It’s Robby Sexton’s first public gallery talk at the museum and you would never know that he’s nervous, but he’s been anxiously preparing for this talk for some time now. He’s giving a social media highlights tour and it’s the first the museum’s ever done, so it could cover any facet of social media and art. He’s gone through various brainstorming sessions for how to approach it—whether it should cover the greatest hits of the museum or the surprising facts of the collection. He’s full of strange facts. He loves the research that comes with writing social media posts for the museum, and he doesn’t tend to stop the research until he lands on the bizarre, the unusual, the out of the ordinary.
But tonight it’s neither. Rather, he decides to approach the tour by questioning the role of social media: what is it we can do with platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter that we are unable to do in real life?
Robby has been the social media manager of the Art Institute for over five years now. He estimates he’s written and published 10,000 posts across the museum’s primary social media channels in that time. “Five years is like an eternity in social media,” he tells the group that gathers in Griffin Court for the tour. He’s seen the platforms grow and develop in all that time, and he remarks that the greatest change is its prevalence. “We sort of thought everything was going to be like Myspace and Friendster, that it was going to keep on dying out, but now it seems like Facebook is like your driver’s license in terms of social media.”
Museums are a unique presence on social media, offering the public the opportunity to learn about, engage with, and question the art inside the museum before they even set foot on the front steps. It’s like a first conversation, of sorts, that allows a viewer to voice their opinion outside of the gallery walls. It’s a give-and-take between the audience and the museum, and what audiences are ultimately drawn to and engage with is often what’s most familiar.
“I used to think it was about discovery,” Robby says a few days before the tour. “People would always say, ‘Show us more stuff we haven’t seen before!’ And now I’m firmly in the camp that it’s about identification; it’s typically the number one impetus for engagement. La Grande Jatte, I know what that painting is. I recognize it. On some level, I really identify with either loving that painting or knowing about that painting.”
The group heads up to the contemporary galleries and stands before Felix Gonzalez Torres’s “Untitled” (Portrait of Ross in L.A.), a gleaming pile of glossy candy wrappers that seems to illuminate the corner. Robby offers the art historical background of the piece, mentioning that he featured another of Torres’s works after the Orlando shootings in June. Torres’s art opens a channel for communication that is both deeply reflective and sincerely hopeful, allowing for a celebration of life in the face of difficulty, just the message Robby was hoping to impart after the tragedy. The group tentatively pushes forward to snag a piece of candy from the pile, the wrappers crackling as we walk through the ever-shifting contemporary galleries.
Robby mentions that the works that often have the most engagement on social media are the works that are most popular in the galleries themselves. “Visitors will tell us what they want to see by what they post,” he mentions as we stand before the 1st-century Roman sculpture, Statue of a Young Satyr Wearing a Theater Mask of Silenos. It’s an unusual piece, a sort of enigma on first glance and a humorous work on second glance. Robby mentions that, surprisingly, it became one of the most popular pieces for visitors to put on their own Instagram accounts.
Engagement with the collection also means engagement with Robby himself. There’s a person behind the accounts, and he does respond to many of the commenters, which, it turns out, is one of his favorite parts of the job. “I love talking one-on-one with people, especially when it’s about the art. It’s my favorite thing in the world. I do like it most when people say, ‘I saw this one artwork in the galleries. It was black and white with green bowties all over it.’ That’s all they knew, don’t remember where they saw it or anything else. So I have to go up to the galleries and hunt these things down.”
Between artworks, as we glide through the Impressionism galleries—we’re walking throughout the entire museum, which only further impresses the breadth of the collection—Robby starts talking with some of the visitors in the group, animated, excited. Their curiosity grows with every piece, and some of Robby’s favorite little-known facts about the works come to light: how the three boys in Henri-Edmond Cross’s Beach at Cabasson could be the same boy, as a symbol of the passage of time.
Robby’s enthusiasm for the artwork comes naturally, from the collection itself. “I don’t have an art history background,” he says a few days before the tour, “so all my knowledge of art really comes from our collection.” This is perhaps why the Art Institute’s social media channels offer that level of accessibility that allows both knowledgeable and casual viewers alike to enjoy Robby’s posts equally. Social media opens up that gateway to interpretation. It allows viewers to come to their own conclusions and voice their own opinions. And then, hopefully, come to the museum themselves and see the work in person. “What you bring to it is the value of it. If you don’t get anything out of a painted stick in the corner, then you don’t get anything out of it. But for some people, they will. The power is as much in you the viewer as it is in the person who made it.”
In this way, too, social media lowers the intimidation boundary of museums. “It does democratize art, in a way, and people can respond to it in very effective ways. If someone wants to say an exhibition is bogus, they can do that.
“We play off of the storied, rich tradition of the museum. You’re being quirky, you’re being fun but in a way it’s tacitly reinforcing our reputation. People would say, ‘Do you have any work by so-and-so?’ And we’d say, ‘Well, duh, we’ve been collected works by Edward Steichen for 78 years!’ Put an institutional fact in there but do it in a fun, slightly provocative way. And people get that. It’s sort of like I’m the mascot. But it doesn’t undermine the importance or prestige of the institution.”
We finish up the tour in the basement with the Andy Warhol polaroid portraits. It’s an apt finish. At one point, Robby took the various iterations of each of the portraits and turned them into GIFs to showcase the variety of Warhol polaroids in the collection in a different way from how they’re presented in the museum’s galleries. Social media has the ability to show an entirely different aspect of art, one that you otherwise couldn’t or wouldn’t see in real life. Small pieces, like the Chinese snuff boxes, can be showcased on the same scale as everything else. Everything, every detail, becomes significant when posted on social media. What you might otherwise pass by in the galleries is highlighted, presented on its own terms, and ready for your interpretation.