A fan of words? The National Gallery of Art has launched a copycat


Summer Brennan can recognize a Vincent van Gogh painting by her wispy, vibrant brushstrokes. A series of curly spirals or spindly legs? It’s probably Louise Bourgeois.

But after a few days of playing Artle, Brennan, a Paris-based writer, began to notice gaps in her artistic knowledge. For 30 years, she has indulged her love of the visual arts by visiting galleries, reading books and attending performances. So when she couldn’t identify a work by French photographer Eugène Atget, it was like an embarrassing slip.

“It gives you some self-awareness when you realize that all the artists you know right now are like 19th-century white artists, that maybe it’s time to expand some of your appreciation of art,” Brennan said.

One of Wordle’s latest imitators challenges players not with letters, but with images taken from the National Gallery of Art. The popular daily word game, which was picked up by The New York Times for seven figures in January, has garnered dozens of spin-offs: Squabble (a Wordle battle royale), Heardle (for musical minds) and even Lewdle (for blasphemy experts).

Artle begins by showing players a work of art – a painting, photograph or sculpture – from the National Gallery of Art’s 150,000-piece collection, including whimsical paintings by Georgia O’Keeffe and dark photographs by Roy DeCarava. Players have four chances to guess the artist. Unlike Wordle, there are no hints, although the art gradually becomes easier to identify as players type. Players can then share their results with friends via text or social media.

New York-based art critic Mary Gregory started playing Artle when it launched last month and it has now become a ritual. Every day, Gregory and her husband return to the gallery’s Artle website to test their artistic skills and extend their unbroken winning streak.

“It’s fun. It’s a little challenge. And you know what? If you get it wrong at the end, they tell you who it was,” she said. collection of the National Gallery, and the National Gallery belongs to everyone.”

Steven Garbarino, product manager at the gallery, began developing the game after noticing that people were searching for “Art Wordle” online but no such game existed. It was the worst possible time. In late March, museum staff were busy with “Afro-Atlantic Stories,” the gallery’s biggest exhibit since the pandemic began. Garbarino worried that launching a gaming app would be seen as a distraction.

To his surprise, the director of the National Gallery of Art, Kaywin Feldman, quickly jumped on board. The game took just over a month to build, and it quickly started to attract an audience, with players in almost every country. It has been played over a million times and has 30,000 daily players. The game increased traffic to the museum’s website by 125%.

“You can catch a little lightning in a bottle and see cascading results,” Garbarino said. “We don’t need to spend 12 months developing a huge strategy and positioning plan. We can build something small (like Artle) that engages the audience.

Projects like Artle reflect a new vision for the National Gallery of Art: a desire to quickly reach new and more diverse audiences. Since being named director in 2019, Feldman has updated the museum’s mission statement and priorities. The product management team, which developed the game, doubled in size, including adding more software engineers and digital consultants under Feldman’s leadership. “Most of our funding comes from the American taxpayers, so we owe it to them to give them the greatest artistic experience possible. And the nation is a very diverse place. We want to focus on the great wealth of diversity in the American people and better reflect the nation,” Feldman said in an interview with The Washingtonian last year.

The team worked closely with the gallery’s education department to choose a mix of famous and easily identifiable works of art and more obscure pieces. In the game, for example, Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings are considered easy to identify, while James McNeill Whistler’s are a bit more difficult. Meanwhile, a piece by Elizabeth Catlett, a black sculptor and graphic designer, is considered hard to spot.

The gallery wants the artists featured in the game to reflect a diversity of races and genders, Garbarino said. “A lot of times some of the lowest success rates are for artists from diverse backgrounds, artists of color, or women artists,” he said.

It’s a challenge. Of the 157,553 objects in the gallery’s collection, only 2.3% are by non-white artists and 8.1% by female artists. In the first 45 days of “Artle”, 17.8% of the objects used in the game were non-white artists and 22.2% were female artists.

“It’s a good balance between promoting artists that we think should be given a higher priority with audiences while maintaining that ease of introduction to the game,” Garbarino said. “If it happens two days in a row it’s a dead white man and somebody’s like, ‘Hey, every time I come here, it’s just a dead white man. ‘ It’s like, no, if you look at the wide range of all artists, it’s much more diverse, but it’s hard to communicate that in a day.

The well of famous artists will soon run out, Garbarino said, and “Artle” will have to start repeating artists or introducing its players to more unknown names.

That could scare away players like Brennan’s husband, who she says calls Artle “torture” and often just offers Picasso as an answer to every frame to finish the game quickly.

Turns out, Artle might not be for everyone.


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