Full Bio

Creating and Establishing Global Art Information Standards

Eleanor credits working with art history scholars as her inspiration for creating art data standards – particularly when she was Chief of the Office of Research Support at the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM).  In an interview for the Museum Computer Network Voices Project (https://mcn.edu/mcn50-voices-eleanor-e-fink-dara-lohnes-davies/) she explains that unlike library science there were no documentation standards in the field of art history for cataloging art in the 1980’s when she oversaw five research databases about the subject of American art. To successfully manage and search data, standards are needed.  She set out to create them.   

Her quest for documentation standards led to an invitation from the J. Paul Getty Trust to become the manager of a new department called Vocabulary Coordination under the aegis of the Art History Information Program.  She initiated and her staff launched the Union List of Artists Names, the Thesaurus of Geographic Names, and Categories for the Description of Works of Art. The challenge in designing these vocabulary and Metadata standards was how to gain acceptance of them from the scholarly community.  Most scholars prefer to use their own words rather than adhere to prescribed terms.  However, successful management and retrieval of data depends on consistency.  Eleanor and her staff convened experts and designed the vocabulary tools to overcome the notion of “controlled vocabulary.” The Getty Vocabularies are now widely accepted around the globe (https://www.getty.edu/research/tools/vocabularies/)

Reporting and Recovering Looted and Stolen Cultural Property (Object ID)

At the Getty, Eleanor also initiated a metadata standard to report looted or stolen cultural property called Object ID.  “I was visiting the F.B.I. in Washington DC when a report arrived about a work of art stolen from a museum in Amsterdam. I asked what happens next and was perplexed to learn that it would take weeks before information would be circulated across police databases worldwide.  Reasons for the delay included that the report of the stolen work was too long.  It was the museum’s official record containing more information than necessary for circulating a theft alert.  The procedure was to select key information describing the object and enter it in the F.B.I. database.  What was needed for rapid circulation was a concise description that would uniquely identify the stolen object.  A concise description would also help police and custom officials in the field compare and determine if an object they suspected as stolen was the same work listed in a theft alert.  A second problem was that police around the globe have different data platforms and standards preventing information from being shared across law enforcement databases. Too much time was being wasted entering and reentering data into each police database. Her solution was Object ID.  After investing in building trust across key cultural heritage agencies such as UNESCO, ICOM, Council of Europe, and USAID as well as law enforcement agencies such as Interpol and the Italian Police, she formed an alliance, hired staff to conduct surveys and hold dialogs with stakeholders under the umbrella of the alliance.  The result was Object ID – a Metadata standard for rapidly reporting looted or stolen cultural property.  Object ID is based on providing the minimum data required to identify a cultural object.  Today, it is the basis of art theft databases worldwide including Interpol, Carabinieri, and the Art Loss Register. It is used by the US Military and ICE for recording information about works of art under threat or suspected of being stolen.  In addition, UNESCO recommends member countries apply it in documenting their cultural heritage. Today, Object ID is overseen by the International Council of Museums (ICOM). https://icom.museum/en/resources/standards-guidelines/objectid/  

Searching Across the Universe of Websites and Research Databases

When Eleanor became the Director of the Getty’s Art History Information Program later known as the Getty Information Institute (GII), she began to see new possibilities for simplifying access to the universe of information about our cultural heritage – namely being able to seamlessly search across the digital domain of websites and research databases.  This concept is best described in a video she and her staff at the Getty produced called the Virtual Database – Art Information on the Networks   https://drive.google.com/file/d/1IuavP0M7HThcYydGAEpzxGKebmGSyKwU/view?usp=sharing.  In her own words, “If we value our cultural heritage as signposts for understanding the story of humankind: where civilization originated, what civilization achieved, and what it can teach us, why would we lock documents about our civilization in data silos.”  

Under her leadership, GII produced a digital gateway to the art institutions and artists in the greater Los Angeles.  The gateway called L.A. Culture Net debuted when the Getty Center opened in 1997. She and her staff then launched American Strategy – a gateway to works of art housed in Federal agencies in Washington, DC.  Under her direction, the Getty Information Institute also launched the Museum Educational Site Licensing Initiative (MESL), National Initiative for A Networked Cultural Heritage (NINCH), and The Museum Interchange for Computer Information (CIMI). When the Getty Center opened, GII was recognized internationally as a forward thinking and collaborative organization that addressed the research needs, standards, and best practices that could bring the full benefits of digitized information to the cultural heritage community.  Ironically, all of GII’s creativity, energy and vision ended in and around 1998 when the Getty’s new president and CEO eliminated the Education and Information Institutes.  Within two years, the directors of the remaining institutes were gone. Only a few GII staff remained and relocated to the Getty Research Institute – namely the vocabulary program and some of the scholarly research databases. In the years following, one or two Getty successors attempted to shadow GII’s vision in respect to the concept of the virtual database and finding digital pathways across institutions (see http://www.dlib.org/dlib/march99/fink/03fink.html)

Linked Open Data and the American Art Collaborative

In recent years, Eleanor has been an independent consultant.  She initiated, raised funding, and headed a multi-year project comprised of fourteen museums called the American Art Collaborative (AAC) Linked Open Data Initiative. In computing, “Linked Data” describes a method of publishing structured data so that it can be interlinked and therefore useful in web implementations  The methods used to structure the data result in precise matches of information and they facilitate exploring relationships across domains of knowledge.  

AAC’s mission was to establish a critical mass of linked open data on the subject of American Art.  A key incentive for the project was to demonstrate the concept of seamless access across the digital domain. Data drawn from the collections of the fourteen participating museums is now publicly available as linked data on the internet and LOD cloud.  A researcher can search across the combined contents of the museums. One of the aims of the project was to inspire all museums to consider Linked Open Data (LOD).  For information about LOD and project specifics see American Art Collaborative Linked Open Data Initiative: Overview and Recommendations for Good Practices https://repository.si.edu/bitstream/handle/10088/106410/OverviewandRecommendationsAccessible.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y  

Demystifying Philanthropy and the World Bank

After leaving the Getty, Eleanor became the Senior Cultural Heritage Specialist to the President of the World Bank, James Wolfensohn.  She held various positions during her World Bank Group tenure.  The most senior being point person for managing partnerships with public and private foundations.  It was a challenging position. Foundations were generally highly critical of working with the World Bank Group.  Most World Bank staff did not understand the world of foundations and how they operate.  The legal department at the World Bank did not include or acknowledge in their partnership agreements, legal conditions and language required by US foundations.  Foundations on the other hand, did not comprehend that the Bank primarily lends money to developing countries and cannot make grants to foundations. By convening international dialogs with foundations and identifying barriers for partnerships with the World Bank, Eleanor significantly improved the World Bank Group’s opportunities to work with foundations.  Changes in attitude between foundations and the World Bank Group were achieved by publishing newsletters about foundations and how they operate, creating a number of training programs for Bank staff, and working with the legal department. She was one of the principal architects of a multi-year partnership with the philanthropic community that established community foundations in developing countries and she initiated the first series of “country dialogs” between World Bank’s field offices and local foundations (see booklet World Bank and Foundations: Good Practices for Partnerships  http://documents1.worldbank.org/curated/en/288641468137702863/pdf/450280WP0Box331rldBankGoodPractices.pdf    

Peter A. Juley and Son Collection and Research Databases

Eleanor’s first position out of graduate school was at the Smithsonian American Art Museum – known at the time as the National Collection of Fine Arts.  Her tenure at SAAM set the stage for her interest and pursuit of information standards and how to conduct research. She was initially hired to establish a photograph archive and slide library to serve the Museum’s Research and Scholars Center. Early in her appointment, Eleanor was responsible for a large archive – the Peter A. Juley and Son Collection – documenting 80 years of American artists and their works of art.  The archive was in New York City and would be transferred to Washington, DC.   The collection contained 127,000 negatives taken over decades by Peter A. Juley and his Son Paul Juley. The Juley photo studio was located next to the Art Students League and while active, the Juleys had been the official photographers of the National Academy of Design.  Traditionally, the studio closed during the summer because most of artists headed to summer colonies such as Woodstock, Old Lyme, Gloucester, and Mystic.  When first visiting the studio, Eleanor knew she was discovering a treasure and later after overseeing the transfer of the collection and setting up a preservation project to catalog and save deteriorating nitrate negatives in the collection, she began writing to scholars to gather evidence that the photo documentation of works of art in the collection was unique.  Scholars were thrilled and wrote to her stating that what she had sent them was in some cases the only record of a lost or damaged work of art.  The feedback she received clearly indicated the collection had to be saved.  Eleanor organized an exhibition about the Juley Collection that pointed to the research value of the photographs.  Included were rare photographs depicting Hervey White and his Woodstock Mavericks, a photograph of an Ernest Blumenschein painting that had been cut in half and given to different people, a photograph of a painting by Georgia O’Keeffe that had burned in a fire and much more.  The evidence of value helped her raise funding from various foundations to set up a model preservation project. Her most successful outreach came from a partnership she negotiated with the Getty Trust to purchase one print of each of the 127,000 negatives in the Juley Collection.  Over a period of several years, one million dollars from the Getty covered the cost of six staff responsible for cataloging the collection, copying the nitrate film, and producing prints from each negative.   

SAAM had a research and scholars program and had early on embraced use of computer technology to collect information on the subject of American art (see interview for the Museum Computer Network Voices Project (https://mcn.edu/mcn50-voices-eleanor-e-fink-dara-lohnes-davies/ and article, Creating a Digital Cultural Heritage Ecosystem: Global Documentation Standards and Linked Open Data).  The computerized research projects, national in scope included The Bicentennial Inventory of American Paintings Executive Before 1914; the Pre-1877 Art Exhibition Catalogue Index; and Save Outdoor Sculpture (initiated by Eleanor). Working with scholars and computer analysts at the Smithsonian shaped Eleanor’s awareness of research requirements, how to collect and manage information, and the need for documentation standards.