Matthew Lincoln, PhD Art History and Digital Research

The Tate Uses Wikipedia for Artist Biographies, and I’m OK With It

Recently, several folks on Twitter have noted their displeasure that the Tate appears to be linking to Wikipedia articles in lieu of authoring their own written biographies of artists represented in their collections.

I… actually don’t have a problem with what the Tate is doing.

A screenshot of the Tate's citation of Wikipedia [on an overview web page for Jackson Pollock](https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/jackson-pollock-1785).

A screenshot of the Tate’s citation of Wikipedia on an overview web page for Jackson Pollock.

Except for a few unique institutions founded around a single artist’s estate, very few art museums really have the authority, or, frankly, the mission, to be authorities on the biographies of the artist in their collections. It would be one thing if the Tate were deferring to Wikipedia articles about the unique objects within its collection. Bendor Grovesnor erroneously suggests that the Tate copying and pasting this for their collection catalog entries, but they are not. Instead, they’re using it for that most unsatisfying categories of copy expelled by art museums: the artist biography.

As a graduate student and curatorial fellow at the National Gallery of Art, I spent hours and hours of expert time drafting biographies of artists represented in that museum’s Dutch collections. This was almost always a secondary literature review (thank goodness, no responsible museum board will fund research trips to archives to write three-paragraph biographical blurbs!) I and my colleagues generated some quite rich and educational copy for the website, and it was a lovely learning experience… for us, the students. However, except for the most minor artists, we were mostly just rewording and enriching well-covered biographies from the Benezit Dictionary of Artists or Grove® Art Online. Hours of expert research time was basically spent reinventing the wheel - something that absolutely did not have to be done for ridiculously well-biographied artists like Rembrandt. Any one of these hours could have been better applied researching and communicating what was unique to our museum: the specific objects in the collection itself.

Unless you’re the Georgia O’Keefe Museum or a similarly-monographic museum, systematic artist biography work outside of special exhibitions should simply not be a priority. This kind of “not invented here” syndrome is a huge problem in the museum world. My former Getty colleague, David Newbury, encapsulated this problem well when talking about his work as a software architect:

Memory institutions are very good at being closed systems, and we’ve solved the sorts of problems we can solve on our own in each of our sandboxes. We need to start building things that are bigger than the sandbox, and we can only do that through collaboration.

Any one museum shouldn’t have to act as though they are a scholarly authority on an artist who just happens to be represented in their collections, no more than they should be expected to generate brand new, detailed chemical definitions for cadmium yellow simply because it is used in many of their paintings. All art museums would benefit from being able to cite, quote, and re-use decent content on artist biography, pigments, artistic and conservation techniques, and more. But each institution rewriting the definition of each of these things, every single time? Forget it.

This brings me to my caveat, which I share with Eileen Clancy: if you’re a museum and you choose to start delegating some authority work to sources like Wikipedia, then you should make sure you do put some of your limited research resources into generating new content for those sources.

To be clear, I don’t advocate this out of some kind of direct transactional obligation; if you subscribe to the Creative Commons, then yes, you do get to use resources even without contributing back, as long as you point back.1 Rather, it’s the logical step for helping to distribute authority work across the wider cultural heritage community. The Tate’s curatorial staff surely has some New, Interesting Stuff® to say about Jackson Pollock, Arshile Gorky, and many others - things that may not yet be covered in Wikipedia. If those things are of a general interest, then rather than publishing their own biography that is 90% rewording Grove, and 10% NIS, that 10% NIS should absolutely get contributed onto Wikipedia, so that the non-Tates of the art museum world can benefit from this collaborative biographical copy.

The argument against what the Tate is doing would be much stronger if it focused on the recognized issues that Wikipedia’s editorial processes can make it difficult to publish new scholarly knowledge. The structural sexism in Wikipedia’s “notability” criterion is real, serious, and not easily solved by the Tate alone. That said, prestigious institutions like the Tate can help erode this notability barrier by mere fact of owning an artists’ work, and pointing to it when they contribute to a biography. It’s why I think it’s a great boon that many memory organizations like the National Archives and the Smithsonian have piloted “Wikipedian in residence” programs.

It’s also crucial to understand that Wikipedia is also not a place for publishing primary source materials. For this reason, it can’t be replacement for the entire ecosystem of monographs, scholarly exhibition catalogs, and research articles that curatorial staff from research-intensive, well-resourced museums like the National Gallery of Art or the Tate can generate. But again, in the context we’re talking about here - the artist biography blurb on the public website - I see a mismatch between the user need and critics’ scholarly ideal of publishing complicated, in-depth original biographical research. The idea that there is general biographical content that won’t make it on to Wikipedia, but needs to make it into your three-paragraph biography for general readers on the public website, is simply laughable. Any content strategist worth their salt would tell you that you’ve fallen into the trap of designing content for yourself rather than your actual users. In fact, since Wikipedia has established citation and reference infrastructure (better than many other museum online publication systems - you wouldn’t believe what a pain it was to get footnotes into an NGA webpage), it’s a far better portal for staging general biographies that can link to much more in-depth resources for the subset of visitors who really do want to go in-depth.

So yes, if there’s any complaint to be made about the Tate linking to copy from Wikipedia for its artist biographies, it is that they ought to openly and proudly commit resources to enhancing and updating Wikipedia’s information on these artists when they can. But it doesn’t pass the sniff test to argue that the Tate should be committing resources to rewording existing artist biographies just so that they can have their own, special text made just for the Tate website. It’s already a harsh uphill battle to get museums to avoid reinventing the wheel, and if this reassignment of resources can push other institutions to do the same, I won’t be sad about it.

  1. It’s for this reason I actually strongly disagree with Clancy’s characterization of the Tate’s actions as “exploitative”. Using open cultural resources in accordance with their licensing is 👏 not 👏 exploitative. It’s the whole point of licensing that work openly in the first place. 


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Cite this post:

Lincoln, Matthew D. "The Tate Uses Wikipedia for Artist Biographies, and I’m OK With It." Matthew Lincoln, PhD (blog), 09 Sep 2018, https://matthewlincoln.net/2018/09/09/the-tate-uses-wikipedia-for-artist-bios.html.


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