Does Tate-Talk Ring True on Twitter?

If you have a pet, say, a dog or a cat, you probably talk to him or her a lot. This may range from general baby-talk (‘I wuv you’) to more extended conversations about day-to-day life (‘Did I put a wash on, I don’t remember do you?’), and if you really rate Rover, it’s possible you philosophise with him (‘Is this it? Is this all there is do you think?’). But the fact is, if Rover ever actually replied, you can guarantee he wouldn’t have the voice you’d imagined him to have. Well, that is how I feel about tweets from Tate.

Stephen Fry (unofficial Tsar of Twitter) is such an effortless communicator that, in a survey, 8 out of 10 people would surely be able to identify his tweets from a random anonymous selection. Other writers, journalists, publications and even celebrities are also tweet-true. Take Paris Hilton, for example: “Back in LA, going home to see my puppies and kitten :)”. But for reasons I can’t quite settle upon, Tate doesn’t sound right.

Here is a Tate tweet from this very morning: “Here’s a fitting picture inspired by the orphaned baby antelope story in the papers today –”. A news story with cute animals? Isn’t that just a little bit Daily Mail? Then there’s this example of their Sesame Street-style: “C is for… Constant A. Nieuwenhuys (1920-2005) See his painting”. After Us, Liberty” at Tate Modern #ArtistAtoZ”. Not to mention their weather reports: “and the weekend weather forecast resembles…. Dickson Innes’ view of North Wales … hopefully!”. Really?

I see what they are doing. In each of these examples Tate gets to remind us in a very accessible way of works from their vast and important collections. Twitter, as used by Tate, is a great marketing tool. The problem I have is that in all the conversations I’ve had in my head when at Tate (Britain, Liverpool, Modern, St Ives, or even on their website), this isn’t the voice Tate answered with. What I mean is that, rightly or wrongly, I’ve always given Tate a much more inquisitive and argumentative tone, but on Twitter I find Tate rather dull. In the examples I’ve cited, there is little provocation of further discussion: yes, those are indeed drawings of antelope, and you are right, Constant does begin with a C, and it is possible that the sky looked like that at the weekend. But so what?

Look at a-n Director and arts consultant Susan Jones. In brainstormy-bursts she asks all manner of questions about the state of culture today and sustainability of practice. Today alone she has offered several routes into an investigation of self-employment in the arts. Charlotte Higgins, chief arts writer for the Guardian, has managed to pack multiple reviews of the Edinburgh Festival into single tweets: “Royal Ballet of Flanders Return of Ulysses clever, witty and beautiful #edfest”, “Silviu Purcarete’s Faust: spectacle doesn’t equal substance, however many forklift trucks & fireworks you stick in a show. Miss it #edfest”, “Will Gompertz’s Double Art History good fun. Sat next to arts corr of the Times. Not that we were competitive, not at all. #edfest #edfringe”. While Tate, on the other hand, seem to just drone on in the background.

I admit that I’m not be being entirely fair. Despite their connections to a magazine and newspaper respectively, Jones and Higgins are individuals. I’m perhaps making an impossible comparison. It is no doubt very difficult to give an institution a voice that rings true on Twitter. But then how come the Barbican’s heavy use of the ‘ReTweet’ function enlivens their Twitter stream with an energy Tate’s is sadly lacking? In fact, by reflecting back to its audience their own conversations about the Barbican, they minimise the need for a truly Barbican-esuqe voice while keeping the focus squarely on the debates the institution provokes.

Perhaps Tate is a conversational adversary of very particular kind; one whose voice should be less clear on its own but somehow present in our responses. And maybe it’s up to us to tweet our own tails off about Tate and gain a better connection that way. But either way, I can’t help feeling disappointed. I swear I’ve heard Tate and I’m telling you, it just doesn’t sound like that!

Woof, woof!

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