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In Conversation with Chris Michaels, The National Gallery

 

Jim Richardson:

Hello, today I am at The National Gallery with Chris Michaels, who is Director of Digital Communications and Technology. And I really want to catch up with Chris to find out what’s been happening here at the gallery during COVID and about the innovative work that they’ve been doing. And this is your first time in London since March.

Chris Michaels :

Yep, first time since lockdown, back on March 17th, yeah.

Jim Richardson:

So over the course of the lockdown, there must have been a massive amount of learning, especially with the digital kind of remit that you’ve got.

Chris Michaels :

Well, in some ways this is probably been a period where we’ve learnt more about our audience than any other time in the last 200 years, because you’ve seen this kind of stripping away of the norms of museums. No physical visitors for 111 days, a sudden explosion in our digital audiences because of the way that we’ve responded to the crisis. And then the act of reopening, where now every single person who comes here, has to engage with us as a marketing organisation. I think we’re in a kind of amazing moment of knowing who people are and learning how to serve them better through COVID. There’s an awful lot of problems that the COVID crisis has caused us, but it creates an amazing opportunity to make a better visitor experience, a better engagement experience for all those audiences, because you know who every single person is.

Jim Richardson:

And do you think that the audience is different to the audience that you had before this?

Chris Michaels :

Radically different. The old National Gallery audience was composed of 75% foreign tourists, domestic tourists, core London arts goers, young people. It’s been kind of pulled away. And the audience that’s returned immediately is that core culture loving audience, people for whom this place is incredibly important in their lives. Already, 7% of the visitors we’ve had since we reopened, it’s only been just over a month, are people who are now on their second or third visits to the gallery. That’s an incredibly loyal, incredibly specific part of what was our overall historic mix. At the same time, our digital audience is nearly 50% up, over this period. So massive new diversity of people that we’re engaging with them on that digital scale.

Jim Richardson:

And what kinds of things have you done while the gallery was closed. To engage with people?

Chris Michaels :

Well, really, the story of lockdown is about the importance of video. Video through social media videos, video through the kind of return from 2008 of webinars, video as means to engage kind of different parts of our audience mix, whether that’s donors, whether that’s members, whether that’s education audiences. But videos being the critical driver through all of that period. And as you’ve seen at larger scale, the ever growth of streaming markets TV and film, the story for museums is about this kind of explosion of the value, both in commercial senses and in its engagement sense of video over lockdown.

Jim Richardson:

And so what’s happening in those videos? What kind of videos are you making?

Chris Michaels :

Well, I mean, the first period after lockdown is really working out, what the hell should we make? Because you couldn’t make the things you made before, which were brilliant videos about exhibitions, curators talking, whatever it is. So we had to work out how to make things remotely. And that’s whether that’s curators telling stories from home about the home, brilliant videos about people like Vermeer, who are of course amazing artists about interiors, to educators doing creative, kind of make and create activities for young audiences online. Things like mindfulness videos that we probably honestly would never have done before, but have been hugely popular and successful in what’s been, Jesus, a hell of a stressful time for everybody. We’ve found new ways of making and new stories to tell as a result of them.

Chris Michaels :

The second part is about very specific things for particular audiences. So, during lockdown, our keeper, Larry Keith, who’s our head of conservation, came to the gallery to kind of check, it’s a core part of his role to make sure the paintings are all right. He has a huge responsibility toward those works. And he did these amazing pieces for some of our core donors, of him inside the locked gallery. We did the same with our director, Gabriele, him inside the closed gallery. His first reencounter for it, for a very particular parts of our audience mix. So it’s an incredible time for kind of innovation in format, for the audiences that may never have engaged with us through digital before, to engage with us and to work out what digital formats might be for the future.

Jim Richardson:

And so I’m guessing, during this time, everything’s gone online, everyone’s working from home, everyone’s got ideas about what they could do with digital. You had front of house, educators, had curators. How did you handle that? How did you facilitate everyone, coming out with content?

Chris Michaels :

Well, I mean, there’s two ways. One is you control from the middle, or you kind of give people the freedom to go and create. And practically, it wasn’t really possible to say, “Well, look, just funnel everything through the same three people who have creative responsibility for us,” it would have driven them mad. And we never would’ve been able to do as much as we could. So, for me, from a kind of executive point of view, it’s just like, “Go and make stuff. We’ll work out where the boundaries sit of what you should be able to do, but for educators, for fundraisers, for the guys who work with member audiences, you know your audiences. Everyone’s got to recognise this may not be the best formats in the world. You need to kind of do something.” So just giving them both the freedom operationally and the support in things like running a Zoom webinar, or whatever it is from some of our AV guys, et cetera, to just go and do it, just the right way. I think just the right kind of respectful way to operate at a time like this.

Jim Richardson:

But the audience expectations have changed. You’ve seen on television, people recording stuff with their iPhones and all that kind of thing. So people are yeah, a bit forgiving in this time.

Chris Michaels :

Well, I mean, audiences have gone through massive adaptations themselves in the last four months. My mum’s a 79 year old woman, who goes to the opera twice a month and goes to church every week. And the second of those two things, she has done remarkably to get on Zoom, she can’t turn her mobile phone on normally. Remarkably, to get on Zoom and do every week. And there’s been an enormous change in the audiences for arts in how they engage in their lives, because we’ve all had to. Through lockdown, Zoom as a way of families staying together, the way of kids being educated from school, it’s become a very different place. So of course, arts organisations have an amazing opportunity with those tools to just go out and do, at a point where, yeah, people are super forgiving, if it’s not the kind of Hollywood production values. The point is to engage.

Jim Richardson:

And as you said, the gallery reopened just over a month ago.

Chris Michaels :

Yeah.

Jim Richardson:

What was the process of coming to the point where you would reopen?

Chris Michaels :

Yeah. Well, I mean, it’s the strategic reason why, and then the bits of how. So for us, the why was, we thought we could be and we thought we should be the first people to reopen. We are The National Gallery. We are on Trafalgar Square and practically, our collection and our building is a bit simpler than some of the other big museums in the country. So we made a very early decision, where we were talking about really, about beginning of May, that we wanted to be first back and that we could be. That then becomes a operational planning piece around the building. How do you do social distancing? And then a kind of visitor experience and digital piece about, how do you make that a brilliant experience for people? There was obviously a risk that this can become a health and safety nightmare, which would have been horrible for everyone.

Chris Michaels :

But what we’ve really tried to do is to make it a brilliant place to come and to reengage with art, as a journey that starts online now. Everyone has to book online before they come and it’s then about, practically, how do you get the most people through the door? How do you get the most donations you can? How do you sell the most exhibition tickets? How do you get the most people becoming members that you can? And doing that well, it means real attention to digital experience. So it was a tough six weeks trying to execute on that, but the execution on that, and then the reopening early means that we are now six weeks into doing that. We’ve been live for six weeks now, so we’re learning an amazing amount. We’re already into 50,000 people who’ve been here or whatever it, since we reopened. And if we can keep doing that, keep rebuilding, dealing with what’s going to be a complicated future, we know a lot already to help us shape what the future might look like.

Jim Richardson:

Yeah. I visited yesterday. It was firstly, great to be back in a museum after five months of not having attended anywhere. And it was a great experience. I noticed when I booked online, as you say, you have to book online, there were donations requested. There was a catalogue tried to be sold and all those kinds of things. So, yeah, it’s fantastically thought through. I do expect an email today asking me if I want to be a member and…

Chris Michaels :

It’s all of that, right? I mean, the way I described this in a way was that, galleries, museums before COVID, in this country, were kind of enlightenment age institutions. You could come, it was free. No one knew who you were. You could effectively not engage with a single human being from the beginning to end of your experience. And that was fine. But this in a way now is like the information age visitor experience, where the cost of coming here is for us to have some means of engaging with you, to become part of our digital audience. And for us to build those relationships with you, that whether it is a £2 donation, a £90 membership, a £10 exhibition ticket. But to begin a kind of two way dialogue that hopefully gets us and someone who keeps coming back, becomes that 7% who comes back every month. But for you, helps you have an amazing relationship to an amazing place like The National Gallery that could go on for the whole of the rest of your life.

Jim Richardson:

That’s a great return rate, 7%, it’s obviously working.

Chris Michaels :

Yeah. And again, those are probably of our audiences we really knew, statistically, at least, that much about before. You kind of know that there are people who come all the time, but of course they’re this tiny little bit here compared to this mass here. But now this mass is like this, actually you can start to see them. And of course, if those are people who aren’t members, who aren’t donors, what do we do? How do we build a relationship with them because they’re coming back? This place means something to them. And how do we get mutual value from that, more mutual value for each other?

Jim Richardson:

What about the no-show rate because it’s free to attend? So I’m guessing you must calculate in that there’ll be a certain percentage that won’t turn up.

Chris Michaels :

Yeah. I mean, of course, we didn’t really know what that was like at the start, and we’re still learning about that, but of course, it’s part of free ticketing, is your incentive to come. The weather’s been mental, frankly, over the last month. Rainstorms, hottest days in history, there’s an awful lot of things. And frankly, people probably get scared. My first visit on the tube today in five months, it’s a bit odd. And I’ve been on the tube every day, pretty much since I was a 10 year old kid going secondary school. So, it’s strange. It’s a strange world out there, so you’re going to have that. You don’t want to get too bogged down in it, you’ve just got to adapt your capacity models, et cetera, around it, as you understand it.

Jim Richardson:

Yeah and one thing that I really noticed when I looked around yesterday was that there weren’t too many kids there. And schools in the UK start back in a week and a half. I’m guessing school visits won’t happen. So how are you innovating around what you offer schools and children?

Chris Michaels :

Well, I mean, it’s not just schools and children. It’s, I think, the whole education market, in what’s been an intense few weeks. We’re talking of this in the middle of this exams scandal and crisis. As all that plays out, I think there’s an enormous opportunity for museums in this space. The digital education market’s been very difficult for the museum sector to penetrate, but there’s no question to me, it’s going to become a huge part of both the national future as a way of delivering education, whether at school or university level and therefore, for museums. This is a chance to go and do those things that people have played with, but not quite committed to and recognise that as a digitally delivered education experience, is a huge opportunity and possibly a requirement for future sustainability and for quality of engagement.

Jim Richardson:

It’s the kind of thing that, there needs to be funding put in place to allow innovation around that because it’s just not being done, or hasn’t been done in the past.

Chris Michaels :

Yeah. And I mean, recognising that’s a kind of business model innovation piece, as with everything else, it takes time and resources to make a digital education offer, as it does to do anything else, frankly, in life. And that resource is in different places, it’s in video production. It’s in learning design. Again, not necessarily things museums have known how to do, historically, but as with all the new skills, the unique thing about this potentially, is it’s a way to make money whilst doing good. That hardest of balances for museums, of wanting to both reach mass audiences and be sustainable businesses. There may be, may be, we’re having to find out, there may be an ability to do both of those things at the same time.

Jim Richardson:

That seems to be one of the key things that I’m hearing from museums, that there is a need to replace visitor income with online income, which is a really hard task for The National Gallery even, where you’ve got a massive audience, let alone a small historic house, or a small museum. What kind of innovations do you think can happen around that space?

Chris Michaels :

Well, I mean, look, it’s really recognising that, again, there is a core audience that cares. And that is one that you can rebuild your income with. So, membership, donor programmes, patrons programmes, those things are actually reach back very deep into the history of museums. I can’t remember, the first membership program’s like 1860 or something, do you know what I mean? It’s not new. Those are the bits to see how to digitise. Of course, many of those programmes have been run through CRM systems for a long time, but how’d you get the service offering, those online digital events, to get that kind of core relationship community management happening online? And recognise, therefore, in a economic structural sense, you’re kind of pulling things behind the paywall.

Chris Michaels :

If I was a magazine publisher, I’d always rather be The Economist than be The Times because The Economist has an amazing paywall and it’s brilliant, has built a brilliant business, in a way that The Times are kind of getting there. But The Guardian and others who want to go out to mass, digital audiences, super hard path, super hard path. The only viable path to me is one, I said, where we kind of find where that pay wall sits and pull, create the right service offerings behind it that can engage those audiences and can help build that revenue growth.

Jim Richardson:

Which is a big change from the past few years where the government and funders have really wanted to diversify audiences. So it’s going to be balancing diversifying audiences with hitting those core audiences who have money.

Chris Michaels :

It’s going to be a tough road because you want to do both. You want to do both. Diversification of audiences is the long-term need for how we build the audience of the future, but isn’t short-term payoffs. And that’s the hard balance we’re going to run, is the need for greater diversity to reflect the audience, frankly, who’s out there. London’s a 41% BAME city. We’ve got to reach out to those communities in different ways, but we’ve also got today’s crisis to deal with. So we’re just navigating the balance of doing both in different ways. That’s the challenge for the future.

Jim Richardson:

Taking money from one to allow the work for everyone.

Chris Michaels :

Well, hopefully and again, museum’s have always done that. They’ve taken what they’ve done for their core audiences and they reinvested it into the diversification of audiences elsewhere. That will get framed in slightly different ways now, but that’s the challenge.

Jim Richardson:

The way that everyone at The National Gallery has been working for the past four or five months has been radically different, people working from home. Do you think that kind of way of working will be how you move forward?

Chris Michaels :

For us, it always kind of was going to be like that. So we are in the middle of building a new office facility inside the gallery itself, which opens in the middle of next year. It’s always been built on a model of a 50% occupancy rate, 50% work from home rate. Of course, what COVID has done is made sure that everyone is really used to doing that because 100% of the people have been doing that for the last four months. So, I think, seeing how my friends in the different industries are working, for an awful lot of industrial sectors, that’s not going back. Businesses that have huge financial pressures will see there’s a great opportunity to reduce their office costs and keep a work from home with a bit of in-office engagement. I don’t think that’s any different for us, for the civil service for other arts organisations. It is going to be the model of work for the future, however long that is we’ll see. But I think it’s going to change. And then of course, it will change where people live and a huge amount will change around that.

Jim Richardson:

And changes to the city. I mean, being in London the past 24 hours, it’s markedly quieter because everyone’s working from home and there’s far fewer people in the city centre.

Chris Michaels :

That’s right. I mean, it’s about 25% annual of the previous year’s figures now. I mean, that’s tiny. So of course, the structural economic effects of that are pretty severe. Central London is built on being super busy, the whole place is constructed itself around that. And some audiences won’t come back until there’s more offer on. International tourists say they won’t come back to London till there’s theatres open and theatre can’t open till they have an audience to play to, so again, this is a time with extraordinarily difficult balances. So how we navigate them, who knows? But whatever it is, it is very, very different from what it was before.

Jim Richardson:

And without those international tourists, you’re looking at more local audiences.

Chris Michaels :

Yeah. Yeah. So I mean, our audience, 2 million people from the UK, 4 million people from abroad. Our audience now, nobody from abroad, a few tourists, but not really any one of them being a considerable scale, so massive structural difference. Of course, tourism will start to come back in some form, but at that scale, who knows? And whom, from where, under what conditions, we don’t know any of that.

Jim Richardson:

And when.

Chris Michaels :

And when, of course.

Jim Richardson:

But obviously, the past few days more museums in central London have start to reopen. So hopefully that starts to create more of a reason for people to come into town, that they can go to multiple places within a day.

Chris Michaels :

That’s right. So your next key moments become October half term, when schools break again and that roll into Christmas to see how that works. But it is a kind of fingers crossed time to wait for how this works out. And for us, participate as hard as possible in the marketing initiatives of London & Partners at the GLA, our local business improvement districts, to try and help get the message that these are great places to come to now. Now as ever, but now, particularly when there’s a kind of experience of the place and experience of the collection, it was kind of impossible in some ways, four or five months ago.

Jim Richardson:

Yeah. Well, it was fantastic to visit yesterday. Good to see the museum open again and thank you for your time today.

Chris Michaels :

Thank you.

 

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