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Innovative project fuses technology, education, and the arts

January 14, 2010

  • Brendan Tang, "Manga Ormolu ver. 4.0-k," one of nearly 3,000 contemporary ceramics images available on accessCeramics

An innovative project developed by a team of Lewis & Clark faculty and staff members has quickly become a vital resource for the arts and education communities.

AccessCeramics is a robust online collection of contemporary ceramics images that has become a highly effective educational tool and an influential model for increasing access to both art and education.

Launched in March 2008, accessCeramics is the only major, free ceramics database online. Watzek Library staff members collaborate with Assistant Professor of Art Ted Vogel to support the project’s technological, artistic, and educational dimensions.

“It’s really the first and only well-organized image database focused on ceramics,” said Richard Burkett, associate professor of art at San Diego State University. “AccessCeramics has the potential to be a rich resource for both aesthetic and historical research in the ceramics field worldwide.”

In the short time since its inception, accessCeramics has grown tremendously and has caught the attention of artists, scholars, and experts in instructional media services. The originality of the project and its educational mission have earned it grant support from prominent foundations such as the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).

“The NEA grant we received is focused on increasing access to the arts in communities throughout the country,” said Mark Dahl, associate director for digital initiatives and collection management. “That mission is a great fit for accessCeramics and specifically our goal of making images of high-quality contemporary ceramic art widely available to the arts education community.”

Understanding the collection, inside and out

With nearly 3,000 images and artist-contributors from around the world, accessCeramics merges the arts and digital technology in a unique and intuitive way. Though other licensed databases exist for art historians, no other service or website offers open access to a comparable range of images of contemporary arts, particularly ceramics.

“We’re really the only ones doing this right now,” Vogel said. “And things behind pay-walls aren’t used as frequently as openly accessible databases.”                 

Housed in Flickr, the foremost online photo-sharing application, accessCeramics is free and user-friendly for contributors and viewers.

One key to the project’s success has been its streamlined, web-based submission process. The accessCeramics curatorial board recruits artists for inclusion in the collection, but much of the submission process is completed independently: artists use a customized website to upload and catalog their own images using prescribed metadata fields. The images are stored on Flickr and displayed through the accessCeramics website, where the collection is fully searchable by any of the descriptions artists provide when uploading the images.

“You could look at it and not know it’s a Flickr site,” said Vogel, program head in ceramics. “It’s simple, clean, and easy to navigate. AccessCeramics makes my life easier, and I’m sure that’s true for other teachers and students. If you want to look for cups or only figurative work, you can do that.”

The efficiency of the accessCeramics model has allowed the project team to focus its time and resources on expanding the collection, managing the website, and providing technical support to contributing artists.

“We’ve been really surprised at the attention the project has generated,” said Margo Ballantyne, recently retired visual resources curator. “People get a whiff of the idea and the logistics of accessCeramics and they are all over us with questions and inquiries.”

Gauging the accessCeramics global impact

When the accessCeramics group members think about how to gauge the site’s impact, they can point to a few concrete numbers, like the 100 unique visitors a day to, or its top-ten placement in a Google search for contemporary ceramics. Members of the team have been invited to present at multiple professional conferences around the country. The group has twice published articles about their work, and the project has received two major grants.

Harder to calculate—but much more significant—is the project’s profound impact on academic and artistic communities.

The accessCeramics team has heard from ceramics educators at many colleges and universities, who have called the collection an invaluable resource in their field.

“This project has had a broad-based impact,” Dahl said. “We’ve seen that this resource really advances art education at liberal arts colleges around the country. Educators and art communities can tap into it, as well as curators and other artists.”

AccessCeramics fans have written in from as far away as New Zealand and Australia. Vogel recently received an email from an art student at Alfred University, home to one of the largest ceramics programs in the country, saying that accessCeramics is frequently used in classes there.

The art of collaboration

Members of the accessCeramics team complement one another’s diverse range of talents, leading to a highly effective collaboration.

Vogel and Ballantyne together developed the idea for a ceramics database in 2006, after noting that virtually no robust, accessible image database existed for contemporary ceramics artists. Vogel approached the problem from the perspective of an artist and educator; Ballantyne considered the archival questions associated with such a collection.

After developing their main objectives for the website, Vogel and Ballantyne approached colleagues in Watzek Library for additional support. Dahl got involved early on and continues to contribute to the team by overseeing the logistics of the project and pursuing grant funding for the site.

Also working behind the scenes, Digital Services Coordinator Jeremy McWilliams helps the team with the technological development of the database. With McWilliams’ help, accessCeramics transformed from an idea into a comprehensive, customized image database with a user-friendly website.

“If there are ideas for what the site should do, it’s my job to make those come to life,” he said. McWilliams also masterminded the integration of Flickr and created coherent instructions for the image-upload process to foster consistency in the database.

Upon Ballantyne’s retirement in the fall of 2009, she passed the torch to Stephanie Beene, the current visual resources coordinator. Beene works alongside Submissions Coordinator Miranda Costa, whose position was made possible through the NEA grant. Together, Beene and Costa research artists, review unsolicited submissions, gather data, and document their process. Beene also assists in research for funding and works with the curatorial board.

The five-person curatorial board reviews submissions to ensure that the collection is populated by the works of accomplished artists in the field of contemporary ceramics.

“I was honored to be asked to serve on the curatorial board, and I’ve really enjoyed seeing a wide breadth of work in ceramics, most of very high quality, in the process of reviewing submissions,” said San Diego State Professor Richard Burkett. “There’s a lot of work to do in this area, and I congratulate Ted and crew for their hard work setting all of this up. I’m glad I can offer a small bit of assistance.”

Integrating technological tools and the arts

AccessCeramics integrates multiple technological platforms, earning recognition from throughout the field of library and information science.

When first searching for sustainable options for funding and storing the collection, Dahl and McWilliams suggested using the image-sharing site Flickr. At the time, such use of the site was unprecedented, so their decision received some skepticism.

“Originally, we’d get funny looks when we mentioned the idea of hosting the project on Flickr,” Dahl said. “We haven’t gotten that as much since the Library of Congress launched its Flickr site. Once that happened, we knew we were on the right track.”

Another innovative aspect of accessCeramics is the way in which the site combines the use of tagging and controlled fields through metadata.

“That’s what has made it such a hit in the library and visual resources communities,” said Beene. “In these communities, there is so much talk about using tagging versus controlled metadata fields, controlled vocabularies. AccessCeramics is a melding of the two, instead of an either/or situation. It takes a Flickr platform, but has a way of entering metadata that’s searchable.”

The technological integration doesn’t end there—the team also works across multiple social media applications to share the latest news about accessCeramics: a Twitter feed tracks all the latest additions to the collection and a blog marks the project’s milestones and major news.

Challenges and opportunities

Despite the site’s accomplishments thus far, the accessCeramics group is looking ahead with ambitious plans for expanding the project.

“My big goal is to get more of the major artists on accessCeramics, as well as a broader scope of international artists,” Vogel said.

Scholars see even more potential for accessCeramics to begin offering much-needed historical context in the field of contemporary ceramics.

“I hope that this project will only continue to expand, especially in terms of adding important historical collections of images from the twentieth century, the era when academic offerings in ceramics expanded exponentially,” Burkett said. “So many of those early ceramics educators are now retired or gone, and their slide collections discarded or dispersed. What a shame.”

AccessCeramics’ stunning growth and effective integration of cutting-edge tools make it an unparalleled resource for arts education. With seemingly limitless prospects for the future, the group is focused on securing additional grant support to help reduce the workload on Lewis & Clark staff and extend the site’s reach.

“Because many colleges don’t have money for licensing image databases, foundations are happy to support projects that are good for the educational community but are also free,” Ballantyne said. “It’s also become clear that this model could be applied to other disciplines as well.”


Tracy Peel B.A. ’10 contributed to this story


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