A Note on Institutional Relationships in the Age of Corona

By Alyssa Laverda

April 20, 2020

A Note on Institutional Relationships in the Age of Corona

#GettyMuseumChallenge of James McNeil Whistler’s Milly Finch, 1883-84 by @rotten.puddn


Last Wednesday, the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) of North America released a statement reporting that it will not penalize its members, 227 art museums across the United States, Canada and Mexico, if they choose to reallocate funds from their endowments, trusts and income from deaccessioned objects towards operating costs, if necessary. This is the unfortunate reality for many museums around the world, if they are lucky enough to have ample stores to tap and can navigate through often-tight legal restrictions. While The Metropolitan Museum of Art may take a loss of $100 million, nearly a third of its yearly operating budget, its endowment figure is a staggering $3.6 billion, whereas smaller institutions are in critical need and struggling to survive. For example, Charleston, a farmhouse in East Sussex that celebrates the lives and works of the early 20th century Bloomsbury Group, is appealing to emergency crowdfunding in order to seek the £400,000 they will need to make it through the coming months. Despite this backdrop of financial duress, layoffs and furloughs in the US and uncertainty in the UK, institutions are making a global concerted effort to reach out to their audiences through online channels and social media to offer an outlet, a chance to engage with inspiration and remind all of us of the history, beauty, wonder and resilience of humankind. 


Resources for Online Institutional Engagement

Impressive social media efforts are actively underway as museums also come together on Instagram and Twitter to support each other. On March 25, Artnet told the story of #MuseumBouquet, a hashtag used by institutions as they compassionately sent each other floral arrangements from their collections via Instagram. Apart from well wishes, museums are also providing resources and social media tips for their sector. The Virginia Association of Museums has detailed a comprehensive list that includes tips for social media engagement as well as the Smithsonian Institution’s Facebook 101


Entrenched in the space of museum consultancy and driving viewer engagement is Cuseum, a technical partner for institutions that has cultivated a profound list of clients, such as the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Pérez Art Museum in Miami and around 100 others while currently holding five patents with another three pending. Founded in 2014 by Brendan Ciecko, a serial tech entrepreneur whose early career awarded him the cover of Inc. Magazine in 2008, they specialize in mobile engagement, digital membership and augmented reality. Cuseum is busy providing free webinars and social media engagement tips for the sector during this time. Register here for tonight’s webinar “Membership Mondays: Fulfillment, Renewals and Budgets in Membership During Coronavirus” at 8 PM BST / 3PM EST and register here for Wednesday’s “Collaborating on Virtual Educational Programs During Coronavirus.” One of the many tips Ciecko and Cuseum are encouraging is to think creatively in terms of live content engagement, for example, The Broad Museum in Los Angeles has continuously released four parts of a light and sound series inspired by their Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Room, titled Infinite Drone on Instagram Live; it also lives on their Youtube channel


Cuseum’s success in this space hints at a wealth of museum experiences just waiting to be tapped into online. Here are some exceptional visual opportunities, many created pre-Covid, to explore through the websites of some of the world’s most historic, illuminary, and in one case— holy, institutions. The Vatican Museum has seven galleries available on a 360-degree virtual tour, including the divine Sistine Chapel. The Louvre has four galleries displayed in interactive virtual tours, and the Sharjah Art Museum of the United Arab Emirates hosts a viewer-led online replica of their Modern and Contemporary Wing. Apart from these spatial walkthroughs, The British Museum hosts a digital timeline, created with the partnership of Google, that allows viewers to roam through centuries of objects and see webs of connections data-woven together from linear influence and like attributes. While these experiences require the viewer to visit them, there are also engagement opportunities found in viewer’s own social media feeds that are now checked 21% more often in the United Kingdom and Germany, 27% higher in France, 32% in the United States, 49% in Spain and 52% in Italy, as of March 2020, according to Statista, who survey sampled media usage from March 16th to the 20th. 


The RA on Twitter and Instagram 

The Royal Academy’s Adam Koszary was featured in The New York Times at the end of last month for stirring up the Twitterspace, asking followers for drawings of hams on behalf of the 252 year old institution (receiving 6,900 likes, 1,900 retweets and 391 comments on one post). Koszary’s journey to the RA was in part due to how well his natural cheeky and humorous persona shone through the platform when he was creating content for a small agricultural museum, The Museum of English Rural Life. After a short stint at Tesla, having been poached by Elon Musk through the 140-character-limit platform, Koszary found his home back in the museum sphere at The Royal Academy this past February. Identified throughout the museum sector as a force and example, Koszary notes that social media is meant to be “collaborative and democratic”. The latest posts have seen the hashtag #RAdailydoodle, while requests range from drawing bluebells to fat birds. From April 11th to 18th, ten @royalacademy posts bearing this hashtag generated 220 comments using the #RAdailydoodle, out of a total 552 comments, 1,660 likes and 370 retweets, from their pool of 437,900 followers. 


In tandem to Koszary’s tweets, the Instagram team @royalacademyarts are engaging their similarly sized audience of 467,000 followers, with content that ranges from educational ideas for at-home sculptures with the family, breathing exercises, an animated Easter post and calls for their Young Artists Summer Show (submissions close this week on April 24). Perhaps most poignant to the art world is the pinned Instagram Story of Secretary and Executive Chief Alex Rüger’s personal message speaking from the courtyard of the RA, as he closed the doors of the institution at the onset of the crisis. In it, he promises that we will be hearing from their artists as they keep the community strong and Rüger, the former Director of the Van Gogh Museum for over a decade who transitioned to the RA in February of 2019, has made good on that promise. This past Thursday, as part of their #ArtistsinIsolation series, Contemporary giant Ai Weiwei was featured on their Instagram Story, speaking directly to the RA’s audience and the art world at home. The full video lives on their website, where his message begins, “Hello, this is a message for the Royal Academy. This is a very difficult time, especially for England and for Europe. I think we have to stay strong. We have to believe art always wins. At a time like this, humanity is most important…” The series has so far also included Stephen Farthing RA and Rebecca Salter PRA, who believes “These are difficult times for everyone – but art thrives in a crisis.”


While Contemporary artists speak to us today, the previously mentioned Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam speaks from the past. On the same Thursday, the museum posted Field with Irises near Arles (1888) by Vincent, alongside an excerpt from one of his famous letters to his brother Theo, dated 1878, “Woe-spiritedness is quite a good thing to have, if only one writes it as two words, woe is in all people, everyone has reason enough for it, but one must also have spirit, the more the better, and it is good to be someone who never despairs.” Liked by thousands with 128 comments as of yesterday, the engagement from this post is a small sample of the 3.2 million followers that @vangoghmuseum shares between Instagram and Twitter, at an even split.


Museum Engagement Across Twitter and Instagram

Five years ago, an in-depth study of the presence on Facebook and Twitter of 57 European museums was conducted by Kostas Zafiropoulos, Vasiliki Vrana and Konstantinos Antoniadis and published in the Journal of Tourism, Heritage and Services Marketing. Activity and engagement was determined from a sample recorded from March 2-5, 2015 and a wealth of information is provided from that time that paints a near-holistic view of the institutional engagement through these platforms including measurements of popularity, activity, visits and reached demographics. Focusing in on the top nine institutions with the highest engagement levels, the Van Gogh Museum was the only single artist museum of the group and stood with the Museo del Prado, British Museum, Tate Britain, Centre Pompidou, Museo Reina Sofia, Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona, The National Gallery and the Musée du Louvre. On Twitter in 2015, these nine museums had an average audience of 383,500 followers. As of yesterday, these nine institutions have an average of 1,534,789, suggesting an increase of 224,117 followers and average growth of 32% year-on-year.


A Note on Institutional Relationships in the Age of Corona ArtTactic


ArtTactic has been actively tracking museum metrics with the rise of Instagram in our work with Hiscox to produce the Hiscox Online Art Trade Report. Since 2016, we’ve looked at the growth of followers on Instagram across four heavyweights in the museum sphere, The Museum of Modern Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Guggenheim, and The Tate. Starting in 2016 with a range from 573,000 followers of the Tate to the 1.3 million followers of The Museum of Modern Art, the range increased by 2020 to 2.5 million viewers engaged by The Guggenheim to The Museum of Modern Art’s 5 million. Average year on year growth for this time period across all four was 24%, with the Tate leading at 31%. 


A Note on Institutional Relationships in the Age of Corona ArtTactic


With the intersection of data from Instagram and Twitter showing that the Tate has a larger audience on Twitter by a staggering 1.4 million user accounts, we explored how the other three institutions’ Twitter accounts compared as well. All four museums boast larger followings on Twitter, at an average of 800,000 more each, with the Tate retaining the most drastic difference and The Museum of Modern Art having the most similar audience, with a Twitter following of 5.3 million, only 200,000 more followers than their Instagram account. Looking to macro-factors to explain this phenomena, as we understand the importance of Instagram in the art world especially for collectors and art market players, we posited that perhaps more people live on Twitter as a whole. However, according to the latest data as of January 2020 from Statista, Twitter’s 340 million active users appear rather meager compared to the 1 billion active Instagram accounts. Platforms that take the cake above Twitter as well include Snapchat, Sina Weibo, Reddit, TikTok and others. From our perspective, the overall growing popularity of museums on these platforms, at the very positive growth rates of 24% for Instagram and 32% for Twitter, show that there is healthy demand for engagement from these historic institutions and the public arts sector, with room to grow.  


In the Age of Corona 

Returning to the moment, we’ve also looked at the conversations with museums across Instagram and Twitter that have bloomed in compensation of the stay at home orders around the world. Lists of hashtags have been published as more join in, and we’ve created our own as well. In order of descending popularity, the following were identified through Instagram as some of the most prevalent tags during this time: 


#instamuseum #museumfromhome #betweenartandquarantine #gettymuseumchallenge #artinquarantine #musesocial #virtualmuseum #onlinemuseum #closedbutopen #digitalmuseum #museummomentofzen #museumsathome #museoencasa #museumsandchill #artistsinisolation #artcanhelp #archiveshashtagparty


#Instamuseum leads with 242,000 posts, probably due to its pre-Covid origins, whereas #museumfromhome, born as a direct result of the current pandemic, has 47,100 posts. Other top tags #betweenartandquarantine, #gettymuseumchallenge, #artinquarantine, and #musesocial boast between 10,000 and 16,500 posts. Notably, the #gettymuseumchallenge has garnered 12,600 hits and become a true social media sensation that’s made mainstream headlines, as art lovers at home dress up and imitate their favorite works of art, complete with props and pets. We looked at the activity of these hashtags on Twitter over the course of the last week, from April 11th to the 18th, and found that on this platform, #gettymuseumchallenge was the most popular, tagged 27,047 times, with #museumfromhome second, at 19,810. On Facebook, #museumfromhome stands out above all with 16,000 posts compared to numbers at 1,000 or less for the rest. While our data for Instagram and Facebook reflect an entire conversation, the numbers from Twitter are solely a sample of the last week, suggesting that these numbers could potentially be more viral than they appear here. 


Final Thoughts

What do these numbers really represent? This portrayal of connectivity is difficult to describe in encapsulating words that assuredly will not do the thousands of comments, likes, and photos and the associated laughs, tears, wonder and inspiration justice. It is an immense outpouring of emotion centered around our mutual love of art, creativity and history, as we look to sources of spiritual elevation during this trying time. However, this is all solely a reflection of the depth of meaning these institutions have in our lives. Perhaps it is better to instead share a single engagement rather than speak to the whole: 


The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York celebrates its 150th anniversary this year, and in commemoration, they are asking their members, visitors and global audience to share a personal story about their experience with the institution. On Instagram using the #mymetstory, we found this post by @muldermuseum (reposted by the Met), “I first visited The Met on vacation with my parents when I was nine years old, and that visit changed my life. I remember turning the corner in the Egyptian galleries and my breath catching at the sight of the Temple of Dendur. It felt impossible—like discovering magic or time travel was real, that I could live with one foot in the 21st century and the other in ancient Egypt. Until that moment I hadn’t realized museums were such powerful places….” At the end of the post, it’s revealed that David Mulder is about to embark on postgraduate education in the history of Ancient Mesopotamian and Near Eastern Art, and the posts on his account chronicle a passion that has brought Mulder to  collections and sites spanning across continents, in cities such as Paris, Berlin, London, Haifa, Philadelphia, and many more. 


Leaving the steps of the Met, a 17 minute walk through Central Park to the Upper West Side will bring you to the doors of New York’s first and oldest museum, The New York Historical Society, located adjacent to the eminent American Museum of Natural History. Established in 1804, the institution has been charged with the preservation of the city’s history through a vast collection of documents, objects, art and artifacts, and as part of their ongoing acquisition program, they are currently soliciting objects from New Yorkers to record this historic moment, as they find themselves at the center of this ravaging pandemic. Along with these objects, data being created in this moment will also have a life after this, and we will be able to look back a hundred years from now to see what art exhibitions and museums looked like, and how the world came together in this moment, celebrating our culture and what it means to be human, while we wait to go outside. 


This is a reminder that while our days and sense of time are being displaced, history is still being made, and that this too, shall pass.