Third in The Expanded Field, a series of talks with art world personalities.
It’s no coincidence that as art criticism lurches towards its grave, art public relations seems to be rising like a phoenix from its ashes (maybe that’s a bit dramatic, but hey, I’m a writer). One man who saw this coming was John Melick, founder, 15 years ago, of the New York-based art and culture public relations firm Blue Medium. While it might seem antithetical to ask any arts organization for money, the growing PR business services fine art as much as it does any other field, and Mr. Melick’s calendar has been surging of late. We spoke with him about how he’s navigating this art world niche.
You founded Blue Medium in 2000 before art PR was the industry it is today. What made you think that this was a service that was seriously lacking in the arts?
There were definitely PR professionals on the scene by the time I ventured in, but as the art world grew, so did the need for more PR services. Media outlets were also proliferating at the time, but this is changing now. It’s sometimes hard to fathom that the art world continues to swell while the media outlets compete for ad dollars. Social media presents a whole new set of opportunities and obstacles.
Do you find that the perception of using a public relations firm in the art world has changed over the years from something that was more of a luxury to something that now seems necessary?
Nothing’s mandatory, but strategic PR efforts are undoubtedly more important than they were perhaps a decade ago. Let’s face it, with the massive volume of art world activity (exhibitions, events, etc.) many of our clients recognize the need to be heard.
Be honest: How badly were art PR budgets pinched after the 2008 recession hit?
I lost nearly half my clients in three months. The interesting thing however was that the nonprofits endured as they had set budgets. The commercial side took a hit and so did we. All better for now.
In what ways have you grown over the last 15 years? I assume the tools of the trade (technology) have changed quite a bit.
The biggest change has been the digital media space and its massive influence. We now engage with bloggers, tweeters, Instagram stars, et. al. One big issue we have to navigate and advise on is when to consider a social media star a credible or influential voice in the art or design worlds. Many of these independent voices have become the muses and town criers of our time. While we still attempt to be strategic by focusing on a few tried and true outlets which have clear editorial vision and ethics, PR efforts now extend far beyond these conventional media realms.
Related to this, our clients have to be in the race as well on their own media platforms, so we advise on how to create media content, not just earn it. Videos, interviews, etc.
What hasn’t changed?
The power of real-time human interactions. Openings, dinners, previews, press trips, all remain an essential to a solid, integrated PR strategy. It’s so important to me, that I partnered with Austin Fremont to create the art and design events company, Fremont Blue.
By what criteria are you judged? It must be hard to locate the monetary results of your efforts, so what satisfies the client?
If you want to quantify what we do, you surely can via all types of metrics: increased attendance, sales, column inches, the volume and frequency of social media chatter, etc. But this strips away some of the qualitative values of PR. I’d also like to believe we are judged by the advice we offer as well as the media placements we get. Sometimes, not being in the news is a positive outcome too.
You now count Gagosian and SITE Santa Fe as two of your clients. Who are some of the others?
Davidoff Art Initiative, Foundation for Art and Preservation in Embassies, Galerie Lelong, Foto Focus Cincinnati, Herrick Feinstein Art Law Group, Shelley and Donald Rubin Foundation, The Walker Art Center and the new Albertz Benda gallery launching in Sept with work by Bill Beckley. We have design clients too We eventually dove into the design PR arena too after working with several architects and designers while repping museums, foundations and galleries, and our roster now includes Davis Brody Bond architects, Friedman Benda, 551W21 by Foster + Partners and Dinosaur Designs. This is an important part of Blue’s business now and we just hired a great new director of this division.
How do the services you offer a global operation like Gagosian differ from those you extend to a scrappy nonprofit like Visual Aids?
Believe it or not, our services are very similar for Gagosian and Visual AIDS, and we deal with a lot of the same media for both. It’s important that we have a range of nonprofit and commercial clients to keep a balance and have a broad range of media relationships.
Not many Aussies brave the dangerous backwaters of the New York art world. What about it lured you here from nearly 10,000 miles away?
I’ve lived here for more than half my life: I trotted off to Boston University to do my Masters in Communication Theory and was on a path to doing public affairs/political work back in Australia once I was finished. But when I got back to Sydney, the job market there in the early 90s was dismal. Soon after, a friend from BU contacted me about an agency job in travel and cultural tourism PR in New York and I was back to the States in a flash.
After a few wrong but useful turns, I wanted to find a better direction related to what I did in my spare time with no money—visiting museums and galleries. I also grew up in a house of collectors and artists, my mother Beverley is a painter, and I was in a relationship with an art dealer for some time, so parlaying my PR skills into working with the art world felt natural.
People often lump my field (media) into one big scary monster (The Media) that is out to ruin people. What is the most surprising thing you teach your clients about us?
To really know who you’re speaking with so you can have a proper conversation. And only try to engage with the smart, ethical writers and reporters. They deserve your attention.
And finally, how did you come up with the name “Blue Medium”? It’s evocative.
Blue is my favorite color; serene, reliable and I think looks good on everyone. The word medium has so many meanings that I love—art, communication, singular for media, conduit, a state between two extremes, and so on. When people ask me to repeat the name of the company I tend to say “blue as in the color and medium as in the size”. But I’d like to think there’s nothing average about us…