Episode 1: Karen Kelly of the North Carolina Museum of Art

Karen Kelly

When I first came across Circa, the blog of the North Carolina Museum of Art (NCMA), I could immediately tell that they recognized the amazing potential of the blog platform. With its weekly schedule, high-quality stories, rich media, and even its own name, Circa is far more than a museum…blog.

I spoke with Karen Kelly, the Senior Editor at NCMA. She has been managing NCMA’s blog since it was relaunched as Circa. We talked about the role of the museum’s blog, how she gets participation from a wide array of museum staff, and how she manages to keep it all organized and consistent.


Hi, and welcome to What’s On. I’m Nick Faber, Director of Content Strategy at Cuberis. My guest today is Karen Kelly, senior editor at the North Carolina Museum of Art. And we’re going to be talking about the museum’s blog.

In my job, I spend a lot of time looking at museum websites, and one pain point that I often find is the museum blog. I did an unscientific study for an article we wrote a few months ago, and out of 100 museum websites I looked at, only 51 had blogs. 8 of those hadn’t been updated in over a year. I could just imagine someone sitting at their desk, asking, “What should I write today?” And I guess if the answer is unclear, it’s easier to write nothing at all.

Which is a shame. Your museum is full of more stories than you can fit in your physical space, and a blog is the easiest solution for telling them online. But without any strategic focus or planning, the blog can become an afterthought.

When I first came across Circa, the blog of the North Carolina Museum of Art, or NCMA, I could immediately tell that they recognized the amazing potential of the blog platform. With its weekly schedule, high-quality stories, rich media, and even its own name, Circa is far more than a museum…blog.

I spoke with Karen Kelly of NCMA. She’s a writer and editor and has been managing NCMA’s blog since it was relaunched as Circa. She talked about the role of the museum’s blog, how she gets participation from a wide array of museum staff, and how she manages to keep it all organized and consistent.

First, I asked her about her position of Senior Editor at the museum.

KAREN: Well, as you say, I work as a writer and editor at the museum and I’m positioned at the nexus of several departments. Of course, marketing and publications, and interpretation and curatorial, and also membership and development. So, juggling a lot. If there’s a baseball analogy–which there isn’t–but if I had to come up with one it would be shortstop, third base coach, catcher, batboy, and groundskeeper. A lot of groundskeeping.

So how does the blog fit into that? I work with an associate editor–I have to–who is priceless. So what comes across an editor’s desk at a museum is anything from exhibition scripts to the humble business card. Beautifully designed catalogs to restaurant menus and anything that we produce that has text on it. So I collaborate with teams on creating content, and also refining content, and joining in on those conversations about how to communicate to the public in the most effective way.

The blog is a part of that, and also a part of our marketing scheme, but it’s very Janus-faced. It looks both at how can we create content that extends the mission of our exhibition, but also how do we draw people to our exhibitions, and I think a blog post can do both.

NICK: You mentioned helping to fulfill the mission of the exhibitions, how does that fit into the overall mission of the museum?

KAREN: So it’s part of our marketing campaign, but it’s integrated into our exhibition goals and our marketing goals. Our goals for our permanent collection, and our goals for getting folks to the museum, but also informing them and luring them to the museum. I don’t think we could sustain the blog if it weren’t integrated.

And it came about as the direct result, I’m frank to say, of a budget cut to our print budget. So we wanted to maintain–and a necessary cut–we wanted to maintain our connection to our membership, so we were publishing a bimonthly members’ magazine that then got reduced to a quarterly, and then to an annual. So we still produce an annual. So that’s where some of the magazine feel comes from. Also, we wanted to carry readers and members and visitors over to the digital experience a bit more. And digital offers so many more opportunities and enlivens the content that we lost in the magazine. So that was exciting to me.

So we launched it with new goals in mind, a title. I don’t that it’s a brand, really. I think of “brand” as a larger term for the museum as a whole. But I like the idea of a brand for it. I don’t know that it’s that focused, but it definitely has a status–we wanted it to have the status of our magazine. And I think that draws participation internally, as well.

The more we edit it, the more we make it look nice, folks are happy once they see their name. There’s a byline for our authors. There’s a headshot. So there are some particulars that help give Circa a little more status than when it was just our blog.

NICK: Yeah, I think “blog” is the worst word for online content, and then “content” is the second worst word.

KAREN: Right, “content.” Such marketing speak. We know what we mean!

NICK: Yeah, exactly, and then followed by “thought leadership”.

KAREN: Yes, right.

NICK: Who contributes to Circa, and how are assignments given, things like that?

KAREN: So in terms of who authors, it’s almost like All Things Considered. We take content and stories from the entire staff. So we’ve had a post from a security guard who wanted to write on a piece. So, all ideas are considered, and what it took on the outset was letting folks know that we were receiving ideas. “Pitch me something,” is basically how I treated it.

So that meant initially meeting with a couple of focus groups, and that was very productive, but I knew I couldn’t sustain that. It could almost become oppressive to bring the staff in on a monthly basis, at least in our midsized museum. We’re all wearing a lot of hats.

So that initially helped a great deal, but anyone can write for Circa. It’s important to have editorial filters there. It helps bring the writing up for less-experienced writers. We want to hear their stories as well, but we want to bring it place where the reader doesn’t stumble or get distracted over minor issues.

A lot of the stories are buried within departments, and once a department knows that we want to hear these stories, people stop me in the hallway. So it’s disciplined in the sense that I’m recruiting on a quarterly basis, but I meet individually–maybe it’s 15 minutes–I meet with someone over coffee and we generate a few ideas. And there are a couple of sources that now I have.

And now it’s running like a well-oiled machine almost. Folks are contacting me, and it’s very exciting. But we didn’t start out that way. I definitely had to recruit that and develop that feeling of, “I’d love to hear your ideas, but also how about this?” And that’s not to say that I don’t go and ask for stories.

But an editor, unlike, say, a web developer, is situated at a nice spot. I hear what gets put on the cutting-room floor, I know which stories we weren’t able to tell inside the gallery, and I think that’s very useful, not to put any more extra work on an editor’s plate out there. But it’s a unique position to be in, and helpful for generating content for the blog.

NICK: You mentioned that, with digital publication, you’re able to enliven the stories. And I’ve seen that. You use a lot of video and photographs and things, and so I’m just curious, and I think other museums who are trying to make similar kind of content would be curious, do you specifically produce those videos and photographs for Circa? Or do you kind of–to use a museum term–curate media that you have into a post that you have expertise on or are thinking about at the time?

KAREN: So, it’s a combination of sometimes we create a video expressly for Circa, as we did for our laser. Our conservation team has wonderful stories, and in concert with scientists at Duke University, they created a laser that is the first in the world to be used to conserve paintings. So, that seemed like an important piece to go into Circa, but also be a part of the museum’s evergreen archives of important stories that we always want to have available to folks. So it has an evergreen purpose as well.

So I hate the term “archive” because it feels dusty and old, but when we say that we’re going to keep something alive, we typically say that we want to make it archival.

And, as we know, a lot that gets created for social media is really ephemeral, and that’s too bad. I mean, a videographer and editor of video can tell you, “Oh, the work!” It’s a labor of love. But if we can house several short videos that are related–for instance, we interviewed a lot of models.

We had an ebony fashion fair exhibition last fall, and it turned out that several models lived in our area, who had been a part of that show. We invited them to the museum, our social media team grabbed great video and interviewed them briefly, but in a post in Circa, we were able to house those short, social clips in one space. And then publish a little bit longer interview with a model. And that’s just a nice souvenir as well. So it both promoted the show ahead of time and is also a kind of reminder of the show. So it’s dual-purpose.

NICK: Is that something you had planned to do? To recap it in a Circa post? When you have an event like that coming up, do you sort of plan before, during, after? Or is that something that just dawned on you, that, “Oh, actually there’s all this great media out there that I should be putting together”?

KAREN: In general, it’s a combination of both. In that case, I heard that we were doing that. So, keeping one’s eyes and ears open about what’s already in production. But now we cooperate to the extent that folks on my team know that I can use this for Circa.

I’m also approached. Curators just went to lunch yesterday and discovered a great story underlying one of the paintings we have in our collection, and I look forward to presenting that story. So that’s something that we are going to initiate, and something social can use. So it’s a back and forth.

NICK: So what advice would you give to other museums for sustaining a blog?

KAREN: Well, one very concrete tip that I could offer is that initially, I used Podio, or like a Basecamp, a place to house the ideas. First, it takes idea generation, and then also to track the progress of them. I know that’s an added amount of work, as well, to keep that up. But Podio, or having a place to house the ideas works. That’s also a platform where one can draw in staff members and make assignments if one would like to go in a very concrete, organized fashion. That’s very helpful, and using our Podio platform helped in the beginning.

Also, just creating a schedule around–because our exhibition schedule is well-established ahead of time, understanding that I’d like four features, maybe, per exhibition, or more. But establishing goals around our exhibition schedule, much like I did while managing the print publication for our magazine. So, I think establishing a schedule.

And then definitely getting buy-in from the staff. And we had a period where we went dark between our old blog and our new blog, and I recommend that as well. If the old blog is languishing anyway, let’s take advantage of that and build a bank of stories. So I’m never working on one blog post at a time. So if one can dedicate a certain amount of time per work to generating the content, then that’s very helpful. But it’s also very helpful to establish a bank and then move forward. A bank of four or five stories that are ready to roll.

During the sort of blackout period, we were revamping our entire website. So it worked well with that for various reasons, which I could go into in a minute. I just treated it like a print publication. So, several meetings to get the new brand, if you will, launched. And also getting a publication schedule and just meeting those goals. So, treating it like a print publication helped me a great deal.

NICK: And was that your background?

KAREN: Yes. So, I just used the tools that I have to organize and create print publications, and they served well. So, that thinking about the discipline of getting–the harder work is not so much the scheduling and the creating of the product because editors are doing that across the board, all over the museum. It really was about getting the participation. I think that folks who are in charge of the blog can relate to that.

But, I’ll also say curatorial interns, editorial inters, museums are full of interns who are looking for bylines, and this is great on their brag sheets. And they often have the time to dedicate and will go the extra mile to do an interview with a living artist.

It also just requires a lot of planning, but also the ability to improv. So, next week we have a visit from Mickalene Thomas, and I hope to sneak in on some of the media interviews and grab a couple of soundbites for Circa. So it’s a combination of a lot of planning, but also being able to think quickly.

NICK: And then what sort of technology do you need? In your content management system, does what you have now enable you to do everything that you want to be able to do?

KAREN: It’s a great question. Luckily, I was able to write up a vision statement for what I wanted the blog to be when we relaunched. So we had components, as you call them, or modules, built in that spoke to our needs. And I think that’s critical. I can’t embed video if there’s nowhere to embed it. And there are other pages on our website, where one can’t embed. Although, more and more it’s a very flexible platform.

And also, editors will appreciate this, but at every line inside a website, be it on a blog post or anywhere on a blog template, we need to be able to italicize, we need to have en dashes, we need special characters, not just in body copy but in every headline. So that’s what also gives it–visitors to museums are spoiled in the sense that they’ve seen a lot of high-end content, and high-end production, so why should the blog suddenly be like the neighborhood newsletter? “Ah, that fell off the cliff!” And that’s simply a matter of making those special characters available so that you can simply italicize the name of an exhibition and not look unprofessional.

Do our everyday visitors recognize that? I think they do. They might not be able to put a name to it, but it’s a kind of housekeeping. If there were trash strewn everywhere–now I’m really sounding like an editor–but if there’s trash strewn, you don’t know how it works, but you know the floor’s not clean. So you have a sense of that.

Just because it’s “free”, treating it as though it were an eight grand publication going out, I think just keeps the level of sharpness up and vitality.

NICK: That was Karen Kelly of the North Carolina Museum of Art.

I want to thank Karen for taking time to share with us, and I want to thank you for listening.

If you want to subscribe to future episodes of What’s On, or download our Ebook, The Art of Storytelling, head on over to Cuberis.com and click “What’s On”.

Until next time, I’m Nick Faber. What’s your story? And how will you tell it?