At the Walker's opening for "Picasso and American Art" last June, visitors posed for digital photos that were manipulated with a "cubism effect" and posted on Flickr within minutes.
COURTESY WALKER ART CENTER, MINNEAPOLIS
In the spring of 2006, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis scheduled a concert by Sunn O))), an experimental noise band with an art-world following. The center listed the upcoming performance on its Web site's calendar and blog pages and, for the first time, on the MySpace page the museum had launched just a few months earlier. With no other promotion, the show sold out within days. It was an unusually direct example of the marketing power of MySpace, says Robin Dowden, director of the Walker's new-media initiatives. "Social networking sites present an opportunity to build a larger presence online and find audiences."
Like many struggling musicians and artists, institutions have come to realize that a Web site alone is not enough to attract attention online. As more people log onto MySpace, Facebook, and Flickr to look up their friends, seek out others with similar interests, and make evening plans, museums are jumping onto social networking sites to extend their cyberpresence. The sites are the latest answer in a long-running institutional debate over how best to exploit the potential of the Internet for marketing, community building, and staging art projects.
People meeting people is still the basic principle that drives networking, online or off. Social networking sites merely offer a new means of encountering like-minded souls. They allow members to post personal profiles and link to the profiles of other users who acknowledge them as friends, thereby creating webs of connections.
Institutions start to look like individuals when posting profiles on MySpace. The Walker identifies itself as an 80-year-old woman interested in "community engagement and enrichment"; New York's Printed Matter bookstore appears as a 31-year-old woman whose heroes are artist Sol LeWitt and critic Lucy Lippard, the store's founders; and Pittsburgh's Andy Warhol Museum is a 79-year-old man who is interested in "superstars." And they have friends, lots of them.
This summer the number of people linking to the Warhol Museum's MySpace page passed 10,000. The profile was first posted in November 2004 by visitor services manager Glenn Wonsettler, who himself had recently joined MySpace. "I thought this would help us beyond press materials," he says. "I try to make it a bridge to the museum and Web site."
Wonsettler filled out MySpace's basic online form and soon was receiving up to 40 requests a day to approve other users as friends. Now any visitor to the Warhol Museum's MySpace page can click on the links to its many friends and check out their profiles. Equally important, Wonsettler can regularly send the friends bulletins about upcoming events or news of discounts at the online store. Last year he sent out a group mailing asking for photo-booth portraits, and within three days 200 people had e-mailed their pictures. Those are now posted in the photos section on the museum's page.
One of the Warhol Museum's friends is Elizabeth Starkey, a 25-year-old video and mixed-media artist in Atlanta. She has been to the museum only once, when she was 12, but she says that visit made her decide to go to art school. She added the museum as a friend on MySpace, she says, "to see what it considers noteworthy in the art world." Befriending a museum online is also good marketing for artists, who expand their network to Web surfers who can click from the museum's page onto the artists' personal pages to see videos or images posted there.
For Wonsettler the Warhol Museum's MySpace page is essentially a low-maintenance marketing tool, but for Shelley Bernstein, the Brooklyn Museum's manager of information systems, the social networking sites help forge a virtual community just as vital as those off-line. "I started looking at what community means on the Internet, and to me, it was very obvious that it meant going onto these sites," she says. Maintaining multiple pages on the different networking sites is, in effect, conducting community outreach; drawing some of the museum's thousands of online friends to the building to raise admissions is not her goal. "The day that that becomes important is the day we are not acting as part of that Web community and we fail." Bernstein set up a MySpace profile for the museum last year and has since joined Facebook and Flickr.
MySpace is the largest social networking site, with approximately 66 million users, according to a recent Newsweek article. When Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation bought the site in 2005, its cachet slipped somewhat. Facebook started as a networking site for college students and opened its portals to everyone earlier this year. Still independently owned, it has overtaken MySpace as the "in" gathering place for the mostly young users of the social networking sites. Flickr, by contrast, is principally a photo storage and sharing site that allows members to create groups in which other members can post images.
MySpace lets users send automatic bulletins about upcoming events to all of their friends, whereas Facebook only notifies friends that a profile has been updated; users themselves must check for news. Bernstein notes that it is important to understand how this difference affects the tone in each community. "On MySpace you've got a lot of self-promotion going on," she says. "On Facebook it's practically the opposite. They like to keep it a small group."
A MySpace bulletin will result in a rise in traffic, according to Bernstein, who can tell which outside site, or referrer, has led each visitor to the museum's Web site. She can also tell how much traffic is drawn to different parts of its MySpace page. The most visited, or clicked on, section posts photographs from events at the museum, such as its First Saturday parties. But Flickr, where the museum displays a more extensive selection of event photos, has become one of the top referrers, surpassing MySpace and nearly matching Google. Both the Web and the museum world are "very visual cultures," observes Bernstein. Of all the social networking sites, Flickr, with its straightforward emphasis on photographs, tends to feed that hunger for images best, she says.
Joining the networking sites costs nothing, but maintaining the pages takes staff time. So why make the investment? "Mostly for the referral traffic, plus, to be on the edge of things," says Jennifer Rossi, the webmaster at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C. "The first month we put up our MySpace page, we had more referrals from there than from the Smithsonian, our host Web site." Belonging to a social networking site also helps boost the museum's presence in the minds of the desirable 18-to-35 age demographic.
Rossi delegates maintenance of the MySpace page to museum interns, and each changes its focus slightly. Lately, the MySpace page has been used to promote the Hirshhorn's After Hours parties. The most recent gathering drew 2,000 people, up from 1,400 earlier in the year.
While one draw of these sites is the chance to make contact with the vast pool of users, the next generation of networking may be about connecting with smaller groups of people with more specific interests. When the Walker created a place for staff to write about the institution and the art world on its blogs, the museum also launched a networking site for Minnesota artists and the local arts community. The blogs have since become the most visited part of the Walker's Web site, and MNartists.org is an active hive of information about events and grants, as well as a place to share work. (The Walker was one of the first museums to recognize that viable art existed online; in 1998 it acquired the ada'Web site, an archive of early Net art.)
Commercial entitites are taking notice of the possibly lucrative art niche as well. In 2005, while waiting to move into a new space, the Saatchi Gallery launched a Web site to promote its art and allow artists and galleries to set up shop on individual pages. Lacking user-to-user links, the site is not technically a networking site, but its message boards allow open discussions of work, and the site draws millions of hits daily. And as this article went to press, Steven Henry Madoff, a former ARTnews executive editor and Time Inc. consultant, had just launched artCloud.com, a social networking site directed at artists, curators, collectors, and museums. It allows users to create portfolios, view new and popular works, search services and job listings, and keep a date book of events.
Whether using targeted sites like artCloud or one of the most visited sites in the world such as MySpace, museums are seeking to bring in as many people as possible. It's just that these visitors may not be walking in the front door anymore.
by Carly Berwick