Computer Curators: Exploring the Nasher’s AI Curated Exhibit

February 7, 2024
Science Magazine

Since OpenAI released its cutting-edge large language model ChatGPT, scientists, students, and just about everyone have been searching for ways to leverage artificial intelligence (AI) technology in new ways. Curators at Duke’s Nasher Museum of Art did the same, revealing a new experimental exhibit in September 2023 curated entirely by ChatGPT.

As ChatGPT swept the world as a tool for completing pressing assignments quickly, the idea to curate an art exhibit with AI sprang to life at a board meeting as the Nasher’s curators discussed their next project for the Incubator Gallery.

“Someone suggested jokingly that we should use ChatGPT,” said Ruth Player, a coordinator of student affairs at the Nasher. But senior curators took the idea seriously. By September 2023, the suggestion had taken shape as the Nasher’s newest exhibit: Act as if you are a curator:

an AI-generated exhibition.

Above: Vertices staff interviewed Nasher affiliate Ruth Player to learn more about the AI-curated Incubator exhibit. Image courtesy of Wendy Hower.  

Art curation, or the practice of selecting artworks to design an exhibit around a central theme, is a complex task requiring deep knowledge of art history and how to mesh pieces together to form a cohesive narrative. Curators from the Nasher contacted Mark Olson, professor of visual studies at Duke, to help connect ChatGPT and the museum’s catalog of art. Ruth Player, an undergraduate studying civil engineering and art history, explained that the team first attempted to have ChatGPT explore the museum’s website to view the pieces but later opted for a custom interface that allowed the model to read a text file with descriptive data about the works. While the current version of OpenAI’s model can read and understand image files, the exhibit used version 3.5, which lacks this functionality. 

After reading the Nasher’s art catalog, ChatGPT decided on the exhibit’s theme—“Dreams of Tomorrow: Utopian and Dystopian Visions”—and selected about twenty corresponding works to display on the walls of the rectangular gallery space. The model had total freedom in layout and exhibit design. "What you see in the exhibit is in the order that ChatGPT returned," said Player. At times, though, the model suggested design choices that were not possible given the area’s floorplan such as “placing a Dali in its own corner” with a dedicated viewing area. 

Above: Displayed outside of the gallery, ChatGPT’s introduction to the exhibit it curated for the Nasher highlighted key works inside. Image courtesy of The News and Observer

The exhibit itself consists of a curious collection of artworks that relate to the theme, including works by Salvador Dali, photography, and even stone sculptures. The model’s selections cross time periods and locations as often as they change medium, creating a truly diverse collection of pieces. The Nasher’s exhibit explores themes of sleep, surrealism, and utopian and dystopian realities using works that observers can easily connect back to the central theme. "Professional art curators would say [the simple curation] a weakness," Player said, yet she notes its strength in attracting a wider audience unfamiliar with the art world. 

Many of the artwork descriptions ChatGPT wrote for the exhibit contain errors or misinformation caused by a limited understanding of the works. The exhibit, with its relatively simple theme, would not rank among the top human-curated displays you might see in Paris or New York City, but that could change in the future. If human curators extended the description data in a future experiment, “it could help close the gap” between professional and AI art curation, Player acknowledges. 

Thankfully, it seems that the Nasher’s team of star curators will not be out of work any time soon. If the exhibit has proven one thing, it is that AI cannot yet match human standards for curation, like many other complex creative endeavors.

"Speaking for the curators I know at the Nasher, they feel greater job security," Player said. "I really hope [this type of exhibit] is redone in the next four or five years." Like many aspects of artificial intelligence, the future of AI-assisted art curation is unknown, but one thing is for certain: the Nasher Museum of Art will be on the front lines to uncover it. 

Act as if you are a curator: an AI-generated exhibition is open to visitors at the Nasher until February 18, 2024.

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