Organizations are being told all the time that they have to use social media to be competitive and responsive. And obviously there have been times when organizations – formal or informal – have used social media to the great benefit of themselves and their society, as in, for example, the Arab Spring uprising. But are there places or organizations where social media doesn’t belong? I think so, because I just went to one.
One group of organizations that I’m very interested in is art museums. Art museums have multiple mandates to fulfill – cultural and archival preservation, exhibition, education, entertainment – and multiple stakeholders – artists, governments, researchers, publics, donors, educators, art dealers, other museums – all of which have challenging demands to manage. An additional complexity is that this balancing act takes place within the unique ethos of the art world (see the documentary The Great Contemporary Art Bubble for an entertaining look at some of these peculiarities). As an organizational researcher and as an art lover, I find this turbulent environment endlessly fascinating.
So, as organizations in a highly competitive environment, it’s no surprise that art museums are employing social media to market themselves and to create ongoing relationships with their various stakeholders. Nearly every art museum has a Twitter account and a Facebook page, and some are now using Tumblr to show works from their collections. But last weekend, when I visited the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, I came across a new use of social media by museums – encouraging visitors to use Twitter while in the galleries.
The AGO’s fifth floor, in a lounge outside one of the contemporary art displays, has a wall-mounted screen showing a live Twitter feed from #contemporaryTO, with a sign encouraging people to sit there and join the “conversation”. My reaction to this was, and still is, hell no. Because to contribute to this “conversation”, you have to have a phone – and I am sure I’m not the only museumgoer who has had more than enough of morons in galleries having loud phone conversations about absolutely nothing, or texting so much that they aren’t even looking at the art, or where they’re walking. In my admittedly cranky opinion, this narcissism needs to be discouraged, not enabled. No phones in museums!
The other opportunity to use Twitter was much more relevant. The fourth floor galleries had a retrospective of the work of Canadian artist IAIN BAXTER& (that’s how he names himself), which has evolved over four decades from reasonably traditional sketching and painting into some fairly adventurous conceptual art. One section of the exhibit included an “interaction station” – a table with several computers in a semi-circle, facing four flat screens. One screen is a video of IAIN, explaining that he is collecting information for a project and asking questions for people to answer on computers linked to a live Twitter feed, with the feed displayed on the other screens. The question I heard was “How many times a day do you use the word ‘and’?” To me, this seemed a somewhat more appropriate use of Twitter because the Tweeting activity was controlled – I guess people could have added to the Twitter feed using their own phone, but I didn’t see anyone doing that.
However, the content of the Twitter feeds rarely had anything to do with IAIN’s questions, or with the exhibit. There were a few really smart comments related to the works, but almost all of it was “look at me, I can type and the words will show up on a screen”. Maybe that’s IAIN’s point – to demonstrate the ephemerality and triviality of a lot of online communication. However,while the lack of content may not be a problem for IAIN, I think it’s a problem for the AGO. If people aren’t looking at the art, and are instead playing with computers to type something like “CHEEEESSSEE” or “Im horny”… how does that contribute to the visitor’s experience, or develop their relationship to the art? What implicit message is the AGO sending about how visitors can, or should, experience different kinds of art when the Twittering sites are all in the contemporary art galleries? Am I not supposed to Tweet about the AGO’s non-contemporary artists, like the Group of Seven or David Milne? And – if someone can Tweet pretty much anywhere they go, how does being able to Tweet in a museum make their visit distinctive or memorable, or make them want to come back?
I understand the pressure to use social media, and that the world is more and more interactive, and that there is more than one way to present or experience art. But while I appreciate the AGO wanting to appeal to different demographic groups and to give different experiences, I don’t think Twitter is the way to do it. As a counter-example, I spent several quiet minutes in awe in front of the AGO’s masterpiece, Rubens’ painting Massacre of the Innocents. Two shaggy-haired slackers came and stood next to me and also stared intently at the painting. “Is this from a real story?” one asked. “Um, I don’t think so,” said the other.
And then after a few minutes of silent contemplation, the first one said, “The more you look at this, the scarier it gets”.
That, exactly, is why this painting is so monumental. And what was completely absent from our collective experience with that piece of art? Social media. Tweet THAT.