Rock Me Like… an Art Museum?

Veronica Jauriqui is Special Projects Manager at the Norman Lear Center.


Levitated Mass, LACMAThe LACMA Rock and a case study in museums and online engagement

I’ll admit it. I caught Rock Fever. It was the same mania that possessed large swaths of Los Angeles County just a few weeks ago, compelling people to leave their homes, take to the streets in wild celebration and pose for photographs with what was referred to (with a touch of overkill) as the city’s newest rock star.

Of course I’m referring to the LACMA Rock, the 340-ton granite slab that will become the heart of artist Michael Heizer’s sculpture “Levitated Mass” opening this summer at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

I didn’t exactly join the city revelers who en masse followed the rock’s 100+mile route from a Riverside quarry to the Miracle Mile. But I meticulously tracked its progress online – on LACMA’s own Levitated Mass blog, through photos shared on Flickr and via one of the best Twitter anthropomorphs I’ve seen in a while, the @LACMARock. The Rock’s unofficial twitter feed (according to a LACMA spokesperson, it originated from L.A. County Supervisor Don Knabe’s office) was a pitch perfect online supplement to a much-publicized spectacle that galvanized a city around a piece of modern art.

The momentum spawned marriage proposals, a “Rockapalooza” street party and an upcomingdocumentary.

Whether you loved it like me or wearied of the daily play-by-play, LACMA’s star exhibition built some serious online engagement. And kudos to LACMA for embracing the madness and allowing the Rock to literally take on a life of its own.

There is always a potential for a hairy situation when museums – or other institutions of authority – take to social media, an arena that doesn’t play by the usual rules of content or control. Like other organizations before them that have struggled with the interplay – newspapers being one of them – social media evens the playing field allowing all voices to be heard instantaneously and overwhelmingly. Once you open the flood gates to engaging with your fans via social media, you open yourself up to the tsunami of criticism that accompanies it.

For all the Twitter love the LACMA Rock received, there was just as much condemnation for its $10 million price tag and its aesthetic value: “This is art?”

Museums are the ultimate curators, so how do cultural institutions relinquish that control and engage with their audiences online? There are some great sites exploring that same question –Museum3 and Museum 2.0 to name a couple. In Museum 2.0, Nina Simon, who heads Santa Cruz’ Museum of Art and History, argues a serious distinction: “Content expertise matters. Content control shouldn’t.”

As museums transition to a participatory model of connecting with their constituencies, I was curious what those best practices would look like. I’m not talking about publicizing upcoming events or sharing their collections virtually. I was looking for real, live interaction and collaboration. I found a few stellar examples:

• The UK’s Tate Modern is following the lead of many newspapers in the revamping of its website (still in Beta at the time of this article: As news sites allow for comment spaces below the articles, the Tate will include something similar below images of their works of art. Said Tate Director of Audience and Media Marc Sands: “The discussions could sometimes be good and sometimes bad, as I’ve seen with new sites. Be it good or bad,generating discussion is important.”

• Museums are taking to the latest social media platform, Pinterest, in an effort to engage. New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art created a board to encourage teens to connect and comment on Renaissance art and portraiture. The Chicago History Museum created its own asking followers to pin images of their favorite buildings. The board has more than 2,200 followers.

• Los Angeles’ own Museum of Contemporary Art joined museums around the world for the “Ask a Curator” initiative. Founded by an organization called Museum Marketing, curators respond directly to questions sent via Twitter (hashtag #askacurator).

Just last week, LACMA head Michael Govan spoke with the Los Angeles Times about Levitated Mass and the challenges of control and outreach in this crazy new media landscape, which he pretty much summed up here:

“You can control the rock’s siting and try to make sure you make a great work of art that has some power. But once the rock is out in the public, it belongs to the public. So it’s not something we seek to control in that sense. We just try to make sure people get the facts right.”

Museums can use social media to expand and enhance the museum-going experience, building new audiences, and encouraging creativity outside the museum walls. Museums used to be one of the few public forums where free and unabashed self-expression was celebrated. Now we have Twitter. How one will utilize the other remains to be seen, but they can only enhance each other by the partnership.

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