Lens on arts & culture

Designing for human resilience in a digital-first world

9 min readJul 1, 2020

By Mark Jarecke, Managing Director, New York
For the previous entry in this series, see our
Lens on education.

A pivotal moment for cultural institutions

Museums and cultural institutions around the world are in crisis. Stay-at-home orders, social distancing, and the halting of global transportation and tourism as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic have caused a complete cessation of in-person attendance and visitation — a primary source of funding for many. In the US, the American Alliance of Museums estimated in March 2020 that museums are losing up to $33 million per day in revenue, with Network of European Museum Organisations in Europe reporting revenue losses of around 75% to 80%; and the sad reality is that some of our beloved institutions may not survive until things settle and the world is ready to reopen. As culturally engaged citizens and as an organization committed to this sector and the value its members bring to humanity, this is devastating.

But for those institutions who may now be finding themselves with resources to reallocate away from on-site exhibitions and their related costs, this is an unexpected opportunity to invest in becoming more resilient as an institution and more relevant to audiences, both digital and in-person. Doing so will require institutions to rethink the way they see themselves and their roles in their communities, to go back to their founding missions and reinterpret them for a digital-first and post-COVID-19 world — and ultimately to reimagine who they engage and how.

For a traditionally change-averse sector, this may seem daunting, if not impossible; but the reality is that, more likely than not, these changes have already been underway in some form or another, and may even be accelerating under the crisis.

What we’re finding is that the institutions most vulnerable to this crisis are those who lack a strong brand identity that’s independent of their physical space, a development strategy outside of physical attendance, and an extensible digital infrastructure. But this is a moment of transformation, and organizations have a unique opportunity to take a holistic inventory of their brand, funding, and digital strategies, to use this period as a catalyst for change, and set the stage to emerge from this pandemic stronger and more resilient.

At AREA 17 we’ve had the pleasure, privilege, and responsibility of supporting some major cultural institutions as they evolve their digital infrastructure to become more fully realized versions of themselves. With each — from the Art Institute of Chicago to the Getty, Opéra National de Paris, Harvard Art Museums, Fondation Louis Vuitton, and the Barnes Foundation — we’ve strived to make their digital infrastructures as resilient as they are expressive of their mission; and our work has helped to sustain continuity in how they serve those missions as well as their audiences through these disruptive times.

Establish your identity

Historically, museums have defined themselves by their physicality. Celebrity architects creating landmark buildings helped define both a specific institution as well as their city’s skyline. A museum or cultural center became part of the fabric of a community, with identities intertwining more and more over time. This codependent relationship bore out financially as well, as cultural institutions contributed to a city’s tourism industry: it is estimated that the MET alone contributed nearly $1 billion to New York City’s annual revenue from hotels, meals, and nightlife, thanks to the visitors it attracted. And so it was natural that the museum’s digital properties would primarily be focused on attracting visitors to the museum — the physical architecture was the museum, and the value of that institution was embedded within the physical environment itself.

But however iconic, a museum’s architecture is just one element of its identity.

From curatorial practices to research, educational programs to the gift shop, there’s much more to a museum experience than the building or campus. These elements are as critical to serving an institution’s mission as much as anything else, and they all work together to create a lasting impression of who that institution is and what they stand for. And while there may be no true substitute for experiencing the arts in person, many of these efforts certainly can and should live online and be offered to audiences around the world to enjoy, expanding the institution’s reach and helping spread its mission to new groups.

That’s not to say that a museum’s iconic architecture isn’t an asset — it absolutely is, and that should be reflected in its visual identity and digital ecosystem. For example, when designing Harvard Art Museum’s site, our team took inspiration from the airy, open entrances and imbued the site with a healthy dose of white space; similarly, Getty’s site uses the square as a motif, just as the Getty Center’s architecture and logo are based around the square. But this should be considered as part of the whole, one aspect that works in harmony alongside others to leave a lasting impression in the minds of its visitors and viewers, and give a concrete sense of the institution’s mission and how it contributes to society.

All of this comes together to create a continuity within the audience’s experience of the institution before, during, and after a visit — whether that visit is in-person or online.

Getty’s site uses the square as a motif, just as the Getty Center’s architecture and logo are based around the square.

Position your offerings for local and global audiences

Traditionally, institutions have used their websites primarily as tools for attracting and serving in-person visitors. Regardless of whether these visitors lived down the block or 5,000 miles away, they could only truly experience what the museum had to offer if they were visiting in-person. Now, however, with the lack of international and even domestic travel, museums must adopt different strategies for local and global audiences.

For local audiences, institutions should take this opportunity to reassert their role as cornerstones of their communities — after all, it’s most likely that local visitors will be the first ones to return once doors start opening again. Community-oriented events help place the museum’s mission within the context of its surroundings. Seeing a glimpse of the creators, curators, and employees behind the scenes can humanize and demystify an institution by underlining the fact that the people who work there are themselves locals; and telling the stories of the city can remind everyone of the vital role historians and curators play in preserving a city’s past and its unique flavor.

At the same time, foregrounding research, content, and events that focus on the permanent collection or past exhibitions can help reach international audiences who are looking to take virtual trips while stuck at home. Often under-appreciated, the permanent collection ties together the history and voice of the museum — it is not only an educational resource but a potential source of inspiration for art enthusiasts around the world.

Our redesign of the Barnes Foundation coincided with a revitalized mission to serve the local community. This vision is reflected in the centralized ‘What’s on” section of the website that elevates performances and events — many of which are free to attend — alongside exhibitions and the permanent collection. While the museum is closed, the Barnes team has used the platform to stay connected to the community through online performances, special programming, and an expanded class schedule.

On the other hand, a more recent collaboration with the Barnes to implement an expanded search tool makes their collection even more accessible to even wider audiences. Alongside a crowd-favorite visual browse tool, advanced search empowers global and local visitors alike to explore artwork by culture, category, artist, and more.

Diversify your fundraising

It is difficult to measure the intrinsic value museums bring to society. Nonetheless, a society without them would be less than. For most institutions, however, half of the annual income comes from donations, grants, and memberships. Museums have undoubtedly put these investments into advancing our society, and we are better for it.

But whether cash-heavy or not, relying on a narrow funding base can be dangerous to long-term sustainability. Building income sources outside of the physical space are imperative to mitigate risk and ensure the mission can prosper. MoMA, for example, leveraged their expertise and collection by creating classes to learn about contemporary art with Coursera; and, as noted above, the Barnes Foundation has taken a similar approach.

For the Opéra de Paris, we created “3e Scène,” an unprecedented digital stage that showcases exclusive artworks created by renowned artists. Open to the world, this new stage reinforces the initial public mission of the Opéra: to distribute and disseminate the art of the opera to all. In addition to attracting sponsors and partners, the increased audience engagement that results is a means to all the ends noted above and could unlock future opportunities for more exclusive or paid content.

At first glance this may seem almost like a redefinition of an institution’s role, from preservation and education to something closer to content creation or media brand; but much of this content already gets produced for exhibitions catalogues, education series, on-site events, and the like. The only real barrier is having an online space for them and a strategy for getting interested audiences engaged. Personal tours, workshops, and the popular social media strategy of user-generated image recreation are a few of the many ways museums are adapting to sustain engagement and diversify fundraising for the future.

Centralize all technology on the web

The need to be nimble has become ever-more important for institutions, and for many, this is not traditionally a strong point. As COVID-19 has forced us to step away from the physical structures we’ve long been accustomed to, inefficiencies in our status-quo become increasingly clear. This is not only apparent in the “real” world — we are now more than ever experiencing it digitally as well, with any amount of friction getting exaggerated and exacerbated. Many are learning the hard way that having multiple technologies doesn’t necessarily make you more efficient. It actually requires more maintenance internally and has an inherent risk of becoming out of sync. The answer is to base all technologies on the web, as this allows for one source to securely and efficiently hold and distribute information.

The complications that arise from having a local-based infrastructure cause inefficiencies in relaying content and offering services, and headaches for everyone involved in maintenance and upkeep. Designing and building this infrastructure to be based in the cloud allows information to be consistent, up-to-date, and always accessible.

As part of their mission to “collect, preserve, and interpret works of art… for the inspiration and education of the public,” the Art Institute of Chicago has been investing in producing digital content on their own permanent collection for several years now; and serving it to users in unique and interesting ways during their journey throughout the site was one of the primary focuses of our redesign. Consequently, their transition to a digital-first visiting experience in the first few weeks of the pandemic was relatively seamless — they’ve been able to leverage many of the storytelling tools we developed together and seeing a huge spike in online engagement as a result, ensuring that they’re able to continue fulfilling their mission even in extraordinary times. And even when they do reopen, visitors may prefer to access this content digitally from their own personal devices rather than from in-person kiosks or printed materials for safety reasons.

Another big effort when creating the Institute’s website was integrating the Twill CMS with a centralized Data Hub that their team was developing in parallel; having all of their data housed within a single source enables a much simplified workflow and makes interruptions like mandatory remote teams much easier to manage.

As everyone — including the team at AREA 17 — has learned how to function in this “new normal,” adaptation and resilience have become essential. Our efforts continue in building digital infrastructures that help our clients weather this storm and any others that may be gathering on the horizon. Museums and cultural institutions provide inspiration, connection, and community to a world hungry for these, and we’re dedicated to helping them create meaningful continuity and engagement with their audiences.




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