Ellen Prokop (The Frick Collection and Frick Art Reference Library, New York)

Frick Digital Collections in the Classroom

My paper outlines recent initiatives at the Frick Art Reference Library in New York, New York, U.S.A. to expand engagement among educators and young students with the institution’s digital collections.

Helen Clay Frick (1888–1984) established the Frick Art Reference Library in 1920 to commemorate her father, the industrialist and art collector Henry Clay Frick (1849–1919), and to encourage research in the fine arts and related fields. The Library’s founding collection was the Photoarchive, a study collection of reproductions of works of art in the Western tradition from the fourth to the mid‐twentieth century, which Helen Clay Frick hoped would advance the study of art history in the United States.

Currently, the Library is digitizing this collection of 1.2 million reproductions and to date, approximately 190,000 images are freely available for consultation and download on the institution’s digital archive, Frick Digital Collections (https://digitalcollections.frick.org). Before 1 January 2020, the Library plans to upload an additional 500,000 reproductions. The next step for the Library is to think critically about how these images will be discovered and used. Providing increased access to these images is beneficial to the discipline, but by merely providing access, the Library is not supporting Helen Clay Frick’s mandate to encourage and develop the study of the fine arts. Instead, it has fallen into the trap that has plagued the discipline of art history at large: while the Library’s staff has fully embraced digitization, it has failed to promote the tools and methodologies that would allow researchers to maximize the benefits of these materials (Drucker 2013, 7).

Therefore, to support the practice of digital art history (DAH), the Frick Art Reference Library established the Digital Art History Lab (DAHL) in September of 2014. The Lab provides students, artists, academics, art market professionals, museum staff, and independent scholars with information about the methods of DAH and recent digital projects through lectures and furnishes them with the tools and training they need to expand the potential of their research questions through workshops on topics ranging from networking platforms to digital mapping software. Additional functions of the DAHL include providing DAH practitioners with a platform for the dissemination of their projects and developing new computational tools for art‐historical research such as ARIES (ARt Image Exploration Space), software that allows users to manipulate images in a virtual space as well as organize, group, and annotate them. The DAHL is also involved in a series of projects to expand audience engagement with the Library’s digital resources, including an initiative that exploits computer vision technologies to allow for faster and more accurate searching across multiple multi‐lingual databases, an invaluable tool for any future collaboration with foreign institutions. Finally, the Library has partnered with Stanford University’s Department of Statistics to explore recent breakthroughs in Artificial Intelligence and machine learning to automate sorting and the classification of images. The Stanford team is focusing on a dataset of American portraits as a pilot project and is applying VGG—a popular deep neural network architecture—to develop automatic image classifiers, which have the potential to become powerful tools in metadata creation and image retrieval. Preliminary experiments show promising results and future work involves expansion of this model to the entirety of the Photoarchive’s collection.
Currently, the DAHL is collaborating with local schools on a pilot project to broaden the audience for Frick Digital Collections. Although the Library has traditionally served adults focused on the study of fine arts, the institution’s collections―both analog and digital―are valuable not only for art‐historical research but also for the study of related subjects, from European and American history to the digital humanities (DH). Furthermore, the institution need not focus its attention on adults only: as cuts in elementary and middle school funding result in fewer fine arts classes, especially in low‐income neighborhoods, programs that develop skills in understanding, negotiating, and interpreting images are needed. The DAHL is therefore in the unique position to offer a partial solution: the development of curriculum materials and supporting digital resources for required history, social studies, and environmental science courses that promote visual literacy through the integration of the images and archival materials available on Frick Digital Collections.

This pilot project partners the Library with educators active in elementary and middle schools (what would roughly correspond to Estonian põhikool, or “basic school”) to create curriculum materials that utilize the Frick Digital Collection’s freely available resources and ARIES, the software developed by the DAHL to manage images. These educational materials will comprise two sets of lesson plans with accompanying digital resources―one set for elementary school classes and one set for middle school classes―and will be made available as website content to consult and download. To ensure that these materials are regularly utilized, the Library proposes to train staff to implement them in the classroom as well as establish and maintain long‐term relationships with local education professionals.

The paper will introduce Frick Digital Collections, the DAHL, and the results of the pilot project to integrate Library materials and software into the classroom. My hope is that this project will inspire other cultural institutions to explore the opportunities afforded by digital collections to enhance visual literacy among young students.