useums know how to deal with the past. Lob a pre-Columbian artifact into the curatorial department's "in" box, and the staff will have a pretty good idea what to do next. Like everybody else, though, museums sometimes struggle with the future. Ask a museum how the Internet will figure in its mission, and you may become an artifact before you get the answer.
If they reply, most museums will direct you to their Web sites, which typically serve as a visitor's center, study guide and gift-shop annex. But a few museums have started to look to the future, based on the realization that the Internet can be an aesthetic medium as well as an information resource.
David A. Ross, director of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, was among the first to recognize that the Internet will play a central role in the artistic activities of the 21st-century museum. To advance that notion further, Mr. Ross last week opened the museum's exhibition "010101: Art in Technological Times."
The museum was closed for the opening, certainly a deviation from standard museum practice. That did not prevent anyone who had access to the Internet from viewing the exhibition's five freshly commissioned works when "010101" went online one minute after midnight (Pacific time) on Jan. 1.
As its name suggests, "010101" consists of digital artworks that were created to be shown on the Internet. The interactive pieces are displayed in a virtual gallery that exists solely online (www.sfmoma.org/010101/).
Mr. Ross had planned to attend the premiere during his New Year's Eve dinner, only to discover, he said, that "the Internet has yet to penetrate the hallowed walls" of Chez Panisse, the landmark restaurant in Berkeley, Calif. Instead, after arriving home, he fired up his computer and toured the Web site.
Online content that can be accessed anywhere is not new. But "010101" was probably the first museum opening of 2001. Mr. Ross said he hoped this Internet-only event would help demolish the boundaries between the art-cluttered halls of museums and the virtual walls of cyberspace.
"At the beginning of the New Year," Mr. Ross said, "we do allow ourselves to think in certain ways that we don't in other parts of the year. So we specifically chose this time to begin a rumination about the moment, and about the future we think museums should be engaged in. There is symbolic value to the idea that the first exhibition to open in the new millennium will be one whose material is completely invisible."
For museums, which are collections of objects, the intangibility of digits raises some interesting questions. How do you register a work when it has no physical presence? How do you preserve an online piece that the artist continues to update?
Benjamin Weil, the San Francisco museum's curator of media arts, said that for the first time the elements of an artwork — in this case, the programming code, a network connection, computers, software — had been completely separated from the experience of the art itself. As a result, he said, "Intelligent museums are going to have to start reassessing their knowledge about what art is."
No one expects digital art to replace painting and sculpture or online exhibitions to supplant museum visiting. But as Glenn D. Lowry, director of the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan, noted, "The digital reproduction of works of art on the Internet is just that, but the experience of works of art uniquely created for the Net is a fundamentally different category." In short, a Rembrandt on the Internet is a reproduction; something created digitally is original art.
Mr. Weil, the curator, said: "We should quit categorizing art by medium. All of it is art." Yet even he acknowledged that `it's definitely weird." He added: "We have a long way to go before everybody's comfortable with the computer screen as an environment in which you have not only your work of the day, but your art, too."
Artists have been using the Internet as a creative medium almost since its inception, spawning an international subculture that exists outside the gallery system because the works' intangibility obviously limits its marketability.
Now that museums are starting to augment the Matisses on their Web sites with Internet-only pieces, they are validating the genre while giving work, and income, to artists who were mainly producing labors of love. The Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and the Dia Center for the Arts in Chelsea routinely present online projects.
Last year's Biennial survey at the Whitney Museum of American Art included nine Web-based works, and the museum will offer its own exhibition of Internet art, "Data Dynamics," in March. The Guggenheim Museum also has some initiatives under way.
The Modern in Manhattan, which has presented digital works as adjuncts to several recent exhibitions, is planning to commission four or five online art works this year."TimeStream,"a history of the moving image by the noted multimedia artist Tony Oursler, will be the first.
With the Modern's midtown building about to undergo a major expansion, there are practical as well as aesthetic considerations for sponsoring online art. Mr. Lowry said, "As our exhibition space is compressed because of our construction program, the Internet provides us with the opportunity to continue presenting major shows."
Most of the digital artworks in the "010101" exhibition are as visually appealing as they are conceptually intriguing. But be prepared: a fast Internet connection will help reduce the time it takes to view the works, and visitors must learn to navigate the exhibition site's complicated user interface. (Hint: the box in the upper left-hand corner of the black grid leads to the art.)
"Feed," a work by Mark Napier of New York, is perhaps his most accomplished work to date. It asks visitors to submit a Web-page address, then takes that site's underlying data and processes it in a variety of graphically arresting ways. With its emphasis on raw materials, "Feed" is a latter- day action painting, albeit one with actual action. There is interaction, too: visitors can resize and reposition the displays to their liking.
Among the other works, "Eden.Garden 1.0," by Michael Samyn and Auriea Harvey, recasts the biblical setting as a 3-D computer-game environment. The artists portray themselves as an animated Adam and Eve, complete with fig leaves. Again, viewers are asked to submit a Web address, and code from the site determines the characters' movements and other elements of the scene.
On March 3, "010101" will expand into the San Francisco museum's real-world galleries, where two dozen works in more traditional media will be keyed to the exhibition's overall theme: how artists are responding to a world that increasingly revolves around technology.
Mr. Weil and Mr. Ross are still debating whether computers should be installed in the galleries so visitors can view the online works in a public space, not only from their homes or offices.
In the spring, the museum will hold seminars on how museums themselves are responding to a world that increasingly revolves around technology, and Mr. Ross is undeterred by the prospect that some of the discussions will become heated.
"We're all frogs in the slowly boiling pot," Mr. Ross said. "You know, in that old saw, you dropped the frogs in and they were smart enough to jump out? Well, we're all smart enough to know where we are, and we're not jumping out."