Collecting New Media Art

"[New media art] questions everything, the most fundamental assumptions: What is a work? How do you collect? What is preservation? What is ownership? All of those things that museums are based upon and structured upon are pretty much thrown open to question."
Jeremy Strick, Director, Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles

In this comment, Jeremy Strick is both correct and being rhetorical. Lots of contemporary art raises these same questions. New media art, particularly in its network-based incarnations, does so perhaps more consistently, but none of the questions raised is radically new. In fact, one of the results of institutions' early investigations of collecting new media, the Variable Media Initiative, is significant precisely because of its cross-medium applicability. Nevertheless, there is a kind of crisis of collection - and hence cultural memory - because of the paucity of work in museum collections and the nature of new media art, which makes it difficult to recover adequately past a certain point.

It is fair to say that even among the few museums that have relatively active curatorial efforts in new media, none has a collection that even approaches the scope of its holdings in other media that its exhibits. At the same time, since at least 1997 when Kit Galloway and Sherrie Rabinowitz first presented their Satellite Arts Project, and certainly since the invention of the World Wide Web in the early 90s, there has been an explosion of artistic new media activity, as is well documented on a website such as Rhizome or the archives of the Ars Electronica Festival, which presented for its 25th year in 2004.

Why? What accounts for this discrepancy between artistic activity and institutional collecting?

New article by Steve Dietz published in NeMe on