, and economic life.”14 With that said, the Taubman Museum was an excellent place to hold the experimental new media art project.

               3. Digital Arts Research Collective, Revo0OveR. Computer programming for interactive experience. 2008.

        The group of faculty and students that worked together was collectively known as the Digital Arts Research Collective.  For three years they worked to create a work that would engage the viewer in multiple ways for their show “Revo-oveR.” (Fig. 2).  This project used various interactive mediums and academic fields that, “eventually came together in a stunning exhibition…abstract data and human creative thought come together in a sensory environment that aims to stimulate curiosity and interactivity with the exhibition.”15 (Fig. 3).

            With its obvious interest in new media, Virginia Tech has also started the CyberArts Collaborative (CCTAD), that’s main focus is to bring together art, music, communications, computer science, and other disciplines in an effective way.  The CCTAD is still young and much of what is done by the members are smaller first steps in what will hopefully turn into a respected academic field and art medium.  Some of these first steps are, “defining programmatic options such a collaboration might pursue, developing grant opportunities, and teaching the pilot class and an introduction to CS for undergraduates in the Arts.”16 Essentially the CCTAD is working out the academic blueprints for a new and ever growing field of knowledge and art.

              University art museums and universities in general are pioneers in new media art.  They have the resources and the tools to make and curate new media art while at the same time expanding and grasping a better understanding of new media art in an art historical context.  Yes, it is true that new media art comes with some baggage for the bigger museums, but it should not be ignored or treated like anything other than art.  It is important to realize that the Internet and computers have become a large part of our lives and they will not disappear, at least not any time soon.  The medium we use to create determines how others will perceive the work and creates the message that one takes from it.  It is in a sense an, “…extension of the human senses,”17 and in today’s world much of our life relies on digital or electronic help. New media art is here to stay and greater effort needs to be put in place to protect and respect the work even if it means adding to the traditional museum codes and procedures.  The University art museum is a great place to be bold and new and it could potentially benefit from the broad expanse of viewers that show interest in new media art.




Allen, Mike. “Don't adjust your computer monitor: Electrical engineer/artist incorporates movement and memory in his work, The Roanoke Times, September 14, 2010, http://www.roanoke.com/extra/wb/260288.

 Amerika, Mark. Histories of Internet Art: Fictions and Factions, http://art.colorado.edu/hiaff/section.php?id=1         

 Chadwick, Heather. “University faculty and students create an exhibition for the Taubman Museum of Art,” Virginia Tech,    http://www.vtnews.vt.edu/articles/2008 /11/2008-696.html.

 Harrison, Steve. “Projects @ Virginia Tech” Virginia Tech, http://people.cs.vt.edu/~srh/SteveHarrison                                             ProjectsVirginiaTech.html

 Hertz, Paul. “Art, Code and the Engine of Change.” Art Journal 68, no. 1 (2009): 58-75.

 Marlen, Mary. Photography: A Cultural History. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2011.

 McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extension of Man. Cambridge: MIT press, 1994.

 Mickenberg, David. Taubman Museum of Art. http://www.taubmanmuseum.org/main/new-direction.

 Miller, Susan. Berkeley Center for New Media, http://cnm.berkeley.edu/

 Morris, Susan. The Rockefeller Foundation. “Museums and New Media Art.” 2001.

[1] The Rockefeller Foundation, “Museums and New Media Art” 2001, 9.

[2] Mary Marlen, Photography: A Cultural History (New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2011), 5.

3 Paul Hertz, “Art, Code and the Engine of Change,” Art Journal 68, no. 1 (2009): 60.

4 Ibid.,  60-61.

 5 The Rockefeller Foundation, “Museums and New Media Art” 2001, 4.

6 Ibid.,  4.

7 The Rockefeller Foundation, “Museums and New Media Art” 2001, 9.

8Susan Miller, Berkeley Center for New Media, http://cnm.berkeley.edu/

9 Susan Miller, Berkeley Center for New Media, http://cnm.berkeley.edu/

10 Mark Amerika, Histories of Internet Art: Fictions and Factions, http://art.colorado. edu/hiaff/section.php?id=1

11 Jim Campbell quoted in Mike Allen, “Don't adjust your computer monitor: Electrical engineer/artist incorporates movement and memory in his work,” The Roanoke Times, September 14, 2010, http://www.roanoke.com/extra/wb/260288.

12 Mike Allen, “Don't adjust your computer monitor: Electrical engineer/artist incorporates movement and memory in his work,” The Roanoke Times, September 14, 2010, http://www.roanoke.com/extra/wb/260288.

13 David Mickenberg, “Mission Statement,” Taubman Museum of Art. http://www.taubmanmuseum.org/main/new-direction        /executive-director

14 Ibid.

15 Heather Chadwick, “University faculty and students create an exhibition for the Taubman Museum of Art,” Virginia Tech,       http://www.vtnews.vt.edu/articles/2008 /11/2008-696.html.

16 Steve Harrison, “Projects @ Virginia Tech,” http://people.cs.vt.edu/~ srh/ SteveHarrisonProjectsVirginiaTech.html

17 Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extension of Man. Cambridge: MIT press, 1994.