The Art of Social Media

Presenting to first year Ontario College of Arts and Design University students recently, I asked them if they knew the difference between a public gallery and an artist Run centre, the difference between a gallery collective and a commercial gallery – questions that mostly elicited blank faces. They didn’t understand each venue will have different relationships with the various players and, in turn, a different relationship with the public. What I learned was the general public as a whole and those new to the arts often can’t differentiate one from another and don’t have a very good understanding of the differences in the moving parts in the industry. They need something to help them along.

Enter Social Media, the new great and wildly flailing appendage of many a marketing department and communications gang, often tossed to the intern to take for walks and clean up after its misdoings.  How many followers do you have? How many fans did your page get today? What’s your APP?  All these questions have made many professionals, artists included, cringe and run away. There are those though, like in any industry, who are championing this new and quickly developing tool –and that’s what it is, a tool – and they are finding a lot of success with it. Beyond baseline marketing, they are learning to use it to connect with a new and younger audience or an audience which, because of geography, would not otherwise be able to engage. These people have quickly learned through trial and error that, as Dr. Lynda Kelly from The Australian Museum says, “It’s not about how many followers or fans you have, it’s about how many engagements you are making.” Currently, big public institutions are trying new ways to engage their public with this new reach and allow the public access to its objects and information.  Incubators and collectives are still using it predominately as a marketing tool, but along with artist run centres, the day isn’t far off when these arts entities will find each other and interconnections in multi-space collaborations will happen with the end result bridging geographic barriers like we’ve never seen before. This is where some magic will happen.

I’ve heard complaints many times from artist run centres and arts organizations set outside the large urban centres how they often feel excluded from the scene.  I imagine an art landscape where rural artist run centres can participate in debates happening in urban centres, and visa versa, instead of reading a transcript of them later. I imagine residencies happening collectively online. While some may feel there is no replacement for ‘being there’, we must adapt and give opportunities for engaging, not currently practiced in the arts arena, giving voice to the audience itself.  Once we harness these new connecting tools we can focus our attention on the next great breakthrough. I believe it is the role of the artist to be a visionary.  Facebook, Twitter, LinkdIn, Youtube, Vimeo, Tumblr, Google+ Websites and APPs are just a few platforms being used and online dashboards like Hootsuite have proven to be a great way to both manage workflow and monitor who’s saying what.   It’s not about selling ME ME ME – successful social media is about sharing and the collective ‘WE’.       

Another great concern for many in institutions is this idea of a plural social voice watering down the perception of in-house expertise. An expert is an expert and if an institution has an expert in some field or some expertise in the industry, why not share that with an audience?  Arts institutions have a great opportunity to create a space where the public can access that knowledge and connect with that information or expert. A great rule of social media is:  If you teach someone something; if they learn something from you, they will come back. 

While social media first came into hard play on marketing turf, it has quickly stretched its wings – and what a wingspan it has. Institutions traditionally heard as a singular voice now can have many voices and instead of it being a port for information export only, it can be a conduit for ongoing two-way communication. In this new structure, institutions can learn from listening more and broadcasting less.

Is it just a numbers game? If an art dealer, curator, gallerist or administrator is stuck in the mindset that it’s all about the sale, membership or getting the visitor into the venue, then they can always look at this as just another lead. More importantly though, is to recognize that an electronic audience is still an audience. If the numbers are adjusted correctly to include these interactions, one is able to better demonstrate that an electronic visit is still a visit. Again, it’s about interactions.

As in most industries, there are financial bottom lines and limited resources. Even more so than other industries, the arts are often susceptible to budget cuts.  Institutions that exhibit art and others who help fund art projects are always trying to make the dollars stretch to keep things moving along. With dollars tight, social media can be used as a marketing tool with a much greater return on investment than traditional media like television or paper ads.  I defer to a mantra from the Australian Museum which is: Don’t work twenty percent harder, work twenty percent differently.

Social media as a viable tool will advance and change and grow.  Arts organizations and arts workers are aware of this and are scrambling to figure it out. They are talking about it and they are asking questions of themselves and of their audience – they know they need to harness these tools if they are to succeed in this newly defined landscape. These are all good signs! It’s in the discovery stage and it’s changing the game.

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