Interview with Allison Agsten

“Creating a sense of access and community”

After working as a producer at CNN, Allison Agsten was the Director of Communications at LACMA for nearly five years until she joined the Hammer Museum as Curator of Public Engagement and Director of Visitor Services in March. At LACMA, she can be credited for many initiatives that directed the museum toward a greater engagement with its audiences online. One of my favorite examples is the Reading Room (which I discuss in this earlier post), and which hopefully will continue to grow in her absence. In this interview, conducted by email during her last days at LACMA, Allison speaks about how a strong editorial process is imperative to the success of LACMA’s blog Untitled, its role in connecting the museum with an online network of peer institutions, and her move from online to onsite.

ETB: Give us some context for your work at LACMA — what were the main aspects of your job as Director of Communications, who did you report to, what did your team look like?

AA: My job started out as a traditional media relations position and eventually evolved to become something much broader. I handled high-level institutional announcements, the day-to-day running of our department, and was heavily involved in social media. I reported to the Associate Vice President of Communications and we had two Communications Associates on our team. However, my work was highly collaborative and I often interfaced with others throughout the museum.

ETB: What was the most rewarding aspect of your work at LACMA?

AA: As a former journalist, working on the blog was my favorite part of the job. It was a great fusion of two things I really love — art and writing. In general, under Michael Govan’s visionary direction, the museum has become much more adventurous. As a result, I was able to work on some wonderful great projects from start to finish. The Reading Room is perhaps the one I am the most proud of. Michael had long been eager to put our publications online and I felt strongly that instead of publishing books one at a time every now and again, we should make a serious program out of it. Working together with the immensely talented editors in various departments of the museum, the Reading Room was born six months after conception.

ETB: I want to specifically focus on your work with LACMA’s blog, which is called Unframed. First off, can you tell me with whom the idea to launch a blog originated, and how long it took between that initial proposal and the first published post?

AA: I first pitched a blog in 2006 but we just weren’t ready to tackle it institutionally at that time. A few years passed and, in 2009, there was enough groundswell that we were able to make it happen. We created an editorial board consisting of Tom Drury, Brooke Fruchtman, Scott Tennent, and myself, and we launched that fall after a couple of months of careful planning.

ETB: There are several regular contributors to Unframed representing writers and editors, other staff from different LACMA departments, as well as guest writers. How are the contributors selected, and how frequently does this rotate or change?

AA: The four of us talk about who seems really tapped in or might have a totally different perspective from anyone on the current roster of contributors. For the most part, the core contributors have been the same from the start although a few new people have come on board as others have fallen away.

ETB: What is the editorial process for Unframed? How far in advance do you map potential content, who approves this plan and eventually reviews and has sign-off on what gets published?

AA: I think the editorial process is key to the success of Unframed. Brooke manages the contributors and the schedule and usually she has entries slotted a couple of weeks ahead. She also helps writers develop ideas early on. Scott and Tom edit final drafts of posts and get them up on Wordpress. I’ve been the primary writer. We meet weekly to discuss what’s ahead, new ideas, etc. Our team has final sign off on what goes up, which is key.

ETB: With what frequency do you aim to publish?

AA: Five days a week is our goal … sometimes that really feels like a lot of content!

ETB: Where did the idea for its name come from?

AA: The brilliant name came from Scott Tennent. The second he mentioned it, we all knew it was “the one.”

ETB: What was the main objective in launching the blog; did you have a specific audience in mind?

AA: We want to be the foremost web destination for the Los Angeles cultural community by presenting LACMA and the arts community at large from a more personal and informal perspective.

ETB: How does Unframed manage to present the arts community at large; do you have content completely unrelated to the museum?

AA: Definitely. Writers often address shows at other museums and art-related happenings around town. It would be hard to legitimately be part of a larger landscape if LACMA just talked about LACMA.

ETB: Has the blog succeeded in meeting this objective? Who was or is the competition in this area?

AA: When we launched the blog, there really wasn’t any local competition. We did look closely at the museum blogging masters outside of LA — the IMA [see a related interview here] and the Walker. Those institutions set the stage for the many museums that are blogging now and we all owe a huge debt to them.

ETB: Has the blog been an opportunity to establish new institutional relationships with other online publications or specific audience groups?

AA: Absolutely. LACMA was part of the initial launch group for the IMA’s very successful ArtBabble project and I think one reason we were approached is because we were part of the blogging sphere and had an evolved approach to content presentation. Same for the Brooklyn Museum’s Wikipedia Loves Art project. We got involved with that because I had the pleasure of getting to know their talented team via Unframed and other social media endeavors.

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ETB: In your work, you also focus a lot on media relations. Is there any direct overlap between the two activities? Do you find that certain posts generate media attention and lead to follow-up opportunities?

AA: Absolutely. I can’t tell you how many acquisition stories we’ve posted on the blog that have generated placements in the media. That’s definitely been an added bonus.

ETB: Did you ever use the blog specifically to introduce news about LACMA that maybe didn’t warrant a separate press release distribution?

AA: Yes — and acquisition releases, as mentioned above, are a prime example of that. With thousands of new works acquired each year, we’re not in a position to write a release for each one. The blog is a great venue to briefly and informally discuss new additions to the collection.

ETB: Being in Southern California, LACMA produces many printed materials and programs in Spanish. Since July 2009 LACMA is even active on Twitter in Spanish. Have you considered a similar initiative for Unframed by publishing bilingual entries?

AA: We’re always looking for new ways to create bilingual materials and we’re definitely making progress on that front. Our first (and so far only) Unframed entry in Spanish was regarding the new Twitter account.

ETB: One of my favorite posts was the juxtaposition of historic Lewis Baltz photographs against contemporary photos taken of the same locations by a LACMA staff member. The post ended with a challenge to readers to discover the actual location of two unidentified Baltz photos taken around LA. I thought this was a great idea to engage your local readership, and was surprised that there were only a few responses. Do you find it difficult to engage your readers, or do you find that certain posts/topics generate more comments?

AA: That was a good one! Yes, sometimes we’re surprised what generates comments and what doesn’t. My posts on my son and art always generate a lot of feedback, which surprises me. It seems so personal… like, who cares about this lady’s kid? But for some reason, those entries resonate. People also got really into the “Ask A Curator” series we did. There was an opportunity for our readers to have a voice with that initiative.

ETB: Unframed provides a real opportunity for establishing a specific voice, which gives LACMA that personal and informal character you mention. This voice is the result of the individual staff contributors, as well as the way in which media is produced — often very immediate, such as “Stephanie Barron on Billy Al Bengston” or the clip you filmed “In the Director’s Office”. Is there any concern about how this online voice is resolved with the overall institutional character?

AA: I think this side of LACMA — more casual but still intelligent — is just a part of the museum’s personality in total. The sensibility of the blog has really helped us set the tone for other endeavors, such as our Twitter and Facebook presence.

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ETB: Now you are at the Hammer Museum. The title of Visitor Services is fairly familiar, but tell us a little bit about “Curator of Public Engagement”. What are your primary objectives in this area?

AA: I hope that we’ll be able to create an entirely different kind of museum visitor experience, one that’s artist-driven and explores new ways of connecting with our patrons.

ETB: How do you address this work in a “curatorial” spirit?

AA: Artists play a huge role at the Hammer and my program is just another example of the way the museum privileges their insight and perspective. Through a grant from the James Irvine Foundation, we will have a series of artists in residence who specifically address public engagement. It’s a fresh way of considering many age-old issues that museums have struggled with over the years — such as approachability and stuffiness.

ETB: Will you focus on combining online engagement and how this relates to in-building visitor services?

AA: For the most part, I am leaving the online engagement role behind. The same principles I was focusing on with Unframed at LACMA — creating a sense of access and community — very much align with my goals at the Hammer. The big difference is that in my new position, I am really focused on the onsite experience. It’s a great new challenge that I couldn’t be more excited about.

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