The Museum of Modern Art is one of the most exciting and dynamic art museums in the world. This summer Sotheby's Institute of Art - New York welcomes Kim Mitchell, Chief Communications Officer at MoMA, as Summer Study Course Leader for Art World Marketing, PR and Communications. We spoke to Kim about the course, her career and what it is like to work at MoMA.
Where did it all begin for you? How did you develop a passion for art?
I have loved all forms of the arts from an early age. My mother was a strong influence with a passion for books, theater, film and music. My first exposure to art, and to museums as a way to experience art, was through a book of the great paintings of the National Gallery that sat in our living room for years: on the cover is the portrait by Fragonard of “A Young Girl Reading.” This painting fascinated me, and I longed to know more about it and how art was made. I attended art school in Philadelphia, and graduated from Tyler School of Art at Temple University with a BFA in photography. My dream was to be a globe-trotting photojournalist like Henri Cartier-Bresson telling visual stories.
Tell us about your career trajectory and how you came to lead the Art World Marketing, PR and Communications Summer Study course at the Institute in New York.
I first worked as an assistant to photographers in Philadelphia where I learned the importance of imagery in building brand identity. One early assignment was the Marlboro cigarette campaign, where I traveled in the West and learned a tremendous amount: shoot preparation, scouting locations, how to capture natural light, working with people (and horses!) and editing until that perfect shot is selected. This inspired me to go into advertising and I worked as an art director for the next 10 years or so. I met my husband in the business, and we co-founded a studio that did advertising, design and public relations. That led to my first museum job combining marketing and communications at the Parrish Art Museum in Southampton, New York, where all my interests came together—it was just so exciting to use the techniques of marketing in support of art and artists, and bring their stories to a wide audience. After a few years, I was burning to work in New York City, and one of my contacts recommended me to MoMA for a publicist position. Fast forward eighteen years, and here I am as Chief Communications Officer. That career trajectory wasn’t planned, one thing just led to the next, but the connecting thread has always been a passion for art, design and communications.
At MoMA, it is always a thrill to work with contemporary artists and see how marketing and public relations can help the public discover, or rediscover, their work.
You have an extensive career in communications and marketing in the art world. What have been your personal highlights so far?
At MoMA, it is always a thrill to work with contemporary artists and see how marketing and public relations can help the public discover, or rediscover, their work. Tim Burton created a television spot for us that was so good it was shown in the exhibition and acquired for the collection. Recommending a live web camera documenting the daily performance of Marina Abramovic in The Artist is Present was so successful it led to our extensive live streaming program that exists today. But the most personal was the participatory campaign called “I Went to MoMA and…” which invited our visitors to draw, write and recollect their experience at the museum. It was so simple in concept, just a blank card and a pencil, but it prompted more than 20,000 people from all over the world to submit vignettes about what inspired them at MoMA. The campaign lasted for two and half years, first in external communications, and ultimately, a digital lobby installation that invited visitors to scan and show their work on a wall at the Museum.
Describe your typical work day as Chief Communications Officer at The Museum of Modern Art, New York.
That is the joy of working in this field, there really is no typical day. It could include meeting with curators about an upcoming exhibition, planning a marketing and PR campaign, making presentations, reviewing key images and graphic identity, planning press events, setting up interviews and photo shoots, reading and compiling press coverage. But there are also days in which news inquiries require us to set everything aside: MoMA is often asked to comment on larger trends and news in the art world and the city, which we evaluate and participate in as appropriate, and we often announce news of acquisitions, donations, joint ventures, and personnel decisions. So it’s never the same.
What are the biggest challenges you and your team face in the marketing of The Museum of Modern Art, New York?
The art world is a competitive landscape, and over the past 10 years many new participants have become important players: new museums, galleries, art fairs and public art organizations. With a wider set of physical options and the ease of digital media, many people can enjoy art in depth without ever setting foot in a museum. So our job is to communicate ongoing relevance, to provide context and understanding around the art, so our audience can see the present and the past as part of an evolving continuum. The Museum’s mission is to engage a very wide and diverse audience to enjoy, understand, and use modern and contemporary art as inspiration in their own lives. So the mission hasn’t changed since our founding director Alfred Barr’s time, but the context surely has.
Social media is fully integral to all of our campaigns now and gives us the ability to tell multiple stories quickly, globally, and with visual emphasis.
How important is social media to your campaigns and how has its role changed over the years?
Social media is fully integral to all of our campaigns now and gives us the ability to tell multiple stories quickly, globally, and with visual emphasis. Our audiences on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter have all reached more than a million followers. We also post content on Tumblr and Periscope. 2015 was the first time social media was present physically in a MoMA exhibition: in the “ArquiMoMA” campaign, we invited Instagrammers and architectural historians all over South America to document important cultural buildings and sites. With the help of Instagram, more than 22,000 images from 11 countries were submitted and collected to create a rotating large-scale montage, providing a contemporary visual component to an historical exhibition that could be seen onsite and online.
What can students who take 4-week course 'Art World Marketing, PR and Communications' expect?
There will be field trips to MoMA and other key cultural organizations in the city, guest speakers, and a series of lively lectures and discussions using case studies that show how good marketing and public relations is integral to the success of arts organizations.
I will share my practical knowledge learned over the past 20 years on how to make it in the art world.
How does being an active professional in the art world as well as a Course Leader and lecturer benefit those who come to study at Sotheby’s Institute of Art on the Summer programs?
As the saying goes: “Experience is the best teacher.” I will share my practical knowledge learned over the past 20 years on how to make it in the art world, what skills and attitudes will mean the most to your future employers, and how to personally enjoy and benefit from the intellectual and creative stimulation that comes with working with artists.
What is the best thing about New York in the summer?
People come from all over the world to spend summer in New York City. The attitude is a bit looser and there are plenty of exhibitions, outdoor restaurants, rooftop bars, concerts, and music festivals. Being outside and enjoying art is a joy. I am surely biased, but the Sculpture Garden at The Museum of Modern Art is a perfect place to enjoy a glass of wine, with unsurpassed art and people-watching!
What advice would you have for someone starting out in their career in the international art world?
Read as widely as possible in all categories, as artists are always taking inspiration from many fields, be it technology, science, literature, history, politics, or other artists. Understand that all of the arts are interconnected, and the more you see/read/hear/experience, the more relationships you will see. Take in as much art as you can, both large museums and small, galleries and fairs, and when you do meet with artists, curators, and administrators, don’t be afraid to ask questions, and trust your instincts. You are the future.