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VOL. 126 | NO. 18 | Thursday, January 27, 2011

Orgs Embrace Technology Via Mobile Device Integration

STACEY WIEDOWER | Special to The Daily News

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When visitors entered Memphis Brooks Museum of Art’s Who Shot Rock & Roll exhibition last summer, they were handed an iPod Touch outfitted with an audio-guided tour of the exhibit’s iconic images.

It was the Brooks’ first foray into the emerging world of mobile technology, and it changed the museum’s entire approach to interacting with its guests.

“People think of art museums as institutions mired in the past,” said Andria Lysle, public relations and public programs manager for the Brooks. “But everybody who works here has a smartphone, and people are relying on them more and more. Especially with the Who Shot Rock & Roll exhibition, it made sense to have something that had a little more flash.”

The exhibition – and its tech-savvy narration – was on loan from the Brooklyn Museum. When it concluded, however, the Brooks developed its own iPod Touch tours for a trio of exhibitions known as Picturing America. And recently, the organization secured a $36,000 ArtsMemphis grant for mobile device integration.

“Basically, we want to be able to connect with our audiences in a modern way and to engage with our audiences, whether it’s about exhibitions or programs we’re doing at the Brooks or even something as simple as to convey the Brushmark’s newest menu,” Lysle said.

The overall project will entail website work, including creation of a portal to the site specifically for mobile phone users, as well as a customized Brooks app.

ArtsMemphis, which launched its own customized app in fall 2009, has embraced smartphone technology as a creative means of facing an uncertain future in terms of patron funding.

“The arts are really having to be innovative in their ways of approaching technology and patron engagement,” said Susan Schadt, ArtsMemphis president and CEO. “We believe very strongly in the necessity of harnessing technology and using innovation as a way to promote our mission and that of our groups, and to engage audiences.

“We think it’s a very modern way to approach what’s happening.”

As a result, the organization actively promotes technology advances among the nonprofit groups its funding and advocacy efforts support. For instance, ArtsMemphis is getting set, through a pilot program backed by the Jeniam Technology Fund, to distribute iPads to seven of its partner organizations who have demonstrated ability and commitment to using the technology to further their missions.

“The point being that they will be able to create efficiencies within their organizations and help market their programs,” Schadt said.

Resolute Interactive, a Memphis-based technology company that developed the ArtsMemphis app, as well as apps for other arts-related nonprofits including Memphis in May and the Center for Southern Folklore’s annual festival, jumped head-first into the mobile market after beginning life as a games company.

CEO Chris Przybyszewski said arts groups and other nonprofits share the same issues and challenges as for-profit businesses, and he sees his role as one of platform-building in every sense of the term.

“From my perspective – from a strategic and marketing perspective – the rules are still the same,” he said. “The ideas of audience and product are the same. The tools are just a bit different.”

In the case of ArtsMemphis, the company worked to determine who needed the app and what they needed to do with it.

“Technologically there were some great challenges,” Przybyszewski said. “They have a very large, very active calendar system that’s very diverse and very deep. We had to build an infrastructure that would work seamlessly with their technology. Every time they update their website and databases, it appears instantly in the app.”

Resolute Interactive, which has developed more than 50 apps for the iPhone and Android for groups ranging from Elvis Presley Enterprises to the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons, “started right at the very beginning with everyone else,” Przybyszewski said.

“We had to teach ourselves a great deal, and the experience of knowledge we have has been pretty dearly bought,” he said. “This really is a new world for everybody.”

The Brooks, for its part, is currently studying the ways mobile technology will best benefit its audiences and its mission. Its staff is weighing in on museum apps already in use to ensure its new app offers the most-needed and most-useful features.

The museum also is working toward a curatorial project that would digitize the more than 8,000 objects in its collection, Lysle said.

“That’s not part of this project, but we are seeking funds for it and working toward it in the next few years,” she said. “A lot of this is waiting to see what technology sticks and what development happens.”

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