There’s a reason 19 million people have watched a video of Grumpy Cat, and arts organisations can learn a lot from it, says Oonagh Murphy.

Photo of a cat riding a unicorn

As a researcher working within the broad interdisciplinary field of arts management, my work looks at what makes arts organisations tick. I’m interested in the relationship between arts organisations and contemporary culture – for example, a question that has underpinned my research for a number of years is: What can arts organisations learn from the success of cat videos on the internet?

It might seem like a slightly unusual question for an academic to ask but, when more people have viewed a video of Grumpy Cat than have visited Tate Modern in the past four years, I would argue it provides a valuable insight into digital culture and leisure trends. 

Cat videos provide a really valuable reality check for arts organisations seeking to create engagement with visitors and patrons online, because they show that digital content need not be expensive to produce.

If every time you post something online for your arts organisation you asked yourself “is this ‘better’ than the last cat video that I watched?”, would it raise the standard of your digital content? I suspect the answer is yes.

When you realise you’re competing against cat videos and memes, it challenges you to create more interesting and engaging content. Getting someone to like and share, let alone buy a ticket or visit your organisation is no easy task, but cat videos demonstrate two key characteristics that arts organisations can aspire too.

Firstly, great content. Cats make great videos, but so too do arts organisations. It’s the candid, instant style of cat videos that appeals to today’s digitally savvy cultural consumer. While they may want refined performances when they pay for a ticket, it is the raw nature of rehearsals and exhibition installations that appeals online.

Secondly, successful cat videos aren’t hidden away on an institutional website, they live online, from Facebook to Snapchat. The internet isn’t just a publishing platform, it is a living, breathing constantly evolving space. Pressing publish is the start not the end of the digital journey.

Between working too much, recession, austerity, house prices, Brexit, terrorism and war, people are stressed out. When they go online they want to laugh, they want to smile and they want to share that experience with friends.

I run a workshop designed to help senior managers and decision makers understand a range of concepts from viral videos to memes and social media platforms. I send participants away with a poster to put above their desk – ‘Cats are your Competition’. It’s a tongue in cheek reality check. A reminder that, when you have your head buried in a funding application or an academic meeting about the curatorial vision of an exhibition, you must always come back to the expectations of your visitor.

Finding my voice within academia has been a long and challenging journey. But as an interdisciplinary researcher, developing a relevant and engaging tone has been key to developing a successful research portfolio. Having worked in the arts in everything from front of house to marketing roles, for festivals, art fairs and venues, I bring a lot of professional experience to academia. The language of arts managers on the coal face of a 10,000 person festival is different to that of academia, which often sits safely at a distance reflecting on practice with the benefit of hindsight.

I hope that my research helps to bring these two styles of research, management and practice closer together, so that while we as academics can learn from the cultural sector, so too can the cultural sector learn from our work in academia. I have no doubt that some of my colleagues’ think of me of as ‘the Facebook academic’ – but I’m ok with that. My tone might be contemporary, but my research is relevant.

Dr Oonagh Murphy is Associate Professor of Visual Arts Management and Curating at Richmond University, London. 
Tw @Oonaghtweets
www.oonaghmurphy.com

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Photo of Oonagh Murphy