Watching people take in the exhibit "Something Borrowed, Something Blue" at Carnegie Mellon University's Future Tenant gallery Downtown, you might think cell-phone use had reached a new low ... is everyone ordering a pizza or checking messages instead of appreciating the art?
But actually, patrons are listening to the artists explain their work, using a new-to-Pittsburgh technology called Guide by Cell. When a gallery subscribes to the San Francisco-based service, it can record any messages it desires ... in this case, artists Leslie Ansley and Monique Luck explaining their work, biographies, history and upcoming gallery events. Gallery visitors who call in to the service can select menu options based on what piece they are viewing, or whose bio they want to hear.
The technology is used in just 20 venues around the country. The idea was sparked by the ubiquity of cell phones and frustration with art that had no context, says Dave Asheim, founder of Guide by Cell. Some museums already provide headsets with recorded exhibit guides, but those require investment by the institution.
"Who needs all that extra equipment and extra cost? Everybody has a cell phone; everybody has minutes and hours to burn," says Jerry Coltin, director of the Institute for the Management of Creative Enterprises at CMU. He met Asheim at a museum-technology conference and was intrigued enough to connect him to Antonio Ametrano, a student in CMU's Master of Arts Management program, which runs Future Tenant.
Typically, a gallery or museum either pays a subscription fee to Guide by Cell, or charges museum-goers a fee to access the number. Most spaces, Asheim says, provide the service free and get corporate sponsorship in return for a quick shout-out on the recording. Future Tenant, whose exhibit runs until June 19, proved to be the best fit for a trial run, since CMU's financial support would allow it to afford the system in the future.
Guide by Cell galleries also get real-time tracking of which exhibits receive the most hits, and by how many people.
"This gives us very important data," says Ametrano. "The artists can measure the engagement from the public and see what people like." It's also useful for securing future grants or corporate sponsorship, he adds.
In practice, about a quarter of the people who stop by the exhibit wander through with their cells glued to their ears, says Jesse Rye, another CMU arts-management student who runs the gallery. "People like to take in things differently. You're hitting a whole other section of the public, giving them something audio." Visitors who don't dial in at the gallery, he says, sometimes check out the messages later.
Cathy Fabry, of Penn Hills, recently stopped in Future Tenant during her lunch break; she found Guide by Cell to be just about perfect.
"This is the thing I'm always sticking in my ear," she says of her cell phone. She is happy not to be listening to headphones that have gone a few times around the gallery block: "Why put on something everyone in town's had in their ear?"