I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Jane Alexander, Chief Digital Information Officer of the Cleveland Museum of Art. You may know the CMA from its renowned and innovative digital projects both on-site and online. Some of the most well-known are Artlens, and Open Access, both of which create ways to make the museum’s catalog more accessible. In her role, Jane leads these digital projects along with many others as they go through the planning process, implementation, and their different iterations. She has been working with the museum since 2010, helping to build a reputation for its groundbreaking innovations. Before joining the Cleveland Museum of Art, she had already worked on several major technology projects being the technology director and design consultant for Gehry’s Peter B. Lewis building at Case Western Reserve University, Virtual CIO of Great Lakes Science Center, and director of Columbia University’s distance learning program. Obviously, she knows her stuff.
Early in our conversation, it became clear that Jane is truly passionate about her work, and the Cleveland Museum of Art has the staff, structure, and mission to support strong and innovative digital initiatives. In our conversation, she explained to me some of the elements involved in how the CMA implements its successful technology projects. With iterating being a high priority, evaluation plays an important role. Early on they had no standards or best practices set in place so they set out to create this. Having an evaluation process helps them to make data-based decisions as they are a data-driven organization.
Another important asset to the Cleveland Museum of Art is its robust back-end systems that everything pulls from. This is their point of reference and their “one source of truth” as she calls it, which updates every fifteen minutes making sure that everyone has the same information and knows what is being used and where as well. Much like the constant communication of up-to-date information from the back-end systems, Jane mentions how important collaboration and interdepartmental communication is. There can be difficulties to this but after years of practice, the Cleveland Museum of Art has developed a cross-departmental team helping to keep everyone on the same page, understand different needs to be addressed, and figure out how they can all work towards those solutions. With everything going online this past year, the Cleveland Museum of Art already had that culture of collaboration and communication in place, preparing them for the transition.
As we know, some people can be hesitant to involve digital projects in museums, it is a common fear that they will act as a distraction but when done well like the Cleveland Museum of Art has been doing, it can act as a tool for making art more accessible. I asked Jane how she helps to alleviate anxieties around digital projects and she has found that transparency about the process and getting people involved in it is important. This echoes the earlier message around the importance of communication and collaboration.
To demonstrate the Cleveland Museum of Art’s use of iterations and moving past discomfort with change, Jane described a situation with Studio Play, a creative space that was not meeting its initial goals. While people were hesitant about the iteration, it was an opportunity to assess and improve. The next iteration was designed to encourage more engagement which ended up successfully getting people involved and interested in the rest of the gallery as well. Constantly bringing change and working to improve will create discomfort, certainly, but Jane highlights this as a way to bring different perspectives to the table and further improve the project rather than an obstacle.
Our conversation wraps up reviewing the important concepts we had discussed and hitting on a few last notes, as she recommended an open-access collection, and mentioned how crucial the Cleveland Museum of Art’s support staff is. They are able to make sure everything is running smoothly, and they are the ones that see how visitors interact with the technology giving them valuable insight. It seems that an important element in digital projects is surprisingly human, having an organization where multiple departments collaborate and work towards common goals. I look forward to putting her expertise into motion in my own work as I evaluate, iterate, and collaborate!
After reading about Artlens repeatedly throughout the Museum Studies program, it’s so exciting to listen to Jane Alexander talk about digital. As someone who is not an “art person,” I’ve been wanting to take the trip and try it out myself!
Throughout the course we’ve talked about the benefit of failing forward, but I think what COVID is forcing museums to think about is, as Alexander says, “How can we make it more useful?” How can we take advantage of digital or improve existing digital projects to better support the mission and your visitors? I think what will help museums take that leap to change what works is by reading reports and understanding the data. By making data public as the Cleveland Museum of Art has done, museums can understand what works, and hopefully break down that resistance to change.
Hi Mary, this is Stephanie.
I first of all just want to express unabashed jealousy of what a strong team it sounds like they have at CMA — I think that is so crucial to getting anything done. I think the strength of Alexander’s leadership is reflected in her comment that now, the museum staff representing various departments talk about the project, rather than who owns it. As she noted several times, collaboration and teamwork are the keys to success.
Other interesting points:
1) the need to integrate and centralize all the museum’s digital assets and information so that an update to any part of it is instantly reflected throughout the institution
2) “it’s been a successful year, despite a hard time” — which is her way of saying she saw the pandemic as a good opportunity to figure out how to improve digital offerings.
3) online visitorship to the museum’s collection were up 157% — which she said was a great way to level the playing field and was a strong showing for a museum that wasn’t in a big east coast city.
4) part of the strength of the teamwork was holding regular meetings where they went over EVERYTHING
5) CMA has an Evaluation team — that is indeed lucky!
6) re ARTLENS, “it’s important that anything we create is iterative,” so we can learn from it and build on it.
Ok, that’s it, but now I definitely want to visit this museum too!
It is clear that Alexander has a passion for her work. I enjoyed her perspective as a professional who has been in the field for a decade. In the interview, you touched on the fear that people could be hesitant to participate in digital projects because they feel it could distract from the art. I appreciated how Alexander kind of debunked that hesitation by stating that it can improve the museum’s accessibility. I also really enjoyed Alexander describing the Studio Play situation. She mentions the importance of moving out of your comfort zone to create success that I wholeheartedly agree with. I appreciate any museum professional who is willing to talk about projects or situations that did not necessarily turn out how they thought they would. It allows all of us to learn and grow. Great interview, I enjoyed your conversation!
I am a HUGE admirerer of the ArtLens initiative at the Cleveland Museum of Art, and found Jane Alexander’s discussion compelling, for how it continues to evolve in real-time.
This initiative draws not only upon the richness of the museum’s collections, but optimizes its human creative assets in the process! I am always surprised at the level of resistence that is sometimes expresssed at the introduction of the digital into the analog gallery, and Jane’s narrative described this museum’s triumph in on-boarding not only the most skeptical onlooker, but traced its success to the collaborative manner through which it transformed critic- into active contributor.
Through the efforts of this project, the CMA was well-positioned to confront the many challenges of this past horrific year, and ArtLens proves the power of the analog:digital collaborative to prevail and thrive under extraordinary circumstances.
Fantastic interview, Mary! I am truly envious, and do hope you take Jane up on her invitation for a behind-the-scenes tour!
Hi Mary, I like how Jane recognized how uncomfortable change can be when making improvements or decisions for everyone involved. Yes, it can be hard and difficult, but the perspectives it brings to the table may yield better results.
Jane sounds like such a cool person, I’m glad you got to interview her. Do the behind-the-scenes tour for me, please!
Very interesting point that I had not considered in our previous deep dive into the Cleveland Museum of Art. When there was push back from some people, including staff, or repeat visitors, who felt that making the Art Lens front and center at the museum would lose credibility, she suggested that you have to take a look at the main goal. “Make museums more accessible” and once they are in, get them into the gallery. I think it quite clear that Art Lens has been doing its job. It even looks cool to me and the next time I am in Cleveland, I am definitely going. I love her anecdote about the old lady and the younger person who were laughing and giggling and that Miss Alexander assumed that they were grandmother and grandchild. That warms my heart because I could picture my own grams and I doing the same thing when I was little and also, the exhibit just brought strangers together and starts conversations. What a blessing in any society, especially in our political climate.
I think it is super important that the concept of collaboration and comprise are stressed so much as they are vital to any working environment but even more so in a museum. With so many pieces needing to fit together properly for something like Artlens or an Open-access art database to function properly having the established connections and collaboration between departments is extremely helpful. Jane also suggested that it made for a smooth transition for each project.
The concept of iterations is interesting. It reminds me of versions in a program and how newer version can be constantly and consistently refined to correct, streamline, and elaborate functionality and purpose. Thinking about a digital program in such a way is important because it lends to the idea that there is no such thing as failure, only something that didn’t work.
So fascinating to hear your interview with Jane since we learned so much about ArtLens this semester. I like her emphasis on their mission to build transformative art experiences and constantly explore new ways to document and present collections. I feel like this mission really distills the purpose of digital projects and serves as a litmus test of success for visitors.
I’m kind of in awe of Ms. Alexander’s organizational and documentary skills and inspired to head back into my volunteer job and annoy everyone with unsolicited suggestions to get them in shape 🙂 The level of structure and teamwork is admirable; I liked hearing how she is keeping everyone on the same page with regular, productive meetings to review data metrics and distinguish how visitors are engaging. I can see why they are so successful.
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