Social work: the art world online

Novuyo Moyo

Compilation of screenshots from institutions responding to #blackouttuesday on Instagram (June 2, 2020).

January 28, 2021

The art world has been grappling with social media ever since its potential beyond the purposes of keeping in touch with loved ones first became apparent. Its platforms allow individuals to communicate with audiences without the mediating power of institutions, or to mobilize groups behind a cause with the aim of bringing about change in those institutions. The possibilities and pitfalls for cultural gatekeepers have been pronounced over the course of a year in which they have been forced to relocate online and engage with the audiences they find there. But has their new engagement with social media really widened the scope of who gets to speak about art and what is discussed, or done little more than reproduce the structures that limit offline access? And as discussions around access and diversity in the art world continue, how can social media activism be more than a retweet, a like, a share; how can it effect and sustain change in the long term?

In the summer of 2020, many institutions faltered as they attempted to respond to demands from online audiences to address the lack of diversity in their collections and appointments: a coordinated set of actions arising from the Black Lives Matter protests that followed the murder of George Floyd. But how to distinguish a sincere commitment to change from the panicked responses of galleries and museums still adjusting to the new mediascape and desperate to be seen to be doing the right thing? In order to track the long-term fulfillment of these swiftly made social media promises, arts worker Layemi Ikomi created a public spreadsheet (publicized widely through the social media channels of The White Pube, and shared further by their followers) that tracked the responses of UK galleries and museums, including an email template to use when asking institutions what more permanent structural changes they planned on implementing following the statements they had made online.

The spreadsheet continues to be updated and actions logged, yet still many institutions are noted as having not followed up on their statements. Now that the noise has died down, it strikes me that the slow momentum of change is matched by a lessening of attention among those who initially called for action online—a tendency social media is designed to encourage. It is easy to see the number of likes on posts and understand them to be indicative of support that will inevitably translate to action—but often they are just that, fleeting likes. Even a popular political movement, on social media, may prove no more enduring there than other trends that come and go, without support beyond the platform: we saw this in the wave of black square posts last summer, quickly replaced with the next trend, or a return to whatever aesthetic had been popular before. What is needed is a combination of a medium with extensive enough reach to raise awareness and a strategy that allows the initiative to unfold over a long period. An organization that has used social media effectively to this end is Decolonize This Place, a movement that has been critiquing colonialist ideology and methodology in art institutions since 2016, combining online presence with physical interventions.

When discussing ways that social media can be used to effect tangible, lasting structural change, I often think of curator Kimberly Drew, who began blogging on Tumblr in 2011. Her blog, Black Contemporary Art, set out to provide a comprehensive archive of information about the art and culture of the African diaspora, both as an educational tool and as a critique of the narrow scope of so many art institutions. Playing into the types of post that tended to gain traction on Tumblr, most of the blog entries were image-led, pithy, and easy to digest, frequently making use of the website’s reblog feature to circulate information as widely as possible. The introduction of ambiguous but menacing new rules around “unsafe” content on the website in 2019 ended the blog’s original form, though Drew continues the work in other digital spaces as well as offline. While it lasted, the site was a great way to discover new artists whom I might not have encountered otherwise: I imagine this was true for many others who kept the blog in their bookmarks. As one of the few social media platforms you could navigate like a webpage, it was easy to share information about upcoming exhibitions and talks, links to artists’ websites and other online communities, which Drew frequently did.

Other projects serve a similar educational purpose on YouTube, where audio-visual formats can be combined for maximum engagement. The channel The Art Assignment, which at the time of writing has 621,000 subscribers, posts 5–10 minute videos on subjects ranging from “The Case for Land Art” or “Art about Migration” to profiles of pop culture icons such as Kanye West. Art in Color, another channel with a smaller audience, is a much more discursive series, aimed at covering non-white artists. Yet it’s rare to find such channels on YouTube’s “Trending” section: all too often, social media companies use algorithms to deliver content to their audiences similar in type to what they already follow and engage with, which limits the discoverability of channels like these. Some companies have attempted to counter this trend—such as Vero, which differentiated itself by being ad- and algorithm-free—but the low number of users limited interest, and meant that there was no incentive for more people to join. Social media has the potential to democratize a traditionally exclusive and opaque field, but how much can you truly “discover” if you’re being fed more of the same?

Newcomer Clubhouse, an audio-based social media platform that was launched during the pandemic, revealed yet another barrier to access: that of a user’s social network. Currently, one can only sign up to the app via an invitation from a user who is already on the platform. Once in, you can visit rooms where discussions on various topics take place; these are run by self-appointed moderators who give speakers access to the floor. By following industry users on the platform, I’ve recently made a habit of dropping in on discussions around art. I’ve noticed a few faces that constantly pop up in the same rooms, leading me to reflect on the diversity of my own network.

At the beginning of the year, I stayed up late to join a talk in Simco’s Club—yes, run by collector Stefan Simchowitz—on Clubhouse, to see how and whether it fulfills its founder’s pledge to “cut through the crap and encourage an open conversation about culture.”1 The discussion began with a rundown of what was happening with institutions as they were preparing for a new year under pandemic conditions. We then moved into an awkward and slightly forced acknowledgment of the death of Dolal Idd in Minneapolis some weeks before, before everyone returned to talking about art again—hesitantly, after one person was told off by Simchowitz for attempting to change the subject too soon.

As the nearly two-hour discussion wore on, turning towards barriers to access in the art world, it dawned on me that it was nearly morning in London; as I was thinking this, a curator based in Mexico suggested that being located in the US was itself a privilege. As the curator described how the internet and social media are regulated across the world, I reflected that I was lucky to be able to access these platforms freely. But this privilege entails allowing someone else to feed me information based on data-led guesses that keep me in a feedback loop where all I see is the content I’m bound to like based on content I’ve already liked, which leads back to the same conversations and the duty-bound expression of the same rote sentiments. Breaking out would be difficult but transformative: the same is true for art institutions wishing to respond to questions over access and diversity, not with rushed reactions and cosmetic tweaks, but by commitment to the slow and painful processes that bring lasting change.


Social Media, Art Activism

Novuyo Moyo is assistant editor of e-flux Criticism.

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January 28, 2021

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