How Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Arts Africa pivoted during the global pandemic
February 02 2021
By Tim Deakin
Three months into a new digital role. Faced with a global pandemic. Responsible for shaping the direction of a museum’s communication with the outside world through a strict lockdown. To say that Danielle Olivier’s introduction to working at a museum was a baptism of fire would perhaps be an understatement. But like so many professionals in the arts and culture sector, throwing herself into the challenge ahead was the only option in 2020.
MuseumNext took a virtual trip down to Cape Town to find out how Danielle and her colleagues at the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Arts Africa (Zeitz MOCAA) have tackled Covid-19.
“Prior to working at Zeitz MOCAA, I had initially been employed as a graphic designer before moving into content creation and social media management. Those roles were all pretty diverse and varied, but they were primarily centred around digital and mobile-first marketing. So, working in such online-focused organisations can perhaps be seen as a good grounding for the demands of 2020.”
Having been recruited by the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Arts Africa in January of 2020, Danielle had already established herself as a core member of the museum’s marketing and communications team, acting as a community manager for the museum’s social platforms and working to build the organisation’s online storytelling.
As Danielle, explains, “I wear many hats. Unlike the brands I had worked for in the past the Zeitz MOCAA does not have a rigid corporate structure and I’m delighted to say that I’ve been given the freedom to experiment with our social media platforms without encountering the pushback and lengthy approvals process that usually slows corporate brands.”
In fact, as lockdown hit South Africa and the museum in Cape Town was forced to close its doors, Danielle says that this agility and willingness to expedite decision making was one of the key strengths of the organisation.
“It is certainly a hard process to establish. We are quite a small and young organisation and our senior staff are energetically involved in the day-to-day running of the museum. But we all decided quite early on that it was important for us to be agile. That involves a lot of trust and requires that we all agree what the boundaries are.
“Once we got into the swing of things, it became much more efficient and organic. Ultimately, that has enabled us to engage more readily in real time and improve our connectivity.”
Like many of her peers, Danielle says that the online community has also been incredibly understanding during the last 12 months, showing great support and an appreciation for digital content in all its forms at a time when culture can only largely be digested through a computer screen.
“I’ve noticed that people are very forgiving right now. They appreciate that we are working hard to nurture a community and provide valuable content at a time when people need it most. If we don’t get it right we haven’t experienced a lot of criticism – if anything people are identifying with organisations and brands when they make mistakes and show themselves to be human.
“That empathy also gives us the freedom to experiment more than we might perhaps have done in the past. We can try new things and deliver new content to see what works and what doesn’t. That will have so much value for us in the future as we develop our understanding of what ‘business as usual’ looks like once this pandemic is behind us.
“My colleagues are also working hard to develop documents on lean and agile working – getting things done quickly and removing duplication of effort whilst minimising potential for errors. That’s something our events team are working on after the success of our first online summit last year”
Despite the loss of income and the absence of ticket sales during this incredibly difficult period, Danielle, says that the museum’s senior team have remained committed to avoiding job cuts. Instead, cultivating a sense of job security has enabled staff to focus entirely on working through those hard times and planning ahead where possible.
Recycling, creating, listening and engaging
Once it became clear that the South African lockdown would be more than just a matter of weeks, the first port of call for Zeitz MOCAA was to reconfigure exhibition schedules and rework the logistics of future programming. For Danielle, the next step from there was to dive into the museum archives and investigate opportunities to recycle and refresh what was immediately available.
“I think that approach was probably fairly standard practice for many institutions in the first weeks of March as everyone was trying to establish timelines and really understand the longer term implications of the pandemic.
“But from there I began to test more real-time methods of engaging with our community and developing fresh material outside of the museum doors. I can’t say I was ready for it, but being thrown into the deep end is one of my favourite places to be.
“The collaborations and projects we’ve delivered over the past 12 months have been huge for me personally, and I am grateful that our team has always been open to trying new things. We have certainly connected with our audience in a new and effective way – shifting our focus away from broadcasting exhibition details with an informational tone (which is obviously important when we are trying to drive ticket sales) to a greater focus on engagement.”
Among the most successful campaigns run by Danielle and the Zeitz MOCAA team were ones that pivoted away from archival images and looked, instead, to encourage participation. These included the development of direct interactions with artists and industry heavyweights in a “Head to Head” series; pop quizzes and scavenger hunts via Instagram Stories; gallery guides and curators delivered artwork insights via Zoom; and an art education resource group for teachers, parents and students on Facebook.
The combination of campaigns and techniques earned the Zeitz MOCAA a place on The New York Times’ “Top 5 Instagram Accounts to Follow” and frequent praise from other museums.
“Don’t get me wrong,” Danielle says, “there was a lot of trial and error in 2020. We’ve needed to take time to consider what would stick and what should be carried over into our 2021 digital efforts. But I think there have certainly been some key successes.
“For example, without the option of hosting public programming within the museum, our curatorial and events team pulled off a 5-day online webinar with over 20 speakers from across the globe titled, ‘The Radical Solidarity Summit.’ This was another first for the museum, an online gathering to address urgent issues of our time, explore alternative futures, and discuss possibilities that can be forged in the cultural field through acts of solidarity.”
Another seminal project to the museum in 2020 was the ‘Online Open Studio’ workshops held with the Centre for Art Education team. Prior to COVID-19 these workshops took place at the museum. Due to lockdown restrictions the lessons were translated into a digital resource. These offered the opportunity for children and their caregivers to create together and learn valuable art making skills at home.
Danielle says, “This series of activities inspired by artists from Africa and the diaspora has since been introduced into South Africa’s art education curriculum and that was really a huge accomplishment which we are so proud of.”
“When I think back over the past 12 months it is hard to believe that such a small team pulled all of this off. But we have shown the value of digital in nurturing an audience and we have valuable data from our social platforms, email management tool and Google Analytics to show us what’s worked.”
Asked what she found to be the key challenges of the past 12 months and Danielle points simply to resources. As a small team, the Zeitz MOCAA have found themselves hectic and stretched in their attempts to build engagement and deliver value to their audience. But as Danielle points out, that is a testament to the spirit of the team and the core values of the museum:
“We have a whole lot of heart and are not willing to back down from a challenge. Looking back on 2020 is a testament to that. Translating our activities to an online audience required production. Filming, editing and packaging our content was no easy feat for me especially since I had no prior videography skills. We all upskilled and did things outside of our traditional job descriptions, but in doing this it created many firsts and accomplishments we are proud of.”
Now, as they work towards a future beyond Covid-19, Danielle says that there is a lot to look forward to from the Zeitz MOCAA – both in person and online.
“We’ve already shown what our digital engagement and community building work can do. Back in October when we reopened our doors for the first time, we celebrated our first ever public submissions exhibition titled, ‘Home Is Where The Art Is: Art Is Where The Home Is.’ We received over 2000 artworks from local Capetonians and our curatorial team worked tirelessly and passionately to bring the exhibition into fruition.
“Visitors and artists really felt heard and acknowledged with this exhibition. I believe we lifted a lot of preconceived barriers to show the public that we are here for them and that everyone is welcome.”
And what about personal lessons learnt in the last 12 months? To this question, Danielle says, “It may sound cliché, but I learnt that in order to grow one must continue to play and to trust that process. It may command you to slow down and reflect or call you to be agile and churn out a solution quickly and both of those journeys are ok. I think that, overall, we are finding the right balance in our work right now.
“We have adopted a hybrid approach to our programming and events which involves a mix of capped physical attendance and an online streaming option. I believe this will likely become a continued part of our offering. I also suspect we’ll investigate the potential of digital memberships more in the future. Whether this becomes part of our offering or not is yet to be seen, but it is certainly a conversation I know lots of institutions are having right now.”
Having had her own varied and challenging experience in 2020, Danielle is keen to compare notes with her peers in museums around the world. As she looks forward to February’s MuseumNext Digital Summit, she says that a few talks stand out in particular:
“Davin Henson and Myseum of Toronto’s Josh Dyer’s ‘post-event process’ has definitely been front of mind for me. I am interested in how to promote longevity when it comes to our online events which is more meaningful than the repost.
“I’m also excited to hear from Suhaly Bautista-Carolina of Metropolitan Museum of Art’s talk around ‘Museums, Communities, & Civic Engagement.’ It is not enough to be creating free content for our audiences, we must ensure that it is accessible and that it is creating a safe space to build and maintain the relationships we have created.”