Interview with Daniel Incandela

“The blog is hard work”

February was Daniel Incandela’s last month at the IMA after five years. As Director of New Media (a position he held since 2007), Daniel was responsible for creating dynamic content from the IMA for YouTube, Flickr, Facebook, and iTunes among others. He developed the IMA Blog, made video production a key initiative, and in April of 2009 helped launched ArtBabble.org.

In this interview, conducted by email last week, Daniel speaks about the ambition behind the IMA Blog, the slow death of traditional media, the cost benefits of working online, and the need for institutions to allow members of its staff to be themselves.

I also directed a few questions at IMA Director and CEO Maxwell Anderson, which will form the second part of this look at the IMA’s attitude towards online media [to be published on Friday, 26 February].

ETB: In your personal blog, you recently looked back on your accomplishments at the IMA, writing about how “ground-breaking digital projects helped place the IMA on a global map.” I’m particularly interested in that statement and what it says about the role of new media at the IMA. Can you explain how the projects you realized fit into the institution’s overall vision?

DI: It starts at the top, and having the support and encouragement from Director and CEO Maxwell Anderson was instrumental in accomplishing what we did. Back in 2005 when the IMA reopened, staff knew that we had to consider new experiences for our visitors. Technology was a natural (and very new) choice in providing innovative, unusual and content-focused experiences. We slowly introduced technology projects like in-gallery installations, podcasts and videos, and it really was an educational experience for our institution as well as our visitors. We were all learning to embrace technology. And then Max arrived and helped pave the way…

ETB: Can you tell us about the structure at the IMA — who you reported to, the size of your team, and who your direct collaborators in other areas of the museum were.

DI: I reported directly to the CIO who oversaw New Media, a Software team, and IT. He reported to the CEO. There were four of us in new media: myself, a New Media Manager, and two producers who focused on editing and creating digital content. We were a very tight knit, creative team. I mention technology with a personality a lot and it’s mainly because I had such a good team.

ETB: What did your collaboration with offline (can we call it “old media”?) marketing and communication efforts look like — was this a close alignment?

DI: Traditional approaches to marketing are dying a slow death, so it made sense for New Media to work closely with Marketing. We’ve always enjoyed a good relationship with Marketing, so it really wasn’t a forced alignment — more of a natural evolution. Our success with technology has always hinged on great working relationships with departments (Marketing, Education, Curatorial…). There are also some economic factors involved — producing digital content in-house only requires staff time, so we helped save money by producing radio, TV and web ads — and a wonderful creative opportunity for New Media.

ETB: There are many aspects of what you accomplished during the last five years that are worth speaking about, but I want to focus primarily on the IMA Blog. You wrote that the blog “produces more digital content than any other IMA project, features the perspectives from a variety of departments including technology, education, curatorial and conservation, some pretty cool guest bloggers.” When did this start, how many regular staff contributors does it have, how many posts are published on average?

DI: The blog is hard work. We need the expertise of IMA staff, but writing for the blog is an additional job for everyone. I’m so thankful that people believed in it and contributed so much. We post 5 times a week throughout the year (although this is going to change) with a rotation of regular writers — some people come and go, take breaks, go through spurts, etc. We’ve tried to represent as many departments as possible. One day you might read about a conservation project. The next day you might here from someone in security. That’s pretty cool. You should also know that when we were visualizing the Blog in 2007 [the first post was published that August], we spent a lot of time looking at the Brooklyn Museum, the Walker Art Center, and the Powerhouse Museum for what to do right.

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

DI: Bloggers from the IMA web team publish their own posts. Other IMA staff route their posts through New Media to publish. We look at every post to double check things and we also wrote guidelines that everyone has access to. We’ve had very few problems, but it’s important for people to write in their own voice. Some posts we have ready to go….sitting there in case of an emergency, but mostly we get the posts the day of.

ETB: You also describe the blog as “one of the best out there.” I tend to agree, but am curious about your own criteria for success. What is the overall objective, and how do you measure its success?

DI: I think our blog is good because we copied a lot of really good blogs in constructing it — it’s not like we invented the blog. We also have a lot of freedom in publishing content, which is not something we take for granted. The blog has received a lot of great feedback and I constantly talk to other museums that are looking to copy our approach. The big thing is that our blog allows and encourages people to speak in their own voice. We’re not recycling press releases. I think our blog has been most successful in its global appeal and has been a great example of a successful technology project at the IMA (but in reality has very little to do with technology).

ETB: You mentioned elsewhere that one of your favorite blog posts is the one about user-generated Wikipedia entries on sculptures in collection [here]. Besides creating new and relevant content about the museum, this challenge seems like a good way to get a sense of who your readers are.

DI: I really like that particular post because the entire concept originated outside of New Media — it was a conservation project that used the blog. I’m really glad technology at the IMA has reached this point where the staff feels like it’s a tool they can utilize. My colleague Richard McCoy in Conservation developed the idea. He’s very savvy when it comes to technology, so he totally gets the potential.

We often challenge our readers in order to gauge their interest or willingness to participate. It’s got to be about two way communication.

ETB: Have you used any unusual ways to promote the blog?

DI: We hold a Bloggers Anonymous event several times a year: http://www.imamuseum.org/interact/bloggers-anonymous

ETB: The blog produces a lot of digital content — does this also find its way elsewhere? I’m thinking of other digital platforms, but also offline applications in the building or even outside the museum.

DI: We recently launched the new IMAmuseum.org and a lot of blog posts are now referenced throughout the site. For instance, if someone is looking at the artist Robert Irwin on our site, we will present them digital opportunities to learn more — this may be a related blog post, ArtBabble video, Flickr set and so on. We have kiosks in the Davis LAB for people to access the blog and all of our digital content.

ETB: The Davis LAB allows you to bring the online activities back into the museum. It has a great location in the building and feels very much at the heart of things. I like this visible, physical manifestation of new media, and the way it engages museum visitors. What were your main objectives with the Davis LAB, and have they been met?

DI: We wanted to give the physical visitors to the museum opportunities to discover our online world and digital content. In the Davis LAB, visitors can experience what we’re doing on the blog, ArtBabble, Flickr, Facebook, Twitter, exhibition websites and more.

We have to do a much better job of connecting with our local audience and this is one attempt. It’s been one year…we’re still assessing.

ETB: I like something you wrote in an IMA blog post [here] in early January: “I talk a lot about creating technology with a personality. This can only happen if there is a real personality behind the idea, the development, the implementation of our projects.” And you conclude by recognizing the trust such a large organization places in you and the team.

We see this personality come through very clearly in the IMA’s (as well as several other museums’) blog and Twitter posts. How much do you feel that the “personality” of the institution as a whole is shaped by the new media projects, and has this been difficult to align with the other activities of the museum?

DI: We were fortunate early on in our technology efforts to score some good victories with our work. This helped gain respect and trust internally for what we were trying to do. Having the support from the top is a major factor in what has happened at the IMA. Working for Max, I always felt empowered to express my creativity, take risks and really consider innovation. You combine that with the talents of colleagues and it’s a recipe for something meaningful.

In terms of personality and individuality, I feel like this is the future if museums expect to be successful in engaging visitors — online and in the galleries. Who wants an institutionalized experience? Not me. Let people be themselves.

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