When the Goal is More Than Likes: Providing Arts Professionals With Essential Social Media Tools

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How the former longtime ARTnews editor became an Instagram influencer and social media consultant to the art world  

Robin Cembalest collects Instagram bloopers: the clueless, the tasteless, the tone deaf. Some are posted by interns. Others, by directors.

She urges museum clients to invite not only the marketing team, but staff from all departments to her social media workshops.

"Social media is here to stay," says the former ARTnews editor, who founded her consulting business, Robin Cembalest Editorial Strategies, in 2014. "Everyone needs to understand how these platforms work."

In the past five years, Cembalest has helped dozens of museums, nonprofits, galleries, organizations, fairs, and individuals to design and implement social media strategies.

Her distinctive approach to content marketing draws on her experience as executive editor of ARTnews, the world's most widely circulated art magazine, and her savvy as an influencer with a widely followed Instagram.

"Social media requires both editorial and marketing skills, but also different kinds of language, depending on context. It's a new way of communicating through words and pictures," she says. "Audiences today don't want to be sold to, or lectured, or told what to think. They expect originality, inventiveness, and brevity."

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The Goal Is More than Likes

As the latest addition to museums' communications tools, social media is often the least systematized.

"The most common mistake," Cembalest says, "is assuming that digital natives do not need training to do this job."

In her workshops, she helps the entire team to understand the benefits—and the risks--of speaking to a mass audience.

"My sessions mix content marketing, professional training, and editorial coaching," she says.

Cembalest shares tactics for promoting events and exhibitions, including creating a narrative that attracts coverage and buzz from journalists and other influencers.

She explains how to inject mission and message into each post; what means to have an institutional voice, sensitive to intersectionality and representational justice. How to handle critics and controversy. How to create content that helps organizations grow community and social capital, gain visibility, and connect with expanding networks.

"My goal is to give staff members at all career levels the skills they need to thrive in this social media-driven communications landscape," she says.

"Robin offered a great outside perspective on our social media strategy, planning, and execution," said Bethany Bentley, assistant director for marketing and communications at the National Museum of the American Indian. "I personally have gained confidence and vision for my social media feeds with her insight and guidance."

Cembalest adapts her custom workshops to fit the staff, resources, and mission of each institution. "Culturally specific museums, university museums, children's museums — they all have their own content needs," she says.

"Robin's teaching method is no-nonsense, direct and truthful," said Wendy Hower, director of engagement and marketing at Duke University's Nasher Museum of Art. "She showed us that Instagram is not just fun, it's a very effective way to communicate about art."

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Shepherding ARTnews into the Digital Era

How did Cembalest go from being an art journalist to being a social media influencer with 47K Instagram followers?

"People say, 'You totally transformed yourself,'" she laughs. "But it really was more of a pivot."

A native of Long Island, Cembalest became a journalist after studying art history and English at Yale and interning at three museums — the American Folk Art Museum, the Hirshhorn, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. "I realized that I wanted to be a foreign correspondent, not a graduate student," she said. 

After working at Artforum and a stint at a Madrid wire service, she returned to New York to begin writing for publications including the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the Village Voice, and El País. "From the beginning, I covered global art for an international audience," she says. "Using clear, accessible language that engaged the mainstream reader was essential."

The same was true at ARTnews, where she was executive editor from 1998-2014. As the news magazine of the art world, ARTnews covered museums with a wide focus. "We reported on everything from the board room to the gift shop, from the changing of the guards to changing approaches to restitution, audiences, archeology, education, architecture," Cembalest notes. In addition to shaping the magazine's coverage, she contributed major stories on museum trends, diversity, scholarship, censorship, and exhibitions to ARTnews and many other publications.

During her tenure as executive editor, Cembalest shepherded the century-old magazine into the digital era, launching its website and social media feeds.

She created and ran the magazine's paid intern program, training the team to manage content from concept to publication. "I have a finely honed sense of the anthropology of how words and pictures move around the office, as I like to put it," she says. 

At the same time, she became fascinated by the way content moved on digital platforms, free of the traditional costs and structures of publishing.

"I tracked how my posts were shared on Tumblr, how headlines fared on Twitter," Cembalest says. "I realized the power of social media to track news, reach wide audiences, and build a following on my own terms." After leaving ARTnews in 2014, she focused her energy on her Instagram.

"People always ask me if I bought my 47k followers," she says. "But I explain they're organically grown! I simply recalibrated my skills as a magazine editor to fit the new platforms."

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From Editor to Entrepreneur

"I call myself an 'editorial strategist' because I put all my editorial experience to use in my consulting business," says Cembalest, whose nonprofit clients include the Sugar Hill Children's Museum of Art & Storytelling, Ford Foundation Gallery, Madison Park Conservancy, Laundromat Project, and the Dedalus Foundation, in addition to art fairs, professional organizations, galleries, and art advisers.

For some clients she provides an overall social media strategy, then helps staff put it into action.

In content-crafting workshops, she trains institutions and individuals in best practices for writing about art for a mainstream audience — specifically, on social media platforms. "It's about maximizing the power of words and pictures to fulfill audiences' appetite for compelling original content," she says.

Sometimes it's content management systems — flowcharts and worksheets that outlast changes in staff. Sometimes it's using the camera phone and posting on Instagram Stories. 

At the Center for Curatorial Leadership, she consulted on a brand and website relaunch. "Her outside perspective not only invigorated the project at hand but also provided fresh ideas for how to enhance our social media channels and launch a vibrant news section on our site," said Hannah Howe, chief program officer at the time.

At the Bronx Museum's Artist in the Marketplace program, Cembalest offers classes on Social Media for Artists and The Art of the Elevator Pitch.

"Participants especially enjoyed Robin's playful interpersonal communication exercises that offered practical tips on building audiences and sustaining professional relationships, on and offline, through clear and impactful communication," said Mario Torres, who manages the program.

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The Art of Instagram

Some workshops unfold over weeks or months. Some, like Cembalest's "Art of Instagram" workshop, offered at museums, schools, residencies, and professional organizations, are one-night events.

 "Robin's Social Media for Artists Workshop was a crash course in the do's and don'ts of social media, and inspired our artists to think differently about their accounts," says Ariel Willmott, gallery director of New York's Fountain House Gallery. 

"Everyone was energized by her presentation and filled with joy from her wit and humor."