Public Relations Tactics

Curating relationships: The art of MoMA’s communications

March 31, 2011

Kim Mitchell, APR, chief communications officer for The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), was always interested in art at an early age. She studied at Moore College of Art & Design and at Temple University’s Tyler School of Art, both in Philadelphia.

“I fantasized about being a globetrotting photojournalist in the tradition of [Henri] Cartier-Bresson,” she says. Mitchell worked for commercial photographers in Philadelphia, then went into art direction for advertising agencies in Long Island, N.Y.

“I’ve had a bit of a zigzag career,” she says of her vocational path. Mitchell founded an agency in Long Island with her husband and they started offering public relations as part of their services. “We worked for wineries, fashion designers and nonprofits, which led me to my first official job in public relations at the Parrish Art Museum in Southampton,” she says.

Mitchell came to work for MoMA in September 1997 through Parrish contacts. This September will mark her 14th year at the museum.  — Amy Jacques

How have you seen your role change at MoMA through the years?

I joined as a publicist. It was hands-on, project-based work on exhibitions, events and programs.  As the years went by, people left who were above me, and I gradually worked my way into a managerial role. The chain was assistant director of communications, then director. In 2008, I was able to bring my career full circle and go back to the marketing and design side when I became chief communications officer — the portfolio was expanding from communications to also include marketing and graphic design. Those are the three departments that I oversee today.

What’s your day-to-day job like, and how is your department structured?

There are three groups under my umbrella. The communications team does media relations and events, and there’s a lot of material that comes in that is considered “news” — not just MoMA-related material, but it might be something that’s happening in the art world in general — [like] an issue before Congress or a state legislature, collaborations we’re doing with museums that require PR support. So, the PR side is diverse.

On the marketing side, we have the digital marketing program, which includes social media, digital advertising, our e-news program, digital advertising, e-news and the blog “Inside/Out.” And the design team works on advertising and marketing, but also on all the related graphic design in the museum — the signage, invitations, gallery label, displays, everything you see on the walls — every piece of typography is designed by an in-house team.

Is it difficult to reach audiences of various backgrounds?

It’s a challenging mix because of limited resources — we have a team of only six people in public relations. We handle inquiries from around the world, so the international audience is served through public relations. The domestic and New York City audience is served through the paid media and marketing initiatives in the newspapers and magazines that we purchase ads in.

The new piece of it — since 2008 — has been our social media channels; and we have seen them grow.  We developed them from scratch, and in three short years — when you add up all our subscriber bases on Facebook and Flickr and Twitter and our e-news subscriber base — we’re now at 1.5 million followers.

What are the challenges of developing different communities?

There’s always the challenge of resources, and a museum has special exhibitions that come and go [that] are newsworthy — also the day-to-day function of the museum to present its collection. We have a vibrant and constantly changing display of works of art, design and film.

So, the challenge is how you promote the new news — which is the special exhibitions — and how you promote the constant backbone of what makes a museum a museum — which is our collection. It’s finding the way to allocate resources to serve both of those needs, and that’s something that we’re going to be grappling with a lot in the coming year.

What are the challenges of reaching consumers in a down economy?

Our visitors see museums as a good value — 60 percent of our audience comes from abroad. We know our visitors have cut back on other things during the downturn such as vacations, concerts and theater. But we did not see a downturn in attendance. In fact, most museums in New York City saw an upturn. [During] the fiscal year ending in June 2010, we [had] 3.1 million visitors. That was our best year in history.

How can we best create content for today’s on-the-go consumer?

We worked on an iPhone app, and we just presented an app for the Droid.  We gathered a cross-departmental group to work on an app for the iPad, which was to support a special exhibition.  We considered it part of the communications campaign, and it was for a show called “Abstract Expressionist New York,” and it was our first iPad app. We wanted to showcase the capabilities of looking at art on a device like the iPad and be able to dive in at leisure to examine these works — kind of like sitting on your sofa at home and being able to hear the curator talk about them, being able to look at a map of where the artist lived and, in some ways, continue the museum experience outside of the museum.

How might MoMA’s participation in the Google Art Project affect attendance or educational initiatives — and what is its goal?

The goal was to create access to art through technology.  The question [regarding if it will] affect museum attendance has come up quite a lot since the launch and I find it interesting because back in the 1990s, museums were all debating whether to put their collections online.  There was a lot of question about whether that would cannibalize attendance.  And it didn’t happen.  Attendance has been steadily going up over the past 10 years, or longer.

And now, what consumers are looking for is deeper information about art. We saw an opportunity to get an awareness of our collection to a wide global audience who might not necessarily know what MoMA is, or might not have ever been to New  York, or might not ever be able to come to New  York.

Since we’ve launched the project, [about] 26,000 visitors have come directly from the Google project to the MoMA website, and 87 percent of those are brand new to MoMA.

What social media initiatives has MoMA been implementing?

We did something interesting [on February 18] that I have to credit the New  York public radio station WNYC. In the gallery, there’s a theater showing all of  Andy Warhol’s films — one is called “Empire,” which is a depiction of the Empire State Building for eight hours.

Our team developed a lot of  Warhol-related material that would be appropriate for Twitter, and WNYC came in and invited other guests [to watch and to live tweet during the film and called it “The Empire Tweets Back”]. Before you knew it, we were being retweeted by museums all over. It became this interesting storytelling trail about Andy Warhol — using Twitter as a channel. People think of  Twitter as an immediate response mechanism. In this case, Twitter was the channel, but we thought about what stories we wanted to tell.

It shows another aspect of social media — that you can have a little fun with it.  You wouldn’t do something like that in a more formal setting like a publication, or an exhibition. We thought this might be something we could expand on down the road for the appropriate topic. It’s matching the topic to the channel.  And Twitter seemed to be the right channel for that topic.

How does public relations play a role in building the MoMA brand?

It’s hugely important. MoMA was one of the few museums that had a PR department from the outset — since 1929.

And the way that the media shapes the public’s perception of what we do, who we are and how we see our role interpreting modern and contemporary art, is something we spend a great deal of time talking about.  We know it shapes the behavior of our visitors and members who are influenced to come based on press coverage as well as advertising.

What advice do you have for other professionals looking to get into a similar field?

Boundless curiosity is a huge asset. Even if people are crossing over from one field to another, if you’re curious, smart, dedicated, want to learn, love media and love the product that you’re promoting, you’ll be successful.

What’s the best part of your job?

Oh, that’s easy. Being in the galleries when the museum is closed. Hearing our curators talk informally about artists and art that we collect. Hearing the story behind the story. All of those things are huge benefits. 

That kind of access is what led us to be so excited about social media — because these stories are not necessarily things that get published in catalogs. You don’t put them in a press release.  They’re not hanging on the wall. But you may be able to write about it in a blog, take that blog post and put it on Facebook, moderate a conversation — and see people get excited and forward that material to other people.

In a way, social media was such a natural extension of what we already do. Instead of talking to our colleagues, we were talking to our audience.  That has been gratifying, and we’re curious to see where it’s going — what the next Twitter or Facebook channel is going to be.

Getting to know Kim Mitchell,  APR

Favorite artist? “I don’t think I could do that! Our director is often asked that question, and he says it’s like picking your favorite child — it’s too hard.”

Favorite place to travel? “I find London a very exciting city. The museums there do a lot of innovative marketing and public relations, and I love to read British papers.”

Any three dinner guests — past or present? “Pablo Picasso, Elizabeth I, and a female artist from the Renaissance named Artemisia Gentileschi. She was a woman who painted large-scale history paintings at a time when women did not really pursue art as a serious occupation.”

Amy Jacques

Amy Jacques is the managing editor of publications for PRSA. A native of Greenville, S.C., she holds a master’s degree in arts journalism from Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School. She also holds a bachelor’s degree in advertising from the University of Georgia’s Grady College and a certificate in magazine and website publishing from New York University.


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