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Text for happiness, or cactus, and get art back

Can you trade a peach for a Picasso? The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art has given you the chance to try.

Over the last few weeks, the museum has invited people to text the number 572-51 with the phrase "send me" followed by a word or an emoji — send me a robot, for instance. The museum texts back with a related image from its collection.

The project, "Send Me SFMOMA," has been an ingenious, playful way to inject some rarefied culture into an everyday habit. And for art lovers, it has unearthed some unexpected artworks, long hidden in storage, along the way.

Begun quietly last month, the project has become a viral hit, with more than 2 million text messages delivered in its first week, said Keir Winesmith, head of web and digital platforms for SFMOMA.

The free service is far more popular than the museum imagined, and it has revealed something surprising about its users — about how, and when, they want to interact with art, and how much they crave a personal connection with cultural authority.

Can texting a museum be the start of a meaningful cultural conversation? SFMOMA thinks so.

At a time when "public trust in institutions is very low," Winesmith said, "Send Me" offers another kind of relationship. "We want it to feel like you're communicating with a friend."

A potentially uplifting friend, at that: Most of the texts yearned for positivity, requesting love, flowers and happiness, he said.

Inspiration was another big search term, along with appeals for hope, peace and joy. But sadness ranked in the top 20, too.

The top emoji requests included the robot, the heart, the rainbow, "and, of course, poop," Winesmith said. "And then, because it's the internet, it's a lot of food and a lot of animals."

He discovered that the museum had a surprising quantity of vegetable art. The cactus emoji has been a sleeper hit, too.

The texts that have come pouring in at night are different — more intimate, Winesmith said, with searches for words like "family" and "home." People also ask to see nudes — but the program is designed to deny them, for now.

"We're getting send me boobs, send me a naked woman," Winesmith said, "and they're all getting zero back. And if you look at the thread of what people do next, they immediately try something more interesting."

"I love that it's forcing people to try a bit harder," he added.

Devilishly, the textbot also doesn't respond to queries with artists' names. ("Send me a Picasso" returns nothing but a "try again" message, even though the museum has Picassos.) The project creators' hope was to lead people to more uncharted discoveries, Winesmith said.

The idea for "Send Me SFMOMA" sprang from work the museum was already doing. Winesmith said they wanted a way to open up the collection of about 34,000 art works for the public — something with almost no barrier to entry, no apps or downloads. The project uses the roughly 17,000 works that are already indexed online.

But the museum's artistic responses aren't always obvious, and they can be humorous or ironic, with a curated feel — the result of smartly applied keywords. Heather Oelklaus, an artist from Colorado Springs, sent in the gun emoji and received Andy Warhol's Triple Elvis. (In the painting, Elvis holds a gun.)

Responding to emoji texts proved to be among the biggest challenges for the developer, Jay Mollica. Mollica, the museum's creative technologist, conceived of the project, but he is not an avid emoji user, and Winesmith admitted that his own emoji vocabulary was "limited." So the museum recruited more fluent employees and set up a daylong "emoji boot camp" to understand the nuances of the characters. ("A peach is euphemistic for a bottom — we didn't know that," Winesmith said.)

Text for happiness, or cactus, and get art back 07/28/17 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 26, 2017 1:25pm]
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