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How do you reimagine a century-old reference series for the digital age? In 1919, a French archaeologist started the Corpus Vasorum Antiquorum, or CVA, with the ambitious goal of cataloging every ancient painted vase in the world. Nearly 400 volumes, compiling some 100,000 vases, have been published to date, making the CVA one of the most important resources for researchers working on ancient Greek art and culture. Getty’s most recent addition to the CVA is the first born-digital, open-access volume of this essential series.

In this episode, Despoina Tsiafakis, the author of Getty’s new CVA volume and the director of research at the Athena Research and Innovation Center in Greece, speaks with Getty curator David Saunders and Getty digital publications manager Greg Albers about the history of the CVA and the process of bringing the series to a new digital platform.

Greek Krater vase, with black painted figures on a red clay base. This side shows three men with spears. There is a dog in the lower right.

Attic Red-Figure Column Krater, about 480 BC, attributed to Myson. Terracotta, 13 3/8 × 12 5/16 in. 86.AE.205. Digital image courtesy of Getty Open Content

More to explore:

Corpus Vasorum Antiquorum, The J. Paul Getty Museum, Fascicule 10

Corpus Vasorum Antiquorum series website


JAMES CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, President of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.
DESPOINA TSIAFAKIS: The CVAs are very limited numbered volumes, only in libraries. So someone had to go to the library; it was not really easy to use them. With this now, people can use it anytime.
CUNO: In this episode, I speak with scholar Despoina Tsiafakis, Getty curator David Saunders, and Getty digital publications manager Greg Albers, about their new online catalogue of the Getty’s collection of ancient Athenian Red-Figure Column- and Volute-Kraters.
The Corpus Vasorum Antiquorum is a one-hundred-year-old international cataloguing project focused on Greek painted pottery and museum collections. The volume we are focusing on in this episode is dedicated to the Athenian red-figure column- and volute-Kraters or ancient Greek vessels used for diluting wine with water. This is the tenth volume published by the Getty in the Corpus. Other earlier volumes focused on among other topics Attic black-figure ware, Etruscan painted pottery, and Apulian, Campanian, and Sicilian red-figure vases. Many of the volumes of the one-hundred-year-old international series have been digitized and are available online. The Getty’s recent volume is the first in the Corpus Vasorum Antiquorum to be born digital as an online publication. The difference between digitized and online books is one of the topics we discuss in this episode.
Joining me in this conversation were scholar Despoina Tsiafakis, head of the Athena Research and Innovation Center, Getty Museum curator, David Saunders, and Getty Digital Publications manager, Greg Albers.
Thank you David, Despoina, and Greg, for joining me on this episode of our podcast. David, to get us started, tell our listeners about the series of publications collectively known as the Corpus Vasorum Antiquorum, or CVA—what it is, what’s the history of the Getty’s association with it.
DAVID SAUNDERS: Well, it’s actually a, I think, a happy accident with this latest volume of the CVA, the Corpus Vasorum Antiquorum, that it was published in 2019, because that is the centenary of the CVA project. It originated in 1919. The Louvre curator Edmond Pottier proposed this idea to the Union Académique Internationale, to undertake a cataloging, a publication of collections of ancient pottery from across museums. And Corpus Vasorum Antiquorum, as a crude translation, is the sort of body of ancient vases. And this was what Pottier was envisioning. Pottier was a curator of antiquities at the Louvre, specializing in ancient pottery, very well versed, not only in Greek, but also Near Eastern, and recognized the real need for a consistent approach to documenting and publishing ancient pottery. And it’s maybe worth saying that for archaeologists, pottery is absolutely integral to the work that we do. It preserves very well, survives in enormous quantities. It’s a very utilitarian medium and it’s found all over. And for archaeologists, it’s a really critical tool for understanding chronology, for identifying trade and collections, interactions, seeing how different cultures are engaging with one another. And Pottier’s vision for this Corpus Vasorum Antiquorum was to really get everyone talking about it on a level platform and to encourage museums to publish their collections in a clear and consistent way. Pottier’s vision, coming in the late nineteenth, early twentieth centuries, was incredibly wide ranging. And he was not limiting himself to Greek pottery; he was wanting the CVA to include all ancient European fabrics, Near Eastern, all across the ancient Mediterranean. So really wide ranging and ambitious. And the very first CVA volumes that Pottier and others published in the 1920s manifest this vision, a real kind of desire to organize and create typologies. And so if you pick up the very earliest volumes of the CVA, you’ll find each different type and subtype of pottery has its own special code number. All the different sections are bound separately, so that you can interleave them based on your research interests. So if you, for example, are interested in Etruscan bucchero or Elamite beakers, you can assemble your own package, if you will. It’s a very sort of, in its own way, interactive project. So it was a really sort of ambitious plan. Almost, I think, maybe too ambitious. And in the years that followed, it became apparent that the sort of focus tended towards ancient Greek and Italic fabrics. And by 1956, that became the sort of official project of the CVA, was to publish ancient Greek figure-decorated pottery.
CUNO: And I gather that it comprises some 400 volumes—that is, the series of publications—and includes images of 100,000 examples of ancient Greek painted pottery. What percentage of the Greek painted pottery does that represent?
SAUNDERS: It would be hard to say. I mean, it depends how you go about counting. These days, there are publications from Canada to Japan, Norway to New Zealand. Museums in countries around the world are all engaged with this CVA project. And they’ve all, I think, adopted particular approaches to their collections. In some cases, it’s feasible to publish a whole collection in a single volume. For other bigger institutions, it’s more of a sampling or a focus on particular shapes and types. The project to publish everything is enormous and ongoing. And what the CVA allows for is a detailed description of particular types and groups.
CUNO: Despoina?
TSIAFAKIS: If you think that years ago, it was estimated that what we had found so far, regarding the Greek pottery, is less than 1% of its production, I think that gives us a figure of how much of it is published. And of course, the CVAs are limited usually to museum collections. And there is much more Greek pottery in the storerooms, in the excavation places, and a lot of it is not unearthed yet. So the estimate is really difficult to be made.
CUNO: What volume is this of the Getty’s holdings of Greek pottery?
SAUNDERS: This is our tenth volume.
CUNO: And what percentage of Getty material is represented?
SAUNDERS: It depends how you do your counting. I mean, our collection, if you tote up all the fragments and shards, we have a big study collection of some 20,000, give or take, fragments. So this is just a tiny proportion. What we began, when we acquired the Bareiss Collection in the late eighties, was to at least publish that in the CVA. And I think that’s how the project at the Getty first began. And I would say a significant proportion of our vases are now published in the CVA; but there are still many more that aren’t and that hopefully, could be in the future.
CUNO: Yeah. Would you describe for us the format of the publication of the CVA?
SAUNDERS: In brief, it is—and this, again, goes back to Pottier’s original vision—was good photographs coupled with descriptive text. And when you pick up any CVA now from any country, you will encounter the same layout roughly speaking, with a[n] arrangement of what you would call basic tombstone information about the shape type, the size, dimensions, provenance, a description, and then detailed discussion of comparanda of similar shapes, focusing on the iconography and repeated images. And then a full set of photographs that allow anyone to be able to appreciate and understand the shape and form of the vessel.
CUNO: And these are standards that are set by the CVA committee? Who comprises the CVA committee?
SAUNDERS: So each country has its own particular CVA committee. And my understanding is that there is a sort of overarching group, primarily of vase specialists, coming from universities and museums. But most of the sort of direct administration is done by the country CVA committee. They serve as a sort of editorial board, reviewing the text and approving things for publication.
CUNO: Mm-hm. And how long was it in the making?
SAUNDERS: This was a longer run. I mean, this coincided with the reinstallation of the Villa.
TSIAFAKIS: I started in the early 2000s.
CUNO: ’Cause you were working here at the Getty at the time.
TSIAFAKIS: Yes, yes. But the whole project started after I left the Getty. So then was all this reinstallation of the Villa and all this work, so it was frozen for a while, because it was not really easy to get access and see the objects and work with them. And it was, again, when we were about to finish, we started the discussions about getting it as a digital publication. In 2014, something like that.
Of course, that was an innovation for the CVA series, to have a digital format. And it was not something that could be decided right away. Not only from us, but also from the American CVA committee, and of course, the international CVA committee. They had to accept and approve the whole thing.
CUNO: Well, we’ll get to that in a minute. Let’s get back to the content of the publication. Tell us about what prompted this publication.
TSIAFAKIS: My specialty is Attic vases, black-figure and red-figure. I work more with red-figure pottery. And the Getty kraters form a really good group.
CUNO: Tell us what a krater is.
TSIAFAKIS: Ah. A krater is— The name, in Greek, tells what krater is. Krater is a mixing vessel. Comes from the ancient Greek verb kerannumi, that means I mix. And it was the vessel they used to mix wine with water. And we should keep in mind that in antiquity, they used to drink wine having three or four parts of water and one part of wine. So that was the vessel they used in the symposium, one of the most well-known and popular practices in ancient Greece. And people, they used to mix the water with the wine in this vessel, and then to take the wine out of the krater and pour it into their drinking vessels.
CUNO: Mm-hm. And what’s the difference between red-figure and black-figure?
TSIAFAKIS: Ah. It’s a difference in the technique. It’s exactly the opposite. In the black-figure, the figures are rendered in black paint over a terracotta reserved-clay background. In the red-figure, you have exactly the opposite. You have a black background and the figures are rendered in red. They’re reserved, left in the clay color.
CUNO: Which came first?
TSIAFAKIS: The black-figure.
CUNO: So why is the Getty collection so important that it justifies inclusion in the CVA?
TSIAFAKIS: As I said, it forms a very good group. And we have all the types represented. For the Attic kraters, we have four distinguished types: column, volute, bell, and calyx. At the Getty collection, all the different types are well-represented, with distinctive examples. Also at the Getty collection, there is [a] good quality of vases. They are rich in iconography and in their variety. Among them, there are important potters and vase painters like— I can mention just some names: Myson, Pan Painter, Euthymides, Kleophrades, Polygnotos, Meleager Painter. And all this gives us also a very good chronological range. It begins from 500 to 2510 BC. And I should mention here that the Attic red-figure technique appeared around 530. So here, there are some of the earliest examples. And continues down to the early fourth century, when still, we have really good representatives of the red-figure. So there is a really good chronological range. There are also very interesting subjects depicted, and myths. For example, we have Aphrodite, the goddess of love, and Adonis, Dionysos, the god of wine, and his thiasos, satyrs and maenads. We have scenes from Homer and the Trojan War, like Eos and Cassandra, Heracles and his Labors, Amazonomachy or gods like Zeus. And scenes from drama, like Oedipus and Sphinx, as well as scenes from ancient Greek festivals and religion. So the Getty kraters collection complement[s] and fills scholarly gaps. It’s an important collection, I would say, for research, for education, for entertainment and edutainment.
CUNO: I see in the book that there are photographs not only of the complete vase itself, but also fragments of the vase. What role do the fragments play and why are they included in this catalog?
TSIAFAKIS: Fragment is the key to the systematic archaeology. We cannot expect to find intact vases. Very few vases are intact. Our knowledge is based mostly on fragments. Through them, we can get information about the daily life, the public life, death, religion—everything. So some of the fragments actually have their own story, and they tell us a lot. And therefore, we include those ones in the CVAs.
CUNO: Greg, you manage the Getty’s digital publications. Is this the first CVA volume to appear in digital format? And not only among Getty volumes, but among all the CVA volumes?
GREG ALBERS: Actually, many of the volumes have been digitized by the Beazley Archive, and are available as scans. So the printed volumes were scanned and put online. However, this— our volume is the first at what we would call as “born digital.” So it was intended to be digital first, and the primary edition was considered to be the online digital edition. And so it was, from the get-go, being published for that medium, rather than for print. So there is definitely a history of making these things available digital, which I think we are taking the next step in, in trying to make that digital experience really the primary one, and sort of a satisfying experience from a reader’s perspective.
CUNO: David?
SAUNDERS: I might just add a footnote to Greg’s mention of the scanning project. In the early 2000s, the Beazley Archive in Oxford undertook the digitization of out-of-print CVAs, which was in part funded by the Getty Foundation. Full disclosure, it was led by my former PhD supervisor, Donna Kurtz. But this project to scan out-of-print CVAs really was a giant leap forward in making this material accessible. The CVA is expensive for individuals or libraries to buy. Many scholars don’t necessarily have access to the material. So simply putting it online was an enormous step forward, and for the time, was pioneering. Now, I think users’ expectations twenty years hence are different or evolving. And so I see this as the sort of the next step building on the steps by our predecessors.
CUNO: You mentioned, Greg, that it’s born digital; and then David, you talked about the Beazley Archive being scanned. What’s the difference between born-digital and after-the-publication-fact of just scanning?
ALBERS: Yeah, that’s a good question. I think for after-the-fact scanning, you’re taking a print book, you’re taking a picture of each page of that book, and putting it up online as an image or a PDF. That means that that page is sort of fixed and is not gonna change. It’s not going to be easily readable on a mobile device or on different browser sizes. It’s gonna be limited by its resolution of where— how well it was scanned in the first place. Born digital, on the other hand, is where instead of thinking of it as a print product first, we’re really thinking of it as essentially a website first. So we’re developing it as a website. We’re thinking of, how will readers look at it on a mobile device or on an iPad or other tablet or on their desktop? We’re thinking about how that environment that they’re looking at will change and shift. And then what we can do with a digital thing: Can we add links? Can we add glossary popups? Can we add footnotes? Can we add zooming images? And really take advantage of the digital media, much more than you can with a static page image.
CUNO: I guess one of the things about a printed volume is that there’s a date attached to its date of printing. Is that true with born-digital too?
ALBERS: Yeah, that’s a good question. And that’s something that we’re very conscious of. We do put a date on the publication. So on the online edition, just like in every other edition. We date any revisions that we might make. So if we make small typographic changes or a technical change, that is also listed on the online edition, so that scholars and other readers coming to that publication can look and see, when was the last time this was revised? And how was it revised? We think that’s an important part of publishing.
CUNO: Yeah. Was the CVA committee at all resistant to its being published in digital format?
ALBERS: I think that it was certainly a negotiation. I think any time that you’re taking a hundred-year-old tradition and moving it into a new format like this, a new form, there is going to be questions. Rightly so. The CVA is successful because of its tradition and because of the regularity in its standardization. And so moving into a digital space, you have to do that carefully.
TSIAFAKIS: We should keep in mind that the CVA committee are the keepers of the CVA standards. And they have to make sure that every CVA publication will follow [the] same guidelines and the same rules. So it’s self-understandable that there was a negotiation. They could not just do something radical. It’s something totally new here.
SAUNDERS: But at the same time, when we were working with them and sharing drafts of your text, they were seeing the format that they were expecting, because it sort of follows the sort of standard CVA format. And I think if anything, their major concerns were actually with the print-on-demand version and trying to ensure that that was, in format and style, as close as possible to the traditional presentation. They, I think, were fairly happy for us to develop our digital approach ourselves. And as Despoina and Greg have said, the CVA comes with a package of expectations and practical assumptions. One of the reasons why it’s so successful is because you can pick up any volume from, you know, the Czech Republic or Italy and know your way around it. And being able to kind of ensure that that was still going to be the same, allowed us to be able to develop this.
CUNO: Tell us a little bit about the print-on-demand question. Because it’s kind of ironic that you’d gone from a printed book— you had to scan it to the Beazley Archive, for example. Now you’re reversing it. You’ve got a kind of born-digital publication that gets printed on demand. What were the complexities of print-on-demand, or the compromises that people were frightened about?
SAUNDERS: We have all been trained to use the CVA as a physical thing. I think the whole tradition of researching using a CVA is based on that physical engagement. And the scale and size of the reproductions, the sort of physical heft of the volume, is part of its usual research experience. So I think a lot of it was sort of just overcoming that— ensuring that one’s standard experience of using a CVA was not going to change, for those who wanted to have a print edition. And many people, you know I will confess, I still use the print copy I have, just because, I’ve grown up as a reader. And there are different settings in which you might use the different volumes.
ALBERS: And I would add that CVA volume is one of several born-digital books that we’ve done here at the Getty. And in all of those, we’re actually producing print editions from them. For us, the print edition being available serves a couple of functions. One was that it allows the distribution of the book more widely. So there’s a[n] infrastructure of distribution around print publications. And that infrastructure doesn’t exist for digital publications. And so for us to be able to take advantage and make sure that the books, our books, live where readers are looking for them, meaning in libraries, on Amazon, in Google, et cetera, that print component is a sort of essential part of that.
It also, of course, addresses people’s different needs for the publications. As David has said, he prefers, in many ways, the print edition because that’s his research style and that’s what he’s used to. We don’t have any preconceived notion that digital is a better experience than print. We just wanna offer both experiences equally.
And then the last thing that it really helps us with is, of course, the question of longevity. There’s an open question about how long these things are gonna last online. A print edition helps belay that concern. It makes sure that we know that if nothing else, this print edition, with its rich content, with the research that went into it, will survive, even if something drastic happens to the website. Which of course, we hope it won’t.
CUNO: We promise in perpetuity, I assume.
ALBERS: We certainly are trying.
CUNO: Despoina.
TSIAFAKIS: If I may add, I see this publication as the transitional thing. It’s transition from the printed, the traditional way, to the new way of the digital publication. That way, it has to satisfy the different needs. And also, we belong, all the scholars who use the CVA, we belong to different generations. So for the older generation to use the online version is something really difficult. Because as David said, even us, we are really trained in the printed format. For them, even more. For younger generations, however, it’s easier to use the online version, because they are more used in the online everything—reading and working and searching, all that.
CUNO: What about the images? I mean, one of the great things about publication is the quality of image.
TSIAFAKIS: And the number. If you go to the very early CVAs, you will see photographs in the size of a stamp. We cannot really use them. Or there was only one view of the vase. Because the cost and all that was difficult. The other problem, of course, was with the color. So there were no color photographs; there were black and white photographs. The great thing, when we started working on the digital publication, was that we could include anything. Everything could be in color, and no one told me, “Oh, you have to limit that up to ten photographs.” And this is great. And this is actually what I get from people who use the online version, that there are so many photographs. And also that they have at the same page, image and text.
CUNO: How far are we from including in such a publication a 3-D image of a vase, for example?
ALBERS: Certainly, we could do that today. In fact, in one of our earlier catalogs on Italian terracottas, we have a number of rotating and 360-degree-view images that you can kinda get a sense. They’re not true 3-D, but you get a sense of the three-dimensionality. And you can rotate to any particular angle. So that technology exists. The only thing that we think of when we’re producing here at the Getty is, how do we then translate that three-dimensional object when we are also putting the book out as print or as an e-book, what kind of experience do those readers get?
And in that case, it’s fairly simple. We can just show instead of the full 360-degree view or the full 3-D, we can show a smaller selection of static images. But we think through those things from the very beginning, but it’s definitely technologically possible.
CUNO: What are some of the other interactive features that distinguish the online edition?
ALBERS: So the website for us, in the CVA case, is the images and the zooming images, so they’re much higher-resolution image than we would offer in the e-book, that you can really get in and see details much better. Also, small things. Like, there are abbreviations throughout the text that refer to sources that have been cited. And instead of having to look into the back of the book for what that citation is, in the online edition, you can click it and a little popup comes up and just tells you what that is. So small, simple things like that.
CUNO: David?
SAUNDERS: For many of our digital catalogs, we link to our online collection pages, where we continue to add new bibliography, for example. So that is actually the sort of place where you might find newer things published about the objects. And we also linked, where possible, to the records in the Beazley Archive.
CUNO: Yeah. Despoina?
TSIAFAKIS: The CVA, when it started with Pottier, it was a collaboration. And it started with six different countries, and that was really great, but one hundred years ago. And I think now with the digital version, this is something that can be succeeded in the next level. Because the relation and the connection with the Beazley Archive, but as well as with other publications, and maybe in the future, with the rest of the CVA, something very important because we make citations to other books and other vases in other collections. To get that, that will really accomplish the initial goal of the CVA, as it was set by Pottier.
CUNO: In its print-on-demand format, does it look just like the printed-book format? I mean, the same paper, the same ink, the same size book? ’Cause there’s a certain fetish about the CVA in the past.
SAUNDERS: Yeah, and it looks very handsome when you see it in libraries, the full set of the nearly 400 volumes all kind of lined up in a row. Ours sits very nicely in its place amongst them. And again, the experience of using it. The layout is exactly as you would find in other CVAs. For someone who maybe hadn’t heard this podcast and they came across in their library, the physical form, they may not even know that it was digital.
CUNO: Despoina?
TSIAFAKIS: Just I will add an example, an experience I recently had with the CVA. A colleague was using the printed version. And then he was asking me something. And I said, “Let me check.” And he said, “Oh, I have the volume. You don’t need to check the PDF.” I said, “I’m not going to check the PDF, I’m going to check the online version.” Because he didn’t realize that it was actually an online publication, a digital publication. So I showed that to him and he was really surprised. At the beginning, the reaction was, “Oh, no, no, no. Okay, I think the printed volume, it’s fine,” and all that. Later on, I think a couple of days later, he wrote to me and he said, “But this is great. I didn’t know that I could do all that and I could really use it in that way.” So I think it works.
CUNO: Yeah. How did the three of you work in the development of the book project, the online book project?
ALBERS: Well, it came to me as, as the traditional books do, once we had approved the project many years prior. And once the manuscript was completed, it went to our editorial department. I think that mostly, we were following the patterns we’d established in our existing digital catalogs, and then also trying to merge that in with what the CVA print traditions were. And so I went to work and kind of created the initial version, the initial PDF version and initial online, and then shared that back to David and Despoina with our editorial department, as well. And then had feedback that way, in a very traditional manner.
CUNO: So it wasn’t some special way of working that was determined by the nature of the online version.
ALBERS: Not in this case. I think that despite its innovations and despite the fact that it was the first born-digital CVA, for us at the Getty, it was very much a continuation of work we’d already started in other online projects, other online catalogs.
CUNO: What’s the reception of it been? How long has it been, as it were, published and available to people?
SAUNDERS: It came out in July, I think. It was over the summer. So far, the reaction’s been overwhelmingly positive. Certainly, in conversations and correspondence I’ve had with my colleagues, they’ve found its versatility and robustness extremely rewarding and productive to use.
TSIAFAKIS: I also get really positive reactions, especially from younger scholars, because they’re really used in the online research. So for them, it’s a very useful resource.
CUNO: Do you have a sense that it’s more broadly read, this stage in the publication’s history of the book, than it would’ve been if it were simply a printed version?
TSIAFAKIS: I think it can be and I think it will be, because one of the great advantages with the online publication is that it’s open access. So everyone everywhere can access it. The CVAs are very limited numbered volumes, only in libraries. So someone had to go to the library; it was not really easy to use them. With this now, people can use it any time.
ALBERS: I’ll have to admit that I haven’t looked at the most specific numbers of the CVA volume up to date. But typically, we see that the print books of these kind of volumes, these born-digital books, the print editions sell as well as we would expect if there wasn’t a digital edition. So to Despoina’s point, it’s really a library product that libraries and bigger institutions are buying in the print books. They continue to do that because they want the collection. They have the 400 volumes on the shelf and they want 401. So we’re getting that audience that we would expect. But on top of that, we’re getting, typically, thousands and thousands of additional views on the online book, and downloads of the e-book and the PDF versions that really expands the audience. And we expect that more readers see it this way than would otherwise see it, for sure.
CUNO: So this is the tenth volume in the series that we’ve contributed of our collection. And it’s the first born-digital edition. What’s next? Do you have a[n] eleventh volume in mind, and will that be born-digital as well?
TSIAFAKIS: Yeah, actually, we have the sequel.
CUNO: The sequel.
TSIAFAKIS: As I mentioned earlier, the krater, the Attic krater, is distinguished in four different types. So at this point, we did column and volute; and the next will be bell and calyx kraters. Again, Attic red-figure at the Getty collection. And I think with our discussion here today, we will be able to include the 3-D. I’m really excited to see how that will work in the next volume.
CUNO: Spoiler alert.
CUNO: Greg?
ALBERS: For me, we would love to see another volume come out of the Getty, now that we’ve established this pattern and we’ve had some success with it. And we’d love to build off of it. And really, knowing from the very beginning that it’s going to be a digital product, what can we do even further? The other thing that we’re really interested in is sharing out the work with other institutions who might be producing CVA volumes. So we would love to see others adopt the digital format that we’ve been working on here, both the version that we have now and future versions that we might improve on, and see others doing these kinds of digital editions of the CVAs, as well.
CUNO: And this was published on the Quire format. That’s spelled Q-U-I-R-E. Tell us about the origins of Quire and what it is.
ALBERS: Yeah. So Quire, the name comes from old manuscripts, when you would have a large sheet of paper; you’d fold it in a certain way; it would give you a quire, which would be sort of the start of multiple pages of a book. Quire is our multi-format publishing software that we’ve been developing at the Getty. We started it with a volume in 2014. The Ancient Terracottas volume was the first one that we published that way, that I mentioned earlier. And we’ve continued to develop Quire over the years, through the number of publications that we’ve done, figuring out how that software works, how it can best work, what can be improved with it, what makes a digital book a digital book?
And now we’re in the process of moving towards open sourcing that software. A lot of that work is about stabilizing in a way and documenting in a way that will make it easier for non-technical users to work with. Our hope is that someone who has some technological curiosity and a little bit of background could go in and produce a book using a basic template and with basic functionality that we would offer. For someone who wants to do something as custom as a new type of CVA volume or something that we don’t have an existing template for, that would require more development skills and expertise.
The CVA volume and Quire, has taken a lot of hours of work by very skilled people doing software development and engineering. With open source, we can multiply that effort across institutions. So the 400 hours that we put developing something here can take 400 hours away from someone else’s work somewhere else, so they don’t have to redevelop it. So that’s what we’re after with the open source.
CUNO: Since there are standards that CVA imposes upon the published version of the CVA itself, do you imagine they would impose, as you develop the options for the online publishing, would they develop some standards you’d have to keep from publication to publication?
ALBERS: That’s a good question. I could see, if more and more institutions were to start publishing CVA volumes using the sort of basic template that we’re developing, and the basic functionality that it affords, that if that was happening in a greater degree, that the committees might want to be more a part of that. It would be great to work with the committees, to say, “What could we do to evolve the format of CVA into a digital world in a meaningful way that really helps propel the mission of CVA and extend it to the next century?” I think that right now, our current template hews very closely to the CVA templates as they have been established. The templates and the sort of mission behind it of being able to view images and text separately and being able to connect to other collections. So I think right now, we haven’t gone far enough that there’s any concern. But it would be great to collaborate with them.
CUNO: There’ll be another generation, no doubt.
SAUNDERS: Yeah. But it raises, I think, really interesting questions, as we and many other institutions are putting out collections online with photographs, with basic descriptions. That to some extent, meets Pottier’s initial vision of museum collections being accessible. So it, I think, nudges the CVA project in ways. It remains the gold standard for publication. But as more and more collections are accessible online, what more can the CVA include, in addition to what I say, a basic museum collection page might offer?
CUNO: Well, it’s a beautiful, content-rich, and highly-functional publication. You guys ought to be congratulated for it. Thank you all for joining me on this podcast this morning, and for helping me, and no doubt our listeners, better understand the complexities and possibilities of online publishing. So thank you very much.
ALBERS: Thank you.
CUNO: This episode was produced by Zoe Goldman, with audio production by Gideon Brower and mixing by Mike Dodge Weiskopf. Our theme music comes from the “The Dharma at Big Sur” composed by John Adams, for the opening of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles in 2003, and is licensed with permission from Hendon Music. Look for new episodes of Art and Ideas every other Wednesday, subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify and other podcast platforms. For photos, transcripts and more resources, visit or if you have a question, or an idea for an upcoming episode, write to us at Thanks for listening.

JAMES CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, President of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.
DESPOINA TSIAFAKIS: The CVAs are very limited numbered volumes, only in libraries. So someone had ...

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This post is part of Art + Ideas, a podcast in which Getty president Jim Cuno talks with artists, writers, curators, and scholars about their work.
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