Masters of Their Work

Posted At: March 28, 2011 2:13 PM
by Victoria Corley

Giotto brought to life the Virgin and Christ in the Arena Chapel. Manet made an undeniable impression on art with the establishment of the Salon des Refusés. Gunta Stölzl wove Bauhaus into modern industrial designs. How can one compare the skills of public relations practitioners to these famed artists?

 

With the use of writing, graphic design, research and media, public relations practitioners assume the role of an artist for museums around the country. Although different from a paintbrush and a palette, their tools can inspire publics just like Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon from 1907.

 

Artists are considered brilliant because they possess the unknown: the distinctive qualities that allow someone to depict an image that provokes an emotion, an idea or a single tear in the eye of a viewer. Talent, dedication, passion and confidence are qualities that make any artist a master of his work.

 

Similar to Giotto, Manet and Stölzl, public relations practitioners must also possess these qualities.

 

Dana Mattice, publicist for the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, said that for many art museums, the most important role of the communications team is to increase attendance by publicizing the fantastic programs and exhibitions the museum has to offer.

 

For art museums, the PR practitioner’s job becomes the main conduit for carrying the front lines of communications.

 

Mandy Young, a public affairs associate for the Smithsonian American Art Museum, described the role of public affairs at the SAAM in two words: “Balancing act.”

 

“Keeping publics focused on the identity of the museum, making sure to serve all audiences at one time, preparing to control your message and keeping up with ever-changing media outlets are the important things we focus on at the museum,” Young said.

 

In 2007, PR practitioners at the SAAM began incorporating the use of social media to communicate with the press, media and publics.

 

Young described her responsibility at the museum as the “woman behind the wall.” She maintains the museum’s messages through its social media accounts.

 

It is important to understand where the responsibility of social media management belongs within the organization. For the SAAM, the responsibility lies with the public affairs office. Designating the management of social media to one department helps ensure that all messages are cohesive.

 

The art of Young’s job is to use social media to paint an online picture and to become a voice of authority for the museum. Much like the expressionist artist Edward Munch, she uses the world of online media as a canvas for reaching the museum’s publics.

 

When using social media for an environment like a museum, a voice that reflects the views of the organization must be established.

 

“I wanted to maintain a voice of authority for the museum’s social network accounts, and not be too chatty,” Young said. “For some museums this is okay, but for an institution like the Smithsonian American Art Museum, it is important that the personality of the museum is speaking to the followers and fans, not the personality of the person feeding the tweets or updating the statuses.”

 

The SAAM pays close attention to social media, but it is not the only focus of the public affairs office. Young said that it is good for the museum to “have a fun engaging voice through social media, but still maintain printed material and e-mail blasts — the old-fashioned ways of communications.”

 

Aside from monitoring the organization’s use of social media, the public relations practitioner’s role at an art museum varies.

 

For the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (MFAH), the communications team’s primary focus is publicizing museum exhibitions, educational programs and special events. The MFAH also contracts Dancie Perugini Ware Public Relations to enrich PR efforts.

 

For other institutions, like the Birmingham Museum of Art, public relations plays a key role in all aspects of museum work.

 

Nick Patterson, director of communications for the museum, explained the importance of having a creative and steady communications team working from within a museum.

 

“Like so many museums, the BMA is funded by the Annual Fund, donor circles, corporate partners, planned-giving and gifts of art from donors to the museum,” Patterson said. “If donors disagree with the organization’s actions or representations in the media, they could withdraw their support. This makes it more vital for the communication team to monitor the public’s opinion of the museum and its programs.”

 

For the Smithsonian American Art Museum, tasks for the public affairs office include similar challenges, Mandy Young explained. For example, the SAAM receives congressional funding, so taxpayers play an important role in how the organization is represented in the community.

 

“It is very important to make sure we’re serving all audiences at one time,” she said. “We must make all things appeal to everyone, because the public plays a key role in the museum’s existence.”

 

PR professionals paint a picture much like Georges Seurat. The museum is her canvas and her message is a starting “point” for creating a masterpiece: a work of art that will captivate audiences and create new opportunities for the museum to grow.

 

graphic by Victoria Corley

 

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