March 22-25, 2006
Albuquerque, New Mexico

Papers: Using Open Source Software to Facilitate
Collaboration Among Artists, Exhibitors and Patrons

Michael Knapp, and Ellis Neder, Sway Design, USA


With the advent of wikis, blogs, bulletin boards and content management systems, Web sites are moving beyond simple information presentation and evolving into spaces for on-line collaboration. Using open source software, museums can enable the kind of participant editing that wikis inspire, and offer an extensive class of functional objects such as blogs, calendars and galleries that allow users to display and manage their own content. This collaborative approach promotes effective three-way communication among artist, exhibitor and patron, and creates a platform for developing on-line exhibits built from user participation. The Foundation for Contemporary Arts (FCA), a foundation established in 1963 by Jasper Johns and John Cage to promote and support the work of other artists, uses a collaborative approach for its on-line presentation of artist grantees. Individuals receiving awards from the foundation are given their own pages on the FCA Web site where they can edit their biographical information, add images of their artwork, and update a list of their recent exhibitions and performances without relying on the foundation's staff. The FCA site, built through the collaboration of its grantees, is consistent with the spirit of community the foundation strives to create.

Keywords: Open source, wiki, blog, content management systems, personalization, customization, collaboration, artists, museums


Most open source projects begin with the frustration of looking for a tool to do a job and finding none. The Foundation for Contemporary Arts (FCA) Web site project ( began in this fashion. The requirements for the project included a flexible gallery tool, an easy-to-use content management system, a set of forms for uploading data, and a permission model that would allow content to be created and edited by administrators, staff and artists. We couldn’t locate existing software that accomplished these goals, so we built on available open source software created for other purposes. The end result is a set of Web tools that can be used by other organizations in the future without the limitations imposed by proprietary software licensing.

In this paper, we explore the role that open source software played in the FCA Web site project and postulate that this type of software will become increasingly important to museums as they build applications that push their own sites beyond static information presentation. We also consider how tools like wikis, blogs, and content management systems are evolving into spaces for collaboration, and we examine how on-line exhibits built from these tools offer a new role for museums as the curators and exhibitors of a growing body of public digital material.

For museums there is a four-step process to adopting the open source model and encouraging user participation and collaboration.

  • step 1: using open source software so that unique software contributions can be built collaboratively and then shared. This lays the foundation for
  • step 2: personalizing the experience for a museum Web site’s visitors.
  • step 3: allowing visitors to create their own content
  • step 4: encouraging the sharing of that content with galleries, museums and arts education Web sites.

The Open Source Approach

What is Open Source?

Science is an open source enterprise (Dibona et al, 1999). Replication of an experiment is not possible unless the original creation or source is shared. In a similar fashion, open source software developed from the belief that the knowledge that constitutes a running program - source code - should be free. By definition, open source software refers to any program whose source code is made available for use or modification as users see fit. Bruce Perens (1997) outlines key conditions that must be met for a piece of software to be considered open source:

  • The software's license should not restrict parties from selling or giving away the software or require a royalty or fee.
  • Source code should be freely available, easy to obtain and easy to modify.
  • The software's license must allow modification, experimentation and redistribution of resulting works.
  • The license must not discriminate against any person or group of persons and must not restrict anyone from making use of the software in a specific field.
  • The rights attached to the program must apply to all to whom the program is redistributed and forbids closing up software by indirect means (such as requiring a non-disclosure agreement) or dependency on a particular software distribution.
  • The license must not place restrictions on other software that is distributed along with the licensed software and must be technology-neutral.

This open source approach can be extended beyond software to data and content. The growth of the open source encyclopedia Wikipedia is a dramatic example of the usefulness of the open source movement in fields outside of software development. Launched in 2001 by Jimmy Wales, Wikipedia is a Web-based encyclopedia that allows any visitor to edit any page on the site. By late 2004 Wikipedia had grown larger than the Encyclopaedia Britannica and Encarta combined, and had been built almost entirely by volunteers. It now features over a million articles in more than 100 languages (Mulgan et al, 2005).

Wikipedia is rapidly becoming the best-known space for encyclopedic knowledge collection on-line. The strength of this “open sandbox” for current and historical facts lies in its approach to information presentation. Users feel connected to the site because it offers a place where they feel empowered to contribute their own knowledge to the common good.

So far, the wikipedia [sic] has suffered little from the kind of vandalism that one might expect to occur given its open editing capabilities. There are several reasons for this. On the one hand, authors and contributors who have put effort into creating an entry have a vested interest in maintaining and improving the resource, and due to the “change history” function, individual pages can be restored relatively easily. The latest version of the platform has an added feature that can send out alerts to people who request them whenever a specific page has been changed. The other reason is that the project still has a “community” character to it, so there seems to be a certain shared feeling that it is a valuable resource and needs to be maintained properly. Finally, in case of real differences over content, it's often easier to create a new entry rather than to fight over an existing one. This is one of the great advantages of having infinite space (Stalder and Hirsch, 2002).

Wikipedia’s “community character” is grounded in the open source movement. Its emphasis on collaboration signals a paradigm shift that has helped it avoid the pitfalls experienced by many on-line media companies that have opened their Web sites to the public.

Unlike the point-to-mass paradigm of the manufacturing era, a collaborative or open model implies mass participation in creation of a service or situation. A new kind of immersive innovation emerges as the functional divisions between users and producers of a service become blurred (Thackara, 2005).

The New Collaborative Space

Just two years ago the idea that museums and arts organizations would build on-line collaborative or “personalized” spaces like Wikipedia came with a few caveats:

There is a place for it in leading edge Web sites and for certain innovative facilities like advanced Web support for specific exhibits. It is an area that museums should certainly consider, but the costs should be weighed against the benefits. Of course, the costs are likely to decrease as commercial and open source support improves in this area (Bowen, 2004).

Since 2004, community and personalization on the Web have seen dramatic growth. Sites such as Flickr,, Wikepedia and MySpace offer users more and more opportunities to remix and contribute to the Web sites they view. Recently, Web portals like Yahoo! have made major commitments to shifting their business models from closed, data driven applications to community-based search tools that allow their users to have a greater impact on the content they present. The initial experience created by, where shoppers can rate and offer opinions on products, has evolved to the point where our shared collection of knowledge and history is also open for review, opinion and revision. Opening up Web site content to the general public has been marked by successes like and Flickr, where users freely share information and knowledge. It has also been marked by dramatic failures in the media industry at publications like The Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post, where emotionally charged issues and ideas can reduce public discourse to one-sided shouting. However, Web users have come to expect the opportunity to insert themselves into a Web presence, and this expectation will continue to grow.

Where does this leave the museum? A new generation of museum goers are already adapting their own personalization technologies to the museum environment with or without official institutional support. The students behind last years ArtMobs project ( are chipping away at the traditional museum acoustic tour with their irreverent podcasts of The Museum of Modern Art's (MoMA) permanent collection. MoMA wisely encouraged the student’s dramatic interpretations, original music and unofficial guides relating to works by Picasso, Max Beckman, Cindy Sherman, and others, and even sent representatives to help generate publicity for the ArtMobs project on public radio stations. This kind of fearless embracing of new, unmoderated public content puts MoMA in good stead with an upcoming generation of museum goers who will look to carve out their own personal space within the exhibition environment.

The Tools of Collaborative Spaces

For most museums and institutions, opening content on their Web site to users outside of their staff and vendors can be a challenging proposition because there are numerous issues to consider when multiple individuals need to access a Web site. Three key issues are

  • Facilitating user login
  • Organizing users once they enter a Web site
  • Monitoring user contributions

These issues need to be considered in detail and carefully integrated into a Web site to create a successful environment in which collaboration and data sharing can occur.

Facilitating Login

The first step is clear adoption of a user login for people who want to alter or add content. Users must login and enter their personalized Web space to access the software that makes social networking sites like Flickr and MySpace work. User login was once seen as a hurdle to drawing viewers to a Web site. As audiences make the shift from viewer to user, login becomes an accepted norm, or even an expectation, to access the benefits a Web site offers. Some sites, including a number of wikis, do not require users to log in to contribute or edit content. For true personalization of on-line content, which includes user organization and user tracking, login is a necessary requirement.

Organizing Users

Once users enter a Web site and log in, they can be classified - or classify themselves - into groups. This helps Web site administrators communicate with users and keep track of large numbers of people with a few simple clicks. If this is not done, contacting or monitoring users as individuals can offer a substantial hurdle to organizational staff trying to maintain a Web site.

Monitoring User Contributions

A key to opening up a Web site’s content is user tracking and versioning of changes. Programs must be in place that record who did what when, so that individuals can take responsibility for their additions to a site and so that administrators can access earlier versions of a site's content and view a history of recent changes.

The FCA Site - Building a Space for Artists

FCA was founded in 1962 when Jasper Johns, John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, and others came together to help the Merce Cunningham Dance Company finance a proposed season on Broadway by arranging for a sale of their artworks. Since then, exhibitions and sales of works donated by more than 500 visual artists have made possible the foundation's program of non-restrictive grants to organizations and individuals working in dance, music, performance art/theater, poetry and the visual arts.

Fig 1: The Foundation for Contemporary Arts homepage

Fig 1: The Foundation for Contemporary Arts homepage

FCA requested a Web site that would highlight their mission, outline their donation process and present their grantees to the general public. They expressed an interest in using open source software to develop a customizable and personalized Web presence. In 2004, under an open source license, we had created similar software to support school improvement for the National Education Association ( Our school improvement software evolved later that year by leveraging work we did in civic engagement with the Center for Civic Participation (CCP) ( In 2005, we adapted the same software to suit FCA's specific needs. For example, the FCA calendar was built on an existing tool used by CCP. The content management system and user permission model created for The State of Nevada Department of Education ( was adapted to allow FCA artists to edit their own pages while being managed by FCA staff.

Two new features were created specifically for the FCA project and re-released under the open source license: a blog for artists and a gallery tool that offers easy uploading of text and images along with a thumbnail generation feature. The blog and gallery tools are now available for future projects that may wish to build on our work.

Because FCA was established by artists for artists, an opportunity to highlight the working process of the foundation's grantees became a central goal of the Web site. We encouraged FCA to offer each grantee his own page on the site, allowing the artists to edit their own content and show their working processes via a blog. FCA felt unsure about how best to open up their Web site to individuals outside of in-house staff. It was decided that a simple rollout of one artist blog as a test case would help judge the usefulness and technical feasibility of the project. Because the Web site had been built on existing open source features that had been previously tested and deployed, the process of setting up the blog, establishing the artist’s user login and hiding the work in process from the general public while it was in “test” mode was simple and straightforward.

Tools For Three Types of Users

User Type One: Administrators

Administrators to the FCA Web site are decision makers within FCA's staff who are responsible for all of the site's content and user permissions. Site administrators can:

  • Access and change the HTML templates that make up the site
  • Add new users to the site, place these users in groups and control their permissions
  • Add new pages to the site

The permission model for the site was built on an existing open source tool created for the State of Nevada Department of Education. It was designed to handle large numbers of individuals while allowing them to create an unlimited number of pages within the overall site. This model was more than an organization the size of FCA required to handle its significantly smaller number of users; but because the software architecture was already in place, it was useful to bring this model over “as is” with the expectation that it will offer FCA long-term opportunities for future growth.

User Type Two: Staff

Staff logged into the FCA site are typically interns or vendors who are responsible for adding new content to site. They are given “Simple Edit” status, which allows them to make text changes on any Web page. These users were placed in a group called “Staff” that allows site administrators to e-mail everyone within this group at one time. It also allows administrators to control which pages are visible and editable by the Staff group on a localized, page-by-page basis as well as a global, site-wide basis. Members of the Staff group can:

  • Change content in pre-defined areas of the site
  • Add images and data to a database using specific forms
  • Change their own user profiles and passwords

For this project, two custom features were created that staff will work with: a Calendar for keeping track of recent grantee events and a Gallery that staff members are responsible for editing. To facilitate quick and error-free content addition, custom forms were designed to guide staff members when entering data into corresponding fields for each tool. The Gallery displays artworks that are donated to FCA and is a critical part of the overall project since it is used as a primary means for fundraising. The Gallery needed to be easy to use, robust enough to handle 400-plus works of art, and extensible for the future. We found that with one simple training session staff members could use the forms we created.

Fig 2: Screenshot of a sample work from the FCA gallery

Fig 2: Screenshot of a sample work from the FCA gallery

User Type Three: Artists

Like Staff users, Artists on the FCA site have “Simple Edit” status but they can only edit content on predetermined pages selected by the site's administrators. Artists can:

  • Change content in pre-defined areas of the sites pages
  • Add images and data to their blogs via a form
  • Change their user profiles and passwords
Figure 3. Screenshot of an FCA artist page

Figure 3. Screenshot of an FCA artist page

Adding the Blog to the Artist Page on the FCA Web site

Each artist grantee on the FCA Web site receives his own Grantee Page which presents images of his work, his bio and a list of recent exhibitions or performances. FCA staff edits and controls these pages using built-in form tools that match pre-specified fields in the site’s HTML templates. This form-based approach makes data entry easy and helps alleviate FCA's day-to-day content management of the Web site. Artists also help to simplify the content creation process by updating their own bios and images.

In addition to a Grantee Page, some artists also received their own blogs, where they can talk about their work in detail. From the public users’ perspective, FCA artist blogs can be found on specific artists’ pages under the years they were awarded grants. This placement builds clear connections between an individual artist’s bio, classification as an FCA grantee for a specific year, and blog which shows how the grant support is being used.. An artist without an existing Web presence was chosen from the 2005 round of grantees to start FCA’s pilot blog project: Jonah Bokaer, a dancer with a history of performance with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. Because Bokaer had no existing Web site, he embraced the opportunity to show his work in process leading up to a performance at Dance Theater Workshop in January 2006. Bokaer documented the preparations for his performance, including the difficulties of long-distance rehearsing and the challenges he faced integrating motion capture and 3-D software technology into his work.

Fig 4: Jonah Bokaer’s blog

Fig 4: Jonah Bokaer’s blog

Setting User Permissions

Once Bokaer’s blog was established on the FCA Web site, its user permissions were set to “not visible,” which meant that only the artist himself and logged-in FCA staff could see the blog as it developed on the live Web site. This approach allowed for easy feedback and evaluation during the pilot portion of this project.

Training the Artist / User

We have found that a key element to encouraging users to work with personalized Web pages is training them to use the software we offer them. It is important to make sure they have the correct tools (Internet access, content creation software, current browsers, etc.) so they can work with the site’s tools in an unguided way. We found that a quick meeting with Bokaer to run through the form fields and confirm the step-by-step process of adding data helped avoid confusion. In our meeting we explained:

  • Optimization and correct resolution for images
  • The importance of working with HTML-friendly text and data
  • How free or open source software like Picassa and could be used for working with images and text
  • How the data uploading process worked

We found that with just an hour of training, the artist was able to work with the blog; he began creating entries the following night. Since our first meeting, no additional training has been necessary to keep Bokaer blogging.

Encouraging Good Content

One key question that Bokaer asked when approaching this project was, “What should I put on my blog?” We encouraged him to:

  • Upload pictures that are large and clear
  • Create paragraphs under each image that offer context and meaning
  • Avoid overly wordy entries that stray off topic
  • Keep posts focused on issues that relate to his work and try not to fall into generalized musings on the dance world, other artists, etc.

We encouraged Bokaer to speak with an honest voice about the creative process and to tell us what it felt like to try to pull a complex piece of choreography together over a short period of time. A sample entry read:

Virtual Rehearsals
The most challenging aspect of preparing for the upcoming work at Dance Theatre Workshop has been coordinating rehearsals with the four other performers. Because it was nearly impossible to find available times before the performance week, we resorted to “virtual” rehearsals: I created multiple QuickTime files of the animated choreography, so that each performer could practice their roles independently. This saved an incredible amount of time (and money) that was not available during the creative process. Rather than booking rehearsal space and coordinating schedules, cast members were able to rehearse autonomously, often in different parts of the globe.

Entries like this offer FCA's audience and funders a “behind the scenes” view of what an artist must accomplish to create and present his work. For FCA, it's an opportunity to show the specific fruits that come of their commitment to the visual and performing arts. It also helps to promote a better understanding of disciplines such as dance, poetry and video art, where the process of the creative act is often a key element to understanding an artwork's underlining meaning and cultural context.

The Walker Art Museum has recently created blogs that offer similar opportunities to connect with the public ( The Walker's approach gives staff and curators direct access to the Walker’s Web site and offers a similar “behind the scenes” view of how museums create exhibitions. The most successful part of the Walker's new blogs is their organization around specific areas of interest; such as Visual Arts, New Media Initiatives, and Film/Video. In these defined spaces, curators discuss a number of topics ranging from current and upcoming exhibitions at the museum, to artists they admire, to events happening outside the museum in the national arena. The Walker’s Web site, and others like it, is evolving by presenting more that one institutional voice. Suddenly, staff, curators and the artists that create contemporary art can contribute to a museum’s Web presence by sharing their own specific points of view.

Going Forward - Accepting Data from the Public

What's next for museum personalization on the Web? We would like to see museums combine the three user models above with a fourth - the public - to create truly personalized records of exhibits. Public wikis are an obvious next step for museums looking to accept and promote individualized data on their Web sites. Exhibitions could be built and designed to accept user data over a set or extended period of time.

These evolving, personalized Web spaces won’t change the traditional role museums play as the interpreters and presenters of the scientific, historical or artistic value of their collections. Instead, they will allow museums to collaborate with one another, with artists, and with the public, to create on-line exhibits from the growing set of digital materials in ways that have not been possible until now.


Ben Tucker and Brandt Kurowski at Stacy Tenenbaum Stark, John Delk and Jessica Williamson at the Foundation for Contemporary Arts. Special thanks to Jonah Bokaer for allowing us to use images of his work.


Bowen, Jonathan P. and Silvia Filippini-Fantoni (2004). Personalization and the Web from a Museum Perspective. In D. Bearman and J. Trant (eds.) Museums and the Web 2004 Proceedings. CD ROM. Archives & Museum Informatics 2004. Available:

DiBona, Chris, Sam Ockman, Mark Stone (editors) (1999). Open Sources: Voices from the Open Source Revolution. O’Reilly Press.

Mulgan, Geoff, Omar Salem, Tom Steinberg (2005). Open Source Methods and their Future Potential. Demos Press.

Perens, Bruce (1997). “The Open Source Definition Version 1.9,” The Open Source Initiative.

Stadler, Felix and Jesse Hirsch (2002). “Open Source Intelligence,” First Monday 7, no. 6.

Thackara, John (2005). In the Bubble: Designing in a Complex World. MIT Press, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Cite as:

Knapp M. and Neder E., Using Open Source Software to Facilitate Collaboration Among Artists, Exhibitors and Patrons, in J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds.). Museums and the Web 2006: Proceedings, Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics, published March 1, 2006 at