Our series featuring innovative art museums continues with The National Gallery of Art (NGA) in Washington, D.C. As you will read below, the NGA did a mashup of one of the oldest museum visitor practices—sketching works of art—with one of the newer tools in the educator’s toolbox: Twitter.

In this article, Deb Howes (who interviewed SFMOMA about their new website in her last post) speaks with the two great minds behind NGA’s Twitter Drawing Salons: Museum Educator Gwendolyn Fernandez and Social Media Manager Meagan Estep. Gwen starts with a history of the program, and Meagan explains how the social media infusion works and why the NGA is so enthusiastic about it. Look for the instructions on how you can participate at the end!

Gwen: About five years ago, the Education staff did some strategic thinking about how to better serve our adult audiences. A team of educators from across the division collaborated to create Drawing Salon, a program that would inspire visitors to slow down and encourage deep, thoughtful looking at objects in the galleries through sketching and conversation. This was also the first time the Gallery offered hands-on art making for adults. At first, this two-hour workshop was a “drop-in” program, but it became so popular that we had to start an online pre-registration process.

DH: Many art museums in the U.S. began as collections of plaster casts for art students to study and sketch. What makes NGA’s Drawing Salon different?

Gwen: The unique aspect of this program is that we model the interplay of art history and studio art in the design of the program. Each workshop is team taught by an educator and a practicing artist. They co-develop the lesson and collaboratively teach the workshops. We believe deeply in the dialogue this creates to help our audiences connect with the collection.

We also believe in the power of sketching to help us slow down, look carefully, and uncover the complexity within these works of art. Drawing Salon participants receive high quality artist drawing materials to use during the program and they are encouraged to explore and experiment with the process of drawing as seeing, rather than worry about creating a perfect replica. The teaching artist coaches participants in handling materials and technique as she would in a regular drawing studio class. The educator provides art historical context and helps lead discussion about the objects.

DH: So how does social media come into play?

Gwen: Drawing Salon quickly became an incredibly popular program. Registration fills fast—even when we moved to an online registration process, we still had nearly as many names on the waitlist (up to 1,000) as we could serve in a year. So I sat down with our digital outreach colleagues to think through using technology to extend the reach of Drawing Salon. We really wanted to extend the Drawing Salon experience to non-visitors—local as well as global—who might participate from beyond the museum walls. It was a natural partnership since social media had just moved into Education.

National Gallery of Art Drawing Salon

Meagan: We knew that live tweeting this in-gallery experience would help us scale up and broadcast Drawing Salon to a larger audience, especially as we could offer the content in digestible and intelligible pieces. We also already had a large following on Twitter, over 100,000 followers, and wouldn’t have to cultivate a new audience. But our main concern was—still is—moving past the idea of Twitter as a megaphone and instead using the platform to create meaningful, participatory conversations.

DH: Having good conversations on Twitter is so difficult! How do you manage it?

Meagan: We think live tweeting Drawing Salon has been a wonderful success. I judge this based on our ever-growing number of virtual participants who follow along each month and the type of participation we continue to see. Our followers ask questions about the works of art, share creative responses to our prompts, and we hope some are sketching along at home. We see a lot of “passive” participation, which just means followers are retweeting or liking our content. We also encourage our in-person participants to share their work with the same hashtag, so that there is a variety of information sent—not just from our side. We feel strongly that our Drawing Salon live tweets provide a satisfying educational experience independent of the in-gallery program. So our Twitter followers are engaging with a very rich array of carefully selected and produced content.

To get a feel for how we run a session, you can take a look at our Storify, where we archive each of the conversations. By reading through one, you’ll see the variety of ways we share content, from quotes drawn from the gallery conversations, to images of the preparatory drawings or X-rays of objects, to timelapse videos. In the galleries, we succeed at making visitors slow down and really look carefully at objects. Now we encourage our online visitors to do the same.

Gwen and Meagan with Michelangelo Pistoletto’s Donna che indica (Woman who points), conceived 1962, fabricated 1982, silkscreen print on polished stainless steel, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of the Collectors Committee
Gwen and Meagan with Michelangelo Pistoletto’s Donna che indica (Woman who points), conceived 1962, fabricated 1982, silkscreen print on polished stainless steel, National Gallery of Art, Washington, Gift of the Collectors Committee

DH: Any recommendations to other educators who might be inspired to follow suit?

Gwen: Even though Twitter content often assumes an informal voice and capitalizes on spur of the moment thinking, you have to prepare for live-tweeting well in advance of the actual event. With every Drawing Salon topic, our teachers develop a written lesson plan, which we condense and edit into a series of 50–60 tweets. Meagan has taught me so much about how to write for digital audiences and I help infuse our in-gallery teaching values into the content. Together we identify images, gather links to related content, and produce media (photos and videos). We want to make sure that the desired content is supported with the right mix of media.

Meagan: We queue up all the text and media elements that we want to share during the feed. The actual “flow” of the event is more like a live mix and we often change the order on the fly. I try to be as responsive as possible to what is happening in the galleries as well as how our online participants are reacting to the information. So sometimes we add content, sometimes we remove it. I monitor and evaluate the Gallery’s Twitter feed with an eye towards improvements. For example we know that Twitter messages with media attached get shared more readily than the ones with words alone, so we often focus on media production.

Gwen: Working with real artists who speak authoritatively about the materials and are experienced in coaching non-artists to try new techniques is an important aspect of this program. Most of our participants consider themselves creative types but do not necessarily have a drawing practice. For many, it has been a long time since they picked up a pencil or have been asked to sketch in this way. It is important to us that we focus on drawing as an exploratory process of seeing, thinking and reflecting, not a means to a product. At the same time, the visitors are always keen to see what the Gallery artists are making alongside them.

DH: Our Kadenze community includes artists, art historians, designers and other creative professionals who teach and learn about art online. Are there other great digital resources offered by the NGA?

Meagan: First, we hope you follow us on social media! The Gallery is on Twitter @ngadc and you can see our live tweets with #NGADrawingSalon. You can see all of the past live tweets via Storify, too. We’re also on Instagram, which is a great place to see works of art, behind-the-scenes photos, and visitor-sourced content. You can follow us @ngadc. Our Drawing Salon participants often share Instagrams of their work, so search the tag there, too, to see images: #NGADrawingSalon. Between Twitter and Instagram, you will know everything that is going on onsite and online at the NGA.

Also, check out NGA Images, a repository of digital images of the collections of the National Gallery of Art. On this website you can search, browse, share, and download images. More than 45,000 open access digital images up to 4000 pixels each are available free of charge for download and use. NGA Images is designed to facilitate learning, enrichment, enjoyment, and exploration. These images could be an important source of imagery for your teaching or your own practice. Our Division of Education also offers learning resources for educators. You can access dozens of lessons & activities and interactives on our website. And finally, we hope you will visit us in Washington, D.C.!

Gwendolyn Fernandez is museum educator at the National Gallery of Art and the coordinator for Drawing Salon and Writing Salon. She loves helping museum visitors of all ages, abilities, and backgrounds connect with their creative potential. Follow Gwen on Twitter and Instagram: @gwenlfern

Meagan Estep is the Social Media Manager at the National Gallery of Art. An experienced museum educator, Meagan believes deeply in the power of online tools to create conversation. Follow Meagan on Twitter and Instagram: @meaganestep

Blog author Deborah Howes is a Strategic Advisor for Kadenze and brings 30 years of teaching in art museums and creating digital experiences to this role. She consults for museums and universities and can be reached via Twitter @debhowes.