“If technology is the answer, then what was the question?”
JiaJia Fei is a digital strategist for the art world based in New York City. Her career began during the early days of social media in 2008 at the Jewish Museum, where she played an integral role in establishing their digital presence by starting their first social media accounts and relaunching their website. She then went to work in the marketing department at the Guggenheim for six years, before returning to the Jewish Museum in 2016 to become the institution’s first director of digital. With now over twelve years of experience in digital marketing for art and cultural organizations, Fei founded the first digital agency for art at the start of 2020. She has been a resource for museums, galleries, and other arts organizations who have had to rethink their digital strategy during the pandemic.
In this interview, JiaJia Fei shares why she taught herself to code in high school, her formula for creating good content, and what it was like starting her own company during the COVID-19 pandemic.
TGL: How was your childhood?
JF: I was born in Shanghai, but my family moved to the United States when I was quite young, so I primarily grew up in Washington, D.C. Both of my parents are in the medical field, but I was always creative as a child: I liked to draw, and I was a very visual person. I grew up going to museums because there are so many in D.C. and they were all free.
TGL: When did you know you wanted to work in art?
JF: I had a realization in college that there were certain things I did not want to do. I definitely did not want to go into medicine like my parents, it was not my calling. I had this epiphany, which I often attribute as my own coming out experience: I had to come out to my parents as an art history major. Of course, they were concerned at the time, but I think it all turned out okay in the end.
TGL When did you start studying art history?
JF: I studied art history in college. Before that, I had several other encounters with art, whether it was through my high school art teacher, going to museums, or discovering art and visual culture on the internet. Long before Instagram, I was incredibly curious about the possibilities of accessing the visual world from anywhere in the world through the web.
TGL: Where did you go to college?
JF: I went to Bryn Mawr College, an all-women’s liberal arts college outside Philadelphia, and one of the Seven Sisters, established when Ivy League Universities didn't allow women.
TGL: How did studying at an all-women’s college impact you?
JF: I didn't choose to attend Bryn Mawr because it was a women’s college, I chose to attend because it had a sense of radicality and individualism that I was drawn to. There is a strong legacy of radical women who have studied at women's colleges, from Hillary Clinton to Katharine Hepburn. I was drawn to the streak of independence in this self-selective community of women who were all eager to be themselves while changing the world.
TGL: You also taught yourself how to code, which is not a common combination with art history. Why did you decide to learn coding?
JF: I became interested in coding because of my early creative interest in photography and sharing my work online. In high school, I wanted to build a website portfolio for myself, and I didn't want to hire someone to do it. Today there are limitless resources available online to teach yourself how to code, and a number of other skills, by doing. As someone who grew up with the internet, I had an inherent sense of being an autodidact. That's also what it takes to be successful in the field of technology, because technology by design is iterative and moves so quickly. There's never a class or curriculum that can keep up with the continual changes in technology. I didn't learn how to code because I knew it would be a useful skill one day, I did it because I wanted to make something. Ironically, nobody ended up contacting me about my photography, but lots of people began contacting me because they also needed a website.
TGL: What is the connection between technology and art?
JF: I see technology as a language, and I see art as a language. HTML, for example, stands for Hypertext Markup Language: it is how computers communicate with each other on a shared network. Similarly, art is a language that communicates shared experiences through pictures. As someone who speaks both art and technology, I see my role as a translator who works to expand visual literacy and make art more accessible for a broader audience online. Few people have this dual understanding of both worlds, which is why it's often challenging for people in the art world to understand technology and for technologists to understand the value of art.
TGL: What was your first job after college?
JF: After a few internships, my first real job was at the Jewish Museum in New York. Before my most recent position there as the director of digital, I was hired out of school as a marketing associate. I would have never self-identified as a marketer, but ultimately so much of marketing is common sense: who is your audience, and what are you going to do to reach them? This was at the very beginning of social media in 2008, when Twitter had just become more mainstream and Instagram still hadn’t launched. In addition to creating the museum’s first social media accounts, my experience working on websites also came in handy as we were launching a new website. Not long after that, my manager recommended me for a job at the Guggenheim.
TGL: What was your role at the Guggenheim?
JF: I held several positions over the course of six years. As museums were just beginning to understand what it meant to interact with the public online by publishing their content and collections online, the need for digital engagement grew rapidly within the organization. As a result, I started taking on new roles that were created for me, job titles that didn't exist before. Many of our projects were all over the world and required global digital engagement. Being able to build a global online community around contemporary art was incredibly important to the growth of the organization, so my role quickly expanded.
TGL: What type of digital work were you doing?
JF: Every aspect of digital is always interconnected. I started the @Guggenheim Instagram account, and we were already active on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. We used these channels to distribute images, video and audio content that allowed our global audiences to engage with the museum online. To reach these audiences, we implemented digital marketing strategies such as search marketing and social advertising. The data powering these campaigns all had to live within centralized databases in order to segment and target the right audiences. All of these activities were interconnected within a holistic digital ecosystem because you can't really silo different components of any digital experience.
TGL: How did you grow within the Guggenheim and become their Associate Director of Digital Marketing?
JF: My job just kept getting bigger and bigger, because the need for digital growth was there. I focused on being transparent about my work and frequently shared these reports with my colleagues. I produced metrics on our results so everyone had a clear sense of how much we were growing and what the most successful initiatives were. Those results could then inform content production to drive even more engaging content for our audiences. In an industry where every action is highly measurable, these reports also presented a clear case that we needed more resources. As my job kept expanding, we were also able to add more people to our team.
TGL: Is there a formula for creating good content?
JF: Every institution is different. For a museum like the Guggenheim, the building is essentially the most important work of art in the collection. Our audience was fascinated by architecture and the most iconic pieces in the collection. If you think about a museum as a brand, every museum becomes successful if the expression of their content online is a reinforcement of their brand identity. If a museum is committed to promoting the work of emerging contemporary artists, the public needs time to understand their practice. Trying to wrap your head around contemporary art is difficult on a platform like Instagram, which can be reductive and limiting. It’s important to assume the role of an educator or storyteller trying to make something that is abstract, relatable to the average person. It's about knowing your audience and finding the right way to package and present your content, so it becomes valuable for them.
TGL: What were the main differences between the Jewish Museum and the Guggenheim’s relationship to technology?
JF: The Guggenheim is a world-renowned institution and brand. People know what it is even if they have never been before. In contrast, people are often confused about the Jewish Museum because there is a Jewish Museum in nearly every major city around the world. Defining what the Jewish Museum is in New York was the task at hand, because unlike other more historical museums, it's an art museum. The Guggenheim also has a built-in tourist audience, whereas the Jewish Museum requires a different strategy. In taking on the role of director of digital, I wanted to take on the challenge of what it would take to bring an institution like the Jewish Museum onto a higher level. As the director of a new department, I had the unique opportunity to directly influence the digital transformation of the entire institution. In taking on that role, I essentially decided to take on my first client because my long-term goal was always to start this company. I wanted the Jewish Museum to serve as that case study to envision change from start to finish.
TGL: When did you start your own company?
JF: About a year ago, just a few months before the pandemic. I had already been working on side projects for years but wanted to wait until I had accumulated the right level of experience. I also wanted to be deliberate and intentional about the projects and clients I worked with. I decided to start my own company with the intention of working with other museums, galleries, and artists, to help propel their mission and business goals through technology.
TGL: How has COVID-19 impacted your company?
JF: I have been incredibly busy. I feel very lucky to be able to continue my work remotely and help organizations facing challenges during this time think about how to translate their mission and reimagine what a museum can be during a pandemic. Everyone is facing a lot of the same challenges right now, and there's a lack of expertise. We were talking at the beginning about this minimal intersection of people who understand both art and technology. Being someone who specializes in the art world is incredibly important when it comes to digital, because it's not like selling a pair of shoes. It's not like selling commodities. It's a very specific product that requires a deep and nuanced understanding of what art does and how people interact with art. A lot of things that would be successful in other industries don't work in the art world. It takes someone who is a part of the community to imagine solutions.
TGL: How do you manage several clients at the same time?
JF: In some ways, my working method hasn't changed at all. Even when I was in-house at an institution, I was always working on multiple projects at the same time, they just happened to be for the same organization. I now have the pleasure of working with many different types of organizations. It's both exciting for me, and an incredible learning experience, to go deep into each organization’s content and really understand what they need.
TGL: What is your process when working for a client?
JF: A lot of it comes from being able to first internalize their mission and what they're trying to do. It's more important for me to understand their collection, mission, voice, and goals than it is for me to deliver technology solutions, because that part is easy. That part is codified. There's always a playbook to executing a technology project, but being able to align the technology solutions with goals is something that starts with understanding the organization deeply first.
Then, like any kind of matchmaking, it's about understanding if your goals align. The more I understand where they're trying to go, the more I can be helpful in giving them instructions and advice on how to get there. I've had conversations with people where we’re not a match, and I will refer them to a different consultant or even recommend that they hire someone full time.
Then begins the discovery process; we have to localize what they need help with. Often, the solution is something completely different from what they thought they needed help with. It’s also important to understand how one defines and measures success, whether it's through visitation, sales, or growth of audiences. This will help inform all the steps you need to get there.
TGL: How do you start a project with a new client?
JF: Most of my engagements start with an audit. We look across all of their digital platforms and see how things are performing. We look at the numbers and have conversations with staff about what they're trying to get out of it. The audit is like going to the doctor for your annual physical and getting a report of all of your diagnostics. This also helps us understand where to focus because not everyone has unlimited resources. If you have just a few people on your team and limited time, what can you do that has the most impact? Sometimes the outcome of these conversations is a recommendation on what you should stop doing. This process then informs a strategy on how we might want to implement something new going forward.
TGL: How long does it take to establish your digital strategy?
JF: It ranges based on a client's goals, but usually starts with looking at their content and data, then talking to them to get a close grasp on where to focus. Sometimes there's a very defined project; someone may want to work on a specific campaign and already own the assets, and they just need someone to implement and execute it. Some clients want concepts and input on a more creative level. I work across many different types of models, which is interesting for me. I’m not a machine, I’m not doing the same thing every time, so I don’t offer a menu of options. It's a customized solution that closely targets the needs of each client.
TGL: What digital trends or new behaviors have you noticed during the COVID-19 pandemic?
JF: When the pandemic hit, there was definitely a sense of panic. I see the outcome of a lot of projects that didn't succeed to be learning opportunities. I often think failure is one of the best ways to move forward - or as they say: fail forward. Immediately, I noticed most of the art world fell back on a reductive translation of looking at art online, which included an over-saturation of virtual experiences: Zoom presentations, online viewing rooms, and 360 degree tours of galleries. It boils down to a simple question I always ask my clients: if technology is the answer, then what was the question? People often skip the part where they address why they are doing a certain project and just think about the platform. They say, "We need to build an app. We need to build an online viewing room. We need to build a VR something..." but completely miss the point of what we are trying to accomplish. Trying to sell art? Trying to get more people to engage online? That conversation usually never happens when people are in panic mode, and they just want to make a thing happen. Now, it seems like people are taking a step back to revisit some of those goals, realizing that putting everything on Zoom is not a solution. Also, simply putting your gallery show online in an online viewing room (aka a website) is not going to be effective for sales. We know this already from the museum world, which has already been doing this for decades. Just because you put something online, doesn't mean people are going to use it or engage with it. It's about the context, goal, and story of what you're trying to tell and making sure you have a value proposition that people will engage with. It’s a very competitive environment right now, everyone is competing for the same eight to 10 hours of your day on a screen. What can you do that cuts through the noise? What can you do that adds value to someone’s life, that's not a four-hour Zoom symposium or slideshow on your website?
In some ways, less is more. I have always believed in doing fewer things, but doing these few things really well. The average person is not going to be watching all of your videos and clicking through hundreds of galleries in a virtual art fair. The things that we used to do in person do not directly translate onto the screen. It's impossible to expect someone who spent a whole day in a convention center at Art Basel to also spend eight hours looking at a virtual art fair on your website. You can't just put things up and expect the same results. You have to do things intentionally and acknowledge the limited economy of viewing right now.
Ultimately, we need to acknowledge the reality that art is best experienced in person. I think everyone knows this. No matter how much money and resources you pour into digital projects, I will be the first to admit that none of those projects will replace the experience of going to a museum or a gallery in person. Unless of course it's a digital art experience. That's a very different conversation. Even as someone who acknowledges the vitality and importance of having a digital strategy as part of your business and organizational strategy, none of that is ever going to replace the act of looking at art in person.
TGL: You have a personal Instagram account with a lot of followers. How would you explain your success on Instagram?
JF: My personal Instagram is really just a visual diary. The key to Instagram is authenticity, authentically telling your story. Regardless of whether that's me or a gallery or a museum, being someone who can visually tell authentic stories is how you can be successful on Instagram.
TGL: Instagram seems to be the preferred app of the art world because it is visual. What is your take on Instagram?
JF: Instagram is the go-to app of the art world, because it has essentially replaced magazines. It's now the magazine of the world. Imagine the impact of having unlimited access to all the world's images through one app, instead of subscribing to all of these different magazines or going to galleries or museums. All of these images are now available on your mobile device.
Instagram has become this open-source Wikipedia of the art world, where all the world's images are now available for anyone to look at. That's an incredible amount of power, but also a lot of noise. In this environment of an open-source system where anyone can publish and put something up online, what stands out? Who is the authority?
Instagram is also a place for social experiences, because it is social media. It's the place where you interact with your family and friends, and that adds a lot of value. What makes experiences like virtual reality or online viewing rooms unsuccessful is that they are isolating experiences. These are digital experiences that you only have with yourself. Why do you go to an art fair to begin with? You go to an art fair to see all these people, and when you're on a website, you're not going to have any of those interactions. Understanding the foundational intentions of why someone has a digital experience can often dictate the result.
TGL: How do you perceive the future of digital media?
JF: I predict that the word “digital” will disappear because everything will become digital. It will be embedded within our lives in every activity. The way we look, the way we read, the way we interact, the way we buy, the way we consume, every aspect of life will be digitized in some way. Because everything will be digital, I think some of these terms will either disappear as they become more and more ubiquitous. I think digital will soon become such an invisible part of our world that it will just be the dark reality that we all live in.
TGL: What makes a digital strategy successful?
JF: I would say the most successful implementation of a digital strategy is when the digital is part of the entire organization, not just one department. That's ultimately what will define the success of any type of business infrastructure: understanding that digital should be a part of every single dimension of an operation, because that will ensure the future success and sustainability of that organization.
TGL: Who would you like to have dinner with that you don’t already know?
JF: Fran Lebowitz.
TGL: What advice would you like to give to The Genius List’s readers?
JF: If technology is the answer, then what was the question?