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Many of the world’s big cultural institutions and arts groups have had to learn how to adapt to the much-altered world since the global health crisis of 2020 began. Those institutions which rely on visitors coming through their doors were certainly very badly affected, often having to restrict the numbers of people coming in and – more often than not – having to close their doors completely. Performance art has suffered even more with very, very few stage productions being possible even in outdoor settings.
Of course, with so many people staying at home, there has also been an opportunity for forward-thinking arts organisations to take benefit from. While the public has not been able to venture out, so it has turned to the one thing it can do when in search of cultural fulfilment – go online. As such, many galleries, arts organisations, museums and visitor centres have upped their game with their online presence, usually with something curated or specifically put together for an online audience. Anything from virtual tours to one-off video presentations have been on offer.
And yet, as a number of arts organisations have found, it is the power of social media that has truly delivered new audiences to them. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and the like have all played their part in attracting new people to arts organisations which, in normal times, they may never have reached before. In this regard, however, one social media platform stands out from the rest, TikTok.
This Chinese social media app has become a huge global phenomenon. As reported by MuseumNext last October, TikTok has seen a meteoric rise since it first launched. As of 2020, the social media platform had 800 million global users. Indeed, the latest statistics show that there are something like 3.7 million active daily users on the platform in the UK alone. Interestingly, the average British TikTok user will spend over 40 minutes a day using the platform. This is below the global average which accounts for 52 minutes of activity. Whichever way you look at it, though, there are a lot of people on TikTok looking for content.
What does this mean for arts organisations? Of course, for some, it will mean very little. There are plenty of arts groups that have no social media presence to speak of and which have no intention of opening a TikTok account to build one. On the other hand, 2020 saw many arts organisations doing the exact opposite and embracing the platform to market themselves, offer an online alternative to their usual activities and, more generally, to engage with people they might never have been known to before.
So, as lockdowns continue into 2021 in many countries across the globe, what are at least some art organisations now doing to promote themselves on TikTok? Their approaches to the social media platform may be varied but what they all have in common is a desire to embrace technology to build an online, as well as a real-world, following.
Often cited as one of the first major arts institutions to start discovering what TikTok could do for them, the Uffizi Gallery in Florence began its life on the social media platform with a bang. Noting that much of the viral content on TikTok is entertaining in its nature, the gallery’s online marketing team decided to make humour a central part of what they were doing. As such, the Uffizi began by posting odd animations that featured some of the famous masterpieces it has in its collection.
@uffizigalleriesnothing but facts ✨ ##singlelife ##singleaf ##mood ##2020 ##theoffice ##michaelscott♬ suono originale – uffizisocial
These included Venus, in Botticelli’s well-known image, depicted sporting full biohazard gear in a light-hearted reference. Another video featured Raphael’s work, Young Man With an Apple, and posed the question of how the individual in the image might weigh up the merits of being a singleton. These and other videos were very well received on the platform and viewed hundreds of thousands of times building up a vast number of loyal followers for the gallery. Just one of its videos has been viewed over 97,000 times.
In 2019, the National Youth Theatre announced that it would go into a partnership with TikTok to provide new opportunities to youngsters who might have had no prior theatrical experience at all. Somewhat ahead of the times, the idea was to provide anyone aged between 14 and 25 in the UK to get involved in short-form dramatic performances that would be published by the company on its TikTok account.
@nationalyouththeatre♬ Pure Gold – PX Hammer
As the programme took shape in the early part of 2020, Elizabeth Kanter, TikTok’s Director of Global Public Policy, said that executives at the social media platform were thrilled to be working such a world-class arts charity that would offer ordinary TikTok subscribers the chance to access outstanding theatre auditions and expert acting classes. Kanter also said that the partnership would support talent and creativity in a way that could empower everyone, no matter what their background in arts might be.
As the mini-dramas began to be posted on the National Youth Theatre’s TikTok account, so more and more interest in the work of the charity began to accumulate. Of course, interest in some of the young performers was another positive outcome, as well. On behalf of the theatre, Paul Roseby, its CEO and Artistic Director, said that choosing TikTok to educate online users about well-being and e-safety issues was the perfect platform. Some of the dramas that were produced last year when the UK was in lockdown understandably focussed on these sorts of concerns.
According to Roseby, the decline in arts education in the UK was being offset to a degree by the National Youth Theatre’s online work. “We want to reach beyond those already enjoying the many advantages of exposure to the theatre at an early age,” he said. “[We need to]… reach out to talented and creative young people in the places where they are, such as TikTok.”
The Prado Museum is one of the world’s most famous art institutions, so you would expect it to have a reasonably large online following already among art lovers. However, the digital marketing team at the gallery have worked wonders in building their online presence among a global audience who would probably never have the opportunity to travel to Madrid to view the works on display there. One of the big TikTok hits the gallery has seen that exemplifies this relates to its post of the Mona Lisa.
@museodelpradoLa ##MonaLisa del ##museodelprado ##AprendeConTikTok ##Leonardo ##Arte ##Art ##Gioconda♬ sonido original – museodelprado
This caused a bit of a sensation on the platform, perhaps because it was not widely known that a sister image to the one that sits in the Louvre in Paris was in the Prado’s collection. The TikTok image of the Mona Lisa of Prado, as it is known, has been a huge hit with the gallery’s followers along with some other notable images, such as Hieronymus Bosch’s famous work, the Garden of Earthly Delights. The gallery currently boasts over 106,000 followers on the social media platform.
As a museum which has enjoyed a huge amount of success using TikTok, the Black Country Living Museum’s exploits on social media have already been reported on by MuseumNext. Located in Dudley, the museum has a number of actors who portray people from the past who might have inhabited the industrial landscape of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The regional museum has won plaudits all around the world thanks to the authentic performances of its actors.
@blackcountrymuseumI love it when women ✨ ##learnontiktok ##history ##WW2 ##1940s♬ positions – Ariana Grande
Of particular note was a ‘granddad’ character whose accent and style seemed to be the perfect match for the TikTok generation who viewed his video performance in their droves. The Black Country Living Museum began posting on TikTok in an almost experimental manner just to see if it could raise its profile. However, its videos and other content took off immediately not just in the UK – from the sort of people who might have been considering visiting the museum in the future – but all over the world. Since it began posting on TikTok, the museum has never looked back. Indeed, it has been listed as one of the most looked-at accounts in the entire UK – not bad for a regional museum which is up against some huge corporate brands and internet-friendly celebrities.
One of the corps dancers at the American Ballet Theater, which is based in New York City, has spent much of her time during the pandemic drawing attention to dance using nothing more than a TikTok account. According to a report in the New York Times, Erica Lall, a ballet dancer who is more used to performing on the stage at the Metropolitan Opera House instead found herself hunkered down in her Texas home town when the American Ballet Theater was forced to cancel its entire programme. Despite the lack of opportunities to perform, Lall nevertheless decided that the world needed to learn more about her love of dance.
@jamesbwhiteside##AmericanBalletTheatre ballet class 🥰 ##TheCindies @isabellaboylston ##fyp ##foryou ##ballet ##ballerino♬ original sound – Marie
Interestingly, Lall already used Instagram to showcase her ballet dancing skills as well as a few of the other dance styles she is proficient in. However, she switched to TikTok despite having almost 20,000 followers on Instagram. Okay, Lall may not be running the official American Ballet Theater TikTok account, which has over 100,000 followers, but her posts on the platform were an almost overnight sensation garnering interest not only in her as a performer but also in American ballet more generally.
There can be little doubt that English Heritage has fully committed to showcasing itself on TikTok. Their viral videos are often focussed on lesser-known facts and oddities from history. One big hit it enjoyed was with a video that explained more about Abdul Karim. Born in 1863, Karim served as Queen Victoria’s Munshi, or teacher, educating her on a wide range of Indian affairs including giving her Urdu lessons.
@english.heritageWe can’t wait for your FANtastic duets ##learnontiktok ##history♬ original sound – English Heritage
English Heritage has also provided educational content about the writer Mary Shelley, delving into her literary creations, Viktor Frankenstein and his monster. Another hit post focussed on the life of another writer, Charles Darwin, and how his lifestyle could teach modern-day TikTok users a thing or two about working from home. English Heritage has thus far gathered 112,000 followers and received over a million and a half likes for its posts.
One of the most followed arts organisations on TikTok from a British perspective is the Royal Opera House. Perhaps this is because it posts as much about ballet as it does opera because, of course, the Covent Garden institution is home to the Royal Ballet company as well as being the premier opera venue in London. In fact, the Royal Ballet already has a hugely successful YouTube channel as well as a Twitter account so it is hardly surprising that the cleverly produced posts it creates for TikTok have also gone down so well.
@royaloperahouse😯 Arguably the most difficult piece ever written for soprano, performed brilliantly by Sofia Fomina ##opera ##singing ##classicalmusic ##theatre ##voice♬ original sound – Royal Opera House
Just one of its clips, which it posted in the run-up to Christmas last year, has been viewed 940,000 times. This featured a performance of two Royal Ballet dancers in a previous production of the Nutcracker, a festive treat for the third of a million followers it has on the platform. In addition to content that it can draw upon from its back catalogue, the Royal Opera House has been posting videos of what life is like during lockdown. One clip shows a dancer limbering up and going through a short routine from the comfort of his kitchen, for example.
The operatic posts are just as popular among its social media followers. Arias from operas as diverse as Hercules, La Traviata, Porgy and Bess and Carmen all feature, as well as some footage of the operatic pit orchestra in some of their performances. However, it is not all performative on the social media site because the Royal Opera House also engages its users with content that is both fun and educational. For example, its TikTok followers can learn how to pirouette properly, discover more about the different sorts of singing voices that are used in operas and even make pop-up greetings cards if they wish.
Manuel Charr is a journalist working in the arts and cultural sectors. With a background in marketing, Manuel is drawn to arts organizations which are prepared to try inventive ways to reach new audiences.
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