Social Media Whiz Robin Cembalest Rides the Changes of Art Publishing
On platforms dominated by millennials, she's a hit.
Veteran art magazine editor and journalist Robin Cembalest has quietly emerged in recent years as one of the leading lights of art-world social media, proving that it’s not only millennials who can harness the power of platforms like Twitter and Instagram.
After decades in the field, most notably at ARTnews, where she rose to become editor-in-chief before leaving in 2014, Cembalest has consulted with major art-world institutions to refine their public image online and via apps—using tools that didn’t exist when she started out in the business. Beyond her consultancy work, she’s also used her experience to effect change in the art world. In 2011, seeing a need for diversity in arts institutions and in publishing, Cembalest founded Niboristas, a networking and mentoring group that offers contacts and access to its 200-plus members and is an outgrowth of efforts that she first made when forming her team of interns at ARTnews.
In this conversation with artnet News Editor-in-Chief Rozalia Jovanovic, Cembalest discusses her strategies for navigating her daily travels around the New York art world, what she learned in her two decades at ARTnews, and how she keeps up with the latest trends in art publishing.
Rozalia Jovanovic: Since leaving ARTnews, you’ve been calling yourself an editorial strategist, helping art-world clients develop social media plans. What’s that like?
Robin Cembalest: When I left ARTnews, I started consulting on editorial strategy with the Art Dealers Association of America. As a member organization for 175 galleries, they wanted social-media content that would showcase the dealers, their shows, and their programs, and remain consistent with their own institutional voice. I helped their team create and implement a plan to showcase member exhibitions, programs, and outside projects on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.
For their Tumblr blog, Inside Stories, I helped develop a rubric for the Q&As and brought the team through a sort of editorial boot camp: how to conduct and edit an interview, write an introduction, write a headline, promote the post across social media platforms, etc.
Was that your first gig as a social media consultant?
Yes. Since then I’ve worked for about 15 galleries along with museums, nonprofits, and professional organizations. As more and more people realize the potential of social media, they’re realizing the downside, too—how much work it is to post consistently about all their artists and shows and panels and book signings, and fairs.
In many galleries and museums, social media is given to the youngest person, who might know social media for personal reasons but has little experience writing for a public audience. I teach the basics of self-publishing, from grammar and fact-checking to how to maintain a professional voice and convey nuance of mission and brand identity.
How do you use the distinctive combinations of words, pictures, links, and tags on each platform to reach widening networks? In an increasingly global art world, how do you write for the widest possible audience without diluting quality?
You’re very active on Instagram. Do you see shows every single day of the week?
I try! Depending where my work takes me.
I use different apps to make sure I take advantage of every neighborhood I’m in and make go-see lists for different areas. If I’m near Little Italy, the Broome Street corridor. Further downtown on the Lower East Side, I could spend half a day below Canal. If I’m at the Met Breuer, I might hit East 73rd Street. In horrible weather, I might head to the big gallery buildings like 529 West 20th Street, or the cluster around Eldridge and Grand.
What are some of the apps you use?
Mostly Artforum and See-Saw. I follow many institutions on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, so I get ideas from there, too, and I keep a list by neighborhood.
What do you post on your platforms?
I try and mix it up—from the blue-chip to the off-the-beaten-track [art]. I go to a lot of culturally specific spaces. I make a specific effort to highlight artists of color and women artists. I visit a lot of museum shows, and I try to feature art from around the world.
I’ve been playing more with video and Hyperlapse, posting a lot on Instagram Stories.
You spent over 20 years at ARTnews, ultimately in the role of editor-in-chief. Was that the job of your life?
It was definitely one of the great jobs of my life! At Yale I studied art history and English, and then I was an editorial assistant at Artforum—another great job. But I didn’t feel like I was going to do art journalism for life until I got to ARTnews. I learned how to do investigative journalism, how to write about complex subjects for a large audience, how to obsess over headlines and coverlines and captions to convey the most information.
I developed and ran an internship program, when the magazine began publishing digital content, the interns became the backbone of the website. (Several former interns are editors there now.) I really enjoyed working with the interns, the mentorship and teaching, and I continue to work with young professionals in my networking group, the Niboristas.
I began exploring social media when I was at ARTnews; when I was hanging out with all the interns, I became fascinated with the language of it. I got on Tumblr and Twitter first. It was fascinating to see how stories and information moved around.
How do you give an institution advice on how to create a brand for themselves?
Start with the mission, vision, identity—how can that sensibility infuse your feed?
If you’re a gallery that has postwar as well contemporary, that’s information you want to convey. How do you show your museum is a living, breathing institution? What are the exhibitions, programs, educational initiatives, conservation initiatives, behind-the-scenes stories about the people and objects? Does your feed have a professional, elegant tone, does it reflect sensitivity to current events and representational justice?
When a show is popular on Instagram, do you think that’s good for the show? Or does it dilute the experience of being with the work?
There’s a paradigm shift in how people view things. Some people feel that taking photos dilutes the experience of being in the moment. Others enjoy the experience of living in the moment by looking at their pictures in the subway or at home, or sharing with their friends.
I go at home at night and skim through my photos, it imprints the show in a different way—it’s more educational, in a way.
What are the biggest changes in art publishing in the past 5-10 years?
There’s great writing in old media like the New York Times and Los Angeles Times, the art magazines, the blogs, the for-commerce sites. We’re at a point now where people are going to more and more to [different platforms] for great writing.
And with the growth of digital and social media, a writer doesn’t necessarily need a mainstream platform to make a big impact anymore. At the same time, obviously, the business model has changed so dramatically that it becomes harder and harder for writers to be compensated for content they produce. Some types of art writing that require significant resources, like investigative journalism, are radically diminished now.
What are your top tips for someone just starting out?
First thing: Go on it and look for a while and see what people are doing.
Don’t try to re-invent the wheel.
Think about social media as sharing—information, stories, privilege, whatever.
Always be nice!
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