Andy Warhol Museum uses strong Twitter following to broaden art


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Pittsburgh's Andy Warhol Museum may not be as rich, famous or fancy as some temples of culture, but in one increasingly crucial category, it's right up there with some pretty big names.

Consider this: With 500,000 followers, the Warhol is the seventh most "followed" museum in the world on Twitter, right after the Metropolitan Museum of Art and just ahead of the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, according to Museum-analytics.org.

And that, according to a report released today by the Pew Research Center's Internet and American Life Project, exemplifies how digital technology is transforming arts organizations in this country -- especially younger, smaller groups that don't use the Internet just for marketing and promotion but, the report said, for "broadening the boundaries of what is considered art."

While most of the Warhol's popularity on Twitter may simply be "because of Andy," said Joshua Jeffrey, director of digital engagement at the Warhol, it's also in keeping with the museum's mission to educate and inspire its audience in a way "that's interesting and subversive."

"We do a ton of stuff. We have a website that changes almost every day and we post on multiple media platforms," he said. A few months ago, there was a "do it yourself" exhibit where visitors could post their own art next to a Warhol creation for their own "15 minutes of fame" on Twitter, he noted.

The museum also has a "screen test" interactive exhibit on the sixth floor that allows visitors to create their own screen tests, manipulated in slow motion -- the way the Pittsburgh-born pop artist used to do in his New York Studio -- that are then pushed to the museum's website and sent to the user.

But is it art?

That's perhaps a question for another Pew survey, but in this one, 1,244 arts organizations (selected because they received funds from the National Endowment for the Arts in recent years) reported good news and bad news.

On the bright side, 83 percent of the organizations in the survey said Internet and digital technologies have made their audiences more diverse, while another 78 percent said these technologies were "very important" in increasing audience engagement. Another 64 percent said they were crucial for fundraising, while 63 percent said they were very important for helping them use their resources more efficiently.

And 92 percent said that technology and social media have made art "a more participatory experience," from sharing content to threaded conversations and asking for audience input on strategy and ideas.

Still, Pew researchers noted, there was a dark side -- the "more participatory experience" seemed a bit crowded for some, changing audience expectations and, in some cases, undercutting missions and revenue streams.

"As much as the Internet and mobile connectivity have changed the lives of individual users, they have also produced sweeping disruptions in organizational activities across a wide spectrum of groups," said Lee Rainie, director of Pew Internet and a co-author of the report, noting that 74 percent strongly or somewhat agreed that "the Internet and related technologies have created an expectation among some audiences that all digital content should be free."

Another 71 percent strongly or somewhat agree that ringing cell phones and audience texting are "a significant disruption to live performances."

And a much smaller number -- 10 percent -- strongly or somewhat agree that Internet technology can dilute the arts "by giving everyone interested in the arts and arts criticism a public platform."

So everyone's a critic? No problem, said Karla Boos, founder and director of Quantum Theatre in Pittsburgh, which has its own website and is on Twitter and Facebook.

"We're not afraid of what they say on Facebook or what they express on the Internet. The more communication there is, the more people feel engaged," she said. "It's almost as though people don't feel they've had an experience until they talk about it with others and register their feelings online."

Ms. Boos is no Web geek, but she has adapted technology in other ways, too, over the past decade: In one opera staged in 2007, "The Voluptuous Tango," the music of the opera -- the actual frequency of the sound -- was reproduced in an image on the back wall of the Mellon Institute auditorium.

The Internet also has made Quantum's marketing more efficient.

"Now we feel like we don't need to send a piece of direct mail every time to reach someone," she said, by making it easier for people to purchase tickets more quickly, via the website Showclix, and spread the word about the performances online. And Quantum's posters have a QR code, or bar code, allowing people to hold their smartphones up to the icon and get to the company's website instantly.

Indeed, QR codes are becoming commonplace. Pittsburgh Opera has them on its posters as well as on direct-mail brochures, and audiences can use texting technology at the organization's "Rising Stars" concert.

Even the venerable Pittsburgh Symphony unveiled a new app recently, which allows users to access calendars, videos, blogs, information about pieces that will be performed and samples of music -- from CD recordings for sale to future concerts and even full concert recordings from Heinz Hall.

Interactive experiences in a music setting may not be for everyone. Pew researchers cited an unnamed arts organization that developed an app for audiences to use during a music performance to learn more about a composer and that person's intentions -- in live time.

But Lou Castelli, director of external affairs for the Pittsburgh Public Theatre, said that kind of multi-tasking isn't going to happen in his theater anytime soon.

"We're really not trying to keep people 'in the loop' during the performance," he said.

But the Public Theatre is ratcheting up its presence on Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr for its upcoming production of "1776" beginning Jan. 24. Videos show how the production is being created and how the sets are constructed and offer other background information -- "a more concerted effort for a behind-the-scenes experience."

"We really thrive on word-of-mouth, but virtual word of mouth is better."

Still, the live theater experience -- what Village Voice critic Michael Feingold called "that tiny piece of spiritual turf so dwarfed by global media transmission" -- is still preferable to anything streamed online, Mr. Castelli said.

"That's not who we are, and it's not likely we'll ever be," he said. "We want people to get curious about seeing us live."

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Mackenzie Carpenter: mcarpenter@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1949.


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