Chances are that before lockdown no one in the art world had heard of Tim Tiller, an unassuming middle-aged man who is the head of security at Oklahoma City’s National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum. Probably, few had heard of that either.
Since then Tiller has become an internet sensation. As one of the few people still allowed into the building, he has been posting pictures and comments about the museum and its collections. Its Twitter account has grown from 10,000 followers to more than 300,000 in less than two months. This is despite the fact that Tiller is so unsavvy, social media-wise—he signs his tweets “thanks Tim!” and initially thought “hashtag” had to be written out in full.
The realization that original content—whether social media posts, articles or films—can attract and engage new audiences has signaled a big shift in thinking at museums and galleries. In-house editorial production first began in earnest at places like the British Museum, the Tate and the V&A in London, which already had outreach, education and membership departments. It was soon adopted by major auction houses: Sotheby’s and Christie’s now have print magazines, digital publishing operations, and regularly commission short films.
In recent years bigger commercial galleries have followed suit: in 2017 Gagosian was the first to launch a large-format print magazine, Gagosian Quarterly. The following year dealer Richard Polsky caused a Twitter furore when he mused on artnet News about what he perceived to be the “existential troubles” of titles including Artforum, Art in America and ARTnews. He argued that “the most relevant publications are not independent publications but those of major auction houses and—don’t laugh—Gagosian Quarterly”.
“It’s a generalization, but most museums and galleries are generally being reactive [to the current situation],” says Abhay Adhikari, founder of Digital Identities, a consultancy focused on developing new models of social impact whose clients include The Guardian, universities and government bodies, as well as the Deutsches Museum network of German science museums. “Museums realized that the analogue aspect of their offer is no longer possible [because of lockdown], so their first reaction is to say: ‘Let’s go back to the archives and put what we can online’,” he says.
Others are further ahead in the game. “Museums felt the need to justify themselves, to defend the fact that they get public funding,” Adhikari says. “So they started using content in clever ways: to demonstrate their relevance, increase their visibility and, in a few cases, engage in activism.”
Producing editorial content “is a way of being part of a broader cultural conversation”, says Lucas Zwirner, head of content at David Zwirner. The gallery has an extensive program of print publishing, event-driven partnerships with the likes of The New York Review of Books and launched a podcast series, Dialogues, in 2018.
Some also argue that in-house content covers areas that no longer receive much attention from independent publishers and broadcasters. Many of these have suffered from the huge increase in sources of information, the flight of advertisers to online platforms and—in the case of the BBC and Arts Council-funded niche titles—from a decline in public subsidies.
Done well, self-publishing is an effective, stealthy form of promotion that can attract and engage people in a way an advertisement never will. It is no coincidence that in-house production emerged at the same time as the corporate world was developing the concept of “content marketing”. Brands began to realize that digital platforms could allow them to create their own distribution channels just as marketers were wrestling with the fact that audiences were turned off by content that was obviously promotional. In response they started to hire journalists, film-makers and other creative “storytellers”—as they are often now called—to create more appealing content.
Last year Campaign, the bible of the UK advertising world, reported that in London various companies—from asset managers Cazenove and Fidelity International to insurance giant Aon, HSBC bank and law firm Hogan Lovells—had hired senior editorial staff from The Daily Telegraph, CNBC, the Financial Times and the BBC among others. The art world had already been doing this for some years: Art Basel, Lisson Gallery, Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Hauser & Wirth have all have well-known arts writers in their content teams.
Many smaller museums, galleries and non-profits have been focusing their editorial efforts on the cheapest option: social media—in particular Instagram, the art world’s favorite. Since the lockdown kicked in it has become an important tool for driving people towards membership offers, online exhibitions, viewing rooms and newsletters.
But most—even some very successful—accounts do little more than post a series of pictures with anodyne captions. Chris Michaels, the director of digital, communications and technology at London’s National Gallery, has described this style as “the standard ‘pictures of pictures’: it’s mostly a lot of effort, boring and pointless”.
He made this comment last year at a Frieze Academy seminar, where he conceded that how the art world should use social media “is highly unresolved. What’s it really for? Not to show art, but to connect art to the audiences.” He added that millennials and their younger counterparts, Generation Z, “are socially driven and seek social media-driven experiences”. He said we need to “stop the pictures of pictures, take risks, get the curators in front of the audience, do more with video”.
These days most digital experts in the commercial sphere value “engagement”—how many ‘likes’ and comments a post attracts, and how much it is shared—over absolute numbers, which in previous years could be bought and even now can be artificially boosted. By this measure people, especially those with original voices, perform many times better than institutions. “Jerry Gogosian”, who has 71,000 followers who actively like and comment on her posts, is a case in point. Her account, subtitled “Art World anti-depressant”, satirizes its many foibles.
Other art world Instagram “stars” include New York magazine’s critic Jerry Saltz (410,000 followers), who mixes erudition, wit, opinion, the occasional “weenie outburst” (his words) with a dose of self-deprecation. Art dealer Brett Gorvy (135,000) posts selections of art accompanied by poetry, lyrics and literary readings. Uber-curator Hans Ulrich Obrist (300,000) is typically counter-intuitive, using a primarily visual platform to upload pictures of scribbled messages on Post-it notes, snippets of art theory and artists’ quotations.
During lockdown a few museums and galleries have started to take more risks. In London, the 251-year-old Royal Academy has been making waves after handing over its social media accounts to Adam Koszary, dubbed “the museum world’s king of memes” by The New York Times. He rose to prominence after devising a witty social media campaign for the tiny Museum of English Rural Life in Berkshire.
During lockdown, inspired by his own lunch, he randomly asked on Twitter: “Who can draw us the best ham?”—and received a slew of creative posts from RA followers including critics, barristers and even the Association for Art History. “People should only copy what I do to the extent that they should try and form proper human connections,” Koszary told the newspaper. “Social media is meant to be collaborative, democratic.”
Meanwhile, a small number of gallerists have abandoned their usual reticence (“it’s not about me, it’s all about the artists”) and taken to Instagram Live. One of the best is German gallerist Johann König’s regular 10am Series of conversations with artists and other art world figures (archived on the König Galerie’s Instagram highlights, @koeniggalerie). He has proved a penetrating, dry interviewer and, like the best journalists, is unafraid to ask a blunt question: “But how do you make any money?” he asked Great Women Artists podcaster Katy Hessel.
Meanwhile, “Jerry Gogosian” has been revealed to be gallerist/writer/curator and artist Hilde Lynn Helphenstein. Jerry’s fans will be delighted to hear that Helphenstein has now launched a podcast, AM Art World Radio (a joke, she says, about the technical quality of the recording). She says that the initial episodes “have been received with both love and hate”, because her radio persona is, unsurprisingly, different from Jerry’s. “Some people are disappointed that I’m not some old, bitter, rich, art dealer, and some that I’m not a disenfranchised hacker,” she says. Others want her “to stick to making jokes and shut up about anything else”. But, she says, “creative risk is very important to me… and people don’t have to follow me”.
Individualism is less easy for traditionally hierarchical, reputation- and brand-conscious galleries and museums. “Striking a balance between representing their mission and being perceived as personable is challenging,” says JiaJia Fei, founder of a specialist digital agency for art and consulting director of digital at the Jewish Museum in New York. “It’s why the most successful accounts are run by those with the deepest understanding of the organization.”
This may explain the success of the cash-strapped ICA London’s lockdown newsletter, ICA Daily. The institution has been returning to its anarchic, experimental roots under Stefan Kalmár, former director of New York’s Artists Space. He launched the rough-and-ready email newsletter—basic grey background, blue and red links—featuring free-to-air YouTube, Vimeo, audio and articles chosen daily by him, his staff and independent curators, artists and performers.
It’s an eclectic mix, with a slant towards activism, cross-disciplinary work and content from the margins: this month performance artist Susanne Oberbeck (performing name No Bra) chose an interview between Left of Black webcast presenter and Duke University professor Mark Anthony Neal and artist John Akomfrah; a film she made in 2003 with Frieze assistant editor Fanny Paul Clinton, and new-music site Bandcamp.
Contributors explain briefly, in straightforward, often chatty language, why they have chosen what they have, and why we should take a look. As the weeks go on it feels as if we are getting to know the ICA regulars. There is a business, as well as engagement aim: to increase the uptake of the institute’s £240 “Red” membership.
Navigating the mainstream
ICA Daily would be too left-field for institutions with more mainstream audiences such as the Tate, the Metropolitan Museum or the Museum of Modern Art, which have to appeal to everyone from family groups to connoisseurs. Like most big museums’ editorial offerings, MoMA’s The Museum from Home newsletter is educational and accessible in tone. “Today we’re sharing resources to bring art and inspiration to the learners in your life…” one missive begins. It saves itself from patronizing the cognoscenti by finding surprising stories among MoMA’s vast collections.
So far it has presented obscure items from its extensive home-video archive, personal reactions to its collections by figures such as African American human rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson, and unusual responses to individual artworks. One of the most original is a 15-minute contemporary music commission by composer Conor Bourgal designed to be listened to while looking at Jackson Pollock’s One: Number 31, 1950 (1950).
In London, Ralph Rugoff, director of the Hayward Gallery and of last year’s Venice Biennale, is also exploring new ways of connecting with its audience. “Although it’s not a substitute for seeing art in a gallery, digital content has great potential to engage with people who are interested in learning more about an exhibition, an artist or an artwork,” he says. His atmospheric “Among the Trees” exhibition was forced to closed only a few days after it opened, and his team have instead been working on short, educational films, themed poetry and playlists, even an urban tree identification guide by artists and scientists.
Adhikari, meanwhile, turns about to be an enthusiast for museum education departments and the way they share their skills with curators. “They aren’t just panicking and saying: ‘How do we replace our analogue offer with digital content?’” he says. “They are thinking: ‘How do we have a legitimate presence in the homes of our audiences and facilitate new kind of relationships?’” The days when a museum’s communication strategy was limited to erudite talks, archival material and in-depth catalogue essays are long gone.
Ironically, perhaps, these are migrating elsewhere—to the big commercial galleries. Gagosian, Hauser & Wirth and David Zwirner have all invested heavily in editorial: books, films, online articles, magazines and podcasts. In a recent edition of its Dialogues podcast, which has increased in frequency to once a week during lockdown, Lucas Zwirner moderated a discussion between two video artists of different generations, Diana Thater and Rachel Rose. Topics included architecture, robotics, trauma and animals’ experience of the world.
At Hauser & Wirth, New York Times writer Randy Kennedy, executive editor of the gallery’s Ursula magazine, told Monocle radio that his team have been working “really, really hard to put the magazine, films, interviews and archival things… online very quickly”. It has launched an editorial-based lockdown newsletter, Dispatches, filled with free-to-air content. Among its recent articles is a memoir of a day spent with Joseph Cornell in 1971 by the art historian Phyllis Tuchman.
Meanwhile, Gagosian has packed its new online sales platform, Artist Spotlight, with interviews by famous writers, long-form essays and in-depth films. This is sophisticated stuff, verging on the reverential, designed to appeal to the galleries’ artists and a wealthy, generally older, educated clientele.
The trend for self-publishing makes sense, Fei says, as it “provides agency, expands the brand and reach of the gallery, as well as adding narrative”. But “we have to find ways of formulating a story that is compelling and accessible: there is so much competition on-screen and so many different formats that people consume. It means changing gear and adapting the way you speak to different audiences and different platforms in the digital space.”
Which brings us back to the Cowboy Museum and Tim Tiller. With his homespun wisdom and aw-shucks dad-jokes (example: “What did the cowboy say to the pencil?” “Draw!”), Tiller shows that even with an overwhelming amount of competition there is space for the right content, for the right audience, to cut through.
He is, of course, no average warder, just as Jerry Saltz is no average arts writer. Tiller is a true cowboy enthusiast and a natural communicator. As he told The Wall Street Journal, he has spent 20 years pacing the galleries and stores and quickly earned a reputation as “the guy who likes to read the labels”. Originality, authenticity, knowledge and the right way of writing for the right platform: publishing perfection.