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Talking Tech-Savvy Community with Holly Knowlman at the Art Gallery of Ontario
James Fowler
January 23, 2012


                                                                                                                                                          Photo by David Pike

I first met Holly Knowlman, Internet and Social Media Content Coordinator at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, in September 2011 at a talk Cory Doctorow gave on freedom, creativity and copyright in the age of the Internet in the gallery's new Weston Family Learning Centre. Equipped with a funky silk scarf in her hair and a laptop in hand, Holly sat in the front row live blogging next to a few respected culture pundits. Holly and I grabbed some lunch shortly after to talk about the role social media and technology play in building a community. By the end of lunch I knew she had her finger on the pulse of some new and interesting developments and she was a beacon for other arts workers using social media. I asked Holly to share some of the things she's been up to at the AGO.

JF: What are some of the current initiatives at the AGO that involve the use of social media platforms?

HK: I'm a huge Twitter nerd. It's such a powerful (and fun) communications tool that I try and play there as much as I can. A few months ago we launched #ArtHour, which is a monthly Twitter chat about visual arts. It takes place on the second Thursday of each month and it gets more popular each time we do it. This month we trended second in Canada! We've got some great co-hosts lined up for this year, including technology event company FITC and New York art blog Hyperallergic.

We also have Tweetups on a regular basis. Earlier this month we invited 15 of our Twitter followers in to experience a life drawing class. It's a really effective way of introducing our programming to a vocal and passionate group of people. Another bonus for me is that it's great to meet people in person after I've spent time interacting with them online. I think it goes the other way too - people want to interact with people, not with a faceless, nameless institution. The personal touch goes a long way in building positive feelings towards your brand.

Every day we share a piece of art from our permanent collection on Tumblr. It's called (shocker) Art of the Day and it's a great way of introducing people to some of the amazing pieces we have in the Gallery. It's a great resource if you're looking for inspiration, and there's a strong focus on Canadian artists.

JF: How have these new initiatives been received by the staff at the AGO and what challenges has the AGO had to overcome either with the public or from within?

HK: Everyone in the Gallery has been fantastic. There are many different levels of interest, which is totally natural, but I don't think there's anyone who doesn't recognise the value in giving the AGO a really active online voice. This is especially true now that I've been here a few months (I started in July 2011) and we've had some really solid results. Hill & Knowlton did some research into Canada's 40 biggest non-profits and their social media activity and ranked us the second most influential - I was delighted!

One of the most important things you can do to get everyone in your institution on board with social media is to establish a solid framework for tracking your social media activity and report it regularly. That way people can see the positive impact that you're having on your organization in a really tangible way.

The challenges for me lie in embedding social media into the fabric of the Gallery and giving people the tools and the confidence to get online and talk about what they're doing. That's why I'm working on a social media policy (which will be more of an enabling document than a rigid set of guidelines). I want people to feel empowered, plus there's way more exciting stuff going on here than I would ever have time to talk about by myself!

JF: What other galleries and museum initiatives are the AGO looking to for inspiration for future integration of social media?

HK: I really enjoy watching what the Brooklyn Museum does. They're great at being early adopters and finding innovative uses for different platforms. They even have a membership aimed at social media users.

I love it when institutions surprise you and pull a real game-changer out of the bag – like when the Louvre announced they were going to be replacing their audio guides with the Nintendo 3DS. It's such a simple idea but it's brilliant – thinking about what kinds of technologies kids use already and then adapting that to create a really fun, engaging experience.

The Tate Modern's new game, Race Against Time, is ace too. You play a chameleon that has to race through time and stop the evil Dr. Greyscale from sucking all the colour out of the world.

JF: What technologies have the AGO investigated for use within the gallery?

HK: We've got free Wi-Fi throughout the building now. We know from the feedback we get that it's something people really appreciate. You can come into the Gallery or to the Weston Family Learning Centre to just sit and work on stuff, and something like that really makes a difference.

We also have several iPads in the building that we use for various projects, including visitor research. They're flexible, powerful and people love touching them so we're very interested in using them as an interactive tool for visitors. There's a great report by the Australian Museum on iPad use in museums that I'd recommend reading for anyone thinking of doing the same.

Smartphones aren't ubiquitous yet, but they've already got a huge (and rapidly increasing) share of the mobile market. So increasingly we're looking at ways of harnessing the technology that people already have in their pockets to enhance their visit, through apps, web content and social media activities like checking in on Foursquare.

JF: How is the AGO integrating social media content into the environment?

HK: This year you're going to be seeing some very cool stuff with live Twitter feed projections in the Gallery. For example, for IAIN BAXTER&: Works 1958 – 2011 we've got videos of the artist posing questions directly to the visitors and they can respond using the iPads provided or using their own Twitter accounts. The results will be displayed on the Gallery wall and on the website for everyone to see, and we're looking at interesting ways we can play with the data generated, too. We're going to be using a service called Twaterfall for our in-Gallery projections – it's a perfect tool for this kind of endeavour. Come see it for yourself on March 3!

JF: What social media trends are you seeing emerging on the museum and gallery landscape?

HK: One really big trend is in hiring patterns. Roles like mine didn't really exist a couple of years ago, whereas now community manager (or, Internet and Social Media Content Coordinator, as I'm known at the AGO) is a viable career choice. The industry is maturing – I feel like social media has grown up a lot recently. It's not the scrappy outsider kid anymore – it's an integral part of an overall communications strategy, not a bolt-on that you give to an intern just because they're younger than you and they have a Facebook account. People are much more willing now to hire and to invest in online and mobile strategies. Hurray!

As far as specific platforms go, I think the moodboardesque Pinterest and photo sharing app Instagram will continue to do really well. Also Canada gets its Spotify launch soon which I think you'll all enjoy very much. Facebook's whole frictionless sharing concept is going to be interesting one to watch. I know lots of people that were really turned off by it, but for brands it seems to make a ton of sense. I'm looking forward to seeing some case studies.

P.S. If you're looking for a way to use Instagram on your browser, try It allows you to find and follow people and search for images.

JF: What are some key motivators for the AGO to adopt new ways of using various social media platforms?

HK: It makes absolutely zero sense not to be using social media to connect with your visitors. It's expected now, and I think to be seen NOT to be doing anything would actually be very damaging. For me, it's nice to be able to experiment and prove that we're innovative. And it gives us a way of building deeper relationships with our visitors because we can be in conversation with them even when they're not physically here.

Facebook might be where we have our greatest number of fans, but it's not smart to put all your eggs in one basket.
As an institution we're incredibly engaged with the visual, so to me it's natural to want to explore the niche networks that put an emphasis on sharing visual content. Sites like Flickr and Tumblr might not be as big or as popular as Facebook, but the audience we find there are incredibly receptive to the kinds of content we can provide.

Ultimately we're futureproofing. The world that we live in is more social, more connected, more mobile than ever before. Things change so fast – platforms, devices, ideas – that you have to keep looking at new ways of doing things in order to stay relevant.

JF: What advice do you have for other arts workers who are currently integrating social media into their communications program?

HK: Don't just share your own content. Reach out to other cultural institutions, start conversations with them and share information that you think your audiences will enjoy. Make culture the conversation and everybody wins. If you think something is awesome, it's likely that your followers will too. The better your content, the more likely it is that people will share it. More sharing equals more exposure – more likes on Facebook, more followers on Twitter and ultimately more visitors to your organization.

Measure your successes and failures; keep track of what works well and what doesn't. Don't be afraid to let a platform go if you find that it's not working for you and try not to spread yourself too thinly (this is hard when there's so much interesting stuff out there.)

Re-purpose content as much as possible. If someone's shooting a video for displaying inside the gallery, see if it'll work on YouTube as well. The same blog post can be shared across different networks multiple times – by changing the delivery language and the time you post you can get more mileage out of what you've produced. Many cultural institutions have amazing archives – dive in and see what you can find.

And finally, remember to have fun with it. You're not a brain surgeon, so nobody dies if you make a mistake.

JF: What other tech related projects are you involved with outside of work that might be inspiring for you in the workplace?

HK: I volunteer at a couple of really cool events, FITC Toronto and Startup Weekend. In both cases it's really inspiring to be around super creative, smart, tech-savvy people. I always learn a lot. I'm also a regular at Social Media Cafe which is an amazing networking event, and a part of the Toronto Museums & Culture Online Collectiive, founded by Mark Farmer from the ROM.

Social Media week is coming up fast, too. This is a whole week of panels, talks and events dedicated to social media. It's an international event and in Toronto there's something like 100 events taking place. We're hosting a few here at the AGO that I highly recommend, but I'm also super excited to get out and about and see what everyone else is up to, especially on the agency side.

JF: Could you name a few sites you like to watch for social media trends?

HK: Mashable and Techcrunch are two big ones for social media news. has lots of in-depth information about how Facebook is evolving. Anil Dash is a must-read for me too. I also follow the #musetech hashtag on Twitter which is a great source of articles and use Google Reader to track specific keywords and phrases.

In addition to finding out about social media and new technology at the AGO, I asked Holly 10 rapidfire ART+TECH questions:


Favourite exhibition from 2011: At the AGO? Definitely General Idea. Otherwise I was stoked that I got to see Talk To Me at MoMA.

A future technology you are most excited about: Hover boards. Seriously though, I think we're going to start seeing some really interesting stuff with RFID technology this year.

An Artist using new technology you think is interesting: Any of the F.A.T. Lab crew, like Aram Bartholl and Evan Roth.

A tech gadget you would like as a gift: A Lytro camera

Given an unlimited budget, an art project would you like to initiate: I'm trying to build a giant social media bouncy castle for Nuit Blanche this year. So that, but BIGGER.

Favourite social media platform for personal use: I can only pick one? OK, Twitter.

A social media trend or behaviour you find irritating: Depressing Facebook status updates, they totally bum me out.

The first command you would give to a personal assistant robot: Rotate the planet so that it's summer all the time.

Coffee or Tea: Tea

Three things you love about your job: 1. The variety. Every day is different. 2. The art, especially contemporary art. 3. The cheese and ham croissants in CafeAGO are to die for.


You can follow Holly and the AGO on twitter: @HollyKnowlman  @agotoronto


James Fowler worked in public relations with organizations in various industries to achieve their communications goals and streamline their media messaging, monitoring and metrics. James currently maintains a fulltime studio practice in Toronto and has taken a keen interest in social media and eMarketing. He joined Akimbo last spring as Social Media Director.


LETS CONNECT! Please leave your comments and questions below - We'd love to hear form you! You can also join our coversations on Twitter and Facebook. If you know of someone who is using technology in a new and interesting way, think we might investigate a new trend or want to make a suggestion for a TweetChat topic, please write us at 







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