AMA notes: Kim Mitchell, MoMA

5 August 2013

This is an old post, so may include broken links and/or out-of-date information

Fair warning: this post probably needs a subtitle "The longest post I've ever written". Here we go …

This was one of the seminars I instantly ticked as a must-go-to; hearing the Chief Communications Officer at MoMA (Museum of Modern Art) in New York talk about 'Remarkable Campaigns'? Yes, please!

The closer it got to the conference, the more I steeled myself that this may well be a bit of a cold, dry, oft-repeated, soulless speech. Someone from such a mega institution is likely to be a bit … corporate, aren't they?

Wrong! Kim talked to us about the stories MoMA tells to its audiences, and how they play around with their visual identity to keep it fresh; she's an engaging speaker, clearly incredibly interested in and knowledgeable about her subject, as well as being proud of the successful campaigns her team have created – but also proud of their learning from failure (more on which later).

First; a bit of background …

MoMA's mission is not-altogether-surprising: to "encourage an ever-deeper understanding and enjoyment of modern and contemporary art by local, national, and international audiences"; they're about education, and conserving artworks for future generations. But did you know that the place runs entirely on donations, and ticket and merchandise sales? They receive no government funding. I found that quite a surprise.

But not as surprising as the fact that their design and advertising is done almost entirely in-house (save for some clever techy stuff which gets outsourced). I'm not sure I can think of another such high-profile arts organisation who turn out such sophisticated, 'agency-quality' campaigns in-house. They even have a dedicated website: (Thanks to Abby from DanceXchange for finding and sending me the link.)

If ever I decide to not work for myself, and to live in New York, the MoMA design studio'll be first on my Want To Work For list.

I digress. Massively. Where was I?

Oh yes; stories. Pretty-much the focus of all MoMA campaigns – telling the stories behind the art; allowing people to think things through themselves, rather than just serving-up what people'll see anyway when they visit.


Using the Inventing Abstraction exhibition as an example, Kim explained how they tested two variations of print advertising; one conventional ad featuring an image of an artwork (Kandinsky's Farbstudie — Quadrate mit konzentrischen Ringen) which is nice enough, and it was a well-designed ad but quite honestly, nothing special. (And, in testing, it didn't work particularly well).

The second ad was more inventive, and indeed turned out to be much more effective.

Here's a variation of the ad, in brochure cover form – concisely telling the tale of how the abstract art movement was born. Clever. Simple. Ace.

Graphic design-wise, the Bauhaus design style perfectly suits the timeframe in question, and the content is intriguing; thought-provoking. In allowing/expecting people to think for themselves, the campaign has become participatory.


"When something's hard to understand, see it as an opportunity."

To illustrate this, Kim talked about German artist Dieter Roth's Wait, Later This will be nothing: Editions – including a series of sculptures made of perishables such as cheese, meat, banana and chocolate.

As I mentioned before, part of MoMA's job is to conserve artworks. It's quite a challenge for a conservator to do their job when artworks are made of degradable materials, and actually designed to perish. Ah-ha! There's the story!

In place of a traditional ad campaign the team created an incredibly entertaining animated film, narrated by MoMA staff talking about the challenges involved with this particular exhibition. The film was a big success despite only being shared across social media; there were no supporting print ads.


MoMA's most successful and long-running (it's still going) campaign began from something people were already saying online; something simple, which is now completely owned by MoMA and is, in my opinion, a perfect campaign: "I went to MoMA and …"

I won't drone on about it, partly because it's self-explanatory – you can read the design team's blog posts about the campaign on the Inside/Out blog. You can also see all of the cards submitted (bar those which were too light to scan properly) on the campaign website.

Some extra stuff that Kim mentioned:

The campaign translated really well into print ads – newspaper and outdoor.

They decided in advance to only remove cards if they included hate speech; anything else, including criticism of the museum, would remain public. They had *no* hate speech. (Though there is a 'flag' mechanism on the website allowing people to report cards.)

The campaign was popular internally too – even people's leaving cards now read "I worked at MoMA and …", and include personal stories from colleagues. Nice!

(It was also the inspiration behind my initial AMA blog post title.)


So, I promised to divulge a MoMA marketing team failure.

The [MoMA] Starts Here campaign seems a decent enough concept on paper: give people a taste of the diversity of stuff they can experience at MoMA.

There were 16 themes with related imagery; [Summer] Starts Here, for example, included seasonal events at the museum, sun, dance, music, an ice cream (available at the museum cafe!), a collapsible water bottle design. Summery things.

Other themes included music, film, New York and design.

But the campaign was a flop. It didn't bring in anything like the numbers expected, and was pulled early – there were no associated PR or social media campaigns. (And the website has been taken down, though you can see the campaign in pictures on the design team's site.)

This failure needed to be explained to the museum's management. Which meant the team first needed to deduce what went wrong. Having been through the details, they reached the conclusion that it was the lack of any 'participatory' element which resulted in the campaign's downfall.

I'd add that there it was also probably just a bit much – too much "What do we want to tell people?" (i.e. broadcasting) as opposed to "What will interest people?", and also trying to be everything to everyone. The sheer amount of content to take-in is overwhelming!

Kim feels it's important to be open, and to discuss and learn from things that don't work though. In this case, they learnt to keep things playful, entertaining and participatory; always with the audience – rather than the museum – at the forefront of their minds when developing campaigns.

(I think that's incredibly useful to remember.)


I'm actually going to stop myself here or I'm in danger of just repeating the entire talk nigh-on verbatim. I will, however, leave you with a few final snippets:

"Jump into uncertainty"

Inspired by the intuitive interface of the iPad, MoMA created the AB EX NY app, which ended up being used in an Apple advertising campaign. The thing to remember here – if you sense an opportunity, go for it. Quickly (or someone else'll get there first).

"Recognise and amplify your storytellers"

Allow, nay encourage, your advocates to talk about you; in their own voice. MoMA's Senior Curator of Architecture and Design, Paola Antonelli, was on The Colbert Report (which I've linked to despite it being unavailable to view in the UK. You may find a way of bypassing this …) discussing the design exhibition which was on at the time. Paola definitely took away any impression that a museum has to be stuffy; she talks warmly and enthusiastically about design.

MoMA's Director, Glenn D. Lowry, wants the risk-taking nature of modern art to be reflected in the museum's marketing. Wow! Great! This shows strong leadership from Lowry, and demonstrates a high level of trust in his colleagues – accepting that people know how to do their jobs, and simply letting them get on with it. I suppose this is also reflected in the "I went to MoMA and …" campaign, where this time it was the public who were given the freedom to be creative. (That last word is really important.)

And finally, an interesting fact: MoMA's three most popular exhibitions so far have been about the work of Matisse, Picasso … and Tim Burton. Ha!


UPDATE: I just discovered this interesting video of Julia Hoffmann (until recently Creative Director of MoMA's Design and Advertising Dept.) discussing the museum's identity: Julia Hoffmann – Disclosing MoMA's Identity

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