What Arts Managers Can Learn From Pittsburgh’s Gulf Tower Project

On February 11-13, 2015, the Carnegie Museum of Art marketed their newest exhibition, Antoine Catala’s Distant Feel, in an innovative way: by transforming Pittsburgh’s Gulf Tower into a “mood ring”.  For three nights the tower displayed the average mood of the city as determined by Pittsburgh's Instagram activity. 

On March 21, Brad Stephenson, CMOA’s director of marketing, and David Newbury, lead developer on the project, joined forces with local technology community group Code and Supply to discuss the process behind the project.  After the community talk, AMT Lab Correspondent Jackie Shimshoni interviewed Stephenson and Newbury to learn what insights this project offered arts managers.

The talk can be seen in the video below:

Video Courtesy of Code and Supply

Project Background and Outcomes
The project began with the challenge of figuring out a way to relate Catala’s exhibition to a Pittsburgh audience.  Described as one of CMOA’s more challenging yet rewarding shows, Distant Feel questions the way that images evoke feelings—specifically, empathy—when viewed by strangers.  Stephenson quickly came up with the idea of using Pittsburgh’s Gulf Tower to do this.  From showing local weather to baseball scores, the Gulf Tower is already well known in the area for its use of responsive lighting.  Stephenson approached Newbury, who was already working with the museum and had become a go-to for in-house questions of ways to use technology to bolster art.  Together Stephenson and Newbury worked to develop and execute the project in just three weeks. The final project used an algorithm that analyzed responses to Instagram pictures taken in Pittsburgh, and consolidated the overall analysis to conduct a real-time "sentiment analysis".  The more positive the overall sentiment, the more green would light up the tower; the more negative, the more red.

Stephenson described the project as a tremendous success.  Audiences became deeply invested, starting their own pushes to promote positivity in the city and "turn the tower green".  Stephenson said, "from a marketing perspective, the project was incredibly successful.  We received a 60 percent lift to CMOA.org during the Gulf Tower Project period.  Most important to note: we spent $5000 to develop the website that connected to the tower, and we earned more than $300,000 in organic media impressions.  A stellar ROI." 

Image Source:  Engadget

Image Source: Engadget

Lessons for Arts Managers

As two individuals working successfully at the intersection of arts and technology, Stephenson and Newbury both feel that it is important for managers to not be intimidated by their perceived differences.  As Newbury states, "there's an enormous overlap in what they're both trying to do--but the language they use to talk about their problems is so different that they have a hard time collaborating."  They both had suggestions for ways of easing this perceived barrier.

Finding and relating to each other:  While they are called different things, technologists and artists have very similar social habits.  Newbury says, "the arts scene seems to revolve around social events--openings, events, parties.  The tech scene is the same way, though the events are quite different.  Technology meetups are the tech equivalent of gallery openings."  Newbury mentions that managers should be mindful of personal motivations when trying to make connections.  "At least as this cultural moment, a skilled programmer doesn't need money the way that arts professionals do.  There are always jobs available.  What's often hard to find are interesting problems, and enough autonomy to tackle them head on.  Treat them like artists."

Using technology to solve problems: One thing that Newbury noted is the importance of knowing how to speak to each other when trying to set up tech and art collaborations.  "The most important thing a manager can do is to understand and communicate exactly what they're trying to do [...] if you frame things like problems, you'll often get great results.  Technologists love to solve problems, and if you can describe the problem, they'll work tirelessly on the solution.  Too often managers come with technology suggestions or they've seen something shiny that they'd like to work with, and they think that's the correct solution [...] often though, both parties will be disappointed.  The technologist will adjust the goals of the project to fit the technology, when what you actually wanted was for them to adjust the technology to solve your problem!"

Thinking big and embracing the unknown: Stephenson had some final words when talking about how managers can integrate technology into their own marketing: "Start with an outline of the overall objectives.  Then think HUGE and work down from there.  I always like to start out with big ideas and whittle them down, rather than think, 'oh, I don't have any money for this project, so let's think on a small scale'.  Ultimately, though, tech should be a tool to help achieve your objectives--never a gimmick or there for the sake of having a tech aspect to your marketing."  

Newbury also suggests embracing the unknown: "The best description I've ever heard of technology is from Bran Ferren, the former president of R&D at Disney Imagineering: 'Technology is stuff that doesn't work yet."  [...] what 'can be done' is often unknown--for a project like this to be good, you're often doing things that haven't been done before. "

Used properly, technology has the ability to captivate and engage audiences in spectacular ways. Collaborating with technologists is ultimately not unlike collaborating with an artist. There needs to be both an exciting anchoring idea and a way to serve the desires of both parties. The Carnegie Museum of Art’s transformation of the Gulf Tower owes its success to Brad and David’s hard work and imagination, but also to their ability to clearly communicate with one another about how best to realize this project.