Part 1 Talking about the Virtual Pillow: Ella Baff, Executive and Artistic Director of Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival

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This interview with Ella Baff, Executive and Artistic Director of the Jacob’s Pillow Festival, took place on Friday, February 17th.  Ella Baff will be speaking at Carnegie Mellon University on Tuesday, February 28, 2012 as part of the Masters in Arts Management Speaker Series.

Andre Bouchard (AB):  To start off with I want to talk with you about the Virtual Pillow and its goals.

Ella Baff (EB):  Thinking back to the evolution of things, we started by having  conversations about the arts  and audience development, landing on the multidimensional mission and activity of the Pillow  both within the realm of our onsite work at the festival but also offsite and virtual delivery.

Jacob’s Pillow is a location that started as a farm in New England in the 1700s, a station on the Underground Railroad, then a pioneering center for dance.   I was thinking about where we are in the modern day and about the DNA of the institution. Of course technology was a big part of that question and the answer.  When we started   Virtual Pillow some viewed it as a technology project in isolation. Virtual Pillow is an umbrella that has now fully incorporated core parts of our mission and elements of our artistic and audience engagement programs.  Our Archives, for example, is something that we can share with the rest of the world.

AB:  You speak of opening Jacob’s Pillow to everyone and getting people to ‘come to dance’ in other interviews that you have given. How has Virtual Pillow been helping your organization towards this goal?

EB:  We were thinking of the many ways in which people receive information - from mega to little screens, and considering how to deliver content on screen.  For us Virtual Pillow is many things, and functions as an extension of the institution on site, transposed, but not of course intended – or could in any case – duplicate.   

So the question was about how to transpose the assets of the Pillow to onscreen and create a greater level of accessibility.   Virtual Pillow is now being used for educational purposes and as a scholarly resource.  It’s also being used by artists, writers, audience members, and people who are generally interested in dance or the arts. .  It’s an audience development vehicle for dance, and we can capture the results.   

In selecting content for Virtual Pillow, we reviewed our core competencies; what do we do and what do we do well?  One aspect of Virtual Pillow that was Pillow Talks, curated by our Director of Preservation, Norton Owen, which can be seen on the Pillow site, YouTube, fora.tv, for example. 

Another component of Virtual Pillow was born from wanting to create something that would be both educational and fun.  We created Jacob’s Pillow Dance Interactive.   On site during the Festival, we had a kiosk of video clips from our Archives with brief blurbs and exploratory links that I observed provided loads of learning and entertainment for people of all ages and familiarity with dance.  We translated this to Jacob’s Pillow Dance Interactive online. 

Pillow Interactive Kiosk, 2010; photo Christopher Duggan

AB:  Could we talk about the process of selecting a web design firm and the process with that firm?

EB:  Development was a team effort led by our General Manager, Connie Chin.  She got Jonathan Miller, formerly with AOL.com, and Michael Sagalyn, of IBM Insights, to be on our advisory committee, for example.   We are introduced to David Ferguson of ClearMetrics, who was key in vetting concepts, making decisions about design and the intersection of institutional goals, technology, and marketing.  We talked to a lot of people both inside and outside of our field who had varying degrees of experience with online content.  It was a year-long planning process.

And you know, apart from technical considerations, there are so many opinions about how to engage with people online. My advice is to throw a wide net in the tech, business, and not-for-profit worlds, consider what you do best, and have that translate into content.

AB:  I see that you got funding through the Doris Duke Foundation for Virtual Pillow. Could you talk to me about the process you had with them regarding this project?

EB:  What Doris Duke Foundation gave us a total blessing: planning money to sort our way through the weeds as well as to implement Virtual Pillow.  Doris Duke was devoted to the arts, and to receive money from her legacy meant a great deal to us.