Apps, Technology and Audience Engagement - An Interview with Jane Alexander of the Cleveland Museum of Art

In our latest installment of the AMT Lab podcast Jane Alexander, Chief Digital Information Officer at the Cleveland Museum of Art, sits down with Michaela Kizershot-White to discuss the ArtLens app, audience engagement, digital natives, and social sharing.

Audio Transcription

Michaela Kizershot-White: Hello AMT-Lab listeners. This is Michaela Kizershot-White, a contributor of the Arts Management and Technology Laboratory. This installment in the podcast series is an interview with Jane Alexander, Chief Digital Information Officer at the Cleveland Museum of Art. Today, I’m going to ask her about the ArtLens application at the Cleveland Museum of Art. Thanks Jane for taking the time to speak with me today. So, I’d like to start with what has been your most successful effort to encourage audiences to use the ArtLens App?

 Jane Alexander: Well, first of all, thank you so much for having me today. This is an honor and super fun. When we talk about the ArtLens App, it’s part of, sort of a suite of interactives in the ArtLens Gallery, and the ArtLens Gallery consists of the studio, the exhibition space that rotates with Master works and our collection wall, and then the app, and a big part of the app has been designed to connect with all the interactives automatically through our beacon technology so that when you are interacting with the games, especially this new iteration of the app and ArtLens Gallery, it’s really all about getting into the art, removing the barriers of technology and just really being given the tool sets to be able to look closer and understand art, based on many different ways people like to do this. So that, when we first started the app, we decided there were kind of three behavior types: they were the people who come once a year and they want to know what should I see, what order should I see them in, and like basically your audio guide kind of person. Then there are the people that wanted to walk around the galleries and when they see something they like, to be able to get information quickly, and then have that ‘if you like this, then you might like that’ kind of attitude. And then there are the people that like a type of art, be it Impressionist or American Art and they already know our collection and just want to, like, dive deeper.  And that is what we originally put the app together to do, but we have never stopped iterating on it and so what we really wanted is, we designed it for the on-site experience. We don’t want people walking around the museum having to hold a piece of technology. But we do want easily one thing that works really well, wherever you are in the museum, any public space that has art, when you push ‘Find Me’ it opens up that gallery and all the art work in there. That was just a quick way that a map could work without having to actually follow directions. And we had a lot of discussions on that, that following MapQuest to get to the museum is not fun. It’s when you’re in the museum, just going where emotionally what feels good for you or visually, or if you trying to look up a certain type of area, the app is set up to make sure you get there.

But, the other thing is ArtLens gallery was, the audience that we originally thought about is the non-traditional visitor. The person who thinks museums might not be for them. If they don’t have an art history degree, how do they, why would they come to the museum. If they have a family, it’s a lot of ‘don’t touch, don’t move’. And so, we really wanted to make something that brought in younger audiences. But, it wasn’t about, like a lot of apps will have a lot of content or a lot of videos, which are great, but a lot of younger people, which I call ‘digital natives’, that does not interest them in getting them into art. And since our mission at our museum is “for the benefit of all, forever”, our goal is really to say “this is our collection. This world collection is yours”. And so, we spent a lot of energy in how do we get people to feel comfortable and know how to look at the art. So, I can’t really talk about the app just by itself because it’s part of a bigger concept.

MKW: Ah, I see. Wonderful. Thanks. Thanks also for giving an overview of how this all works together. I’m wondering how this all has increased your audience’s ability to share with others, perhaps outside of the museum?

 JA: What is your definition of sharing?

 MKW: Share their experience with perhaps friends or family that aren’t actually in the museum with them.

 JA: So, I will say again, multiple ways we have set this up so that people, before they come, they can prepare for their visit, while they’re here, and after they leave, they can refer to information they like and share it with others. So, I’m going to give the example of one of the big things about ArtLens App is about personalizing your experience. So, before you come, you can look up by an area you might like, like Asian Art, American Art, European Art, Contemporary Art and you can see all the objects there. You can favorite them. There’s an area called “You”, and it goes into your “You”. You can decide to make all those objects into a tour. Or when you come here you can pick each object and again it will take you to exactly where that object is. That’s if you’re (inaudible) beforehand. A lot of teachers can create tours that they then share with all their students and/or certain objects and everybody can, from their app, get access to that tour because these tours are in the visitor tours and they’re named whatever the person decides to name it. But the other things is, when you come into the space, ArtLens Gallery, we’ve created these interactives and we have literally put the art in the forefront. In the original ArtLens Gallery, we had these kiosks that were 15 feet away from these groupings of art. And we realized these were fun, people interacted, they got to know about the art, but they really weren’t looking closer. So, we’ve flipped it so that you walk in you see an art object and then you see the art you’re looking at projected somewhere on the wall. As you go there, there’s no interface because we really wanted to, again, just to get into it. So, through just your base movements, you are able to look closer at that object and we’ll start a game. And the game will tell you about, you know, it will be a composition game. You’ll understand about geometric composition or multi-focus composition. It might be a symbols game, where you understand that there’s ways to decode an object based on the symbols in it. Or it might be about emotion and gesture and how that tells a lot of what’s going on in the art work. Or that, this is very popular, is that a lot of artwork has an original purpose and trying to understand what that original purpose is brings a lot more context to looking at the object.

So, any of these games, anywhere in the space, you’ve put your ArtLens App down, on this little stand, and it’s two things; one, you can just play the games and it’s right there in front of you so you don’t have to hold onto your phone. But the other thing is as you play these games, like for example when there’s an object and it ends up, it was an aardvark that you were looking at but you find out it’s actually with an African headdress, it puts it on you digitally. It then takes a photo of you and after you finish playing that game, you take your phone, if you go to your “You” section, that object is automatically saved to your “favorites” so that you can then look at the videos, go find that object in the galleries. Or any of the games that’s associated within the space, the content from those games are actually right there, so you can kind of review what you’ve just learned. The other cool thing is that there is no app that does this at all. I mean, already what I’ve described is sort of different from most apps, but the picture goes automatically to your camera roll. And we did that because we wanted you, you know a lot of times people want to take, we totally believe, they want to take the photos, they want to have the selfies, they want to you know, that’s part of experiencing the museum and all of that’s great. But we thought, wouldn’t it be great that you didn’t have to worry about it. That the best photo would be there on your camera roll and you could just really focus on the game and the art and really be in the moment. So, when you leave, and let’s say you leave ArtLens Gallery and you go have lunch before you even go to the next set of galleries, you can like review your, you’re looking at these objects with your family and friends, you can immediately share them to any platform. You can also then just go back to the artwork and in that case sort of notice that these are related objects, these are other things we can look at, here’s the gallery it’s in, and here’s what else is in the galleries. Or, you make your own. It’s part of a tour because you’ve played all these games, you want to go see all these objects. This tour is then shared, you know, with the app and anybody can see that tour. But also, every tour we have a beacon when you walk in, a digital signage that has “visitor generated content”. This is like super fun when I walk by it, because I’ll see how creative people have become making tours. Like there was one tour the other day called “Awkward Stage” and someone had made a tour of all these images of teenagers in paintings throughout the entire collection. Or there was, right, I guess during 2016, during the election it was like “Cofefe”, and it was then a tour of our little Russian boxes or something. Like so people like make you know sort of silly statements or, you know, make fun of what’s going on but it’s a way that they’re sharing their ideas of how they’re looking at the collection, which is much different than how curatorial or interpretation, or education looks at the collection. It’s from their context. And that’s our goal, is to be able to share these experiences easily and talk about them in ways that relate to what’s important to you in the world.

 MKW: That’s amazing. In regard to this audience share, I’m wondering if there’s an opportunity for different audience members to come in and they’ll see what audiences have put together through their own photographs that they’ve taken on their camera roll? Do the new audiences that are coming and viewing the collection of photographs that past audience members have taken, do they have the opportunity to engage in a dialogue with what they’re seeing?

 JA: No, not at this…so it’s sort of from all these different games, if you’ve come in, the sign will all of a sudden show everybody doing “make a pose” and it’s pretty live, it takes the last ten from every game. So, it doesn’t take things, we don’t like, keep archival information. It’s just sort of giving people an idea of like ‘this is going on and this is going on’. But in our studio play, you can create art using our art. We have three games and one is called Portrait Maker. And the Portrait Maker, you pick either an oil painting from our collection, or a water color, or a charcoal. And so, you actually look at the object in our collection and you say, “that one”. So, you pick this watercolor and it then gives you the palette and the brushstroke of the painting you’ve picked. It then takes a picture of you and it gives an outline. And so, if you color it in very carefully, it will give it exactly in the exact same mode. But what’s been really much more interesting is people have the outline and they’ve gone crazy being really creative in how they interpret themselves. All of those are saved to our website under “Studio Play” and you can see all these different portraits. And what’s amazing is you see five year olds, you see 80-year olds, you see, I mean you see 20-year olds and the big thing is, well that’s what we were trying to do, is get you know really more of the digital natives, people from 15 to 35 really to get into the museum and start understanding our art. So that’s one game. Another game is you could make collages.

Again, all those things are saved to this beacon when you walk in, but they’re also saved, in this space only, we save them to this Tumblr board which is, if you go to our website, under “ArtLens Gallery”, it’s one of the things you can click on and see what people have been making. We actually had a discussion the other day of how can we bring in all of the artwork, all of the things people are doing so that they can easily grab it and share it with people if they didn’t use their phone. So, we’re always trying to talk about how do we get people to have more conversations with each other.

To answer your question about dialogue, we did, there have been times where we’ve looked at the app and we thought, well wouldn’t it be interesting if other people are here, that you could add your own comments? We did some sort of beta testing of this and what we found is visitors aren’t really comfortable, it’s not really the platform for commenting on an artwork. You know, there’s a lot of social media platforms that people feel comfortable in, but they really are more looking for things that they can connect with in some way. So, we haven’t pursued that, but what we did do, and this is new and this is really interesting, is we’ve added the field “Fun Facts” to all our objects pages. Now, someone as a curator or interpretation person runs the “Fun Facts” it will go live to the app and they’re all now trying to fill those up but you can look at certain objects that already have the “Fun Facts” and it’s just another quick way in and that’s been very popular. They just want one little thing about this artwork that just makes them look closer. I mean I will say, a lot of the app is also just to get you into looking. So, if it’s about the composition game or the symbols game, it will show the triangle, showing you there’s the triangle in the painting. And so, what we do with our AR in that, you can like hold it up and the hot spots pop up and then it gives you another little tidbit about something to look at. So, you can do that from fifty feet away and then you can walk directly towards the artwork and just look at the artwork. Again, the phone is like a tool that you don’t need to have it, constantly looking at it. It’s when you see something you can just hold it up take it out of your pocket or whatever and hold it up, and off you go. Or if you kind of wandered around the museum you just push “Find Me” and then the gallery opens up and it will show you where you are in context for everything else, and what the name of the gallery is, and what are the artworks.

 MKW: So, there are so many, fun features in this app and I’m wondering what the data shows is your audience’s most favorite or most used feature?

 JA: That is a really good question and I’m going to have to send you that because we have just done another update in the last six months and I feel like the information I would give you would be based on what I remember. I haven’t looked at it recently.  I will say that they just finished this bigger evaluation and again, regarding the whole ArtLens Gallery space and a big white paper is coming out and the evaluation team is going to be presenting this at MCN that is really in-depth into how do you evaluate digital in museums. Which is really important to then getting the right information, so when people ask me what’s the most favorite feature, I can say that a lot of people use the map the most, but that’s because it’s an easy button they can just push. Our scanning feature has a lot more quality and dives you deeper into the artwork faster, so, is that a tool that people find more helpful into really getting them into looking. And so, we’re trying to understand how do we evaluate these things so that we really look at the information and then decide ok, what do we need to change or add or go from here and really make data driven decisions, not sort of based on what was the most used functionality. Does that make sense?

 MKW: Absolutely.

 JA: I will tell you from that report that we are excited to find out that people that visited ArtLens Gallery demonstrated greater gains in their self-reported level of art understanding and knowledge. Which, when we started this in 2013, that wasn’t the feedback we were initially getting. It really has developed into people who were less confident about, when they came into the museum abbot what they knew about art and how they would feel comfortable, ended up leaving with more understanding than those who said they were already comfortable to begin with. I mean, these are real tools to get you in to whatever aspect of art is important to you.

 MKW: So, people are learning a lot as they come and use this at your museum –

 JA: I just want to – I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt, but I just want to clarify the word “learn”. I just know that it has a lot of connotation and so, it’s very hard to evaluate learning. But people feeling comfortable and getting used to gathering more information and having the ability to sort of understand how to look at the artwork is what I’m saying. And just that people put, when they say ‘learn’, they put a lot of information in there. So, I just wanted to clarify, I’m not using the word ‘learn’ necessarily.

 MKW: Alright. So, people are gaining information about the artwork through this. I’m curious as to what you have learned about your audiences through this technology that you wouldn’t have learned had it not been available.

 JA: So, again, I don’t want to give too much away because there’s this big report that’s going to be presented at MCN and then there’s going to be a White Paper. But, one of the things is that they did in their study, they asked people before they used the app or went into the ArtLens Gallery to describe what they think of about the museum and what they think of when they think of digital. And the people that visited ArtLens Gallery, in general, their perception was, they used a lot more verbs. They were like “fun”, “engaging”, “social”. And that was interesting to me because that was sort of our goal, was to encourage engagement, and a lot of people think of museums as ‘no talking’ and just more serene, and all of that is still available and they use words like ‘beautiful’ and all that exists. But I was surprised that digital was encouraging engagement in such a way that people really were excited to go look at the artwork. I mean that was what we wanted to happen but I have to say I’m surprised that it’s working so well in that sense.

 MKW: As audiences enter the museum, what have you found to be the most successful way to communicate this technology to them? I know that you kind of pass it immediately when you come in the front doors, but I’m wondering what else you’ve done to help communicate this?

 JA: Well, I’m looking for ideas

 MKW: (laughter)

 JA: So, I’ll tell you it’s really hard to let people know there’s an app. And so, when you come in, ArtLens Gallery is to your left but also the Atrium is right forward and people can just walk right into the Atrium and pass that. We have a big sign in the Atrium that tells people that there’s an app. But I can’t tell you how many people on their way out walk through ArtLens Gallery and say, “oh, I wish I knew there was an app”! We have stickers throughout the galleries that say, “ArtLens” and then there’s a little sign that says there’s an app. But, I think for it to be super successful, and we’re trying as a museum to get there, but, it’s about really integrating it into. A lot of times people will come to the desk and say, “Can I have a map”? And I am trying to work with visitor services to say tell them we have an app first. It doesn’t mean they have to use the app. But our map, you open it up, it’s huge, it’s upside down, people still get lost. If there’s this app that you can download in 30 seconds and anywhere you are you push ‘Find Me’ and it will find you, like why wouldn’t you use that? I think a lot more people would take that if they saw how easy it is and that not only that it has all this other stuff. So, a lot of times, our app has so much information, it seems overwhelming so I’ve been working with communications, or with visitor services to focus on something for a while so people get that like “ok it’s a map”, “oh, ok, it saves your things”. But it’s also getting a culture to realize that technology is not taking away the credibility or the amazement of just the art, it’s just a tool. And so, we have to be ok with anything we’re doing to remember how do we put the digital component in announcing this. Cause, we can do a lot of work in things and if it’s not a part of the announcement we lose that moment to have people know that it’s there. But it’s really hard.

 Now with younger people they go into every space and they immediately look up that there is an app. I mean, I just know this from being with, I have older teenage daughters and if there’s something they just quickly look to see if there’s an app and to see if it would help or they’re trying to get more information, but it has to seem super easy. When we first launched ArtLens Gallery, it took like ten minutes to download the app in 2013. So, we have people who come back and I’ll say, “Oh you know, there’s an app”, and they’re like, “oh no that took up too much space”, or “it took too long”. And I’m like “I know. We redid it. It totally takes 30 seconds, it’s the size of Snapchat”. But you can lose people if they had one bad experience.

We’re constantly working on letting people know it exists and that it’s not what you think it is. It’s a very helpful tool. And that’s the other problem with sometimes doing things that are new that have never been done before, like that the app connects with the wall. That’s not something people will assume. So, we always have someone in the space, able to help you download your app if you’re having any trouble and give you a quick overview, at all the times the museum’s open. And they’re a technical person. It’s like having the guru Mac station, in that they know that the problems with an Android versus the problems with an IOS. They know if you’re on a different version what they need to do, and they can do it quickly. Oh, I will say, what we named it and how you tag it in the store is also important. I’ve seen people, they can’t find ArtLens, it doesn’t come up first. So, going back and figuring out how do we make sure if someone just writes ‘Cleveland Museum of Art’, they might not know the name of the thing is ArtLens. So, you have to make sure you can find these apps just by saying the name of the institution.

 MKW: So, this is going backward a little bit. You had mentioned that when audience members come in and engage using this app, there are photographs that are automatically saved to their camera roll. And, I’m wondering if you’ve observed an increase in social media sharing with this opportunity?

 JA: So, we always tell people hashtag ArtLens. But, I will tell you, from the very beginning when ArtLens Gallery was Gallery One and it opened we did all this work so that you can share every object, any interactive you played you could type in, back then you had to type in your email and it would be sent to you so you could share it, and on the whole, people don’t share art that way. The percentage was so low, I can’t even remember what it was. But then, people share themselves. That’s why, in all the games, it takes a photo of you creating the artwork or trying something on or you yourself become an abstract artwork. So, I don’t know if we’ve seen an increase in sharing it, but I know people really like that. We don’t follow them out with what are they doing with it, but I know it’s something that people really enjoy. And, I know even when I’ve given tours people write me, because I use my phone as the demonstrating phone, “can you send me those pictures, I really want them”. I don’t believe we’ve seen an increase, but I also don’t know how we monitor what are people sharing from our museum, so that’s a question for communications.

 MKW: Certainly. Well, it sounds like it would be fun to share a photograph of yourself with a headdress on (laughter).

 JA: Yeah. I’ve done it.

 (both laughing)

 MKW: And then, I have one last question and it goes back to what you were kind of describing when we first started chatting about the young people or digital natives and the three behaviors you’re trying to target. I’m just wondering if you have data that supports engagement with any particular group of people more than others? You had mentioned that you’ll find photographs of people that are five years old or eighty years old, so I’m wondering if it’s really kind of evenly distributed or there’s a certain age group that you are encouraging to engage with it even more.

 JA: That’s a great question. So, when we did the second iteration we really talked about audience and we made a radical change in how we designed the interactives in that we thought about the digital native. And in the first, we had really cool interactives but we were very concerned about that we wouldn’t lose our traditional visitor. And the thing is, we realized that people who have grown up with digital they learn how to use digi-, I mean my example is always Angry Birds. I mean, my daughter, when she was younger, didn’t have a phone and she would take my phone and she knew how to play Angry Birds. And I’m like “how’d you figure that out”? Because what they do is they just start. If it’s designed well, they start touching it, figure it out, and then they kind of say, “ok, I’m starting. Now I’m going to play it”. And so, we designed our digital, instead of really worrying, especially in Studio Play, we have this huge wall that you’re a life-size magnifying glass. Or, you can get the next image by sort of moving your body to reveal an entire artwork. So, when we finished that, when the space was first opening, which we were just very excited about it and it’s our most popular space now, we brought in the curators and the leadership team to see it because there was this big party the next day. They came in and they were like “I don’t..why..I don’t get it…what am I supposed to do”? And we were just, the whole design team and everyone who had worked on this was just like, everyone was watching everyone like “I don’t get it. Why would I be a magnifying glass? What is this doing”? And I saw the team’s face and they left and I ran…the space was all covered up with paper so you couldn’t see it…and I ran out and I just found a couple of families and I said, “Do you mind just coming in and just playing”? Oh my God, we could not get people out! It was like…the kids ran up! I have this video that I just took yesterday, I totally have to share it with you. I was laughing, and I actually sent it to our fellow, to our digital fellow, and I said I want to use this for a presentation at some time, because this kid is five years old! He was…it was like a commercial that he was using this. He was running around and all of a sudden, he stopped and he was just looking at the thing and he was just like mesmerized. Then, all of a sudden, he’s like “I want to see the next one”! He started moving again. Like, this five year old figured it, no problem. There was no “I don’t get what this is” and he was totally into the art!

And so, going back to answer your question, we really thought we need to build for people who use digital. So, what we’re finding is that who’s visiting ArtLens Gallery and using these tools is mostly younger audiences. And, by that it’s again that thirty and under. That’s what we were trying to get. The college student. We were trying to get the teens who don’t find digital that has just lots of text kind of informative stuff. They don’t use that stuff. And they don’t like audio; they find it isolating. So, you know how every exhibition we have always have these audio guides, which are super popular and our older, traditional audiences love, this audience doesn’t love that. So, we had to figure out ways to get them and engaged and really understand the way they do things.

 So, we also found though it wasn’t just young, it was audiences that were just motivated by the desire to have fun and be entertained. So, if you go in that space…I walked in and there was an eighty-year old woman and there was a six-year old doing that Zoom Wall, and I said, “oh is this your grandmother”, or something, and she’s like “oh no, we’ve never met” and they shook hands. The mom to that daughter was at the other activity with her son and I thought “oh my god, these two people were having the time of their life and they didn’t even know each other”. What we’ve done, a lot of the interactives are about that it appeals. Like, I still use our Line and Shape where you squiggle a line and it takes you into that detail. That’s our director’s favorite game, who is a PhD in Art History and the director of a major museum, but it’s also five-year olds’ favorite game. And that’s…when you can get caretakers to actually engage and it’s interesting to them, then people will come back. So, we also found that non-members are using it more than members and that’s good because our whole thing was to engage the non-traditional audience. Also, obviously people who are more positive attitudes towards tech in the museum; people who really want to be here to see the art, but they don’t think of tech as a distraction, they know it can be a tool. And also, people who visit our permanent galleries, especially if they’ve visited ArtLens Gallery first, those are the people using the technology.

 MKW: Thank you so much, Jane, for taking the time to speak with me today. I really appreciate your insights. This was fun to learn about what you have to say about ArtLens and the gallery.

 JA: Yes, and thank you for wanting to interview CMA. We’re really honored.