Technology Giving Us a New Way to See Art

This year, at the Northside Festival, I attended several of the international tech pitch/demo sessions. I had a chance to chat with Alexandre Catsicas, Co-Founder & CEO, ARTMYN, which has developed a technology that allows you to have a 3-D visualization of a painting on your computer/tablet/mobile screen. In these excerpts from our interview, Alex shares his thoughts on art and how technology can serve it.

Liz Daly (LD):  Tell me about ARTMYN in your own words.

Alexandre Catsicas, ARTMYN co-founder & CEO

Alexandre Catsicas, ARTMYN co-founder & CEO

Alexandre Catsicas (AC):  ARTMYN mixes art and high tech. Art and technology have been evolving together since the beginning of mankind, starting with the first handprint on the caves in Lascaux, France and continuing up to today when you can create art with digital instruments. With ARTMYN, we hope to transcend this barrier between physical art and digital art. For the past two decades, art has been represented using   2-D static images, and it hasn’t really changed until today. We are trying to enhance the way art can be spread and democratize access to culture.

LD:  How else are you applying this technology?

AC:  While we started with paintings, we are also looking at using this technology on other media. We’ve already used it to take a closer look at the first photographic formats, the daguerreotypes and ferrotypes – it’s used by the Musée de l’Elysée in Lausanne.

LD:  Some years ago, I led a project in which the participants embroidered a flower onto fabric squares, which were then sewn together to make a quilt. As I moved from sketching, to pattern making, to embroidering, I saw first hand the thread that runs through ancient tapestries and modern day digital pixels.  

AC:  We haven’t done textiles yet, but it would be interesting to apply ARTMYN to a tapestry and then compare the weave with the digital pixels.

LD:  Let’s talk about you for a minute: you’ve studied and worked in Lausanne, London, Glasgow and New York.

AC:  After high school in Lausanne, I studied in an exchange program in California, which I really enjoyed, as I had a chance to mix art history classes with business classes, with biology classes… Then I returned to Lausanne to study economics, but realized I wanted to study other subjects as well, so I transferred to Fordham University in the Bronx, where I majored in business and finance, with a minor in medieval history.   After working for a commodities trading company in Switzerland for a while, I realized I needed to pursue my passion, which is art, so I studied art history at Glasgow University. That was when I decided to combine art history and the business world. Then I worked for Christie’s in London, where I had access to museum-quality art, and could talk to art experts and collectors – it was a fascinating combination of art, business and passion.

LD:  What brought you back to Switzerland?

AC:  I knew that the digital world was something auction houses couldn’t avoid, but the environment wasn’t right.

In Switzerland there was a growing interest in new technologies, as well as research on materiality, on texture, which fit in with what I wanted to do. Ms. Adrienne Corboud, Vice President for Innovation and Technology at EFPL (Ecole Fédérale Polytechnique de Lausanne), introduced me to two great scientists and engineers, Loïc Baboulaz and Julien Lalande, who were also passionate about art – we connected immediately. It’s a funny story: When I told Adrienne about my desire to connect the business world and the art world, she gave me two contacts: one, a famous Swiss gallerist, the other, these two unknown engineers.   The gallery never replied to me; the two engineers did. We laugh about it now, but back then I was wondering “why would I want to meet two engineers” and they were wondering, “why should we meet with an art historian” but we met, and magic happened.

Golden octadrachme of Arsinoe II, ca. 180-116 BC. Image courtesy of ARTMYN

Golden octadrachme of Arsinoe II, ca. 180-116 BC. Image courtesy of ARTMYN


Loïc and Julien have almost become art experts because we interact so much with curators, museum directors, art experts… actually one of my partners has now decided to start a coin collection, after digitizing a collection of ancient coins at the Fondation Martin Bodmer in Geneva.

LD:  I noticed on your website you list several government agencies and academic institutions as partners.

AC:  There’s now a nice hub in Switzerland that helps start-ups get exposure.  The Swiss government gives a lot of help, backing very tech oriented projects that can have a global impact. They’re helping us build better scanners and enhance our technology. I think there will be a domino effect: once you get attention from one of these institutions, then you’re eligible for bigger grants. We won the IMD (International Institute for Management Development) competition. We’ll meet with some of their faculty and executive MBA’s, who will review our business plan, tear it apart, and rebuild a stronger one with us. We’re also among the finalists in the MASS Challenge (which is also in Lausanne), so for the summer we’ll benefit from mentoring by experts in specific industries. These competitions are helpful because they bring you money, mentorship, expert advice, and visibility; these are all things that a young start-up like ARTMYN needs.

LD:   How do you want to move forward? Where do you want to go?

AC:  ARTMYN needs to go where fine art is. Switzerland is interesting because it has very important art institutions. It also has the Freeport in Geneva, one of the largest storage facilities for fine arts, but it can be very difficult for the owners to access it, because they may be living in another part of the world, or moving between homes. Galleries also store works in free ports, which they need to show to their clients, who are all across the globe. Right now the only way owners and gallerists have of viewing their art is through the traditional 2-D image, which does not really render all the richness of these pieces. We hope to reduce the distance between the artworks and the collectors with our technology.

We would like to export this Swiss technology to places where art can profit from it. There are also other major art centers like Paris, London, New York. Asia is growing a lot…

LD:  So, to turn away from technology for a bit, what do you think is the importance of art?

AC:  I believe that without art, there’s no society. I think one of the things that differentiates humans from animals is that we can create; for me art is a way of better understanding our history. I hope that our technology will allow people to better understand different art movements, whether modern or antique. We provide various features allowing an art expert to really explain the details, the artist’s technique(s), and the historical background to the viewer. Take Brueghel, for example. In his farm scenes there’s actually a political message – this was the time when Spain and the Dutch provinces were fighting. If you don’t know this, you’ll just see a rural scene with lots of drunk people, and soldiers in the background. But if you have an art expert who can explain the references to you, then it all makes sense; then you can draw the parallels between different eras and today. You’ll also see that art as propaganda is not a modern invention, but was used in earlier times. So I hope through this technology to show how society has evolved, but yet how we’re still trying to answer the same questions, find solutions to the same problems as in previous eras. Artists can evoke, they can express these very things.

LD:  So who’s your favorite artist?

AC: Brueghel, I really like Brueghel. I also have a fondness for Renaissance artists who traveled, like Albrecht Dürer – at the beginning he was copying prints of other artists’ work that were circulating in Germany, but then you see an evolution, bringing back new techniques from his travels in Italy, combining them with his strengths.

LD:  You’ve lived, worked and studied in Switzerland, the US and the UK; what cultural differences have struck you?

AC:  I’ll give you a very funny example that happened yesterday after the Northside demo.   In Switzerland, it’s all about being humble; if you’re good at something, you don’t say it. When you pitch before European and Swiss investors, the first question is, “How much revenue do you generate?” Now if you say to a European investor, “I’ve just started making revenue, but I want to raise about $1 million,” he’ll look at you and say, “No, come back when you’re generating a million dollars in revenue and we’ll talk.” Yesterday, an investor approached me, asking “Alex, what’s your strategy, short-term, how much money are you aiming to raise?” Now I know I’m in the US, and I need to think big, so I said “I need to raise about $1 million.” Then he says, “A million, I’m not interested; but if you’re looking for $5 million, then we can do business.” So there’s a big cultural difference: in the US, it’s all about the vision; Europe likes facts, although this is starting to change.

photograph of Zinnien, by Lovis Corinth, 1924

photograph of Zinnien, by Lovis Corinth, 1924

LD:  Over the years, entrepreneurs have told me pretty much the same thing: that it’s easier to raise $10, $15 million than five hundred thousand dollars.

AC:  That’s true, American investors, they want big projects – it’s the culture of risk. They won’t wait for a company to start making lots of revenue and then say, OK, I’m interested.

LD: What is ARTMYN looking for?

AC:  We’re looking for people who believe in us, will support our project, bring us the connections we need. We’ve been approached by VC’s who want to just inject money, but that’s not what we want– we want people who are passionate about art, who are passionate about our technology and what it can do, and people who can open doors for us.   We just closed a round with angel investors, who will help us, introduce us to their networks – they’re almost like partners.

Detail of brushstroke in Zinnien by Lovis Corinth. Image courtesy of Artmyn

Detail of brushstroke in Zinnien by Lovis Corinth. Image courtesy of Artmyn

LD:  What’s up next?

AC: We’ll be doing an interactive sale with the Swiss auction house Koller in Zurich on July 24th. There will be good press coverage. They’ll be selling Zinnien, by the German painter Lovis Corinth, who was important in the transition from Impressionism to Expressionism. I hope someday that in every auction house buyers will be looking at the artwork using tablets with ARTMYN software, instead of the catalogues.

LD:  When will you be setting up your NYC branch?

AC: As soon as someone introduces us to the museums and auction houses – I would love to come back to New York! (actually if things keep going the way they are…2017 !)

Women and Art: Progress of a Sort

Self-Portrait, Louise Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun

Self-Portrait, Louise Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun

There’s been a lot of discussion around the issue of gender diversity in the arts recently, highlighted by a New York Times article   on the resurgence of women-only art shows. 

It was against this backdrop that I attended a panel discussion on Women and Art, hosted by the Austrian-, German- and Swiss- American chambers of commerce.  A varied group of women from those countries who are now working in the U.S., (artist, journalist, curator, dealer, philanthropist) discussed this topic with a very engaged audience.  Throughout the evening, some common themes emerged, which applied to working women in the U.S., no matter what their profession. Here’s a very short summary.

In general, for both men and women, it’s hard to enter the art world, as you need to do a lot of networking to build up relations with galleries and collectors.  For women, this becomes even harder if and when they have children.  Several participants cited the need for workplaces to offer both paternity and maternity leave (especially long-term) as well as more flexibility in working hours/place – this would permit both parents to care for children.  Hard on it’s heels was the need for more systematized/institutional support for child care – not everyone can afford a nanny, and babysitters/family/friends are not always reliable.

Even though female artists may be getting a lot of attention at the moment, there’s no disputing that they are underrepresented in museums and galleries.  To add insult to injury, there’s the added issue of women’s works being underpriced compared to men’s.  You need only consider that the highest price at auction for a work by a female artist to date was $44 million for a Georgia O’Keefe painting in 2013, compared to a Picasso which sold for $160 million earlier this year.  According to Artnews, work by women artists represent around 8% of the lots  sold at auction. 

Unfortunately, many people view price as being indicative of talent, even though one really has nothing to do with the other.  However, prices for work by a given artist are established relative to her peers, making it harder for women to command the same sums as their male counterparts.

As to whether or not all-women artists shows tend to ghettoize the work, the consensus seemed  to be that there’s always that risk, but these types of shows have value, introducing viewers to artists they hadn’t previously known, or revealing additional depths in their work – everyone cited the Vigée le Brun exhibit at the Met.

However, on the institutional front in New York City there’s good news.  The NYC Department of Cultural Affairs’ recently released study on diversity in the arts  showed that women occupy about 50% of leadership and staff positions at the cultural institutions funded by the City.

All in all, still a lot of work to be done…

Elisabeth of Austria (1837-98)

Elisabeth of Austria (1837-98)

The evening kicked off with a keynote address by Dr.Sabine Haag, Director General of the Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna (KHMW),  Dr. Haag gave an extensive overview of the Museum and its collections, as well as her vision for expanding and refurbishing various galleries of the KHMW which is celebrating its 125th Anniversary.  I’ve greatly enjoyed visiting the KHMW, or I should really say, just some of it, as it comprises 13 collections housed in 5 locations in Vienna and 1 in Innsbruck. An encyclopedic museum (founded with significant contributions by the Habsburg’s), the KHMW is known for its picture gallery, coin collection, and collections of Egyptian, Greek & Roman art, as well as the Imperial Treasury, the Theatre Museum, the Archeological Museum  and the Carriage collection.   Notable female patrons include  Margaret of Austria, Empress Maria Theresa and Princess Elisabeth (Sisi) of Austria.

If you can’t make it to Vienna, you can see a bit of  the KHMW uptown, as they have loaned three pieces to the Met for it’s Pergamon exhibit which begins April 18th.

Spotlight: Austria, Germany & Switzerland


This week’s spotlight was inspired by a panel discussion hosted by the Austrian- ,  German-   and Swiss-  American chambers of commerce on Women in Art.  I’ve covered the discussion in a separate post; below is information on cultural organizations from these three countries:

Austria has always punched above it’s weight in the arts, especially in the cities of Vienna and Salzburg.  New York City is home to Austria’s main cultural embassy in the U.S., the Austrian Cultural Forum (ACFNY).   You may already be familiar with it’s home, the 24-story sliver building (25 feet wide by 81 feet deep) at 11 East 52nd Street, designed by  Austrian-born New York architect Raimund Abraham.  You can take a tour .

The ACFNY’s library holds more than 11,000 volumes of Austrian literary, artistic, historical, and political works.

The Forum hosts musical events, readings, discussions and exhibitions.  From April 27th-29th  they will host the  Austrian American Short Film Festival (AASFF) , the first-of-its kind bilateral festival featuring short films in all forms and genres by promising young artists and filmmakers from both Austria and the United States

Their calendar is also a good place to find out about Austrian artists/performers who are showing/performing in New York and beyond.

It should come as no surprise that Germany is well represented on the cultural landscape.  The Goethe Institute NY  has settled into its space at 30 Irving Place from its former home on upper Fifth Avenue.  While they’re best known for their German language courses (I’ve taken classes there), they  also have a library, book club, and translation grant program.  The Goethe Institute operates in other cities in the US, and world-wide so you can study German at their facilities in other cities/countries.

From April 25th to May 15th, they will host Math to Touch, an interactive exhibition that will make mathematics more comprehensible for all age groups.  They will offer (self-)guided tours of the exhibition in German and English, quizzes and contests with prizes for German learners, information and classroom materials for German teachers and much more.    

In addition to their main space, the Goethe Institute also runs a contemporary art space at 38 Ludlow Street, where they have an artists residence program; this year’s theme is related to migration, and the current artist in residence is Anne Neukamp 

Deutsches Haus at NYU  offers not only German classes (I’ve studied here, too), but also exhibitions, talks, conferences and screenings for adults and children.  On  April 19th  they will host The Hugo Wolf Project, a Retrospective  in honor of the conclusion of the Brooklyn Art Song Society‘s epic six year survey of the complete Lieder of Hugo Wolf.  Some of the performers who have been there from the start will perform and discuss their favorite songs. 

Deutsches Haus at Columbia  has a limited schedule of events:  the evening of April 21st they will host  Goethes ‘Faust’: Reflexion der tragischen Form, a lecture by Professor David Wellbery (University of Chicago)  who will present material on “Faust” and tragic form from his new book.  This talk will be In German.  On April 25th, they will host Koffeuurtje, a Dutch conversation hour!

There are many other German groups here in the New York area – a good place to find more information is Germany in NYC .

You might also want to bookmark the Events page of the German Consulate General’s website for information about German artists/performers in New York and beyond.

One of the more unique museums in New York is The Neue Galerie New York, probably best known for Gustav Klimt’s portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, but there’s much more:  the  collection is composed of  painting, sculpture, decorative arts and photographs created in Austria and Germany between 1890 and 1940. Many of the works are from the collection of Ronald S. Lauder and the estate of Serge Sabarsky.  This museum is one of NYC’s gems.

Yesterday I saw the current exhibition Munch & Expressionism of about 85 works that examines Edvard Munch’s influence on his German and Austrian counterparts. I’ll do a full review next week, but in a word:  go see it!

The Neue Galerie also offers programs, especially cabaret performances,as well as recitals, lectures and films.

Despite its small size, Switzerland has had an outsized influence in the arts (Geneva, Basel). At 18 Wooster Street, in Soho, you’ll find the  Swiss Institute, an independent non-profit contemporary art institution known for its exhibitions and programs promoting experimental art. From April 15th to May 19th, they will present the first institutional solo exhibition in the United States of Olga Balema, For Early Man.   This is a new series of works using maps and globes from a range of origins and periods, which she has variously painted on and affixed with cast latex breasts, playing off the notion of Mother Earth and suggesting physical responses to perpetual growth and change.

On their website, you’ll find their video series, SI: Visions. I haven’t seen them all, but I liked the one by Christina Forrer, who explains how she transforms battles and struggles (found in online videos of cat fights and sporting events) into intricate weavings.  

You can find readings, performances and lectures at the Swiss Institute on it’s events page.

The Swiss Consulate has an events calendar on its website.