Virtual Vision

Navigating the cyber-sea of museums and galleries

"I always dreamt of traveling to far away lands," recounts sixteenth-century sailor Bernal Díaz del Castillo in his Chronicles of the New Spain. That, of course, was long, long before the virtual world of the Internet, a place in which you simply stroll, or rather float, if you want to play, shop, get information, or even indulge in cyber-sex.

Few people understand that creating the 3D illusions found on Websites involves skill, planning, and flair. The success of a company's site has become crucially linked to product sales, and with the rapid expansion of e-commerce, the necessity of good Web design should be obvious to all. Unfortunately you'll find far more mediocre Websites than good ones. As with cheap plastic surgery, institutions often hire pseudo-designers thinking they'll save money, only to end up spending more when they're forced to redesign the site.

What does it take to build a good Website? According to well-known digital designer Clay Andres: "Web design, in its physicality, is pretty much like architecture." He, along with designer/author Ivan Vartanian, shares Leon Battista Alberti's principles for construction: beauty, utility, and robustness (although there's no use for robustness in a space that doesn't conform to the rules of gravity). Alberti's two remaining principles, beauty and utility, in Web-parlance become aesthetics and functionality. The first corresponds to the overall appearance, or the general style that represents what's inside. The second describes how well the different elements fit together.

MAM's homepage packs a punch
MAM's homepage packs a punch
Candy colors entice users to surf the MoCA site
Candy colors entice users to surf the MoCA site

Keeping this in mind, I took a virtual trip to the various Websites of local museums and galleries. My task was to evaluate the balance between aesthetics and functionality.

A Google search (that encyclopedia of trash and treasures, as one critic recently put it) for the Museum of Contemporary Art's Website initially sent me to MoCA's old site, which was never well maintained. Fortunately MoCA's new Website (mocanomi.org) is a great improvement. (The "nomi" in the address stands for North Miami.)

At the top of the page we get a candy-colored bar menu with eight options, including current exhibitions, about MoCA, membership, contact, education programs, et cetera. Beneath the heading, the title of their latest show is displayed in a moving image, together with a brief description. I played around with the menu: Opting to discover more about MoCA, I was offered an intricate description of the building in which the museum is housed and its architect, Charles Gwathmey. On the same page (next to flashing perspectives of the structure) is a scroll-down menu detailing the permanent collection and the museum's exhibition history that dates back to 1996. The previous site didn't have this feature, but I consider it extremely important for museums and galleries. As a side note, I'm glad they changed their font and point size from the indecipherable Verdana (7.5 point) to Arial (10 point).

Under the education programs banner, click on MOCA'zine, a publication featuring art criticism, poetry, essays, and original artwork, written and edited by Miami-Dade high school students and junior docents. I found an interesting article on William Cordova written by editor in chief Shardae Showers. Other writers include Nadia Joseph, Ritu Paliwal, and Maikha Jean-Baptiste. MoCA's site is user-friendly and constructed in a style consistent with its image -- a contemporary museum that is socially committed.

Miami Art Museum's Website (miamiartmuseum.org) is simple to navigate, with easily accessible information in a clear format. The homepage packs in all the details. Placed horizontally across the top are six options: exhibition, collection, education, programs and events, membership, and visit us. Each title has a drop-down menu that wasn't working when I accessed the site. Scrolling vertically, there's a list of alternative areas, including information about MAM and the proposed museum park -- details of MAM's move to a new location in Bicentennial Park. I was surprised not to find anything related to the history of their current building or its architect, Philip Johnson.

A section filled with photos of MAM's numerous events, entitled "Seen at MAM," has an authentic feel. The museum's exhibition history dates back to 2003. Each event is linked to a corresponding image and with it comes a second page offering a brief summary of information, a press release, and gallery notes in PDF format (a nice touch!). In all, MAM's site is accessible, inviting, and its general look isn't bad. Still, I don't get a true feel for what MAM is about. If the museum moves into a new building, this site will have to be reevaluated.

One underrated Website belongs to the University of Miami's Lowe Art Museum (miami.edu/lowe), which gets very good marks in the areas of functionality and aesthetics. Being a university museum, they can sin on the didactic side. The first page is inviting, featuring clear drop-down menus, some with submenus, all of which work properly. Their collection section was instructive and easy to comprehend. They even have a layout of the gallery floor (something I didn't find in the other local museums). However, they need to improve their past and future history of exhibits (everything listed was from 2005).

Now let's take a look at some local galleries.

Artist Leyden Rodriguez achieves a really nice balance between function and aesthetics with the Leonard Tachmes Gallery site (leonardtachmesgallery.com). Upon entering the site you're offered a choice of artists, current, upcoming, et cetera. By choosing the artists, you're sent to a clear, drop-down menu that lists the gallery's roster. Several visual images are displayed portraying a selection of each artist's works; the size and clarity of the photos are good. You're also given the option of visiting the artist's own site, reading his or her resumé, and a back button (it's an accepted principle in interface design that users should be able to easily return to the home page and other major navigation points in the site). All the information was current and easy to access. The gallery's history page lists works from 2001, and its program runs through 2006.

The Website for Ingalls and Associates (ingallsassociates.com) is elegant and practical. At the top, in capital letters and written without any spaces as if one long word, is a nicely designed menu allowing users to access exhibitions, artists, press articles, and more. The artists' menu is user-friendly, displaying a selection of works for each artist together with a summary of his or her career. There's also a complete history of the gallery's shows. The press section consists of published articles and press releases detailing important gallery events, a nice touch.

Apparently the Dorsch Gallery site is under construction. I can only hope that this time it will be designed and maintained a little better than the previous one. The design of the Ambrosino Gallery site (ambrosinogallery.com) is simple. As you enter, under the gallery logo, is a photo of the current exhibit. Pick from three options: artists, exhibitions, or contact. Should you choose to go to the artists' area, you'll get another menu showcasing their works, press articles, and bios. Some have artist statements. I could see all the works, but in most cases the press and/or the bio information wasn't listed. Also the site doesn't list a history of the gallery's shows. I didn't see the works on display inside this gallery being fully represented on the site.

The homepage of the Bernice Steinbaum Gallery site (bernicesteinbaumgallery.com) features an image of the gallery building. Artists names are shown in light blue type, which contrasts with the solid gray color throughout the remainder of the site. There are four little circles inviting users to check out the gallery, exhibitions, current show, and contact information. Click any of these and a new page appears. The names of the gallery's artists reappear in a left-hand column, but in most options they get cut off unless you scroll down, a design problem that could be avoided by having an additional main option for artists. There's no press or bio for artists. Bernice Steinbaum is known for her vision of labor-intensive quality and diversity, yet her Website fails to fully communicate this.

Another Website that should consider improving the way it represents its artists is the Fredric Snitzer Gallery (snitzer.com). The homepage is a large white screen that contains at the lower left a rectangle divided into three parts: forthcoming, current, and artists. Drag your cursor to the right and another menu option emerges: past. The vertical list of artists is long (each with name and an image) and occupies too much space. (This is a Website that loves white space.) When you click the artist's image you're sent to a page listing a resumé, detailing past exhibits, press articles, et cetera (again, these pages looks empty). I'd use a different color scheme and modify the font and point size of current and future exhibitions. Where do people get the idea that small type is fashionable? Snitzer has an exciting roster of artists with an impressive program. The site should be remodeled to reflect this.

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