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Master Strokes: Tom Catalini '90
This article originally appeared in the Bentley Magazine.
For Museum of Fine Arts Boston CIO Tom Catalini ’90, art appreciation doesn’t necessarily begin in the exhibition halls and galleries of the storied institution where he works. It often starts even closer at hand for someone with a penchant for all things tech: on his iPad.
The museum has an online catalogue, Paintings of the Americas, which the former Computer Information Systems major often consults before visiting the pieces in person.
“Interacting with the art before or even after I see it enhances the experience of seeing it,” says Catalini, noting that the MFA was among the first such institutions to put its collection on the Web. “You might think of museums as static types of environments, but these old institutions have had to think through a lot of technological evolutions. I see them as inherently innovative. You have to be creative and adaptable to survive and thrive for more than 140 years.”
Down to Business
The mandate to innovate falls squarely in Catalini’s corner. He joined the MFA leadership team two years ago — its first-ever chief information officer, charged with making more strategic use of information technology across the organization.
“Technology allows us to serve the mission of the museum in ways that would otherwise be difficult or impossible,” Catalini explains. “The Internet and IT resources can help make our collection accessible, educate the public and give global reach, as well as enhance a person’s visit.
“We’re always considering what’s the right balance of technologies in the galleries,” he adds. “There’s a fine line between where technology intrudes and where it enhances.”
Though the arts is new professional territory, Catalini arrived with IT leadership skills forged in several industries, most recently, financial services.
“There is a real need to understand technology in the context of running a business,” he says, noting that Bentley CIS majors were well-served by “studying technology in a business school environment where topics of business operations, management and finance permeated the curriculum.”
And make no mistake: An art museum is a business. Nonprofit status and $554 million endowment notwithstanding, the MFA supports its mission through several revenue streams besides philanthropy, as it receives no government funding. IT figures into virtually every aspect of museum operations: membership programs, ticket sales, associated restaurants and retail shops, and more.
Portrait of Innovation
Catalini and his team oversaw implementing two recent ventures that marry art and technology. The MFA for Educators website, launched last summer, enables teachers to work with their classes to organize and plan a visit to the museum. Teachers can also use the fully mobile site (educators.mfa.org) to work with pieces from the MFA collection, creating their own programs and multimedia assignments that students can pursue online.
“This represents the future for the museum’s platforms on the Web,” Catalini says of features such as access to the main collection database and a slideshow viewer, which let users interact with artwork in a new and different way.
Early 2014 brought the museum’s first crowd-sourced exhibit. Instead of putting art into storage while renovating its Impressionism gallery, the MFA invited the public to vote on favorite paintings for display in a temporary space. A total of 41,497 votes came in across Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest and other social media sites for the Boston Loves Impressionism campaign. The resulting exhibition of 30 pieces ran from February 14 to May 26.
“It’s unusual for a museum to engage the public so directly in shaping an exhibition,” says Catalini, whose own vote went to Boulevard Saint-Denis, Argenteuil, in Winter by Claude Monet. [The winners are posted at pinterest.com/mfaboston/boston-loves-impressionismwinning-works.]
Marvels of technology notwithstanding, Catalini’s favorite parts of the job involve strategic problem solving and, above all, working with people. “I love getting down to the nitty-gritty of strategic decisions and figuring out how to move things forward.”
Lately, that focus on strategy and human connections is helping his team navigate the early stages of an ambitious initiative: developing the design and architecture of a digital experience that is cohesive across mobile, Web and in-gallery platforms — and maximizes the unique characteristics of each.
“It’s a big challenge,” Catalini says of the project, “but one that is fun to define, refine and figure out how to bring forth strategically over time.”
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