An interview with Rob Baker, Director of Marketing and Creative Strategy at MoMA
For many large museums, the COVID lockdown revealed the limitations of mainly relying on international one-time visitors and tourists. The new MoMA, which launched in 2019, was only open for 6 months before it had to close due to the pandemic. When the team re-opened the museum’s doors to the public they knew they wanted – and needed – to rethink the way they were engaging with locals.
How do we operate as an institution within New York? How do we engage audiences within the Big Apple? These questions were the starting point for an extensive audience research project to help MoMA reimagine its relationship with audiences in the 21st century and bring the museum’s actions into closer alignment with people’s everyday life. Rob Baker, who will be discussing the results of the research at the upcoming Communicating the Arts conference, shares early insights and tips on renewing and improving bonds with local audiences.
Champion your audience
“MoMA is a curatorially driven organization, it’s an important part of our DNA” explains Rob Baker, “and my team’s role is to ensure that the intersection between curatorial vision and audience needs can be met as smoothly as possible.” Before joining MoMA in 2017, while a museum expansion project was underway, Baker had worked as CMO for Tate in London where he oversaw the marketing and design operations of yet another large extension program: the Tate Modern’s new Blavatnik building. At MoMA, Baker oversees the Creative team whose expertise includes marketing, design, content creation and digital products.
To better understand their local audience’s needs and practices, Baker and his team decided to commission Sylvain, a strategy and design agency, to assist them in conducting a thorough audience research program. “The main goal for us was to find out whether there were people within New York who would define themselves as being culturally-engaged but did not have MoMA on their agenda and understand why that is,” explains Baker.
MoMA was initially founded on Bauhaus principles, recognizing the contribution of applied arts and fine arts equally. Disciplines such as photography, design, architecture and film should be easy bridges into audiences’ everyday life and practices. “All of those artforms, be that design or photography, potentially exist on a much more frequent and accessible plane than other museum-related content and practices,” says Baker “so the question is, how do we, as an organization, capitalize on that to bring art and people closer together and to broaden and diversify cultural engagement?”
Notice and welcome new cultural practices
For Baker and his team, the first valuable insight they got from the survey is that audiences see their cultural life as something they participate in every day. “I think that has largely been driven by digital consumption of cultural activity,” Baker points out “participating in Culture is no longer restricted to visiting a physical space such as a museum or a theatre. For example, when people engage with an artist or a museum or a musician through the Instagram platform, they consider it part of their cultural consumption and cultural diet.” For Baker, this shift in what is considered cultural consumption was made even more visible during lockdown when we all witnessed that one of many ways people could participate in Culture was through virtual interactions.
Baker explains that, as the most followed museum in the world on main social media platforms, MoMA, to some extent, still consider digital content as a way of supporting the physical visits of the museum. “Now we are moving in a new direction, taking virtual programs more seriously and imagining ways we can increase the impact of cultural engagement in people’s everyday lives. That is taking the form of many digital developments that we have either launched or are pursuing, but it’s also thinking about our physical space and how that needs to function in the future.”
From figures of authority to supportive experts
Another key insight from the audience research that Baker shares is that audiences today no longer adhere to the concept of authority : “this idea of ‘we as a museum are the authority on this and we are going to tell you what’s right and what’s wrong’ does not resonate with them anymore,” argues Baker. “What audiences want today are subject-matter experts so they can have dialogue with them, engage with them and develop their own thinking.”
At MoMA, the curatorial strategy had already been moving in this direction and has been gradually shifting toward a model of presenting a variety of different stories, discourses and
perspectives around the same object aiming for a two-way engagement rather than a unidirectional and top-down rhetoric. This was very much in evidence in MoMA’s 2017 rehang of their collection displays
MoMA’s digital conbtent strategy is starting to shift also. As a consequence of the research insignts, Baker and his team developed the MoMA Photo Club. “Anyone on Instagram can participate in a photo challenge that we set up for amateur photographers around the world,” explains Baker, “we review and select a handful of contributions through our photography curators and showcase them on Instagram and in the New York subway, with whom we have a partnership.” For Baker and his team, Photo Club is a success in the sense that it allows people to “participate in an artform that they feel passionately about”. Baker adds: “rather than MoMA only talking about photography where we have a photography exhibition, we can engage audiences in the love of photography through taking photographs but also in the art of looking every day. The club continues, with over 30,000 submissions to date!”
The Creative team at MoMA is still in the process of analyzing and making sense of their large audience research and implementing those findings in a 3 to 5 years strategy that will help them adopt “the behaviors that [they] need to respond to audiences truthfully.” In order to test some of their ideas and hypothesis for new and deeper engagement, the team is also working on building an incubator. Rob Baker will be able to talk about this new endeavor and share more insights and advice for his peers during his talk at the upcoming Communicating the Arts conference taking place next September in Lausanne. Stay tuned!