Publishing Art History Digitally: The Present and the Future

Overview of Symposium

The symposium ‘Publishing Art History Digitally: The Present and the Future,’ hosted by NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts on October 14th, 2016, brought together art historians and publishing experts to share their views on the future of publishing digital art history.

The program included the keynote lecture ‘Breaking Almost Everything: The Current Practice and Future Potential of Digital Publishing,’ by Greg Albers, Digital Publications Manager for Getty Publications. Also included were two round table discussions; participants for each discussion, along with a full program and bios for the participants are available online, as well as video recording of the full symposium.


Theoretical Framework: 'Digital Art History,' Publishing and the Academy

The phrase – ‘digital art history’ – should be understood as the practice and study of art history through the means of digital technology. Examples of recent digital art history scholarship presented at the symposium included the project, ‘Local/Global: Mapping Nineteenth-Century London’s Art Market,’ published online by Nineteenth Century Art Worldwide: A Journal of Nineteenth-Century Visual Culture. This project, co-authored by Anne Helmreich, the Dean of the College of Fine Arts at Texas Christian University, uses network analysis and visualisation to map the rise and spread of the commercial gallery in London from 1850 to 1914. Helmreich’s project showcases how rich multimedia experiences are now becoming more common in art history research and scholarship.

According to Helmreich, art history is only beginning to explore how digital technologies can transform scholarship. She argued in this article that art history lacks robust examples of “scholarly interpretation predicated on new modes of analysis made possible by the innovations of the digital age.” This digital project, she said, aims not only to harness the capacities of the digital environment for innovative research, but also to expand the framework of the discipline.

For a more expansive conversation on the nature of digital art history, NYU’s IFA hosted a conference in 2012 on digital art history titled ‘Mellon Research Initiative at the IFA: Digital Art History.’

Moving back to the recent symposium: in his opening remarks, Jonathan Hay, the Ailsa Mellon Bruce Professor of Fine Arts at NYU, agreed with Helmreich’s assessment of how digital technologies can transform the study of art history. “We are in a special moment,” he said, “as digital art history has come into existence but has yet to be defined.” This conjecture should be viewed positively – digital art history can become whatever its practitioners make it. Digital publishing, which has not been fully defined either, should then be viewed as the vehicle from where art history takes shape. Radical experimentation and invention must come from universities and institutions. Often, however, established modes of assessment (tenure/promotion review criteria) do not favour digital scholarship and young academics take less risks. Digital art history and digital publishing might suffer if restricted by traditional assessment criteria, which favours print publishing.

Hay closed by making a plea to institutional representatives and senior researchers:

 “Hold off for now on rules and protocols. Keep the space of experimentation open for the next several years and give the experimenters the benefit of the doubt when you come to assess them because they are doing the entire field a favour.”

In summary, digital publishing not only has the ability to shape how the field of digital art history is defined, but can also change the nature of the academy itself. This broad claim may seem idealistic, but with the backing of established institutions and support of senior faculty, young researchers – PhD students who are writing digitally-born dissertations (like myself) – will certainly change the nature of scholarly communication in the future, making research more open, accessible and collaborative.


Overall Themes from the Symposium: How Digital Publishing Enables New Modes of Scholarly Communication

Open Access

Digital publishing has the unique ability to make research materials freely available to the public. In an OA environment, information becomes transmutable as readers share, re-mix, re-evaluate and extend research without facing copyright or legal ramifications. Conversations become enriched and, ultimately, knowledge is gained more easily.

Peer Review

Traditional systems of peer review do not conform to the immediate and crowdsourced nature of digital communication. Digital publishers should consider using a ‘publish then edit’ methodology. There are a number of platforms emerging that enable post-publication peer-review, like PubPub, a project out of the MIT Media Lab that allows conversations to occur in the margins of online research. MIT Press has launched The Journal of Design Science using PubPub to illustrate how post-publication review might look.


Some online publishing trends tend to only mimic static, text-based objects (like PDF publishing). Multimodality requires new forms of discourse, to think beyond librocentricism. Digital art history lends itself to more varied forms of discourse given its relationship to the visual. With embedded media, video, visualizations, and sound, the digital medium allows textual arguments to become augmented in more robust forms.  

Grey Literature

Conventionally, researchers have preferred utilizing only research that has passed through the traditional academic publishing process, like peer-reviewed academic journals or monographs, but recently the impact and speed of information outside that sphere has grown. These materials, called ‘grey literature,’ lack an organized means of collection and distribution and may include conference papers, exhibition catalogues, newsletters, lecture recordings, blog postings, curator notes and artists’ letters or podcasts, for example.


Exemplars in Digital Art History Publishing

1. From the Getty, The Roman Mosaics catalogue is easily navigable: users/readers can either choose pieces from the catalogue by geographic region using an interactive map, or through the hyperlinked table of contents. The quality of the images and the research behind each piece makes this collection a wonderful example of how researchers benefit from an open-access publication. Surely anyone working in this area of Roman mosaics would not have immediate access to such an offering if it were not collected in a centralized, digital space. This publication is a part of the Getty’s Online Scholarly Catalogue Initiative (OSCI), which aims to “create models for online catalogues that will dramatically increase access to museum collections; make available new, interdisciplinary, up-to-date research; and revolutionize how this research is conducted, presented, and utilized.” The Getty released a report in 2012 that detailed progress, challenges and future directions of this effort. In the report, the Getty discusses the benefits of digital publishing.

2. Also from the Getty, an “avant-garde musical compositions prototype” that Greg Albers presented is an online publication (it takes the form of a mobile/desktop app) currently in development. Titled, ‘The Score: Avant-Garde Composition in the Visual and Performing Arts,’ the publication shows musical compositions on the screen, and, while the piece is played in an audio file, a red annotation mark follows the score so the user may listen, read and watch the progression of the piece simultaneously. This project is an exemplar of multimodal publishing as the scholarship relies on a conversation between different media types. According to the Getty, the project also enables collaboration between digital publishing technologists at the Getty and a team of art historians, musicologists and literary scholars.

3. Journal18 is an online, open access, peer-reviewed journal devoted to the art and culture of the eighteenth century. I chose this publication as an exemplar because of its hyperlinked, networked approach to scholarship. Each issue of the journal is clearly marked and the reader/user is able to navigate the publication without confusion – often, digital publications, in my opinion, lack organizational structures, which creates a sense of displacement. Each article in an issue includes texts and images. Footnotes are hyperlinked and take you directly to the source material. Throughout articles, readers are often directed to museum collections or other resources, in part because publishers could not secure the rights to images and instead pointed to the source. In turn this creates a networked ecology of resources for researchers. This publication also curates grey literature in its ‘Notes and Queries’ section, which offers a forum for intellectual exchange, a space for short notes, reviews, archival discoveries or scholarly musings.

4. British Art Studies is a collaborative publication between The Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art and the Yale Center for British Art. The publication is open access and peer-reviewed. The editors encourage submissions that “make the most of the journal’s online format and propose visually stimulating ways of presenting art historical research.” Each article has its own citation generator and provides DOIs, or Digital Object Identifiers, to make referencing the research more stable.

5. CAA’s Art Journal Open is an online space that “takes advantage of the unique qualities of the web” to present artists’ projects, scholarly essays, conversations and interviews, notes from the field, artifacts of materials and news items. The site embraces the evolving nature of multimedia formats and techniques, seeking to serve as a provisional, suggestive and projective archive for contemporary art. The Art Journal Open website publishes content on a rolling basis; it exists as a supplement to the printed Art Journal. The CAA adopts a hybrid approach to publishing, where the print piece is complimented by an open-access repository of digital grey literature. The digital component of the publication features artists’ projects adapted specifically for the immediate, online platform, including: peer-reviewed documents and supplementary multimedia,, integrated visual documentation, interviews/conversations, and news and notes regarding events, screenings, exhibits, etc.

6. Triple Canopy aims to become more than a publication. It exists to create conversations that live beyond the page or screen. This organization is about community building – something that some publications overlook when primarily concentrating on content and form. They are also focused on driving membership, hosting events, offering education and transparency.



Digital publishing has opened the door to many innovations, and the field of digital art history, given its multimodal nature, has, in some cases, taken charge in incorporating those new functionalities. With the backing of senior faculty and established publishers alike, digital publishing projects can transform the nature of scholarly communication, which will open the door to a more comprehensive system of reading, writing and researching. The exemplars provided here illustrate how incorporating digital functionalities, no matter how marginal or simple, extends the scope of the respective publication at hand.