This Is Not Our First Rodeo
SFMOMA was one of the first museums in the world to recognize the potential of podcasts as a medium for engaging audiences. We began experimenting with podcasting in the summer of 2005, with two exhibition audio tours that were scripted, recorded, and produced entirely in-house on a shoestring budget. These early efforts mostly parroted the familiar audio guide format, but our NPR-loving staff, including lead series producer Stephanie Pau, realized that the medium had much more to offer.
Later that year we launched SFMOMA Artcasts, a magazine-style series that offered a diverse array of responses to the museum’s exhibitions and artworks, and included the voices of curators, artists, musicians, poets, visitors, and members of the wider public. SFMOMA Curator of Interpretation Peter Samis wrote that the series was “a movement from the museum out into the community, and from the community back into the museum.” That spirit of open dialogue, and the philosophy of including multiple voices, set the precedent for the future of SFMOMA’s ventures in podcasting.
A New Direction
In spring 2015 (before I joined SFMOMA’s Interpretive Media team) the museum was closed for renovation, and after a decade “on air,” the podcast was on hiatus, too. I remember at that time thinking, “I need to get into some good art/museum podcasts.” As someone whose love of radio is rivaled only by her love of art, it seemed crazy that I did not listen to a single art-themed podcast or radio program. So I tuned in to about a dozen of them in the span of a week, and was disheartened to discover that few reflected the experimental drive of the artists they covered. Some featured interviews, but many focused on detailed exhibition reviews. Viewing an exhibition is a worthwhile experience, but hearing a critic or other expert attempt to re-create that viewing experience in detail, without visuals, is not. Unfortunately, this approach is not at all uncommon in museum podcasts.
When I started working full time at SFMOMA, I began to imagine a radically different approach to museum podcasting. What about telling stories instead of simply providing information? Highlighting artists’ voices instead of art historians’ voices? Taking cues from episodic TV and viral podcasts, instead of gallery labels? I wanted to make a podcast by and for art lovers.