Social media push art appreciation beyond museum walls

By James H. Burnett III
Globe Staff / September 18, 2011

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Jennifer Isakowitz is an art lover. Give her a minute, and she can rattle off a list of favorite works, artists, and styles, as well as museums she’s visited in the past.

But in spite of her passion, until recently, the 21-year-old Boston University public relations major had never visited Boston’s acclaimed Museum of Fine Arts.

Then she heard through the digital grapevines of Facebook and Twitter that the MFA was kicking off a new program on Thursday nights called Drawing in the Galleries, allowing visitors to mingle socially and sketch drawings of models.

“I saw tweets about it and retweeted it to my Twitter followers. If not for that feed and the Facebook follow, I probably wouldn’t have gone,’’ Isakowitz says.

In a month in which the MFA has launched an Internet social media effort aimed at reaching a potential new fan base and retaining patrons who increasingly manage their social lives on computers, Isakowitz’s words are music to the museum boss’s ears.

“It was inevitable that we move in this direction,’’ says Malcolm Rogers, director of the MFA. “We have to go to where the people are. It’s immensely important to connect with them in a way they’re most comfortable with. And perhaps after we make that connection, they’ll come to us and allow us to make them comfortable with museum tradition.’’

Experts say the MFA’s campaign puts the museum’s social media on par with the likes of New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, whose web “Connections’’ gives visitors insider information on exhibits and more via staff videos, and London’s Victoria and Albert museum, which offers a comprehensive online learning center.

As part of the MFA’s digital ramp-up, Rogers joined Twitter on Monday and engaged folks online in the first of a weekly one-hour Malcolm Tweets series. Week one found Rogers answering questions about the MFA’s new contemporary wing.

“There was a time it was unheard of in museum culture to ask patrons and visitors what they thought or to entertain their opinions. But again, it’s [now] necessary,’’ Rogers says.

Like other museums, the MFA has maintained a Web presence for years. But this week, as part of the new campaign, the museum also launched its Ask Us Anything series, a live Q&A between online visitors and curators about the MFA and the art realm in general. Next week a crowd-sourced art “class’’ will launch, urging online visitors to study Ellsworth Kelly’s famous 1968 painting “Blue Green Yellow Orange Red,’’ and post to the MFA’s Facebook page their own art and photographs inspired by the Kelly work.

But the biggest addition to the museum’s new digital repertoire is an interactive magazine - built for the iPad but accessible across all digital platforms.

Among other components, the magazine allows online visitors to:

■ Engage museum staff in debate or friendly conversation about exhibits previewed in online videos, photos, and articles,

■ Use flash tools to remake popular artworks, “repainting’’ them, repositioning images, and altering their appearance in other ways.

■ Closely examine artworks, using a virtual magnifying glass.

Chris Pape, of Genuine Interactive, a Boston programming firm, developed the magazine for the MFA.

“The first theory we came to the table with was that for years art has been housed within the walls of the museum,’’ Pape says. “Literally it didn’t come outside the walls. And your average visitor who was not an art professional probably thought to themselves, ‘If it’s hanging on the wall it must be good, and who am I to have an opinion about that? . . . So our theme was bringing conversation into the museum from outside its walls.’’

It’s generally agreed that a website has successfully captivated visitors’ attention when those visitors spend more than five consecutive minutes on the site.

Visitors to the MFA’s interactive magazine have averaged 14 minutes since it launched on Aug. 31, Pape says.

Alethea Dolan, a 21-year-old art history major at Boston University, says she’s one of those visitors who stay for a while on the online magazine.

“It’s easy to spend time on the site, because it gives you the kind of inside look that in the past you had to go to the museum in person to see,’’ Dolan says. “But the thing is, you get so much in the magazine that it makes you want to visit the museum anyway!’’

Nick O’Flaherty is strategy director at Wolff Olins New York, a firm that has helped digitize public interaction for museums from the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco to the Asian Art Museum, the Victoria and Albert, and the Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, in Qatar. He says that more than just engaging visitors, projects like the MFA’s interactive magazine provide more comprehensive stories behind works of art, from conception to creation.

“It seems simple, but providing that sort of information rewards loyalty to visitors and patrons. . . . It really does create a bond that can push some people to want to turn off the computer and go to the museum to see for themselves,’’ O’Flaherty says.

For the Victoria and Albert, Flaherty’s team led the museum’s efforts to draw interest in an upcoming World War II spy-themed exhibit by planting clues across the museum’s websites. Visitors who found the clues were rewarded with exclusive sneak peaks at the exhibit and offered first crack at seeing the exhibit in person when it opened.

In Phoenix, the 17-month-old Musical Instrument Museum is already drawing as much foot and Web traffic on certain days as large, more established institutions like the Phoenix Art Museum.

“We’re brand new, so for us social media from the beginning was used to first spread the word and then keep ’em coming back,’’ says Karen Werner, MIM’s social media manager. “You’ll hear this elsewhere, but it’s all about engagement. It’s that simple.’’

One of the instrument museum’s most successful social media campaigns came last month when it reopened a gallery with a new Elvis Presley exhibit featuring a Martin D-28 acoustic guitar that Elvis had played at Arizona State University.

The museum asked its Facebook followers if any had attended that ASU concert back in the day.

“To our surprise, several had,’’ Werner says. “And they began posting pictures and sharing nostalgic stories on our pages about being there that day and seeing Elvis play that specific guitar. This sort of interaction, driven by the patrons, keeps people coming back.’’

Werner says the Musical Instrument Museum uses the same tools as other museums, from Facebook to FourSquare and Twitter, to “constantly question our online followers about what they think of our art, what they want to see. And we’ve created such a vibe online that our followers are comfortable instigating the conversation on our sites themselves, independent of our promotional efforts.’’

James H. Burnett III can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @jamesburnett.

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