Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Will New Orleans vs. Indianapolis Art Museum Super Bowl bet set museum world atwitter?

By now many of you may have heard about the Super Bowl wager made last week between the New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA) and the Indianapolis Museum of Art. In a nutshell, if the Saints win on Sunday, NOMA will receive J.M.W. Turner's The Fifth Plague of Egypt from the Indianapolis Museum of Art for three months, but if the Colts win, the Indianapolis Museum receives Claude Lorrain's Ideal View of Tivoli from the NOMA for three months. Win or lose on Sunday, this bet is proving to be a win-win for both of these institutions in the sheer amount of great PR they are reaping this week, and likely for weeks to come.

In addition to the free press aspect of the bet, both art museums are getting an enviable image boost among football fans across the country. From NFL bloggers to Sports Illustrated columnists, this story has gotten the attention of many members of the football faithful. Let us assume for argument's sake that die-hard professional football fans are not the largest demographic among regular art museum patrons. If this were true, then what a remarkable opportunity to endear these two museums to another audience within their respective communities. I expect that at least some of the exuberant fans of the winning football team will make a special, and otherwise unplanned, trip to the art museum to see the spoils of their victory prominently displayed on loan from the loser.

There is something charming about two art museum directors betting classic pieces from their collections, each upping the ante along the way, until finally two of the finest masterpieces in either collection are on the table for a loan period of three months, based solely on the outcome of a football game. It is refreshing any time an entrenched stereotype hits the floor, and certainly a widely-publicized Super Bowl bet goes against the traditional image of art museum directors as highly academic and sightly esoteric individuals who eschew seemingly plebeian and barbaric pastimes like professional football.

However, my particular interest in this story lies in its beginning, as two museum directors created this incredible public relations wave with just a few short tweets in giant pool of new social media. Spurred on by Tyler Green, publisher of the Modern Art Notes blog, Maxwell L. Anderson, director of the Indianapolis Museum of Art, and E. John Bullard, director of NOMA, engaged in a tweet-off, slinging artistic insults and driving the stakes higher. For those of us who follow museums on the web and try to explain the ever-increasing impact of museums and social media, this was a dream scenario.

Imagine the difficulty in explaining to a relatively small historical society just how far their news can travel, or how influential their posts may become even when given only 140 characters in which to express themselves. Many small organizations with too many tasks and too few staff claim they cannot afford the time to tweet or update a Facebook page. "Besides," goes their response, "how many people out there could possibly be interested in what we have to say?" How many indeed...

Alternatively, large institutions have been known to relegate the task of social media interaction to interns, who lack critical connections within the museum, in turn limiting them to merely providing bits information already available on the museum's website, or in the local newspaper. Not the kind of information one would expect to generate much cyberbuzz.

In the past it has been difficult to get either of these museum types out of their respective e-media ruts, but now we have a success story. These museum tweets heard round the sports world perfectly illustrate the vast potential of social media sites to spread tantalizing news faster than any traditional media outlet, and to more kinds of people than most museums would ever imagine reaching.

The wonderful thing about people is how multi-faceted we all are. I am personally and professionally passionate about museums, but I am also an eco-nut, a foodie, a huge college football fan, a political junkie, a former ski instructor, a mom, a wife, a church lady, a book enthusiast, a traveler, a knitter, and a yoga practitioner. Upon meeting me at a museum event, you would be lucky to learn even a quarter of those things about me, but I pursue all of those interests by following individuals and institutions who share my interests on Twitter, Facebook, and numerous blogs. If one of the museums I follow tweets about a yoga session in their Indian art gallery, all of my yoga-loving followers may see the posting if I choose to retweet the news. The social media outreach possibilities are truly infinite if the content is of a consistent quality and frequency.

I will be watching the Super Bowl this Sunday along with family and friends who are pretty committed football fans, and while there will be Patriots, Browns, Falcons, and Steelers fans in the room, this diversity of interests is also reflected in our myriad personal pastimes. Museums would be wise to take a page from the playbook of the Indianapolis and New Orleans museums of art, and tap into the vast potential of online social media. It's free, accessible, and you never know when a little bit of quality content may be the next tweet heard round the world.

Photo: The Lombardi Trophy exhibited in the Lamar Hunt Super Bowl Gallery at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. The Lombardi Trophy is awarded every year to the winner of the Super Bowl.

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