May 28 2013 06:34 PM

Looking for local culture? TART wants you to look no further than your phone

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There's an app for that.

The claim seemed dubious when Apple first rolled it out to promote the iPhone 3G back in 2009. Sure, you could find out the correct spelling of a word or the start time for a movie, but, as hard as it is to conceive now, there wasn't an app for everything. Instagram was still in development. Snapchat wasn't even an idea. 

Nowadays, there really is a smartphone application for just about everything. Need a Zippo lighter to raise up at a concert? There's an app for that. Don't have change? There's an app that'll flip a coin for you. Need a colonoscopy? No shit (pun intended)—there's an app that'll help you find a doctor.

A few years ago, Patrick Stewart (no, Trekkies, not that Patrick Stewart) noticed a glaring void in the app world when it came to the arts. Specifically, there wasn't a navigational app that would help what he calls "the arts consumer" find cool cultural events in town. There were already a ton for nightlife (Bareye, Nightmade, UrbanDaddy) and dining (Urbanspoon, Foodspotting, Yelp), but what about an app that would compile not only the best long-standing museums and arts institutions, but also help promote one-off events that an arts enthusiast might not necessarily know about?

"The light bulbs just went off," says Stewart, who's been actively involved in arts organizations in San Diego for decades. "There was a lack of arts-based navigational apps to begin with, and there was no comprehensive vehicle to promote what we're doing in San Diego to as broad of an audience as we can."

Stewart is the CEO of TART, and he has a point. A quick search on an Android or iPhone using the words "art," "arts," "culture" or any combination thereof results in a few semi-helpful apps. But, for the most part, the search mostly yields apps that'll help you draw cute pics or retrieve album art. TART, which is in testing mode in iOS format (read: it's not yet ready to launch yet and is being tested out by a select few on their iPhones), is hoping to be the first fully functional, all-encompassing mobile app that'll help culture vultures find out what's going on in the local arts scene, whether they want to see a theatrical performance, a gallery show or a dance recital. 

"The whole idea is to create a search engine that is specifically designed and tailored for a niche demographic," Stewart says. "It's not just, 'Hey, here's what's happening today,' but getting people to participate as an arts consumer. We can create an opportunity to find exactly what it is that they want without having to be swayed by the traditional arts-organization marketing." 

Pretending I knew little to nothing about the local arts scene, I tested out the app on a recent weekday afternoon and, give or take a few glitches, I found it very easy to use and somewhat informative, depending on the event. The initial interface gives the user the option of searching for a specific kind of cultural experience by either date, location (using geo-mapping technology to pinpoint where you are) or having the app recommend notable performances or exhibitions. I drove into Balboa Park, and once I was near the Prado, it wasn't that difficult to get a sense of what the app was trying to recommend. There's The Old Globe, where Other Desert Cities is playing. There's the Mingei International Museum, where the app says the Make Your Own Kind of Music exhibition is on display. You get the idea. 

The app also serves as a tastemaker of sorts by using social media to find out what ongoing exhibitions and events are popular with users. It also has a function that'll provide transportation options as well as recommend nearby restaurants. For example, when I was at Balboa Park, I could follow up a play or exhibition with a late lunch at The Prado (0.0 miles away from where I was standing) or walk a half a mile to Cucina Urbana.

However, given that I wasn't a tourist or someone who didn't know much about the local arts scene, I found the app's listings incomplete and the descriptions sometimes vague. For example, there was no listing for the San Diego Museum of Art even though I was standing right in front of it. And while the description for the Museum of Man's From the Vault exhibition was very informative, the write-up for Lilia Garcia Castro's show at the Centro Cultural de la Raza was sparse.

Stewart says this is just part of working out the kinks.

"There are content glitches. It's a tricky thing when you're putting out an arts app that's providing a such a large variety of arts offerings."

Stewart's currently got a staff of two, along with a team of developers. They plan to launch the app in July. Stewart says San Diego's an ideal testing ground but acknowledges that the arts community still flies under the radar because "there's a lot of environmental factors to compete with." While the development process has been, for the most part, completely self-funded, Stewart believes that the app will do well enough to lure potential advertisers and investors. He hopes to launch the Android version of TART, and TART Los Angeles, by the end of the year, with the ultimate goal of working adding other West Coast cities before expanding across the U.S. and hopefully beyond.

"We've created something that doesn't exist, but the real value of this product is the scalability," Stewart says. "We want it to be so that you can go to any city and use it. I was talking with someone the other day and showed them the app and they asked me, 'Where was this when I was in Vegas last weekend?' That was very exciting."

Email editor@sdcitybeat.com or follow Seth on Twitter at @combsseth.

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