Karin Sommerer and Reuben Alexander at the Stedelijk. Photo: Reinier RVDA.

Before the summer, we were invited by Buutvrij to attend an evening at the Stedelijk Museum (Amsterdam’s world famous museum of contemporary art), hosted by artist Perre van den Brink (CD at VICE). Van den Brink was asked to compose an audio tour (through Soundcloud) in which he described some of the artworks at the Stedelijk. His commentary was very accessible, done not too seriously and (purposefully) from a very personal perspective.

The tour (and speech by Van den Brink beforehand) was part of an ad campaign by Buutvrij, called Stedelijk X asking six young and influential Amsterdammers to create their own Soundcloud tour. The other curators were: Harald Dunnink (Momkai), Josje van Hagen (Showpony Productions), Lize Korpershoek (artist), Mirik Milan (night mayor of Amsterdam) and Ron Simpson (24K).

We asked Reuben Alexander (boss at Buutvrij) and Karin Sommerer (responsible for marketing and communications at the Stedelijk) a few questions about the campaign.

Karin, why did you need an ad agency?
Karin Sommerer (KS):
We already had a vague idea for a campaign but needed someone to make it more concrete.

So then you hired Buutvrij, with a reputation of being creative cowboys, while the Stedelijk is, well, a museum…
It really isn’t that strange when you understand that the Stedelijk is a very progressive and active museum. We’re not afraid to experiment. We had a powerful campaign in mind, something with balls. Buutvrij already proved with other campaigns that they had balls. To be honest, we couldn’t wait to work together. 

Reuben, what is so ballsy about this campaign?
Reuben Alexander (RA):
Most campaigns are controlled and produced to the tiniest detail. This campaign is about opening up. We gave our ‘Stedelijken’ (as we call the guest curators) the freedom to do what they wanted in the museum. We had no say in the theme of their event and they were free to say what they wanted in their audio tour. Working like that means trusting them. Trust their taste, their choice in friends, and trust what they will say on the record about the art in our museum. We had no control over these things. That takes some guts.

What was the brief?
To get more people (+20%) to the Stedelijk. But after the first strategic session we soon learned that the problem wasn’t really the number of visitors. the Stedelijk gets lots of visitors. Just not a lot of young visitors from Amsterdam. So, together we changed the brief. We went from ‘sell more tickets’ to ‘make young Amsterdammers fall in love with the Stedelijk’.

What were the exact insights that came out of your strategic session?
First of all, the target group is usually too busy to visit a museum. They think going to a museum takes up your whole day. In reality, you can get a shot of inspiration when you pop in for half an hour. Secondly, this group loves design and art, but often thinks modern art is complicated. So we needed to show that modern art is actually very accessible and fun. Lastly, this target group is very ‘social’. They only consider going to events when they check Facebook and see that their friends are also going. This made us realise that we needed to be visible on the right timeline.

Speaking about appearing on the right timeline, how exactly did you do this? Was it mainly done organically or did you use other – bought – mechanisms as well?
The ‘Stedelijken’ invited their own social circle through social media and a nice personal invitation. And of course the Stedelijk pushed the events (by ‘boosting’ them) through social media. But no other media were used. The power of the kick-off events was exclusivity; the capacity was limited and you were lucky to get in. And because the ‘Stedelijken’ were happy to ‘share their shine’ they had quite an impressive organic reach. They didn’t have to talk about it, but did so anyway, because it was really theirs. 

Was this the most successful part of the campaign?
Yes, everyone participated because they wanted to. There’s nothing artificial about it. And this really makes all the difference. The online buzz StedelijkX generated was completely genuine. And all we had to do was open the doors to the museum and invite the right people.

How did you choose the guest curators?
Well, first we made a long list, then a short list of people we think are Amsterdam game changers. Their DNA matched the DNA of the Stedelijk. So we were looking for open, daring, ambitious entrepreneurs. I’ve been drinking lots of coffees with these potential ‘Stedelijken’. Some of them instantly said ‘yes’, some were to too busy, and some weren’t feeling the right energy – or maybe found it a little scary. For most of them, a personal audio tour at the Stedelijk is a big thing.

Karin, you were probably quite picky about who was going to comment on your art?
Luckily it’s not our art, it belongs to society. But I understand what you mean and yes, there was a scary part. But of course the core of the campaign was to let the ‘Stedelijken’ reflect on art based on their own impressions and feelings and in their own words. Their personal views were crucial to make contemporary art accessible to their social circle.

Reuben Alexander and Karin Sommerer at the Stedelijk. Photo: Reinier RVDA.

Which tour did you like best?
For me personally I really liked Harald Dunnink’s tour. And the funniest was Lize. But, to be honest, for me the best part of this campaign was that I was allowed to walk with the head curator, Bart Rutte, through the museum when he explained the different art pieces to the ‘Stedelijken. I’ve learned so much about the Stedelijk!
What I loved most is the high diversity of the tours, which shows how differently each of them approaches art. There actually is no ‘wrong’ or ‘best’, it’s always a personal thing.

Why did you think Harald’s tour was best, Reuben?
He made quite an effort. For example, when presenting his tour, he invited Mels Crouwel, the architect of ‘de badkuip’ [nickname of the building, meaning bath tub, AAB]. Crouwel shared all these interesting facts about the design and certain choices in the design process. For example, how the auditorium was meant to be painted black in his design but was changed to white because the museum found black too intense. On top of that Harald really spent some time formulating his vision on design and translated this view to the art pieces he described.

Speaking of the architecture – and sorry for asking this question – but what’s up with the huge black box next to Albert Heijn? I know it’s an elevator, but wasn’t there a more elegant way?
The only disadvantage of Bethem Crouwel Architecten fabulous design of the new Stedelijk was that there was no service entrance because there is no side or back of the building. The tower contains things that you would normally access through a side entrance.

Ok, back to the concept. Was it difficult to sell the concept into the museum? After all, museums are known to be ‘institutes’ and paradoxically often conservative by nature.
Actually it went quite easy. After we came up with the concept, we sat down with Karin van Gilst and Beatrix Ruf (directors of the museum) and told them our plans. They were enthusiastic even though we couldn’t really predict what would happen. That was a great thing; being trusted beforehand on a gut feeling. So, if it’s true what you say, that museums are conservative, I know it’s definitely not true for the Stedelijk. 

Karin, did the campaign render any insights that changes the way you’ll advertise yourself in the future?
It was more that it confirmed that with the right guidance contemporary art is not difficult for anyone and that people love it because it’s about the now. So it’s about them in a way, a lot more than a Rembrandt is. Also, the power of authentic, personal involvement is amazing. You cannot buy this kind of commitment and enthusiasm.

And will you continue with the audio tours? I would love to get one of those tours Reuben got with the chief curator.
Please feel invited! We would certainly love to give you one of these tours, no problem at all. And yes, I do think that we will continue with the audio tours. We need to think about the frequency and distribution but there certainly will be a continuation in a way.

I am assuming you didn’t get your 20% more visitors. But are you happy with the end results?
Indeed, we did not get the 20% more visitors but we managed to introduce the museum to a very new target group that now feels more connected to the Stedelijk. And of course we will continue to invite them and hopefully co-create some more in the future. In the long run, this type of commitment can result in an even greater number of new visitors.

Are other museums jealous, you think?
Well, StedelijkX is a very special campaign that is getting a lot of attention from museums all over the world. So, speaking of changing the way to advertise yourself; sometimes it’s a good idea to look beyond hard targets and KPIs and just try something new.

Here you can watch the casefilm Buutvrij just released.