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Film: YouTube Play Biennial at the Guggenheim Museum

Nora Semel, Associate Director of External Affairs and Francesca Merlino, Marketing Manager of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum joined us for MuseumNext Edinburgh in 2011 to talk about ‘YouTube Play : A Biennial of creative video’.

Thanks so much for having us, we’re really glad to be here. I’m Nora Semel, the Associate Director of External Affairs at the Guggenheim Foundation. And I was also the project manager for YouTube Play.

And I’m Francesco Merlino, I’m the marketing manager at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, and I manage the digital communications for YouTube Play alongside with Nora. Together we are part of the At Guggenheim social media team through our communications department.

So we are actually just curious, how many people in the audience had heard of YouTube Play before this conference? Okay, so it’s pretty good. This is our first time speaking about the program outside the US, so we’re really happy to be here. We’re just going to sort of run through the project give you an overview, talk about the objectives, strategy, takeaways, and what we have next in store for the project.

I think it’s really important for you to know that we’re speaking from the communications perspective. I think there was so much to talk about in this project, our curators would have a lot more to add, but we’re going to talk about it mainly from communications.

Just to give a brief introduction, and then we’re going to show you a video. YouTube Play. A Biennial of Creative Video was a collaboration between the Guggenheim, YouTube, HP and Intel. And it was developed to discover and recognize the most exceptional talent working in creative video today.
Simply put, we just invited amateur and professional creators around the world to submit their videos online via a YouTube play channel we created especially for this project.

Video –
Andy Berndt: YouTube and Guggenhiem. They may not be two words that pop into your head at the exact same time, but they’re really about a lot of the same things.
Nancy Spector: At the Guggenheim we are always interested in how to reach the broadest possible audience. We don’t create a hierarchy here among mediums. We don’t have departments devoted to drawing or painting or sculpture. It’s a museum of modern and contemporary art but I would like to think that it’s always been a museum of the new.
Andy Berndt: One of the things we feel most deeply about with YouTube is access. That access we really want to bring to the world of excellence in the established art world. You don’t need particular means or a particular education or a particular background or a particular budget, everybody can play.
Nancy Spector: This collaboration with YouTube gives us a chance to explore digital media, bring it into the museum, see how it functions, see if it functions, and through the process learn more about the phenomenon. Because we’d like to believe that art is transformative.
Andy Berndt: Show us something that hasn’t been before. In the eyes of the Guggenheim or in the eyes of YouTube.
Nancy Spector: It doesn’t mean sampling and copying and pilfering are completely off-limits, but it has to be done in an incredibly creative self-conscious way.
Andy Berndt: Any video creator all around the world anywhere can nominate their work.
Nancy Spector: 200 leading videos will be selected for further attention by the panel of experts. The goal is t Andy Berndt: o select between 20-25 that will then be presented at the Guggenheim.
Andy Berndt: Maybe what’s in your head is the next thing, the world isn’t going to know unless you nominate it.
Nancy Spector: Artists should always be challenging the status quo, and that includes museums.
Andy Berndt: YouTube Play, it’s the first biannual
Nancy Spector: of creative video.

End of Video

Alright, so, we actually launched that video on this special YouTube channel we created specifically for the project. You can find it at We worked side-by-side with YouTube and our curators to developed and identify and structure for the site within the YouTube platform. This was news for us as we usually do our projects on our website, and have found a lot of value in doing that that way. But this was an experiment to go off our site and collaborate with YouTube. We created a very clean site, we decided to eliminate ads and tried to create viewing atmosphere that’s similar to one that one would have in a museum or a gallery.

Before we dive into the objectives, I just wanted to make a few notes that I think people may not know. While we are the Guggenheim, and there’s certain connotations with being the Guggenheim, our resources, like many of your institutions, are actually quite limited. We don’t have a New Media department, we don’t have a digital communications department. We don’t have special project budgets and we didn’t have a YouTube channel before we moved forward with this project. So in our eyes because we have somewhat limited resources, these collaborations with partners are really vital to us. We learn a lot from working with other organizations, other companies and we have a really wonderful working relationship to make these projects happen.

Moving forward, first objective, and probably the most important for our curators was the concept of moving the art form forward. Our curators were really excited to examine this platform in the moment. They felt that YouTube is so vital to our visual culture today and they were really looking forward to diving in and seeing what was going on. The Guggenheim as been collecting new media since 1991 in their collection. And this presented an opportunity for us to actually talk more about the art form with our audiences and move the conversation surrounding the medium forward.
So, access. Andy Berndt from YouTube, in that video talked about how important access is to YouTube, but it’s also a huge part of the Guggenheim’s mission, global access.

Historically, the Guggenheim has been a fairly traditional museum, and we’ve rarely invited users to bring their opinion to what we’re doing with exhibition programming. YouTube offered this opportunity to sort of break down these walls and experiment with new ways of reaching our global audiences. One of our goals, sort of what Rich was talking about earlier, was low barrier for entry. And this was something that was really important to us in reaching audiences around the world with multi-languages, so we made the process quite simple.

Showcase Talent. So another key objective was to really recognize the artists in this process, so we felt that this was a great vehicle for recognizing the artist, and a key goal for our curators after we selected the top artist for the project was to make sure that they were the focus and engage.
This is the core mission of the Guggenheim and our collaborators, so this project provided the opportunity for us to engage with our audiences on an already existing platform. As I mentioned before, it serves multi-languages and it has a much broader reach than our own website and our current social networks.

So as communication staff we were really thrilled with the opportunity to finally bring the museum to the medium, and bring our ideas to fruition that we had been lobbying for for years. A little bit of a background about how this project came to be. Our relationship with Google began two years prior during the Guggenheim’s 50th anniversary in 2009, where we engaged in a smaller scale but successful project that focused on architecture and design using a Google product called Sketch Up. And it was this relationship that brought forth the Meetings of the Minds in December 2009, that ended up creating YouTube Play.

I think it’s important for us to point out that this was never intended to be a development initiative. It had absolutely nothing to do with fundraising, and we initially reached out to Google to collaborate on communications initiatives and then it developed into much, much more as our curators and the rest of the Guggenheim staff got involved.

So, the project. As Nora mentioned, the project launched almost one year ago, last June. There was a six week period where we had an open call for submissions through the YouTube play channel. This was followed by a review and jury process where all of the submitted videos were reviewed by a curatorial team and a short-list was produced and featured on the play channel. Following that, on October 21 their top 25 videos were revealed, both again on the channel and at a live event that was hosted at the Guggenheim.

Diving a little bit deeper into the submission process and the details of what happened in each stage. The video submission criteria that was established by the Guggenheim curatorial team was posted on the Play channel and was publicized through our open call for participation. Artists could submit new or existing videos created within the last two years. Videos could not be any longer than ten minutes. Participants had to be over the edge of 18, or the age of majority in their country. Any form of creative video was welcome. So this could include animation, motion graphics, narrative, non-narrative, documentary, music videos or entirely new art forms that we didn’t even know of. Each artist was required to supply a written statement along with their submission, and really we were looking for works that debate, discuss, test, experiment with and elevate video in all kinds of ways. Like Nancy Spector said in the video, we weren’t searching for what’s now, but really what’s next.
So in just six weeks time, and much to our surprise, we received over 23,000 submissions to the First Biannual Create a Video, from 91 different countries. The submissions came in from a range of participants, from professions such as filmmakers, artists, teachers, photographers, musicians, and even a computer scientist.

By September our curatorial team had reviewed all the videos. And yes, they did watch all 23,000 videos over the course of the summer, and selected a short list of what they considered the top 125 videos, which again were presented on the YouTube Play channel. We had a renowned jury of experts that were appointed by our chief curator and Deputy Director Nancy Spector. The jury included artists such as Scotland’s own Douglas Gordon, the music group Animal Collective, filmmaker Darren Aronofsky, the graphic designer Stefan Sagmeister, among others.

And again, in October, the top 25 videos were unveiled on the channel, and in conjunction with the museum presentation and events, where the artists were recognized and celebrated.

So, here are the video artists that won. They were the top 25 videos. They were invited to New York to attend a celebration honoring their work. Many of the 25 videos were collaborations, so there are actually 39 video artists in total. They came from 14 different countries around the world. Australia, Brazil, Czech Republic, The Netherlands, South Korea, among a number of other places. Their work was presented in a gallery space in the towers in the Guggenheim. It opened the evening of the event for a private event, and then it was open to the public for three days.

You can see here that the videos were all projected on the walls, and each individual received their own listening device and they could go around and watch the videos at their leisure.

In the back of the gallery we also had touch screens for each video, where users could have a more immersive experience with their videos, read the artist statement and we also developed some sort of behind-the-scenes videos with the artist to talk about their process and the content of their video.
So the celebration sort of started with this projection on the exterior of the museum. We projected all 125 of the short-listed videos and then inside we unveiled the top videos – top 25. We had an event that acknowledged all the artists and their videos, and also had special performances, musical performances, dance performances that were connected to the videos in some form.

This is another sort of image from the event. One of the most important components was that we live stream the entire event on the YouTube Play channel and you can also go on now and watch the event in full, or various cuts from the event.

This project was beyond our wildest expectations. We really didn’t know the extent of what would happen, but by the time the project launched and then we had the event in October, we had had 10,000,000 views on the YouTube Play channel, and then when we woke up the next morning after the live event that number doubled and we had 20 million views.

It wasn’t anything we actually thought could possibly happen, it was a really surprising moment. And just a benchmark, the Guggenheim gets about five million visitors for the entire year on our own website. So we really reached a whole range of an audience that — we really didn’t expect this to happen.

One other thing we did was we worked closely with our networks and the Guggenheim in Bilbao also held their own event the following day just because of the time change, and invited two of the Spanish artists that were on the short list to come participate in their event there as well.

To talk a little bit about our strategy and takeaways. How did this project come together? What do these numbers even mean? And what did we learn?

Leverage your assets. So Nora in the beginning talked a little bit about our limitations at the Guggenheim as far as our resources go and how you can put this kind of thing together. So, again, highlighting the collaboration between the Guggenheim, YouTube and HP and Intel. Each collaborator brought their own unique resources to the table for the Guggenheim. It was our curatorial expertise. For YouTube, it was the platform. And HP and Intel, their technology, which helped display the videos in the various gallery spaces.

The three teams worked together to produce a collaborative PR strategy, that pulled us, the Guggenheim, out of our arts and culture box, and into the world of technology, entertainment and broadcast media. The combined result from all of our efforts was pervasive, global media coverage and actually, in four months, through the duration of the project, we received 180 million impressions through print and online, which is approximately three times the amount of press we might get for a normal museum exhibition in the same amount of time.

In conjunction with our objectives, to reach international audiences, as Nora had mentioned, it was important for us to have a multi-lingual channel, which was translated into 25 different languages. YouTube actually employed their own staff in their global offices to make this happen. The multi-language channel was also extended to facebook in an app that they developed and gave to each collaborator to imbed on their page where users didn’t have to leave facebook and they could interact with the shortlist and the Top 25 video content right there on the page.

YouTube’s Network. YouTube utilized remnant space on their network to support the project through each key phase as they could. Here, this is an example, as you can see on the top left of the screen, we were so lucky and surprised to be featured in the YouTube Youdle icon, which is YouTube’s version of the coveted Google doodle. It was displayed across, globally on October 21, and it was one of the main sources that ended up driving traffic to the channel when we unveiled the top videos.

Needing our platform to elevate the conversation about the project from a curatorial point of view and to also talk about the art form, we launched our first museum blog called The Take last July. The Take was about video, the internet, and everything in between. It featured frequent posts by our curators as well as experts and guest writers on topics including the history of video art, how museums and institutions approach video online and how artists were using YouTube. Again, the blog was managed by our curatorial department in conjunction with the communications and web departments. And this really became one of our key components in communicating the project. Not just talking about the project, but talking about the industry and again, how artists and institutions were using video and it was the content from the blog that we used on our social networks to really engage our audiences and drive conversation around the project.

So echoing what many other speakers have said so far, a holistic communication strategy is really vital to the success of your project, and it was to our project. Finding a way to bring your online initiatives onsite. We installed these touch screen computer kiosks in each Guggenheim network location, Berlin is just pictured here, but the kiosks featured both the Play channel and The Take blog so visitors to the museum would have the opportunity to engage with the project.

Online, of course, integrating the project into our website, Actually, in conjunction with this project we created a new section on our website called Interact, where we were able to aggregate all of those participatory initiatives that anyone could engage with the museum online.
Of course, social media. This is on the YouTube Play channel. We created a Twitter wall that aggregated the tweets using the hash tag YouTube Play, so while you were on the channel you could not only see what others were saying about the project, but you could also post directly there on your own.

And as Nora also mentioned the beginning, we did finally launch the Guggenheim’s own YouTube channel, which was a huge effort in getting rights for our videos, and we were able to integrate in the YouTube Play playlist by just sharing them through YouTube on the channel.

Building a network of advocates, which also seems to be a theme at the conference, and this of course starts with your own staff, and the project really taught us how to work interdepartmentally. We had to support a unified vision for the project and it really required every department to take part.
Our network museums. The project offered the opportunity to collaborate on global communications and audience engagement. I think it’s a common misperception that all of the Guggenheims work together all the time. This is actually not the case, and we very much do focus on our new local markets, but this project really offered a new opportunity to work with our colleagues at the other museums.

With regard to PR, each affiliate institution translated and distributed the press materials in their own market. And again, they also had the in-gallery kiosks and the various on-site programs.
Our Friends and Affliates program, which we developed, was one of the most critical elements to the project’s success. Art institutions, nonprofits, artist spaces, universities and film societies were all invited to be involved with the project, to help spread the word and encourage participation in their various networks in YouTube Play. We engaged with 38 different organisations from 14 countries and each organisation was supplied with monthly updates as well as a range of assets which they could put on their own websites, give out to their students. Even, for example, that Facebook app many of them embedded on their own Facebook pages. The friends and affiliates were invited to the October 21 event as well at the museum, and they were also listed permanently here on the YouTube Play channel, with a link and information about each organisation.

Guest blog writers, which we had about twenty of, I believe, mostly artists and authors and people in the field contributed more than just their words to the project. I think inviting guest writers to participate in the blog ended up being an extremely effective technique because again, we didn’t really have the staff to spend the time blogging or really, the museum resources and this ended up being incredibly successful because they also utilised their own networks to advocate for the project, sharing their writings and so forth.

The New York Tourism Authority and New York City and Company also embraced YouTube Play as part of their cultural tourism outreach. They employed their various communication channels to support the project, including their website, which is here. Which knew we were in the UK with our IP address and their newsletters, PR outreach and they even offered us for a small time video screens in Times Square to display video content from the project, which was amazing.

And something else new that we developed was a social media team. So on a weekly basis the social media representatives from the three parties, Guggenheim, YouTube, HP and Intel joined a conference call to discuss strategy for online audience engagement. And this really fostered sharing of information and encouraged cross-promotion in our efforts to reach one another’s audiences, and this is a strategy, the social media team, that we’ve now employed for other projects and exhibitions for the museum with various cross-promotion partners.

This screenshot here is an example of how YouTube, on their blog, repurposed content from our Take blog, which was a really great way to reach a new audience.
So expect the unexpected, We had a lot of things unfold over this proejc. When we went into it we really didn’t know what was going to happen and I think that was part of the exciting part and part of the scary part as well. So, as we mentioned, 23,000 submissions. Totally out of our imagination. We actually expected only about 6,000. And that was even YouTube’s thought process, so we were really excited about it.

The presentation, which we talked about, in the museum. The gallery was packed. The whole entire three days. There were even lines to get into the gallery. We were really surprised that people wanted to come view the videos in the museum when they were available for free on the website. But people loved this experience and we got amazing feedback.

The critics. Critics will be critics and the Guggenheim and YouTube are really easy brands to target, so we knew that there would be criticism about the project when we went into it, but the Guggenheim is also really used to taking risks, and this was a risk for us. We were exploring new territory. And the best thing we learned from this was that we just really found so much value in giving our audiences something to be opinionated about. And we have proven results of engagement, participation, and our whole thinking about talking with our audience and letting ourselves be criticized and discussed has really changed the way we move forward with the museum now.

Other things that happened we didn’t expect. We received emails and phone calls from various film festivals and schools and other museums that wanted to show the top videos. We had a whole flood of them. I showed a few here. And then we were also honoured with a number of awards. The Tribeca Film Festival Disruptive Innovation Award and we also received four Webbies.

But most importantly, one of the things that this brought was opportunities for the actual video artists. It really helped some of them propel their careers. Some of them had gallery shows. Others were written up in the media and other things continue to unfold with those artists, and they’re also in touch with our curators today.

Report and build support. Another theme of the conference, highlight the importance of analysing and reporting on your initiatives. And leveraging that data to foster future innovative projects and collaborations. The channel, this explosive growth, while it was more than anyone expected, what it really means for the museum and for us was that some internal skeptics finally realized the power of going to where the people are, and not expecting that they’re just going to show up on our website to participate in projects. And also the potential for driving future engagement and user-generated content of all kinds around our exhibitions, our education programs and our events.

For the Guggenheim’s own social media, this chart just visualizes the growth on our Twitter and Facebook, which really exploded over the months of YouTube Play and this, again, was a result of our multi-platform engagement and active discussion with the online community through the blog and through the channel.

Starting with the project we wanted to find a means to track this growth, and we began to create monthly social media metric reports, which we still do, and they’re distributed to key staff of the museum to both track our efforts and advocate for more support and resources in the area of digital media.

The Take Blog. Again, another statistic, it received 90,000 page views. And why this is important is, again, this was our first blog and, again, there was a lot of resistance at the museum to blogging at all, but it ended up rivalling our most successful exhibition, Microsites, like Kadinsky and Frank Lloyd Wright, and has truly become a new benchmark for success for future projected and exhibitions.

So, just to wrap up. What’s next? We are already starting to talk to YouTube about the next Play Biannual. We have spent months gathering information and sort of detailing out our lessons learned from the project. I think we have about a fifteen page document, which we circulated among many departments that worked on the project, so that next time we can take it even further. Since it was such a successful initiative.

Things we probably will expand on are the Friends and Affiliate program. This really helped us elevate the quality of video submission and also spreading this project through word of mouth towards the people that we really wanted involved. We’ll probably develop some educational programming surrounding the project. We’re also going to invest additional resources in our Take blog, try and develop it into a really wonderful site for people to access for this sort of information. We’re hoping to showcase the work in other ways, maybe not just in the museum. We are starting to brainstorm on that. We’ll definitely expand the exhibition length, three days was definitely not enough for the public, and most importantly, we want to focus on improving the depth of engagement with the individual videos and the artists, as that was really the primary goal at the end of the day.
I think that’s it. Thanks for inviting us here. We’re really glad to be here and if you want to email us, tweet us, whatever you call us, we’re happy to talk to you, and we’d really love any feedback you have as well. So, thanks

Nora Semel is the Associate Director of External Affairs at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation. Nora’s role within the institution is to develop and advise on near- and long-term strategic communications initiatives, manage special projects, and support the media relations efforts of the Foundation.

Francesca Merlino is Marketing Manager of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, responsible for developing strategic integrated marketing programs that leverage traditional, digital, and emerging media to support the museum’s vital operations, revenue-generating activities, and web-based initiatives.

‘YouTube Play : A Biennial of creative video’ was developed by YouTube and the Guggenheim Museum in collaboration with HP. It brought together innovative, original and surprising videos from around the world and exhibited them at the Guggenheim Museums in New York, Bilbao, Berlin and Venice in October 2010.

Filmed at the MuseumNext conference in Edinburgh. To stay informed about our International Museum Conferences follow MuseumNext on Twitter or like MuseumNext on Facebook.

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