In May of 2016, following a three-year expansion, The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) opened as America’s largest modern and contemporary art museum. With its newly expanded building, SFMOMA continues to raise the standard of art museum experience by deeply rethinking the visitor experience, both onsite and online. In this interview, Sarah Bailey Hogarty, Digital Producer for Web + Digital Platforms, and Stephanie Pau, Content Producer for Mobile Interpretive Media, tell us why visitors have become the focus of the museum’s media production efforts, and how you can now engage with SFMOMA’s collections and artists from anywhere in the world with their new art app.

KadenzeBlogPost_SarahStephanieSarah and Stephanie @ SFMOMA, Photo by Maggie Wallace

Deborah Howes (DH): First, congratulations on SFMOMA’s new building! I can’t wait to visit in October! Sarah, let’s talk about your goals for the digital visitor’s experience: How did you re-imagine attracting visitors who weren’t engaging with your physical building?

Sarah Bailey Hogarty (SBH): When we closed in 2013 there was a pretty significant drop off in web traffic to the areas pertaining to the museum’s physical site, like the “visit” and “buy tickets” pages. But we were pleasantly surprised to see that all the content heavy areas of the site, including the Artist Interviews videos and the ArtScope visual browsing tool, continued to attract web visitors. In fact, this traffic even increased a bit during construction. This confirmed that our audiences do actually use the SFMOMA website for a lot more than just planning their visit, and gave us a really interesting opportunity to explore and understand why exactly people come to the website.

DH: Wow, no one would ever close down a museum just to see if visitors still came to the website, but you made the best of the prolonged construction situation by turning it into this unusual market research opportunity. After all, as your blog post states: attracts more visitors every year than your physical building; it makes total sense to focus on the needs of that growing audience group.

SBH: Massive amounts of credit must go to the interpretive media team who spent decades building up our online interpretive content. For example, ArtScope started as a really cool experiment created in tandem with local design firm Stamen and it ended up in the top five most visited pages on our site throughout the closure. The interface is really alluring and it’s easy to see why visitors would get a kick out of using it to visually scan over 6,000 collection objects, especially when they couldn’t access the artworks in person at the museum.

Screen Shot 2016-07-08 at 12.25.32 PMSFMOMA’s Artscope

With this data in hand, along with the results of the research and discovery conducted in preparation for the relaunch of the new, we gained a very firm understanding of what our digital audiences want and need from SFMOMA: a robust, content-heavy website. During our research and discovery for the new site (led by Cibo), we did what’s called a “Triangle Exercise.” We drew a triangle on a white board with each corner labeled “Storytelling,” “Program,” and “Conversion.” We all then placed dots throughout the triangle representing what we thought should be the focus of the site. What we ended up with was a funnel-shaped diagram that basically put narrative and storytelling experiences at the wide top, funneling down to “conversion.” (Conversion here means transactions including museum attendancemembership purchases, and retail shopping.) In other words, our approach provides digital visitors with meaningful content that activates the art for our time, which ultimately leads to a deeper relationship between the visitor and the museum, resulting in that golden ticket (or membership).

DH: Stephanie, was your approach to developing the SFMOMA mobile art app different?

Stephanie Pau (SP): Yes. With all the thought that went into developing the new, content-rich website—that also works beautifully on any mobile web browser—we were freed up to make the art app be, first and foremost, a platform for delivering amazing stories and other narrative experiences while you were moving around the Museum. Fortunately, creating these immersive experiences was a long-time strength of our production partners, which included Detour, a local start-up with whom we partnered to develop the location-aware platform, as well as Antenna International. Being the worldwide entity that it is today, it might be easy to forget that Antenna actually began in 1980 as a performance art group known as Antenna Theater. We definitely wanted Antenna to revisit their roots as they helped us re-imagine the audio tour as a cinematic experience. Detour doesn’t only employ amazing developers, they also have world class audio storytellers with deep experience in radio and audio-based storytelling. And we partnered with independent producers and orgs like Third Coast International Audio Festival and Museum Hack. To me, the app’s location-awareness, combined with the rich sound design, combined with the varied personalities makes the Immersive Walks feel less like an audio guide and more like an interactive, site-specific form of theater.


SFMOMA mobile art app

The SFMOMA mobile art app currently offers two different modes of experience:

  1. The “Immersive Walks” are 15- to 45-minute journeys organized around original topics and guided by an interesting, surprisingly diverse group of people: sports figures, comedians, philosophers, futurists. We’re about to release a new walk featuring doc filmmaker Errol Morris, and we’re working with writer Eli Horowitz on a fictive walk of the museum. Art is by nature so interdisciplinary, but we often forget that. We want to prove that you don’t have to be amongst the initiated to have something interesting to say. The stories we tell help us engage with art on an emotional and universal level—they transcend art history.
  2. “Nearby Audio” or 1- to 2-minute audio stories that pop up around you as you traverse the museum. For both of these modes, the art app uses location-aware technologies to pinpoint the floor or gallery you are visiting and then delivers the right audio based on the art in your proximity. That is why you really have to be in the Museum to experience the full effect.

DH: Truth be told, I was able to trick the art app into playing back some of these Immersive Walks while in NYC, and since I was familiar with some of the art works and artists, it was still a thoroughly enjoyable immersive experience for me. I could imagine professors asking their students to create assignments inspired by these audio stories, or to prepare for museum visits using the app. Tell me more about the narrators you selected: they are such an interesting mix of people!

SP: One of our mantras while developing SFMOMA content is “Art is made by interesting people for interesting people.” So that gave us a liberal hand to select a wide range of personalities from all disciplines, each of them sharing distinct points of view and novel ways of engaging with the art. Like Avery Trufelman, a producer of the extraordinary design podcast 99% Invisible who guides you through seven floors of the new building, and into the surrounding neighborhood. Or Philippe Petit, the high-wire artist, who talks about the mental and physical extremes that artists go to in order to make their work. Comedians Martin Starr and Kumail Nanjiani, co-stars of the HBO show Silicon Valley, become avatars for head-scratching modern art museum visitors everywhere in a walk titled “I Don’t Get It”. The platform gives us a chance to work with an amazing cast of characters!

Typically audio guides are made in support of some larger program, like a blockbuster exhibition. We hope that these stories are destinations in and of themselves. We imagined the app to be an “in-pocket” experience, where your eyes stay focused on the art and other visuals and your senses are engaged with the environment, including the people around you. The art app’s location-aware technology sparks audio content automatically as you travel, without requiring you to interact with device. And you can sync up and listen with your friends, so it fosters a more social and multi-sensory experience than the normal “audio tour.”

DH: I am so impressed by how widely you thought about who visits SFMOMA and all the different kinds of stories might inspire them to learn more about the art. What role did artists play in your content designs?

SP: The artist interview program has been very active over the past two decades. We feel that documenting the voices of artists in our collection is part of our team’s mandate. We go to the artist studios and travel to different cities, even to different countries, to capture footage of the artist in their studios or wherever they are working. In the course of making the audio we also recorded many more hours of artist interviews. These recordings then become primary source materials for all sorts of Museum applications, including the app stories.

DH: And I bet artists everywhere love to watch those interviews: they inspire new thinking about their own work and are great for teaching purposes as well. I can’t believe there are over 200 artist interviews! Do you have any favorites to share?

SP: Yes!

We just launched a new YouTube channel: SFMOMA Shorts! Shorts are organized into series, like “Artists Cribs”, “Artists Heart…” and “Art is…”. “Art Is…Going to a Dark Place” is an example of the latter category and features An-My Lê, Richard Misrach, Naoya Hatakeyama and Robert Adams. It’s about focusing our attention on subjects that are often difficult for us to consider, or that we might otherwise choose to ignore. Higher Ed teachers and students will appreciate their explanation of how focusing their cameras or paintbrushes on disturbing things like fear, trauma, or war can lead to important discoveries.

Look for the short “Catherine Opie Loves San Francisco” talking about her exploration of SF as a young artist and the strong influence that a place can have on a creative person, as well as her personal exploration of the city’s gay culture. How these experiences influence her art really resonates with me. Our video partners 32K Productions collaborated beautifully on a look and vibe that supports our intended goals.

Some clips that are a few years old, but still memorable:

  1. Doris Salcedo, the Colombian artist who discusses the importance of memory in her work and calls attention to the disappeared people of Colombia;
  2. Henry Wessel, a local SF hero and Bay Area photographer who taught at SFAI for many years: he talks about taking pictures before your mind is telling you what to do, advice that might resonate in particular with photographers just starting out; and
  3. Ann Hamilton, talking about the inspiration behind a room-sized, site-specific installation called “Indigo Blue” that visualizes a hidden, brutal labor history in Charleston, SC. I guess you could say I like the interviews that deal with artists uncovering things that are forgotten or not visible to most people.

SBH: It is interesting to note that in shifting our web perspective to be more human-centric, we saw more opportunities to highlight artists—a key component of SFMOMA’s mission. One way that we did that was to create a main menu called “Artists and Artworks” instead of the more common term “collection.” We’re also working really hard to expand this area of the site to include artists whose work is not necessarily a part of our collection, such as the many performance and social-practice artists that SFMOMA commissions to create site-specific, temporal events that defy “collecting.” By creating artist pages that include biographies, videos of commissioned performances, links to past events, and related content, we can truly honor the museum’s relationships with these artists over time.

DH: That is great because Kadenze supports a community of visual and performing artists all around the world, who I am sure would appreciate knowing more about events happening in SF. Do you have any specific recommendations for educators and students looking for online resources on modern and contemporary art and art history?

SBH: In the fall we will be relaunching the Teacher Resources page on the SFMOMA website, which includes our Open Studio program. These are artist-designed projects or workshops that educators can integrate into their own curricula. Other resources include artwork-specific discussion questions created by our school and teachers department. In the coming months we’ll have specific curriculum units about teaching with photography and other useful tools for teachers from all subject areas, not only art educators. This section will also include the Artist Interviews, which have all been tagged (by a cohort of working teachers) with search terms aligned with the California curriculum requirements. In the fall, Bay area teachers will also be able to reserve free school tours (either guided or self-guided) or request SFMOMA’s adjunct educators to come into their classrooms for art-related lessons and art history experiences.

DH: Stephanie and Sarah, Thank you for sharing these insights about SFMOMA and for all the work that you have completed so successfully on behalf of your digital visitors like me and much of the Kadenze community. Our professors are continually searching for great online resources to include in their virtual classrooms and rest assured that SFMOMA’s Artist Interviews, Artscope and other art apps will be highly utilized by teachers and students alike.


Stephanie Pau (@17reasons) is SFMOMA’s Content Producer, Mobile Interpretive Media. Her work in museum interpretation, digital learning, and storytelling has taken her from San Francisco (California Academy of Sciences, 2001–2004; SFMOMA, 2001–2010) to New York (MoMA, 2010–2014) and back again. She worked as an archaeologist before entering the museum world.

Sarah Bailey Hogarty (@sbhogarty) is SFMOMA’s Digital Producer, Web + Digital Platforms. Over the past ten years, she has participated in nearly every aspect of museum production, from wall labels to social media to web development to video. After seven years at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Bailey Hogarty joined SFMOMA’s Content Strategy and Digital Engagement team in 2014.

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.