The National Gallery of Jamaica blog went live one year ago, on October 17, 2009, with our first post in which we outlined our intention for it to “serve as a vehicle for gallery news and information on Jamaican art and artists.” Since then, we have published 75 posts, on individual artists, most of them Jamaican, and on various NGJ projects and programmes, and we have logged more than 41,000 views. Our record day, thus far, was September 22, 2010, when we had 556 views, and our current daily average stands at 260 views. We think that these statistics are not bad at all for an institution which was a novice to social media one year ago and the experience has certainly exceeded our expectations.
Shortly before we started blogging, we had also established a presence on Facebook, with a National Gallery of Jamaica Facebook group and page and membership of these two has been rising steadily and currently stands at 488 and 245, respectively. We use Facebook to publish NGJ news and other information, to circulate invitations, and to notify our members of new blog posts. More recently, we have also opened Vimeo and Twitter accounts. While the former is still underutilized, which we hope to change soon, the number of persons following on Twitter is increasing on a daily basis. Our Twitter posts also stream on our blog – we actively link all the social media we use – and are used to publish short “news flash” messages.
Using social media has provided us with very rewarding and effective way to communicate with existing and new audiences, which has illustrated the tremendous potential of such new resources, generally and in the Jamaican and Jamaican diasporal cultural sphere. It has helped us to reach young adults, who are the main users of social media. Although young adults, as a social group, most actively define the “here and now” of contemporary Jamaican culture, they were previously among our most neglected audiences and using social media allows us to reach out in new ways that are relevant and accessible to them. We are well aware of the limitations of social media: since they depend on access to the internet and to computers and other online communication devices, such as smart phones, their reach will always be socially limited. But, and we will leave it to others to substantiate this with the necessary facts and figures, we also realize that access to these resources is by no means limited to the middle and upper classes of Jamaica, especially among the “Dancehall Generation” which is remarkably technology-savvy. Using social media has also allowed us to reach out actively to groups outside of Jamaica, especially the Jamaican Diaspora, which is well represented among our Facebook members and blog readers and which obviously has a strong investment in Jamaican cultural affairs. In short, we cannot afford not to use these new communication tools, especially since communication has, historically, been one of the NGJ’s weakest points.
But let me get back to the specific subject of the blog. Our blog project was inspired by other arts and culture blogs that have in recent years emerged in the Caribbean region, such as the Antilles blog of the Caribbean Review of Books (CRB) , the Paramaribo SPAN blog on contemporary art and visual culture in Suriname, and Oneika Russell’s Art:Jamaica blog. Since we wanted our blog to be a useful resource to students, researchers and anyone with an interest in Jamaican and Caribbean art and culture, we were particularly interested in its potential to serve as an archive, of our activities as an institution and of Jamaican art. The majority of our posts, thus far, have been features on individual artists and the blog has acquired an additional function as an informal dictionary of Jamaican artists.
Since there is a clear demand for reference material on Jamaican art, it should not surprise that our features on artists have been among our most popular posts. Our article on John Dunkley has been the most popular artist’s feature thus far and is also our top post – a just tribute to one of the Caribbean’s greatest and most original artists. Other very popular articles have been those on Ebony G. Patterson, Mallica “Kapo” Reynolds, the art of the Jamaican Taino, Dawn Scott, and, generally, our series of 16 features on the Young Talent V (2010) exhibition.
While actual Gallery visitorship will always be the gold standard for our success as a cultural institution, blogging has taught us that our reach and impact cannot be defined by visitorship alone. At present, annual viewership of our blog is actually higher than visitorship to the Gallery and we do hope that one will feed the other. The WordPress blog engine provides us with fairly detailed statistics on what brings readers to our blog and this has taught us much about who our readers are and what they expect from us. In fact, we use the reports on search terms used to reach us as a guide to plan for future posts.
There have also been disappointments: one is that we had expected more reader comments. We have published a creditable 146 readers’ comments thus far but we had hoped for far more and we had also envisaged that the comments facility would have served more actively as a forum for dialogue and debate among our readers. We have observed a similar lack of response on other art-related blogs and wonder if it is that art is still deemed to be an intimidating and contentious subject, better left to the “experts.” We are now watching with interest the responses to the post on the Bogle monument controversy, in which we ask readers for their views on the subject and also offer an (anonymous) poll. The initial response was slow but voting is now picking up and we do hope that readers will be encouraged to participate in the debate about what is, after all, a matter of significant topical interest, especially given Jamaica’s history of controversies about public monuments. Your responses would provide us with valuable feedback which we can pass on to the Jamaica National Heritage Trust to assist with deciding on the future of this statue.
In terms of feedback, there has been one major and noteworthy exception: we have received intensive feedback to the obituaries we have published to those artists and cultural figures who passed away in recent months, Albert Huie, Rex Nettleford, Marlene Lewis-Weinberger, Seya Parboosingh and, most recently, Dawn Scott. The responses to these posts constitute moving tributes to the persons deceased and illustrate how social media are mediating the way in which we publicly grieve and remember in the 21st century.
On a more practical level, using social media has also been a learning process which is allowing us to find out how these things work and what can we do with them, all of this without having to depend on costly external service providers. In recent months, we have been exploring the technical capabilities of our WordPress blog engine and have started using slide shows, video inserts and polls, a process we will continue even more actively. Blogging has also helped us to acquire the skills to develop our website in-house and our new, entirely redesigned website will be launched before the end of 2010.
At the start of our second year of blogging, we have many plans. One is, of course, simply to continue blogging but the other is also to explore new ways to use this and the other social media even more effectively and to get the spirited reader feedback we crave, so that our blog can be the democratic forum we want it to be. So we ask you, our readers, not to be shy and to let us know how you feel about the NGJ and the artists, projects and programmes we publicize on our blog. In fact, we would love to hear how you feel about our blog project thus far and where you would like us to go with it in our second year.Veerle Poupeye Executive Director