It’s clear we live in a world of mindless consumption, and museums, fortunately or not, have to keep up. Few of them have updated their stance from places focused on traditional “lean back” media—catalogues, magazines, television—to a new “lead forward” posture of dynamic, engaging, screen-based content. The glacial pace at which museums evolve is not just a symptom of bureaucracy; it’s also a necessary side effect of their size: Permanent collections and temporary exhibitions are less agile than blogs and memes.
Nevertheless, as art’s popularity has exploded in a digital world, these organizations face the need to speed up, adapt, and learn how to leverage their cultural trust online in a way that doesn’t betray their values. This means balancing being custodians of history with initiatives that excite a more diverse, screen-obsessed audience.
Attention is emerging as the ultimate commodity driving the current landscape that museums find themselves in, posing questions about how an institution ought to act—and interact. How might their collections integrate digital practices, and how should a museum maintain its foothold as an oasis away from the tempo of digital culture, while also actively participating in it?
The New Museum (302,000 Instagram followers), the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (860,000) and the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1.3 million) have a combined Instagram following of roughly 2.5 million, as of late May. Individual reality stars have more followers than this trio. As younger audiences make fewer distinctions between high and low culture, and these organizations are increasingly judged by their quantifiable outcomes, is the role of authority a tenable one for museums to maintain?
In the face of this upheaval, institutions are creating new roles for technologically minded arts professionals. The three featured here each envision their objectives differently in relation to the size of their brands: As with Instagram followings, the audience and budget of the Met is larger than the Guggenheim is larger than the New Museum.
The bigger the institution—and the more historical the collection—the more its use of technology is experiential or journalistic. The Met’s Sree Sreenivasan says he hopes to reach “billions” of online visitors. (This seems like a tall order, considering 57 percent of the world’s population still does not regularly use the Internet, according to a 2015 study by the United Nations Broadband Commission.) His approach is as broad as the Met’s collections are deep. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Julia Kaganskiy, whose mandate at the New Museum is to foster creative and humanistic approaches to business and creative entrepreneurship. Somewhere in the middle is the Guggenheim’s Troy Conrad Therrien, who’s developing a curatorial approach to technology for a traditional exhibition program.
Though these examples highlight the highest echelon of New York institutions, similar new-media hires abound nationwide. The Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia just tapped Shelley Bernstein as its director for digital initiatives and chief experience officer; JiaJia Fei recently joined the Jewish Museum as its director of digital. Other museums have formed consortiums in order to share their offline objects more widely as an online educational resource.
These changes are inevitable, exciting, and eliciting a wide range of institutional responses. As different as their ad-hoc platforms might be, Sreenivasan, Therrien, and Kaganskiy agree on one thing: Yes, museums must adapt, but not at the expense of their missions.
The Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation and Museum’s stake in the digital sphere cuts to the core of the museum’s creative infrastructure: its curators. Troy Conrad Therrien, 34, joined as curator of architecture and digital initiatives after work as an architect and the founder of an innovation agency—what he calls his “zigzag” background.
Therrien’s work takes place within a museum that cultivated a brand throughout the 1990s based on its iconic architecture and global reach. The institution’s exhibitions regularly fill its entire Frank Lloyd Wright rotunda on Fifth Avenue. With such a monumental and centralized museum, Therrien tries to be a curator who operates more as an executive. He is invested in creating a vision, developing horizontal relationships across the institution, and pursuing what he calls “big-idea, little-project curating,” as a strategy “for remaining nimble and testing ideas somewhat under the radar,” which would be difficult if his focus was on producing large-scale physical exhibitions. “The more you can stay under the radar at a major museum like the Guggenheim,” he says, “the more breadth you have to be experimental.” Therrien is learning as he goes, finding opportunities for a faster programming rhythm and new distribution channels that complement major shows and explore less-established artists.
One such space, of course, is the web, where an exhibition might function, in Therrien’s words, as “bespoke architecture that lives online.” One of the curator’s first projects for the museum, “Åzone Futures Market,” lives on a sub-domain of the Guggenheim website and “simulates market dynamics in a format similar to a prediction or futures market.” This serves to analyze emerging techno-social conditions, including, for example, organizational dynamics. With its own specially designed interface, the exhibition “enables visitors to take a position on the future of a world shaped by emerging technologies.” The process of creating the project helped Therrien better understand how the museum works. “The words that people use to describe things are very important. Once I called it an ‘exhibition,’ there was an internal process.”
Therrien is also passionate about the potential for bringing the best technology to the museum experience through corporate partnerships, drawing from his agency experience to explore the question of what becomes of art and architecture under today’s “regime of flow and necessary agility.” But ultimately, as he puts it, “Technology in the museum should get out of the way. The core competency of the museum is still bringing art to the public.”
“All cultural institutions are fighting for attention, fighting for visitors,” says Sree Sreenivasan, 45, who has held the position of chief digital officer at the Metropolitan Museum of Art since 2013. “We’re all in this boat trying to connect with audiences and engage millennials.” A technology journalist, Sreenivasan credits his boss, the museum’s director, Thomas P. Campbell, for emphasizing the importance of digital platforms within the Met’s expanding institutional ecosystem. Sreenivasan frequently cites something Campbell has said: “We have four locations: three physical locations, and the digital Met.”
The Met, whose collection spans over 5,000 years, is using digital means to leverage that history and tell its story within a contemporary context, in order to reach as many people as possible. In March, the museum unveiled a new website, and last year, it launched “The Artist Project”—a video series in which artists talk about objects at the Met that have shaped their perspective. Sreenivasan has also encouraged Campbell to post regularly to his Instagram account (29,300 followers as of late May). Speaking of his own department’s goals, Sreenivasan explains that rather than develop its own curatorial mandate, “We’re here in service of the art. Everything we do is going to be respectful to the art and tell its story. That’s our bottom line.”
On the one hand, the Met’s digital strategy involves making online visitors aware of the museum’s on-site offerings. “If the Met is about educating the world,” Sreenivasan says, “then the way to educate the world is digitally, but not at the expense of the in-person visit.” On the other hand, an exhibition can take years to develop and only lasts a few months. “At the end of the day, what does a curator want after they work so hard on a show?” asks Sreenivasan. “They want people to see it. They want people to connect with it. We’re not going to reach the whole world if we wait for everybody to walk in the door.” His parallel focus is therefore on extending exhibitions digitally on platforms such as Facebook, SoundCloud, and WeChat.
Sreenivasan, who believes that “all museums need to be more human,” has been impressed with the public’s enthusiasm for the Met. He learned just how powerfully people trust in the Met brand when he resisted an internal suggestion form to ask for email addresses when visitors sign on to the museum’s free Wi-Fi. “I thought it was a terrible idea,” he laughs. Since then, the museum has collected about 250,000 valid email addresses.
True to its mission of new art and new ideas, the New Museum was early to involve artists working with technology as part of its contemporary curatorial program. The museum has had a longstanding affiliation with Rhizome, an online platform dedicated to promoting culturally relevant digital projects. Rhizome’s former director, Lauren Cornell, is now a New Museum curator and associate director leading the institution’s digital initiatives, while Rhizome has become a founding partner and “anchor tenant” of another tech-oriented venture launched by the museum: New Inc., a start-up incubator—located next door at 231 Bowery—that is the first of its kind.
Whereas Rhizome focuses on Internet-based artists and functions primarily online, New Inc. provides a physical location initiated by New Museum director Lisa Phillips and her deputy, Karen Wong, to address how the museum might support a fresh generation of creative practitioners who don’t fit into traditional museum programs. Julia Kaganskiy, 30, who joined the New Museum as New Inc.’s founding director in 2013, describes it as a convener that explores “new forms of practice, technologies, and business models in a culture that is in a state of flux.” Reflecting shifts in creative practice and production in 21st-century New York, New Inc. acts as an alternative to a traditional, venture capital–focused model of incubators: “We want to support ideas and projects that have cultural value, but not necessarily always capital value,” Kaganskiy says. “Because of that, we also accept individual artists and designers. These small creative studios are what the venture capital world would refer to as ‘lifestyle businesses.’”
New Inc. provides a platform for artists who consider hybrid forms of art, design, and technology, and who might critique business from the inside out. Its residents’ ventures reflect myriad interests: artificial intelligence, sensory manipulation, and developing online virtual-reality communities that connect people across cultures and facilitate new understandings of one’s surroundings. “Playing with the sense of perception is a continuous form of inquiry here,” Kaganskiy says. “Block chain and crypto-currencies are also being explored, particularly as they relate to authenticating digital media or even helping to create alternative economies altogether.”
Kaganskiy is focused on understanding the cultural and macroeconomic shifts that are enabling initiatives like New Inc. to emerge as the workforce becomes increasingly freelance, and therefore more precarious and entrepreneurial. The museum hopes to empower these creative practitioners, providing them with tools, resourcves, and community in a climate in which they no longer have a clear path to building a career. As Kaganskiy notes, “A lot of the traditional avenues no longer exist.”