Bring Backstage Onstage with Social Media

Imagine, if we saw social media more like an artist’s studio or cafe and less like a marketing channel?

While walking through the exhibit, Building: Inside Studio Gang Architects at the Arts Institute Chicago last November, I felt like I was seeing into the private design space of the architect. The exhibit was an installation of an architect’s studio with concept drawings, full-scale project mockups, material samples, and photographs of completed work that now form part of the Chicago city skyline. This exhibit was a celebration of the work of the artist behind their city stage.

The work of the artist backstage, however, many don’t experience. The space is unorganized and cluttered; the work in progress, being constructed, deconstructed, is unpredictable and incomplete. This is why many artists and arts managers do not openly bring backstage onstage and into the public eye—because it is messy.

Imagine for a moment, however, if we did?


Social media use in arts management

I spend a lot of my time exploring how arts organizations use social media and what I often read is content dominated by the voice of the marketer, marketing at me—a mix of call-to-action posts such and social media promotions focused on driving traffic and ticket sales.

In a report released in January by the PEW Research Center, nearly 1,300 art organizations (77 percent of those surveyed) agreed that the internet has played a major role in broadening the boundaries of what it considered art. Digital technology now permeates the operations of many arts organizations, especially in marketing and audience engagement activities.

Social media, however, are not marketing channels, they are social spaces wherein networks of people meet, share, and learn from each other. Sometimes they are even spaces for the co-creation of art.

When arts organizations forget this, they join the queue of thousands of organizations and individuals who use social media to push out content, spam followers, and annoy their friends. There are many guides offering advice on how artists and arts organization can use social media to better market themselves.

My advice is simple—Do not use social media for marketing.

Social media marketing follows a traditional media channel mindset, a mindset that ignores the social side of social digital contexts. It also ignores the social and creative way people work and learn in the arts, the place and inspiration of artwork.

Kelly Page, PhD


Taking social media use to the next level

Some arts organizations understand this and are changing the way they work; using social media to bring backstage onstage with social media; curating the voice of the artist and sharing the creative process behind the artwork.

At the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History (MAH), for example, Stacey Garcia, Emily Dobkin, and Nina Simon make their creative ideation process public, using Pinterest to document and share ideas for exhibits and events. Not only has it helped to solve internal communications, it enables the sharing and indexing of images and ideas between internal staff, interns, and members of their community.

In the United Kingdom, John McGrath and his team at National Theatre Wales, use their own social networking site and other services to share the rehearsal process for their productions. They share blog posts, tweets, video diaries, and Flickr images from directors, actors, and crew as curated through Storify, creating a collective production experience. The Storify for The Radicalisation of Bradley Manning (2012) provides an example.

Then there is the world of the playwright. In 2012, while in downtown Chicago I walked past a storefront window. Inside the window was playwright Trevor Dawkins typing. Facing out to the street was a large LCD screen. As he typed, his words appeared on the screen in real-time.

Trevor was participating in the Storefront Playwright Project, a project with 31 Chicago playwrights sharing the creation of their work in real-time. Walking on, I followed the projects blog and hashtag #playwrightinawindow on Twitter in order to learn more about the work of these Chicago writers.

Virtual Choir by musical composer and conductor Eric Whiteacre is also pushing the boundaries of social media to socially co-create art practice. The concept involves singers from around the world each uploading videos of themselves singing. The videos are then edited together to create one piece.

The first Virtual Choir (2009) had 185 singers from 12 countries. It then grew to 3,746 singers from 73 countries for the third choir in 2011. The project has a Facebook page followed by almost 30,000 people and in January 2013, Eric successfully received Kickstarter funding from 2,000 backers pledging more than $120,000 to fund Virtual Choir 4: Bliss.

These are a few examples of how artists and arts organizations are embracing the creative and innovate uses of social media as social spaces and social practice; more akin to the artist’s studio or cafe, than a marketing channel.

Unlearning the marketing mindset to share the artist’s way.

Bringing backstage onstage with social media is one way to help share learning about artists, their ways of working, and their artwork. This approach, however, requires much unlearning.

  • Unlearning the use of social media as a marketing channel in order to learn how to participate in social, creative, and artistic ways in network social spaces.
  • Unlearning marketing language and activities focused on targeting audiences, ticket sales, and calls to action; in order to learn how to create meaningful experiences with artists and arts managers throughout an organization or community.
  • Unlearning marketing practices that push out information about exhibits, events, people and artwork, in order to learn how to invite and curate discussion and debate around each within arts communities.
  • Lastly, and most importantly, unlearning the default responsibility of marketing owning (and controlling) social media activity in arts organizations. This is critical in order to foster learning and social media participation across many areas of the arts.