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How the SFMOMA’s artbot responds to text message requests with personally curated art

Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s new “artbot” is this month’s helpful reminder that the internet is not just a gaping hellpit of horror and despair, but can in fact be Good.

The artbot, officially titled Send Me SFMOMA, will text art directly to your phone, on demand, in service of your every whim. Text “send me dancers” to the artbot at 572-51, and you might receive a photo of an untitled Joel Shapiro sculpture from 1989 that depicts an abstracted body in motion. Text “send me a dog,” and you might get a Pirkle Jones photo of Larry Gardner on a bicycle with a dog. Text “send me diamonds,” and the bot might respond with Alfred Jensen’s “Expulsion from Eden.”

Asked for a robot, the artbot sends a 1982 Bryan Rodgers print
Asked for a robot, the artbot sent me a 1982 Bryan Rodgers print.
Constance Grady

Following a pilot program in May, the artbot in its current form launched on June 16. It exploded onto the internet over the past few days, and hit Twitter in a big way on Monday. SFMOMA was hoping to send out 100,000 texts from the artbot over the course of the summer; on Monday, they sent out 385,000.

“It’s an exciting place to be, where people want to have art in their pocket, on their phone, in a really personal way,” SFMOMA Head of Web and Digital Content Keir Winesmith tells Vox. “It’s the exact premise [of the project], we’re just really excited that it actually worked.”

But how does it work?

You can text the artbot a keyword, the name of a color, or an emoji. The artbot runs through a database — covering about half of the SFMOMA’s collection — and matches your search query to the tags that SFMOMA’s staff has painstakingly attached to each piece of artwork.

Though the team that built the artbot experimented with using computer vision, Winesmith says, they found it didn’t return very exciting results. When presented with a piece like photographer Gary Winogrand’s “New York,” in which a pregnant woman lifts up her arm to hail a taxi, human taggers listed evocative, emotion-laden keywords like family, pregnant, taxi, New York, and street corner. The computer created much more literal keywords: person, street, dark, gray.

“The intuition and the humanness of the way that our staff has been tagging” is what’s interesting, Winesmith says, “versus the linearity of the computer vision approach, [which] just makes you miss out on all of the sublime.”

But after the pilot run in May, the human staffers found they had to change their tagging methods for this project. “People were asking for some really subjective things that we traditionally wouldn’t tag our collection with,” Winesmith says. “You know, ‘beauty’: whose notion of beauty is it that you’re referring to?”

(When I asked the artbot to send me beauty, I received a photograph of the Countess de Castiglione.)

Asked for love and hope, the artbot sent a Macy’s furniture design from 1977 and a print of a poem.
Asked for love and hope, the artbot sent me a Macy’s furniture design from 1977 and a print of a poem.
Constance Grady

And to make things really user-friendly, they had to be trained in all the double meanings of emoji speak. “We talked to a bunch of our staff who work in social media, and a bunch who were just simply younger and more emoji-savvy,” Winesmith says. “We basically had an emoji learning session where they explained to us what the emoji actually mean, what the hidden meanings are, so that we could better connect them to work in the collection.”

So when I sent the artbot the peach emoji, it sent me a Winogrand photograph of a fully-clothed rear.

That doesn’t mean you can ask the artbot to send you just anything. “If you just send, ‘Send me naked people,’ we’re not going to send you naked people,” Winesmith says. “We’re going to say, ‘Maybe you could be more creative.’”

Asked for “good vibes,” the artbot sent a Martin Parr photo of a cake with sprinkles.
Asked for “good vibes,” the artbot sent me a Martin Parr photo of a cake with sprinkles.
Constance Grady

You also can’t have the artbot send you a specific piece of artwork or anything by a specific artist. That’s entirely intentional. “You can’t ask for Warhol and get one, because we wanted people to discover things they didn’t know about,” Winesmith says. “We wanted people to discover the hidden gems.”

In the long term, the team at SFMOMA hopes they’ll be able to use the artbot to figure out what it is that people are looking for when they turn to art. And in the short term? “We want people to be close-looking at artworks,” Winesmith says. “We want the art to be in your hands, in your life.”

To put some art in your hands, text “send me [x]” to 572-51.

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