Fantasy Collecting at the Nasher Museum of Art

This Spring fifty Duke students had the opportunity to “collect” works from the Nasher Museum’s permanent collection. As players of the web-based game, Fantasy Collecting, this interdisciplinary group of students, whose majors ranged from Public Policy to Art History to Computer Science, began the semester with virtual art collections comprised of works from eMuseum, the Nasher Museum’s collection online. Throughout February, March and April, the students reshuffled their collections to better reflect their preferences, trading with one another and buying and selling works through the game’s auction interface. Students made these transactions with in-game currency (Fantasy Collecting Gilders) that they earned by researching their works, which entered the game unattributed. At the end of the semester, the top 12 players nominated works from their collections for the winner-takes-all Masterpiece Tournament. Playing under the moniker “Donald Trump,” Zach Mooring (’15), won with Xaviera Simmons’s Session Six Kitty Hawk from the Project Thundersnow Road, North Carolina, a piece that the Nasher Museum commissioned in 2010 for the original, traveling exhibition, “The Record: Contemporary Art & Vinyl.”

As a PhD Candidate in Art, Art History & Visual Studies (AAHVS) and a co-inventor of Fantasy Collecting, I oversaw student gameplay and worked with Molly Boarati, Academic Programs Coordinator at the museum, to encourage student engagement with the museum’s collection both online and in person. For instance, in addition to consulting the eMuseum, students researched their works by visiting them in the galleries and museum storage. Ana Corral (’16) reflected on coming face to face with a favorite piece on the Nasher Museum blog.

Fantasy Collecting is a collaborative project that has gone through many stages of development here at Duke. In the spring of 2012, I designed a paper-based version of the game for a small group of students enrolled in the Art & Markets seminar taught by Professor Hans Van Miegroet. Thanks to the generous support of an Andrew M. Mellon Humanities Writ Large Grant awarded to Van Miegroet’s AAHVS lab, the Duke Art, Law and Markets Initiative (DALMI) as well as the Greater Than Games Lab, what was once a simple role-playing game quickly entered the digital realm. William Shaw, The Digital Humanities Technology Consultant for the Duke Libraries, wrote the code for Fantasy Collecting, which we co-published under an open source license last October. This past Spring, Lalita Maraj (’15), a Computer Science major, worked as the Game Database Manager, making improvements to the code that we will soon promote via Github, a leading code repository used by developers.

In the future, we hope to continue using Fantasy Collecting at Duke as a way to promote interaction with the Nasher Museum’s collection and lead students to further study of the history of art, as well as critical thinking about art markets. We also hope that the partnership between AAHVS and the Nasher Museum through Fantasy Collecting will serve as a model for other universities with rich art collections on campus. Since I demonstrated Fantasy Collecting at the College Art Association Conference—the annual meeting of art historians—in February 2014, nearly half a dozen professors from other universities have reached out about adapting Fantasy Collecting to their art history classes.

More information on Fantasy Collecting can be found on the DALMI web site.