Is sliding into someone’s DMs (Direct Messaging on Instagram) an effective means of meeting your new mentor?
I did just this to start a conversation with Nora Gomez-Strauss, Director of Digital at the Public Art Fund (PAF). Nora is a born-and-bred Queens girl, whose passions include education, the city, and all things digital. Plugged into developments in social media from the start, in the beginning of her career, as assistant to the then-director of the Queens Museum, Tom Finkelpearl, she started the museum’s Twitter, fostering its now massive following of 158,000. Now as Director of Digital at PAF, she mans all aspects of the organization’s web presence—overseeing website design, video production, and the comments sections of social channels (in her words, a version of a visitor services department). On Nora’s personal Instagram (@nogophoto), you can follow her around New York, public art projects, and on family adventures with her adorable three-year-old Santiago (Santi, for short) and husband David Strauss, Deputy Director of the Queens Museum.
On a sunny day Nora and I met IRL—with iced coffees in hand, we sat down near the Public Art Fund office. Read Nora’s take on the role of digital for nonprofits and young professionals, “sliding into DMs,” and the exciting exhibitions PAF has planned for its 40th anniversary.
Art Zealous: For those who don’t know, tell me about where you’ve worked in the arts and how you got to where you are now.
Nora Gomez-Strauss: I’m from Queens, New York. My parents love the arts and growing up in NYC, we had a lot of museums to explore. I was lucky enough to attend LaGuardia High School For the Arts (the “Fame” school), which cemented my love for art. I then studied art education and photography at SUNY New Paltz thinking I would become an art teacher.
One summer I was working at the 92nd Street Y arts camp and was with the kids at City Hall Park for lunch. A PAF Julian Opie show (above) was up and the kids went wild for it; sketching, running around to see all of the pieces. I began to think about what other kinds of jobs were out there that engaged people with art.
In my last few weeks of college, I was offered a teaching job upstate and got into Pratt for their Arts & Cultural Management graduate program. After wrestling with the decision, I decided to go to Pratt. It was life changing because it gave me that “in” I didn’t have. It offered a path to internships and relationships I wouldn’t have had otherwise. It was in my last year there that I started working at the Queens Museum. I interviewed the then-Director Tom Finkelpearl for my thesis. A few weeks later he let me know that a position for his assistant was open and I jumped at the chance.
I started as his assistant and the CIG (Cultural Institutions Group) coordinator for the City of New York. I had already set up a Facebook page for the Queens Museum, and one day I said: “there’s this new thing called Twitter – I’m not sure what it is, but I think it would be really great for us to join.” As usual, Tom said go for it. It gained steam and a loyal following. There was no big Queens account on Twitter, and being from Queens, it was a really big passion project. It was great to see it take off and experiment with what we could do with it. After five years, I moved on to Public Art Fund, where I’ve now been for almost six years. I began as Communications & Digital Media Manager in 2011, and over the years my position morphed into Director of Digital Strategies.
AZ: What does your average day look like?
NGS: Every day is kind of different, which I really enjoy. The things I do every day are answer questions and reply to comments, plan content for posts, snap images of our exhibitions for social or coordinate with staff who are out in the field for them to capture shows. I also monitor and update the website, and (try) to keep up with email. We’re not a building or museum where there is an information desk or docent, so social media is our version of a visitor services department. It’s one of the only ways we have to interact with the public directly.
Otherwise, the day all depends on if we’re getting ready to open an exhibition or if there are special projects. When an exhibition first opens, there are unsexy tasks like digitally archiving images and creating their metadata. PAF is in its 40th year, and we have been working with a production company on a monthly video series celebrating the anniversary (please click and take a look!). It’s one of my favorite projects I have ever worked on. We also recently refreshed our website, so I go through it to catch any bugs and make sure it’s running smoothly – there’s a lot of back and forth between myself and developer and designer. I feel so very lucky to work with talented colleagues that help these ideas become a reality.
AZ: What’s the most effective channel for the Public Art Fund? How do people interact with it?
NGS: That’s like asking who your favorite child is! It’s really hard to choose a favorite, but the visual quality of Instagram lends itself well to the nature of our work. They are also our most active audience. Every Friday we choose an image from the public to highlight as #PAFpicoftheweek. It’s fun to go through all of the images people have posted from the week, but also challenging when there are so many wonderful posts to choose from. Most of the time I am sitting at my desk, and Instagram offers me to the chance to see our exhibitions through the eyes of our visitors. It’s wonderful to both see how people engage with the work and be able to share our exhibitions with an audience around the world. Some people may never even visit NYC, but they’ve been able to experience our work digitally. Social media has given us a really unique opportunity to expand our global reach by making our world smaller—allowing us to engage and interact with a worldwide audience as if they were sitting right next to us.
AZ: What Public Art Fund project are you most excited about in the next year?
NGS: This year marks our 40th anniversary. We have various exhibitions currently on view throughout the city, including Katja Novitskova’s EARTH POTENTIAL at City Hall Park. We cap off the year with Ai Weiwei: Good Fences Make Good Neighbors in the fall. It’s a timely exhibition, and as the child of immigrants touches on issues close to my heart. We have been planning it for years, and it’s so exciting to see it come to life. The large, ambitious projects we do are naturally a lot of work, but it also feels so great when they are finally on view.
AZ: For a company that’s just starting a digital strategy, what is a good way to start?
NGS: Think of what your goals for digital are and which channels would best help achieve them. You don’t need to join every platform, especially when like at PAF, it’s one person doing them all. Aside from not having to join every platform, I would say don’t be afraid to try new things. It’s ok if you try something and it doesn’t work out. If we didn’t make mistakes, we wouldn’t learn anything!
AZ: We started following each other on Instagram a few months ago, and this is how this interview came about. What’s your personal approach or motto for personal branding on social channels?
NGS: As for content, I would say use discretion—a good general rule is never post anything that you wouldn’t want your grandmother to see. Everything online is like diamonds, it’s forever.
I also think social media is a great way to connect with people in the real world. This is actually my 4th of 5th meeting with someone IRL that came from Instagram just this year. If we follow each other and you DM asking to meet for coffee, I will most likely say yes (and I will thank you for liking all of the photos of my toddler). When I was early in my career, I would have loved a route like this that helped me connect to a potential mentor or connection to a job.