Art Information Commons


The following are major activities and lessons learned during the Art Information Commons project.

Thoughtful planning for large endeavors takes a while, often longer than you anticipate.

A project team could be people specifically hired for the initiative and/or existing staff who will prioritize this project. If you decide to include existing staff, it is important to adjust their schedules and workload so they have enough time, effort, and thought-space for the project.

Make sure to identify a project coordinator, manager, or similar role, because coordination is a major part of completing a successful initiative.

Reassessment of required team members should happen as your needs/availability change over time.

Once the team is identified, clearly establish roles and responsibilities for each team member. Formalize meeting structure and frequency; create a shared working space for documents; identify how decisions are to be made, approval processes, and develop communication workflows within the team. Sample tools: Airtable, Asana, BaseCamp, and for task management; Outlook for email and scheduling; and BaseCamp, Google Drive, or Microsoft Sharepoint for sharing project documents. We use MOCHA (Manager, Owner, Consulted, Helper, Advisor) as a roles and responsibilities framework as taught by the Management Center. The RACI model is another similar roles and responsibilities framework.

By clarifying roles and establishing the needed structure, your team will be able to work more efficiently and effectively. You can also address a need for change in roles as the project progresses and needs change.

It is critical to have buy-in from your institution’s leadership and key stakeholders. Their active support will highlight the importance of your initiative and help bolster engagement across the organization.

We identified key internal stakeholders and created an internal Steering Committee made up of staff from across the institution from whom we gain regular feedback as we progress with the initiative.

Create a communications and change management strategy that facilitates a transition for staff into a new way of working and adjusting to new tools developed by the initiative, in addition to active engagement and open dialog within and across the institution.

Try to decide what information you need to gather from staff. Then shape standard questions to gain the types of information you are seeking.

Discussions should be focused on leveraging the work already being done and to gather feedback from across the institution. We broke our discussions into roadshows (departmental/team/group meetings), Coffee with the Commons (quarterly open forums for all staff), and individual meetings with staff.

Provide avenues for those who do not attend the meetings to share feedback, and a process for recording and transcribing your discussions for future analysis. We used Google Forms to gather additional information and shared all presentations and documentation with staff via our internal Sharepoint.

These discussions inform the work of the initiative and help build institutional trust, which, in turn, creates an environment that supports change.

We established an external advisory board to guide and provide informed feedback on the initiative, with annual in-person meetings and quarterly update calls. No matter how you shape your approach, external advisors provide valuable perspective and grounding.

Gather and share information about potentially related tools, projects, and resources in the field. We did this through an environmental scan. This provides insights about existing tools, lessons learned from similar efforts, and perspectives from others working to solve related problems. Here is our Environmental Scan--which we encourage others to add and build from it.

In addition, sometimes you will not just need external feedback, but external skills and work that you may not have on staff. For example, we are working with our internal developers, and external linked data professionals and developers. To do this, we went through a Request for Information (RFI) process you can review here.

Establish a process for how you want to collect the feedback and information you are gathering from your colleagues. The rich discussions you are having will generate a great deal of valuable qualitative data to inform the work to come.

We captured comments and feedback in a spreadsheet. For each discrete comment, we documented all pertinent details, including the type of meeting in which it was said, the date of that meeting, and the name and department of the individual who made the comment. We then mapped each comment to a larger, umbrella themes we noticed, analyzed the data, and tagged the comments based on more specific motifs and patterns that emerged. This data will help inform your vision, scope, and roadmap for continued exploration.

Once you’ve had conversations with as many stakeholders as possible and gathered substantial, informative feedback, create a vision and scope to focus your roadmap for your next planning phase. Base the documents on your overarching objectives for the initiative and all that you have learned so far. Be sure to get feedback on your draft documents from your key advisors. In our case, the internal Steering Committee, external Advisory Board, and Director provided guidance and input.

A vision should be a high level goal for the overall initiative, beyond the planning phase. A scope should indicate what is within the purview of the initiative now, what is out of scope at this moment with potential to include later, and what is out of scope that will never be a part of the initiative. A roadmap is an actionable plan for the next year or selected time period of your planning phase. It should include why you are conducting certain projects, who will be involved and their level of engagement, and what steps you will take to complete each project. Know that your Roadmap will evolve with the initiative.

The Vision, Scope, and Roadmap will help your team remain on track and work more efficiently. In addition, it can be used as a communications resource when asked what the initiative is tackling and why.

To start, decide on a small number of test cases or prototypes that are in direct alignment with institutional priorities.

We took a programmatic approach, as we had several major initiatives underway that our work could tie into. Consider strategic initiatives your institution is developing that your work can support and help sustain.Determine what projects might be useful test-beds to explore your initiative’s goals? Develop meaningful criteria to help select your test cases and prototypes.

Use the rest of the planning period to test, iterate, and refine–and don’t forget to be flexible: goals, priorities and realities will inevitably change.

Once you have a chance to work on the use cases to see which are most viable and doable, narrow your focus to just one for prototyping. Thus making it easier to set the requirements and scope for the prototype by focusing on one area of collection information that can then be extensible to the wider whole.

Set up a timeline for the prototype, from collecting data, to semantic mapping, to preparing documentation of the entire process. Working with the external consultants and developers, we are drafted research and competency questions to help build and test the prototype. Research questions are those that query the content of the prototype, mostly art-historical in nature, and competency questions are those that test the structure of the prototype.

Agree on a process through a scope of work with the vendor, or, if you are working in-house, develop project documentation to guide your process. Within such documentation, provide definitions for terms (e.g. research question) in order to ensure better and more efficient communication.

Make time to reevaluate the needs of the project. We reassessed our project plan, timeline, and roadmap at least each year of the project. Re-analyzing priorities around new project items is important, especially if you need to eliminate older priorities that no longer suit the project nor the institution. Being cognizant of changing goals, by being adaptable and building those into the project can be a test of the project's extensibility and sustainability. Flexibility is an important quality especially when working in these testing stages.

In addition, make sure to address changing workflows outside of the project around involved staff, stakeholders, and external vendors such as developers. You want to be mindful of their time commitments and how that might change over the course of the project.

The timeline of the project may also need to be extended since you might discover you need additional tasks and tools you did not foresee needing in the work plan. As we worked through the first year of the prototype, we were able to realize these new needs and adjust our schedule and budget based on the updated project plan.

Once you have gotten through the initial research phase, communication needs can be reevaluated based on the trajectory of the project. For example, we continue to provide open discussions, programs, and symposia for internal staff and external colleagues in relation to the Art Information Commons. We have put most of our focus on the symposia, bringing in outside perspectives around art information initiatives, obstacles, and opportunities, but communication and education programs should be tailored to the needs of your institution and staff.

Continue to meet with your stakeholders, advisors, and other groups that are integral to the completion of your project. We still hold meetings with our internal Steering Committee and external Advisory Board, but not as frequently while we finish the tech build. Also think about who needs more targeted outreach and discussions. For example, we are working with several committees on creating and organizing data on Black artists, histories, and representation within our collection because creating and adding new research to our prototype has become a key task in the project.

By reevaluating and continuing our communications efforts, we ensure that staff remain engaged with the initiative. Staff’s continued education and understanding of the project will help prime them to train, test, and use the prototype at its completion.

Training should take place for the core team as the project is moving along, so they can remain up to date on new features, tools, and fixes. This will help them gradually learn the system in order to identify any issues or opportunities to communicate with the developers building the prototype. This iterative process for reviewing and adjusting is more conducive to a more user-friendly system. Then, you can then identify a larger group of users to test and train with the system before deploying it to the rest of the institution.

Once through an initial round of training, the project team will need to begin implementation. This is when the institution learns to adopt the new system and provides regular training as you would with all other internal platforms and tools. Since the prototype is focused on a subset of the museum’s data, the virtual research environment will also expand to include the entirety of the institution’s art information, and test this additional data inclusion gradually and iteratively. The expanded virtual research environment will require general maintenance, upkeep, and continued training for new staff.

Through analysis and training, we will also be able to understand the staffing and time needs in order to maintain and run the Art Information Commons.

The Art Information Commons at the Philadelphia Museum of Art has been made possible by the Mellon Foundation.