January 10, 2016
From the top floor of Artsy’s impressive office space overlooking bustling downtown Manhattan I sat down with Jessica Backus the director of Artsy Learning and The Art Genome Project to discuss her work at Artsy and how she has achieved success in the art world. Founded in 2009 and making its public debut in 2012, Artsy has gained quite the following as one of the most exciting and user-friendly online art platforms. From educating and exposing the public to all genres and periods of art history, to tracking the art market, galleries, and art fairs, the search engine covers all corners and quirks of the perpetually expanding art world. Before coming to Artsy Backus studied Comparative Literature and Society at Columbia for her undergraduate career and completed her master’s in Art History Hunter College, specializing in Post-War German art.
How did you enter the art world?
It really wasn’t until graduate school that I realized that there were many methodologies [within art history] and that I was much more interested in the social history of art, but my interests started to crystalize when I started my first job out of college, working at the gallery Peres Projects in Berlin, where I worked for 4 years as an associate director. My favorite part of working at the gallery was working with the artists, and seeing their works start to germinate; being there for that magical moment when they went from being just a of collection of materials and impressions to being a fully-fledged object. I knew that I wanted to continue doing that, so that’s when I decided to go back and get a master’s in art history.
What did you take away from your pursuit for a master’s degree in Art History?
I kind of went back to grad school for the wrong reasons, I looked around me and I saw the people whose lifestyle I wanted to emulate, or whose job description I wanted to emulate, and those were art advisors. I remember reading something David Zwirner said in response to the question of who are his favorite types of people are: the people with well-formed opinions. I was 26 or so when I read that, and I was like, huh, I don’t know if I could say that I have many of my own well-formed opinions about art. I knew I would need to have that to be an art advisor.
How did you get started at Artsy?
I ended up getting the job at Artsy while I was in grad school. I think I was in my second year and at that point it was a position as a research assistant for the Art Genome Project. I loved the idea of it. For the first time I realized I could actually have one of those rare jobs in the art world that didn’t require you to sell stuff.
It was attractive to me because it was the first art search engine. For my studies I was using the tools that were available to me, and I basically wanted to build the tool that I would want to use as a graduate student. I also found the idea of democratizing art really appealing.
Could you describe the Art Genome Project?
The Art Genome Project is a discovery engine for art that powers Artsy. It was started under Carter Cleveland, Artsy’s founder and CEO. He was in his dorm room in Princeton and wanted to buy art and didn’t know where to start—which really reflects the opaque nature of the art market. So he started Artsy and the Art Genome Project as a way to help people fall in love with art, while also aiding in the practical purpose of discovering it. Ultimately, what we do is create connections between artists and art works for our users.
Is Artsy comparable to anything out there already?
In the same way that Netflix or Pandora’s Music Genome Project can make recommendations for you based on the genre or the quality of things that you like, The Art Genome Project does that with art. It’s important for me to acknowledge that we were in a lucky position in that we were able to build upon already existing classification systems to create a user-focused system. In other words, a framework for our audience instead of one for cataloguers or the future art historians—one for people who really want to learn about art. That was the real breakthrough for the Art Genome Project, and that’s what makes it interesting and unique.
What is a “gene?”
We call them “genes” but on the front end of the site they’re called “categories.” They are motifs, memes, themes, concepts, modes, moods, basically all the various ways of approaching art. A “gene” has to be something about art, which might seem basic, but we have to start with the basics.
How does this process work?
Everyone on our team has to be a generalist because you never really know from one day to the next what you will “genoming” (or the process of researching and annotating works of art and artists). Any of the genomers can propose a gene, and then we vote as a team, and if it gets enough votes then it goes directly into “labs,” where we test it out to make sure it’s working. We’ll then survey the team and make sure that we can all agree on its application with 80% consistency or more, and then it graduates and becomes a fully-fledged part of the genome.
Do you have a favorite “gene?”
If had to choose my favorite gene… It might be “mediated view,” which refers to either the use of a specific framing device within the image itself, or the presence of something that impedes or mediates your view. This strategy makes you aware of the artist’s hand; it can add a sense of mystery. There are also a lot of images of windows in “mediated view,” where there’s this attempt to hide something and expose something else in a very explicit way as a part of the composition.
What does your typical day at Artsy look like?
Oh, I don’t think there’s every a typical day at Artsy. We’re still a start-up; I know that people can forget that.
One thing we might do on a day when we have our weekly Genome meeting is to play a game we call “Genome Pictionary” to get the team thinking more holistically about genoming. One person draws and the other guesses; the drawer doesn’t see the artwork, but is presented its genome, and they have to figure out what it is and draw the work. It’s fun, but we also use it as a chance to take a step back from the “back end” of the process and ask ourselves, what is a good genome? A good genome says something specific about a work of art. You should be able to conjure an image of the work in your head. If the genome fails to do that, then it’s not a good genome.
What are your personal perceptions of contemporary art?
Looking at the top emerging artists today, the theme seems to be breaking borders or breaking boundaries (I should add this was actually an insight of our editorial team, who explored it in their recent year-in-review feature). 2015 was an intense year for the world. In the same way that we see a lot of societal changes happening—whether it’s the Black Lives Matter movement or gay marriage in the United States, or the incredibly divided politics of this country, or even the refugee crisis in Europe—throughout the world there seems to be this global conversation of who we want to be and who gets to be included in that conversation. In the actual demographics of the art world you see these changes reflected. There are more women artists, more artists of color, and they have an audience that’s not just collectors from their specific niche. You know, we receive a lot of criticism for even having a gene for e.g. Woman Artists, because it implies that this is a relevant aspect of someone’s practice, and women artists just want to be considered artists, without the qualifier of gender. While I don’t think we are at a point yet where it’s incidental if you’re a woman artist or that it’s irrelevant if you’re a woman artist or a black artist, I do think that we start to see now, for the first time, that that future exists. The space of creation, the audience, the opportunities and possibilities for being an artist are all changing. That’s what I find is most exciting about the state of contemporary art.
Do you have advice for young art professionals?
Make sure you do something you really want to do, not just something that seems cool. From there, realize from there that the next step is to figure out the process. What process, what things, what activities really make you happy? I think that will largely dictate where you end up. The earlier you find what’s really coming from you and not other people’s expectations from or reactions to you, the better.
Also, don’t be afraid to return to the drawing board. It’s usually rare for students to do something, acknowledge that it didn’t work, and start over. That’s the biggest thing that we see from recent graduates, that they are so compelled to do something perfectly the first time that there’s often a missed opportunity; they are not always agile, flexible, or willing to totally revise their thinking on something.