institution: Royal Academy of Arts, London
This year the Royal Academy of Arts turns 250 years old, continuing its mission to champion the practice of art and artists. But as we prepare for a grand reopening of our building in May, if we’re to reach the new audiences that we need to survive, we’ve become aware that the ways that we think about that 250-year-old mission, and how to fulfill it, have to change.
The user need
The content strategy we launched in 2016 aims to support that goal, breaking down the needs of our target audiences into a set of criteria to guide digital decision-making. In focusing on the needs of those key audiences, we have begun to identify one key user-need that in the past, we haven’t quite been able to meet.
These audiences love coming to see the exhibitions for which we’re well known, to be inspired by the work of great artists. But many of them also want to be creative themselves, and to be part of the communal sense of creativity that we promote as an organisation. The Royal Academy is run by artists and is also an art school; using digital tools, we’ve begun to accommodate their interest in the physicality of art process with our content. Videos showing the visceral quality of paint, vibrant colours, and the stages our artists go through to create work are consistently our most popular. But up until this project, we hadn’t really cracked how to actually involve our creative audiences in that.
Then came From Life, an exhibition about the past, present and future of making art from life – a subject that’s core to the RA’s history and expertise. The exhibition’s inquisitive and experimental nature, including emerging technology such as virtual reality, inspired us to try something similarly experimental in our online content. Additionally, we felt that an exhibition about the very practise of drawing could feel unsatisfying to these creative audiences if we couldn’t find a way to invite that practical element.
To accompany the exhibition, our colleagues in events programming held a series of free life drawing classes, as well as our usual programme of paid courses – but of course, their reach is limited by the capacity of the room and the ability of its visitors to buy a ticket and get there.
Situated in our historic Schools, the RA’s Life drawing room is a beautiful space, with benches that the likes of Turner and Constable are thought to have sat on – a factor that’s exciting and valuable to our regular visitors, but potentially quite intimidating to someone who hasn’t visited before.
The knowledge, commitment and confidence required for someone to attend a class in person is high. But what if digital tools could change that? Could we make a class that you could do from anywhere, for free, with just an internet connection? That you could nip in and out of as your life allowed, and that is both communal and entirely unintimidating?
Could we take something that’s been the same for centuries – a tradition that’s shared by artists and art institutions across the world – and give it new relevance to new audiences?
What we did
We decided to create an online life drawing class, and soon realised that in order for the event to actually be interactive, it would need to happen live – with everyone drawing along together, and sharing their work, just like in a real class.
The result was, we think, the world’s first live streamed life drawing class – a 90-minute drawing session, with a tutor presenting instruction and tips to camera, and a model executing a series of poses that audiences could draw and share from home.
How we did it
What began as a digital idea was of course in practice a full physical event with a digital production and marketing plan on top, and it relied on an entire Academy’s worth of people to buy-in and make it happen. A full life-drawing class was planned – booking a model, finding real participants for inside the room, planning the materials and the poses – alongside support from Learning, Legal, Marketing, Press, IT, Audio Visual, our Art Handlers and the Schools.
From the broadcast side, we worked with a production company called Flux Broadcast, who helped us shape the class entirely for a digital audience. Our tutor, the renowned artist, Jonathan Yeo (whose work was represented in From Life) was a passionate, experienced artist and had a warm, welcoming presence that we knew would be crucial. With the combined sensibilities of broadcast and artistic practice, incredible care was put into the lighting of the model and the room. It had to feel like being inside a real life class.
Prioritising the audience
We wanted to open the class up to as many people as possible, so we provided multiple entry points, streaming simultaneously across our Facebook, Periscope and YouTube, which was also embedded on our website. That presented a challenge in terms of communicating how people could take part, particularly for an event type that wasn’t at all familiar, so we took extra consideration around how we presented the opportunity, and what was said where.
We hosted full information along with the live stream on an event page (please note: it’s now amended to reflect the finished event) on our website, to give it the feel and importance of an actual Royal Academy event – but making clear that it was a digital event to take part in from home. We spent a long time honing the copy around it to explain the opportunity, and tailored our communications to each platform, attempting to come to our users, rather than expecting them to come to us. If you were reading on our website, we’d instruct you to just glance below – the class is right there on the page, but you can also follow on Facebook if you’d like to. If you were reading the event page on Facebook, we’d encourage you to stay there – the class will come to you and you’ll be notified when it starts.
The whole experience was designed for an at-home participant, and we tried to carry that mindset through everything we did. Sharing drawings was repeatedly encouraged, and a staff member was assigned to each social media platform to respond to questions and comments, gather the submissions, and post live updates.
Participants’ drawings were shared during the live stream as well as on our social channels and on a feed into the event page – and if we were to do this again, we’d try to increase sharing aspect even further. It was something that participants repeatedly said made it feel like a real class, and part of something special – part of a shared creative community, not just working by themselves at home. We were also interested to see on social media how many people chose to make it a social experience themselves, bringing their children or friends together to do it and sharing pictures of themselves. University College London even hosted a screening for their students.
On the night, a total of around 40,000 people saw the stream across our platforms, and over 600 drawings were shared by participants – aged six to 92 and from countries across the world, including Nigeria, Mexico, Chile, New Zealand, Czech Republic, Croatia and Australia. The vast majority of these audiences were new to the RA.
85,000 minutes of it have so far been watched on Facebook, and 147,000 on YouTube; given that it’s a 90-minute broadcast, that’s the equivalent of over 2.5k people taking the entire class (though in reality, we know that many took part for a chunk of the class rather that necessarily staying for the whole thing; a freedom this digital version of the class of course affords them.)
The numbers are also rising all the time. After the event, we built a more permanent home for #LifeDrawingLive – an article page that would reflect that the event was a live event, a real and special moment that happened, but also continue to offer its opportunity of a real life drawing class that people could take. It also provides a place for their drawings to be shared, in a live feed. This also gave usthe opportunity to add captions to increase accessibility, which wasn’t possible for us live.
But what we found more exciting than the numbers was the sentiment that those who took part expressed. We were overwhelmed by the warmth, gratitude and excitement at the opportunity to take a class from home, and how willing they are to spend a considerable amount of time enthusiastically engaging with us, if we correctly identify and meet their needs. Many had never tried life drawing before, or hadn’t done it since school, or loved drawing but couldn’t make it to a class.
It worked because it was right for us, and right for our audience – a subject that we can deliver with authority, and by thinking of our users, we found a format to bring it to them and delight them with that genuine opportunity.
One of the most frequent comments from our audiences on the night was the hope that we would do this again, that it would become a regular opportunity. We’re currently considering options – whether we could indeed turn it into a regular series, one that we could bring to more people, perhaps focusing on different audience needs, such as a special session for students. Planning ahead to a full series, we’d also like to look at how to create a more accessible experience; the RA recently also hosted its first ever life drawing class for blind and partially sighted visitors, so we’d love to integrate the expertise and learnings from that into our next iterations.