How putting Neil McGregor in a dress could save the arts…
Picture the kind of digital messiah the arts really needs. What would he or she look like? Are they minister shaped? No. Are they one of those countless Keynote geeks we see at arts conferences. No. Do they spout empty buzz words like ‘collaboration!’ and ‘innovation!’?
No no no. The kind of digital messiah the arts really needs will look or at least sound a lot like Neil MacGregor…except with a twist. Yes, I am giving you permission (at last) to visualise the sixty something head of the British Museum waving a lush set of pom poms, sporting a pleated skirt and (if you like) high kicking in front of the Sutton Hoo exhibition.
Good grief! What an image, but stick with me. I think the best digital employee an arts org could possibly hire has a name; Community Manager. Community Manager is already an established role in other industries; simply put their job is to interact all day with audience online in order to grow social media channels. Taken up by the arts I believe they could be a transformative, if gradual, way to reach new audiences.
All very well, I hear you thinking, but why have we got Neil MacGregor cross dressing in the British Museum? All will be revealed. Let us first consider, accepting that they grow audiences, what the perfect cultural community manager looks like. We can’t just copy the format from other sectors, we’ll need to tweak the model for the arts. Look then into my digital ball…let your self see a story telling, audience wooing chimaera. Half cheerleader, half curator they magically combine two skill sets that rarely collide.
The first is digital. They need to be a social media ‘ninjas’ with high grade content production skills. Effortlessly generating sharp photography, handy with a video camera and editing suite, able to record quality podcasts. If you know where to look, this is not so such a hard person to find. Think young. There is a generation now in the workplace (or most likely trapped outside it) that has grown up as digital creatives. Just go to Hackney Job Centre and grab anyone in a check shirt. This is the cheerleader part sorted. Given the freedom of your gallery, dressing room or wings they roam your organisation, creating digtal content then pumping it out to the culture hungry web via social media.
The second part of the beast is harder to come by. The curator. This is the a soul who knows their building or organisation backwards and, even more importantly, loves it. In other words you need your own Neil MacGregor. If anyone came and asked where to find the least notable, most boring stone axe he could march them to a random cabinet and point. More than that he knows the story of every piece in his building and unravelled their history in the brilliant ‘A History of the World in 100 Objects’.
A series of podcasts, McGregor takes the listener through the history of mankind using the objects in his museum as waypoints. The dullest, most crumpled pieces of metal suddenly became human, full of narrative and a delight. Have you ever seen the Rosetta stone? It is essentially a tax form crossed with a breeze block. Yet somehow through his archivist’s love MacGregor extracted the emotion from it. Quite literally this was blood from a stone and what was his platform? A digital podcast.
Yes it was also a radio show but a far larger audience can access it as a pod. Podcasts are easy and cheap to produce and offer a personal and rather alchemical engagement. Anyone with a spare ten minutes could produce an Audioboo and given half an hour you can certainly create something every bit as technically impressive as the AHOW podcasts. I can hear people saying that is all very well for world famous orgs but what about a mid level museum in the midlands?
There will be ways to make your ‘content’, whatever it is, relevant and emotive. The arts and culture are, after all, surely the best content humanity has. Plus via the location element of social media you can connect with your local audience. Untapped local footfall is surely a good reason to proceed but, hey, why not think big? You could pre-programme tweets for the middle of the night, thus reaching wouldbe American tourists. You could even translate your tweets to reach a Japanese audience. It is all possible these days know, just use Hootsuite.
Let us behold the moster we have created. Imagine once again the high kicking MacGregor, except this time hang a Flip cam round his neck. There you have it, your dream arts community manager combining digital skills with a curatorial passion. Will this be an easy find? A story teller with video skills? No, I really don’t think so. Yes they will take a while to develop McGregor-ish, brahminical knowledge but send them off with a pile of books to research and they will get there. Unemployed digital creatives with a passion for the arts and story telling go by another, more common name. Musicians. Joking aside young musicians have a lot of these skills you’ll need in place. It could be a good place to start your search. Hell, why not bag one of the umpteen, unemployable History of Arts graduates as they tumble out of their worthless degrees this June?
Whatever you go for, graduate or Grunger, the really hard bit could be finding the money. I have an idea for this too. Why not share a community manager? Four local arts orgs could employ a single community manager, spending one day a week at each, creating content and managing all the social from a single digital dashboard. There we go, at a quarter of a cost you get someone working all week to grow your audience online.
Ultimately though why would you bother spending precious funds on this electric hybrid? The simple answer is this. Sooner than you think, that online audience will convert to real footfall and through a personalised digital engagement you can cheaply and meaningfully discover the people who don’t yet, but could soon learn to love your organisation as much as you do.
There has been a lot of debate recently about how the arts can find new audiences. This is one cheap, effective, creative soution combining all the possibilities of digital with old fashioned Reithian value. The fact is people love a guide. Your building can’t speak to them, neither can your brand. Hire someone skilled and passionate who can.
Blog originally appeared in www.ArtsProfessional.co.uk