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SXSW: We are all curators

I’m posting through Monday from South By Southwest Interactive, with updates on the colliding worlds of art, technology and human behavior.  Reach out with your questions via Twitter - @amelson - or check out all of our ongoing SXSW reports.

One of Sunday’s morning sessions at SXSW Interactive was a surprisingly fresh conversation about a stereotypically stuffy subject: museums, the people who run them and how they will grow their audiences.

The panel, “Everyone’s a Curator: Do Museums Still Matter?”, consisted of four Bay Area museum staffers who have made strides in bridging the gap between traditional museum trappings (galleries, exhibitions, strong resistance to change) and the modern roles of social media and marketing to promote their offerings.   They talked about the identity crisis inherent in their jobs: “Are we curators or marketers?”

Sarah Bailey Hogarty, social and digital media manager at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, said as an art history major, she was at first unhappy about her curatorial position being moved into the marketing department as her involvement in social media increased.

“In many curatorial circles, marketing is a four-letter word,” Hogarty said.  “Curators think marketers dumb everything down; marketers think curators are overly scholarly and unintelligible to the general public.  In some cases, they’re both right.”

The Asian Art Museum's viral poster campaign blanketed San Francisco utility poles and bulletin boards.  (@subatomicray on Instagram)

The Asian Art Museum’s viral poster campaign blanketed San Francisco utility poles and bulletin boards. (via @subatomicray on Instagram)

One of her first steps was to change the museum’s social media policy from a one-sided approach explaining the museum’s “what, when and how” to a more open conversation that would actually generate audience engagement.  Panelist Jennifer Yin from San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum agreed, citing her golden rule, “Don’t be a mouthpiece.”

Yin provided a solid case study, her museum’s 2013 Terracotta Warriors exhibition.  Sensing that the marketing push needed a nontraditional approach, her team began with the hypothetical that one of the warriors had “disappeared” en route from China.  She began a guerilla campaign of “LOST” flyers posted on street poles, with pull tabs that contained a web URL and Twitter hashtag.  They built the website as a hub, using geotags to display hashtagged tweets on an interactive city map.

She then partnered with other museums, tourism organizations and civic groups to hold 50 appearances across the Bay Area with an actor portraying the lost warrior.   Each time someone interacted with the ‘warrior,’ he would hand them a replica Shang Dynasty coin etched with the exhibition’s hashtag and social media links.  The approach worked beautifully; the museum garnered massive interest and positive reactions on various social media platforms, generated stories from local media and seemed to translate that interest into higher traffic through museum doors.

Willa Koerner, assistant manager for digital engagement at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, launched the SFMOMA Tumblr site under the radar to give her museum more of a dynamic digital presence.  Within weeks after the initial 2011 launch, she started receiving submissions of readers’ work.

“People were sending me their artwork, the same way that people used to send slides in a manila envelope to a museum, hoping a curator will discover them and throw them an exhibition … which never happens,” she said.

SFMOMA's Tumblr found success with 'Submission Friday' effort, which has now drawn more than 50,000 submissions of visitor artwork.

SFMOMA’s Tumblr found success with ‘Submission Friday’ effort, which has now drawn more than 50,000 submissions of visitor artwork.

But Koerner’s initial resistance soon gave way to an epiphany: “You can put anything up there as long as it fits in with what your brand does.”  She quietly launched “Submission Fridays” where such uploads were encouraged (and in some cases displayed online);  three years later, the project has become a staple of SFMOMA’s Tumblr presence, with more than 50,000 submissions.  It has also helped sustain the museum’s public presence during its recent closure for renovation, and increased visibility for traveling exhibitions of pieces from the collection.

Kathryn Jaller of the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco discussed #SFphotohunt #SecretSpaces, a 2012 contest built around photo submissions chronicling surprises in their city.  They received over 300 submissions in a short period of time, and some were featured in gallery displays in their museum.  Jaller said the effort highlighted the reality museums face as digital engagement goes everywhere.

“We exist in real space, we exist online and we exist in between,” she said.

Panelists said the spotlighted efforts, both individual and collaborative, helped them change internal feelings about marketing in a world that can be maddeningly slow to adapt.  Hogarty said her museums are now experimenting with putting hashtags and digital calls to action on gallery walls alongside works of art.  They have even trained museum staff to recognize how visitors are holding their smartphones: Are they taking a forbidden “art selfie,” or following the museum’s encouragement to post on Twitter or Facebook about the exhibit?

“The prohibition of photography forced our visitors to find more interesting things to say, (and) sometimes these kinds of restraints can foster creativity,” Hogarty said.  “This made our visitors process what they were seeing and come up with something worth sharing to their friends.”

The late Walter Hopps, a veteran museum curator whose career included a stint at Houston’s Menil Collection, once likened the curator’s role to an orchestral conductor trying to establish harmony between the works.  Hogarty said that’s an apt metaphor for the panelists’ continued striving to bring the voices of museum visitors and fans more directly into the  conversation.

“Museums no longer have audiences,” she said, “they have infinite collaborators.”

UPDATE: Here’s the fun little video they showed at the session, featuring a number of different responses to the question “what is a curator?”

CORRECTION:  The original version of this post contained a quote from the session that contained an incorrect word.  The quote has been updated to reflect the exact wording the speaker used.

  • asian_art_museum

    Hey there, thanks so much for coming to our panel and for this comprehensive write-up! Lovely. Thank you and cheers.