Can artists and arts organisations leverage a media frenzy to their benefit? (2014)

The former and current directors of Manchester’s Castlefield Gallery discuss.

Hope London
Creative Business & Entrepreneurship | 28 June 2014
This interview was submitted in early April 2014.

In February this year, a Tony Matelli sculpture called Sleepwalker appeared on a snow-covered roadside at Wellesley College in Massachusetts. The hyper-realist depiction of a man in underwear walking with outstretched arms triggered student protests at the all-female college, followed by a worldwide avalanche of headlines across traditional press, television and social media.

Is this kind of media blast just a storm in a teacup, or can artists and arts organisations leverage it to their benefit? Scotland-based artist, arts/heritage trouble-shooter and former Director of Castlefield Gallery in Manchester, Hope London, interviews F. Kwong Lee, the current Director of Castlefield to explore some answers.

Hope London: Can artists or arts organisations propel themselves to fame and fortune by taking advantage of a viral media blast of the kind that brought Sleepwalker to world attention?

Kwong Lee: For organisations without too many roots in PR, any news story that comes through is good. When we lost our funding two years ago, there were a lot of stories with headlines like "Manchester Gallery Closing Down". That wasn’t the case, but we didn’t counter them very strongly because they were only headlines and the text explained it wasn’t as serious as that. But headlines, especially extreme headlines, do grab readers and there came a point when we had to say this was untrue. We have to be mindful that stories don’t misrepresent us or the artists we work with, and that we weren’t exploiting the press or the goodwill of people who support us as an organisation.

Hope London: Who are “the press” today? Let’s talk about social media...

Kwong Lee: Social media is basically opinion, not rounded investigative journalism. The person on the street has a voice through social media. Sometimes people’s voices are a good source of peer review, and their viewpoint will be re-tweeted or posted or commented on... if something is liked on a social media site, the groundswell of non-journalist reporting can be a powerful way to galvanise movements.

When we lost our funding, there were a lot of voices coming through social media expressing disbelief and about how much people value what we do. It’s not us reading it that matters, but other people, and I believe it helped when we presented ourselves to funders and stakeholders and even our own board— and our peers, not just artists and supporters, but the arts ecology, people who run other organisations. It was immediate and helpful to get that public opinion.

We’re talking about social media as personal opinions rather than to relay a piece of information as in this case, from one newspaper to another and to other media. That’s one way we’ve definitely experienced social media as a force. Another way is when the more traditional press has written something about us that gets re-tweeted, so maybe a piece in Art Monthly or the Manchester Evening News or BBC Online is relayed across media.

Hope London: Yes, that sums up the mechanics. The next question is how you can translate that kind of coverage into more long term, tangible benefits for the organisation or artist... can you?

Kwong Lee: Truthfully, for us it’s early days. We’re trying to get noticed and there are so many competing voices out there, but that’s not anything new. But now we are much more aware of the power of communications, and our social media voice is louder and more persistent. We don’t have many staff, but we have a great voice now because of social media. Even after losing our core funding, we were able to continue telling the story of CG.

Our supporters used to say we were really great at delivering programmes and projects, but not at explaining what we do to different people, so only artists, curators and our audiences were aware of it. We weren’t communicating well beyond that select group of people.

Hope London: So do you think that now, because of social media, a small organisation is better able to punch above its weight in the competitive world of PR?

Kwong Lee: Yes, for me it’s about staff capacity. Previously, we didn’t have someone who was dedicated to communications. Now we have someone in place four days a week. What’s changed is that we are much more outward facing in terms of our own understanding that we need to reach people who may be interested in us and able to support us in the future.

Hope London: That sounds like a realistic strategy for long term growth. Are you aware of any artists or arts organisations who’ve managed to parlay a successful media blast into something bigger in a more immediate way?

Kwong Lee: A few years ago, Manchester Museum had a small statue that seemed to spin on his own and was really mysterious. They put a stop motion camera on it and had about a million hits on YouTube. It was on CNN in America and the Museum really capitalised on it. Was it the power of the ancient pharoahs? It turned out it was some kind of vibration in the building causing it to spin. So it wasn’t even really a story.

But it’s about how you tell the story. It would be really niche if it was just reported in the normal way. The video sparked people’s imaginations and became a public interest story. The serious side is that as a result more people knew about the Manchester Museum. That took somebody to just dip a toe in the water, test it out, and create a human interest story as opposed to an arts or archaeological story.

Hope London: Any examples involving artists?

Kwong Lee: UHC (Ultimate Holding Co.) is a socially engaged artist collective in Manchester. Their Camp X-ray installation was a recreation of the US camp at Guantanamo Bay, only based here in Manchester. It had barbed wire and everything, and people could go in and intern themselves. The piece attracted national and international media attention, and the Observer’s Art Review of 2003 cited it as one of the events of the year.

These artists are real thinkers. In 2009, they had a project called extInked where they drew 100 of the most endangered species in the British Isles at the time. It was a comment on green issues and evolution. Then they got on social media to encourage people to tattoo these images on their bodies. About 400 people applied. They had to explain how they’d be an ambassador for a particular species. As a result, 100 people are now walking around with one of the endangered species tattooed on their bodies.

Ai Wei Wei is an artist who generates lots of international press and used to tweet a lot. Other people would also tweet on his behalf. He’s very much in the public realm. But this is an important question for me, whether you can ever rely on one news story to carry you through. You need to have a continuing narrative to keep you in the public eye. And stories have to be truthful, not like some pointless social media stories that seem to be invented.

If we have something to say we should say it. We’re evolving. What is the new social media platform to share stories in five years time? You always need to be investigating how people are communicating with each other, ordinary people as well as experts like journalists and writers.

Hope London: What you’re saying makes me wonder whether the more things change the more they stay the same... people are the same, we like to share our stories, but the media are different.

Kwong Lee: Yes, we have more tools today, but the environment of press and public relations remains the same. Maybe what’s different is the citizen reporter. Videos and images are really good, so immediate. Reading something goes in tandem but people tend to believe more in things they can see. So I’m saying that first, there’s more immediacy in how stories can get out there and circulated. Secondly, video and photographs taken on phones or other technology are further evidence of something happening. And thirdly, there is the element of the citizen reporter. The tools have enabled us to be more participatory. The images cross language barriers— like Tony Matelli’s Sleepwalker at Wellesley College, which has been taken up by China and other countries. If it was just text-based, it wouldn’t have had the impact or ability to translate so easily.

Hope London: I agree. The media may have changed, but human beings have never been able to resist spreading a spicy message. It will be interesting to see how well social media stories stand the test of time, like some of the old folk songs still being sung in pubs throughout the land. Part of me keeps thinking back to Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the scene where the wandering minstrel made up a nasty song about an unfortunate knight called Sir Robin...

Kwong Lee: I bought that a few Christmases ago— think I’ll have to go home and watch it again!

Click the following link to read more articles in our summer 2014 articles focus: 800 TV broadcasts, one cultural event. But how did this happen?: Tony Matelli’s Sleepwalker at Wellesley College (2014).