UA5: Can you tell us about your journey to becoming CDO? How did you perceive the Met before and after taking on the job?
SS: I’ve been here for almost 3 years. I was the first Chief Digital Officer at Columbia University where I was working on the future of education, and before that I’d been a professor at Columbia teaching at the journalism school and thinking about the future of journalism. And those are two obviously very big and important topics. The chance to come here and work on the future of culture and the arts was a chance for me to, kind of, put to work everything that I’d been thinking about and learning along the way.
They were looking for someone that was not from the art world for this job. And I was super qualified, because I didn’t know anything about art. So that’s how I ended up here.
I had grown up four blocks from the Met, and I had gone to school one block from the Met. I had a teacher who said “It’s criminal to live in New York and not come to the Met at least once a month.” Because we went to school even closer than most New Yorkers, she brought us here every week for lessons in history, science, math, and a little art. So that’s how I developed what I call a 30 year one-way love affair with the Met. Then one day, I got a call. Now, if someone you’ve loved for 30 years calls you, you have to at least take that call. And with your wife’s approval you can carry on, which is what I did and we did. It was really an opportunity to have an impact on one of the world’s great institutions.
One day I went online and found that teacher from 5th grade, who not only – true to her word – is a member of the Met, comes here on a regular basis, but also on her public school retirement pension has given 2 annuities to the Met. When I say it, I feel like tearing up because it’s so amazing that she did that. She taught me the importance of everything we do here.
UA5: What sort of experience are you trying to cultivate for your visitors? What do you hope for people to take away from their visit?
SS: Well, we want to build what I call a virtuous circle. Where people love what we do online and they want to connect with us online, and then at some point come in person. So, the online experience is so fantastic people want to come in person, the in-person experience is so fantastic that people want to give us their email, they want to follow up with us on social, they want to read our newsletters, etc. So that journey, that virtuous circle is what we have to do. That means we have to be really good in connecting with people all over the world, but the art is always at the heart of everything.
UA5: What do you think of the role of social media for a museum like the Met? What have you experimented with recently?
SS: We have only two people running social at the Met, which surprises folks because we’ve been so good at engaging with people. This year the Met Instagram account won its third straight Webby in the Arts and Culture category which is amazing.
We’re involved in a lot of big platforms. We’ve just recently begun to be more active on Weibo which is a big Chinese platform, and Wechat which is a bigger Chinese platform. We have to engage with folks on all these platforms, but there are some we’re not on yet. It surprises people – we’re not on Snapchat ourselves yet, and we’re not on Tumblr. For both of them, it’s a matter of bandwidth – what do we drop to join those?
So with Snapchat we developed a geofilter, and it’s been very effective for us to allow people to have conversations. The other thing we’ve done socially which is kind of interesting, is that every exhibition has a hashtag. Whenever people ask me, “You’ve been here 3 years, what’s your biggest achievement?” I say, “That’s my biggest achievement – a few characters worth”.
UA5: How can U.S. based brands penetrate Chinese social platforms like Weibo and Wechat?
SS: Everything on social has to reflect what’s happening in real life. If you’re not already engaged with China, then suddenly go on Wechat, that’s not going to change anything. But if you already have a great presence in China, with conversations going back and forth, then social amplifies that.
For the Met we’ve been collecting Chinese art for 100 years. A huge percentage of the Met collection is Asian art. Chinese visitors are already the number one source of in-person traffic at the Met. So what all of this does is helps us take it to the next level.
UA5: How do you feel about the adoption of new popular tech, like virtual or augmented reality and artificial intelligence in museums?
SS: We have a media lab where we’re working on the future of culture, and we had a digital open house recently where we had 500 people show up – big companies, individuals, grandparents – everybody showed up to see the energy and excitement around what we’re doing.
We’re working on multiple vr projects including a Google Tilt Brush with HTC Vive and Oculus. We just took our boss Tom Campbell out to Oculus headquarters last year. We are producing Facebook 360 videos. We’re doing augmented reality, virtual reality, and real reality, and that combination is going to make us continue to be relevant in everything we’re doing.
UA5: What have you learned recently from other museums in the US and around the world? How do you stay informed?
SS: I think it’s really exciting to see what SFMOMA is doing now, they’ve launched a new audio experience that’s worth checking out. And several other museums are doing interesting things. I think it’s a great collaborative industry and I love to see that. Our boss Tom Campbell was named one of the 23 best art Instagrammers in the world, and a lot of his focus is actually on other museums and his favorite pieces in other museums. I can’t think of any industry where the CEO is constantly writing and praising other institutions. It doesn’t happen. Even in universities, you know, the president of Stanford isn’t on a regular basis saying, “Look at what they’re doing at Harvard, it’s so great.” Tom is able to do that, and it’s having a real impact.
UA5: How do you plan to improve the digital experience in the future?
SS: I think that we’re just getting started. Everything we’re doing here is just beginning. The Met built its first website in October 1995, that’s a year before the New York Times, a year before the Wall Street Journal, and 3 years before Google. But really we’re just getting started in where we want to go and what we can do. The current website is just a step in the process to engage with the world and help visitors not just engage with the art of the Met, but art of the world.