MOCAtv: A YouTube Channel and the Digital Extension of MOCA


In 2011, during the Art in the Streets exhibition at The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA, former Museum Director Jeffrey Deitch was touring the show with legendary Hollywood talent agent Ari Emanuel. Ari was not yet on the board of The Museum of Contemporary Art, but would join soon after. The line for the show stretched all the way around the block. They were amazed by the scale and diversity of the audience. More than 200,000 people visited Art in The Streets, a MOCA record, and word spread rapidly via social media as visitors of all ages from diverse backgrounds joined the discussion about the art being presented. Ari knew that YouTube was about to begin taking submissions for the inaugural group of YouTube Original Channels. They decided MOCA should submit a proposal and with the help of museum staff and the guidance of WME, that’s what they did.

YouTube does not seem like the most natural fit in the world for an art museum. Most of the channels that received YouTube funding had something commercial in their favor: big built-in audiences like World Wrestling Entertainment and ESPN, or they had cornered the market in content that already performed well on YouTube like music videos, video games, exploding things, and cute pets.

But MOCA believed that the idea of art was expanding, that Contemporary Art was a place where all kinds of wonderful and important things from our culture come together, drawing a global audience of people engaged with creativity. MOCA had an existing record of creating engaging videos about art, and the buzz around the exhibition Art in the Streets, along with the museum’s prominence in the international art world. As a result, MOCA was selected to be one of around one hundred YouTube Original Channels.

MOCA was the only museum selected as an Original Channel, the only non-profit (other than TED), and the only dedicated art channel. The new channel was made a part of the educational offering of YouTube’s Original Channels initiative, and stood alongside Channels that covered cooking, music, VICE, dance, Jay-Z, Shaquille O’Neal, Madonna, Sourcefed, and Young Hollywood.

This was all brand new for YouTube as well as MOCA. YouTube was seeding a new business model made up of professional YouTube channels funded by the commercial world. It decided that one hundredth of its plan would be to capture the growing interest in contemporary art and culture. Here is what happened next.

A Brief Overview of Art Museums on YouTube

At the time of MOCAtv’s launch, art museums around the globe had uploaded many thousands of hours of video to the web. Two institutions, Tate and Guggenheim, were on YouTube as far back as 2005, the first year of the video service’s existence. MOCA uploaded its first YouTube video in 2007, a fifty-two-second trailer promoting a one-night screening of Japanese Video Art. Dozens of videos followed, including art talks, gallery walk-throughs, and performance documentation. The most common objective of MOCA’s earliest YouTube videos was to document and archive museum programming. These videos were ancillary, created with a different set of intentions than what was to come on MOCAtv.

At the same point in time, other museums were putting forth innovative models of YouTube integration, hybrids that combined YouTube with already strong digital properties like websites, social media, and in-gallery spaces. BMW Tate Live launched in 2012 as, according to the press release, “innovative live performances and events including live web broadcast, in-gallery performance, seminars and workshops…” and its YouTube channel today reflects many dynamics inherent to the project’s robust program. The channel is a portal for live-streaming events, an index of past recordings, a social media hub, and a place for educational audience engagement and public conversation. From a user point of view, it’s easy to slip back and forth between the YouTube channel and Tate’s other web properties, yet BMW Tate Live puts standard functions of YouTube channels to use in novel ways. The prominent video player, playlists, and top-tabbed navigation system are familiar, but BMW Tate Live is its own menu item, a sub-channel within a channel with bespoke social media integrations that are not readily available to the average YouTube user.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 82nd and Fifth series is another example of a museum putting web video to unique and impressive use. Launched in January of 2013, 82nd and Fifth is built around a series of one hundred two-minute videos about one hundred works from their collection. Like BMW Tate Live, 82nd and Fifth figures prominently on the Metropolitan Museum’s YouTube channel. However, the content feels most at home on the project’s dedicated website at Here, the videos are presented as a unified whole, complemented by enhanced interpretive features such as historical timelines and integrated maps that present this digital content in the same highly-qualified manner as the Met’s traditional educational output.

Yet even taken out of this supporting context, the 82nd and Fifth videos stand on their own for the following reasons: they are brief, aimed at the short attention span of the web viewer; they are story-driven, derived from interviews but edited into compelling narratives; and they are well-produced: the video and sound is of professional quality, on a par with what is produced in mass media and popular culture.

In the year leading up to MOCAtv, MOCA began producing videos to many of the same standards. No longer producing content for documentation only, the museum saw that well-produced web videos would be key digital complements to MOCA’s exhibitions and programs. Videos produced by the museum at this time again took the form of artist interviews, exhibition tours, and performance documentations, but the videos’ directors came from outside the museum world, bringing an eye for entertainment and a skill for storytelling, along with an understanding of contemporary art.

These videos attracted significant views. For the artist Cai Guo-Qiang and his MOCA exhibition Cai-Guo-Qiang: Sky Ladder (2012), the museum produced web videos which were commissioned and presented as part of the exhibition, appearing on the gallery walls as well as online. In the case of the 2011 MOCA gala, An Artist’s Life Manifesto for which artist Marina Abramović was artistic director, web video became a rich, compelling way to present the artist’s work for the gala to a much broader audience than those attending the event itself. Yet despite the views and the quality of these videos, they were ultimately short series and one-offs. The YouTube channel that hosted them was a useful index, but it was not well integrated across MOCA’s digital platforms.

The Tate and Metropolitan examples aside, the prevailing wisdom was that YouTube was not an artist-friendly or institution-friendly home for video. In early discussions between MOCAtv and contemporary artists on the channel, notions of free access to content and unlimited distribution had to be reconciled with video artworks that existed as limited editions, or were part of controlled archives like Electronic Arts Intermix. These questions were answered in a manner that benefited all parties involved. Over time, the value of presenting an artist’s work on YouTube came to be understood. With the proper educational framing, and as an extension of MOCA, artists and their stakeholders allowed MOCAtv to post their works to YouTube, freely available to all for the foreseeable future.

Still, the vast majority of art videos from major museums were receiving very few views. On a YouTube watch page, this information is highly visible for all to see. Faced with a choice of whether to watch the video that hundreds of thousands of people have watched, or the one that only a handful have thought worth the time, viewers are often influenced by view count in making the decision to click the play button. One hundred hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute. In that sea of competing content, a thumbnail image, a video title, and view count are the only ways to attract attention.

On YouTube, transparent metrics drive all, and often the biggest accumulation of data is read as a direct indicator of overall value and quality. The value and quality of art works cannot be measured in this way. In terms of views, videos about the most treasured objects from the most important encyclopedic museums or by the most prominent contemporary artists cannot compete with the very popular videos of bitten fingers, treadmill mishaps, and cats that a YouTube audience naturally gravitates towards. The YouTube audience is predominantly made up of young people, 18-29 years old. The most avid sharers of content are teenagers. So when YouTube chose to award partner funding to channels about video games, pop music, wrestling, and fashion, they knew what they were doing. We asked Salar Kamangar, CEO of YouTube, in a private conversation at YouTube Studios in Los Angeles why they chose MOCA in addition to those other types of channels. He said they did not just want YouTube to be delicious, they also wanted it to be nutritious, hence their decision to also fund educational channels.

MOCAtv, the only art channel and a non-profit among the original Partner Channels, was part of the Original Channel’s education vertical. A vertical is a grouping of channels that have overlapping audiences, or in the case of YouTube or any other content delivery platform, a large proportion of viewers with similar demographics that attract specific advertisers. Fellow members of our vertical included TakePart TV, a division of Participant Media that produces videos on social change; Soul Pancake, a channel covering a mix of humor, science, and philosophy; TEDed, a series of short lesson videos by the world-renowned talk producers, along with SCiShow, TechFeed, and the Spangler Effect , all broadly focused on science, DIY, and geek culture.

Somewhat apprised of the field that MOCAtv would operate in, with a belief that YouTube would be more than just a hosting service, and despite possible culture clashes between what played well online and what an academic institution with a tradition of intellectual rigor normally produced… MOCAtv began to create videos.

What Should We Make?

MOCAtv began to take form in May of 2012 with the arrival of Creative Director Emma Reeves, a producer and director with a background in art history, print media and television, and Head of Production John Toba, a writer and producer with experience making arts-focused television and documentaries. A launch date of October 1, 2012 was set for the channel to have its first two hours of video uploaded and an additional two hours a month of original content right behind, amounts that were determined during the proposal process. MOCAtv would be organized into ten strands of programming. Broadly speaking they were Artist Video Projects, original artworks made by contemporary artists; Artist’s Studio, documentary, interview, and art-making process videos; Art in the Streets, all things graffiti and street art; MOCA U, educational offerings; and an array of Art + programming focusing on where visual art overlapped and combined with other cultural practices: Art + Music, Art in Video Games, Art + Architecture, and Art + Fashion.

Before content could go into production, MOCAtv, the YouTube channel, needed to be built out. Every museum with a YouTube channel has done the initial work of choosing a publicly displayed login name, deciding on one of three preset channel templates, and then uploading a profile pic and header image. But there were new design tasks in this Channel partnership. Assets and identity systems had to be developed that would make MOCAtv look like a serious online property.

An advantage of being in Los Angeles is the ability to work with high-level creative agencies from the entertainment ecosystem. Prologue Pictures, well known in the business for making movie titles, created our animated bumper. Using the geometry of the original MOCA logo designed by Ivan Chermayeff of Chermayeff & Geismar & Haviv as a jumping off point, Prologue created a three-dimensional animated bumper that would play before every video. The bumper incorporated glimpses of classic video art, in many forms, some from artists whose work was in MOCA’s collection.

The next job was to brand the YouTube channel itself. Studio Number One, the design agency of artist Shepard Fairey, took the lead. Adding a lower-case letter “t” modeled after the “C” in the MOCA logo, and inverting the triangle A to make a small v was a simple and elegant series of moves that lead to the MOCAtv logo. From that, a visual system for the channel was developed. This was a set of rules about typography, color-coding, and user interface elements that would keep the YouTube channel organized and make it user friendly.

At the same time, with a clear launch deadline, two full-time staff, and support from numerous museum departments and outside entities, video had to go into production. MOCAtv’s first and most important content decision was that the best use of the production budget was not simply to average it out and spend an equal number of dollars per minute across all videos. Considerably more was allocated to a few “tentpole” pieces of content: highly visible, successful marketing ventures that would announce MOCAtv’s entry into the YouTube sphere.

This is how Björk came to be on MOCAtv, in collaboration with artist and filmmaker Andrew Thomas Huang, on the music video for her song Mutual Core. This turned out to be a very good decision. Mutual Core today accounts for over a third of all the views on MOCAtv and remains one of the channel’s most viewed videos. It has been re-presented on television, in multiple film festivals, and exhibitions around the world. MOCAtv was awarded a Peoples’ Choice Webby award for Music in 2013 for its presentation of Bjork’s Mutual Core video, and it has been shown on large public screens around the globe including a month-long series of midnight showings on over forty screens in Times Square, NYC. That single video generated multiple other videos, behind-the-scenes and making-of videos, many hundreds of press articles, and has been a big help in defining MOCAtv and bringing it to a wider audience.

At the same time, MOCAtv has been aware of a duty to not simply make popular videos, even in the impossible scenario where every video could have that kind of budget. Helped by the deep relationships MOCA has with its local community of artists, MOCAtv produced a variety of videos with different aims, including a series on the history of West Coast Video Art, and videos in support of many exhibitions at MOCA. Then, MOCAtv quickly ran into a whole new problem: the sheer volume of content.


It is a simple mathematical equation: if making two hours or more of original content every month, and two to five minutes is the ideal length of a YouTube video, then MOCAtv would have to produce and publish a huge number of videos every week – more than one per day. At the outset, a five-video per week schedule was organized. The aim was to publish a reliable and consistent weekly diet of videos. If you were interested in Artist Video Projects, for example, you would find a new one every Monday. Art + Music would be Tuesday. Art in the Streets on Wednesday, etc.

Several problems were quickly discovered with this type of schedule. The first was that it was too much. Every video required research and formal commissioning, artists needed to be contacted, producers and filmmakers hired and paid, standards kept high, rights cleared, music released, and images credited. And then, after every video is made, it needed to be pushed through a complicated YouTube publishing queue of copyright flags, claiming, monetization, and metadata.

The promotion of a single video can employ dozens of assets, videos, gifs, stills, and texts. The outreach required to personally contact press and bloggers for coverage on each video was a massive time commitment as well. Yet, without those many efforts, an average MOCAtv video would simply not be seen.

Social media was to be each video’s fundamental distribution channel. MOCA’s already growing presence on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and Tumblr, is where MOCAtv videos were first seen by the museum’s audience; however, on a five video per week schedule, and adding in essential posts about museum exhibitions, events and the like, ‘audience bandwidth’ or the capacity of MOCA’s viewers to take it all in – even in the content-hungry world of social media – was quickly exceeded.

MOCAtv had a hugely important performance indicator, one that took precedent over all other typical measures of digital success: views. YouTube awarded Original Channel funding on the promise of delivering views that would be monitored and monetized. Therefore, MOCA’s online strategy focused on delivering content to audiences, and our audiences were on social media.

Best social media practices were established, then questioned, then improved on over time. We learned that on Facebook, a compelling image with a link embedded in the post copy would perform better than a video embed straight in the newsfeed. We learned that Tumblr could support upwards of ten posts per day, covering a range of just-launched videos and videos that were long past their first wave of popularity. We learned that across platforms it was necessary to be as “social” as one can be on an institutionally voiced platform, and that we should talk about our videos, but also talk about the related universe of ideas that the video came from, as well as topics that were simply interesting to our audiences. Many of our posts linked straight to YouTube watch pages, but many also just presented a quote from an artist, or a photo of a great artwork. We learned that being a YouTube partner channel was a huge factor in MOCA generating an enormous following on Google+ – 2.25 million people as of the writing of this paper – but we still didn’t know what to do with that very big circle.

Very quickly, however, it became apparent that driving video views from social posts was not at all a straight line, and that each platform presented its own set of problems that could not be properly addressed while furiously crafting editorial and creative for five video releases per week. So over time MOCAtv developed a more manageable schedule of two to three videos per week. This allowed us to concentrate a larger percentage of our energy on every video, to streamline our workload, and also to deliver a constant supply of fresh content.

The contrast between the natural ecosystem of a museum and that of YouTube and high volume video production became obvious to us. Museum exhibitions are planned years in advance by a team of many. Driven by two full time staff members, with vital contributions and support from every part of the museum’s operations, MOCAtv produced and published, marketed and promoted, over 250 videos in its first year. We strained to give every video its due in that year but in order to allocate time and resources effectively, we had to wrestle with the problem of what our goals were for the channel and for each video. So we had to ask, what constitutes success?

What constitutes success?

The simplest answer to this question, as stated above, is views. It is not necessarily the right answer, but it is the simplest. Views are the most obvious metric of any YouTube video. The number is visible to all and a bellwether of popularity. But there are so many other factors that can be taken into account. Here are some of the factors we have measured.

Firstly, MOCAtv is helping to define the museum’s overall identity and contributing to its legacy. Irrespective of views, the total sum of videos on the channel is a collection, one that, with the help of good digital archiving, will live on and potentially be of lasting importance to the museum. The space of YouTube is not at all the same as the walls of our galleries, and these videos do not require quite the same care and preservation. These videos, while not as permanent as the pyramids, are not about to be taken down. They are well-tagged and surrounded by metadata that makes this MOCA content easily surfaced and findable. On a related note, YouTube, now is the second largest search engine in the world, behind its owner Google. When people search for MOCA, for artists, or for any number of related terms, these videos will be found.

Impressions across MOCA’s combined social media channels constitute the museum’s largest global audience. Because of the frequency of publication and overall quality, MOCAtv videos have driven a significant portion of the museum’s online reach. In the first year of MOCAtv, over 5,000 individual posts were published on MOCA social media channels. One half to two thirds of these posts were derived from MOCAtv videos. Additionally, MOCAtv became the main focus of a newly launched Tumblr initiative, and the museum’s alignment with YouTube is a major factor in MOCA having nearly 2.6 million followers on Google+.

The sheer number of videos we produced and the need to collaborate with outside talent has led MOCAtv to partner with a broad range of individuals and institutions. In the first year alone we worked with hundreds of artists, filmmakers, musicians, writers, and other museums and institutions including The Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, Wexner Center for the Arts, Nasher Sculpture Center, Whitney Museum of American Art, LA>< Art, ForYourArt, Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions, Orange County Museum of Art, The Getty, and many others.

We were able to create specific videos to satisfy specific institutional needs. Out of the gate, MOCAtv launched a video-driven campaign that awarded a free three-month museum membership to anyone who subscribed to our YouTube channel. Of the hundreds of people who took advantage of the offer, a small portion, 3 percent, converted to being paying museum members. A success considering the global reach of our YouTube channel versus the traditionally local benefit of museum membership.

Additionally, MOCAtv created videos for specific exhibitions, which were subsequently requested by other museums around the country presenting MOCA’s exhibitions. For example, when Blues for Smoke travelled to the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Wexner Center for the Arts, associated videos produced by MOCAtv were a part of those museums’ online and social media strategies.

Lastly, many of the videos became a catalyst for growth in the creative community around MOCAtv, seeding a small ecosystem of filmmakers and videographers who collaborated with artists to become part of the MOCAtv family.

Over time we began to host events and screenings at the museum, premiering the videos and offering filmmakers and artists the opportunity to screen their work onsite at MOCA. Cast and crew were brought in with friends and family, becoming another form of outreach, an on-the-ground well of social media activity, generating more stories, more pics, instagrams, gifs, and general buzz within the Los Angeles creative community.

It became clear that views alone were not the primary goal of MOCAtv. We tried working with a social media agency that came very highly recommended, we experimented with various kinds of digital marketing and while there was sometimes a very real and detectable uptick in views, those views seemed to us to have limited value. They were not noticeably viewers who were subscribing and watching other MOCAtv-related content.

After a while, MOCAtv stopped any form of paid digital marketing and concentrated all efforts on creating quality social media assets in support of its videos. These efforts are focused on certain platforms above others, on Tumblr especially, which re-presents the videos and surrounds them with supporting content and context. Snippets of texts, quotations, and testimonials drawn straight from the video content are helping shape a more engaging MOCA voice on Twitter. Longer form writing has been elevated as well, primarily by crafting museum-quality texts about every video on the channel, but also via blog posts, and editorially-driven email newsletters. More than impressions, or simple views, genuine engagement is now a clearer goal, reaching people who like the content and find it in a way that is meaningful to them, because they are referred by a friend, or come to us from a blog post, or are regular subscribers.

When all of these factors worked together, it became our own definition of a bulls-eye. For example, the Björk video, or the series we made on the Art of Punk were successes by many of these measures. But despite the successes, there were several challenges to overcome, some of which are indigenous to YouTube and some of which relate to the integration of MOCAtv into the workflow and structure of the museum.


The first thing to note about the challenges of launching a YouTube channel for a museum is that many are the same the challenges that any YouTube channel faces.

A YouTube watch page is not your museum website. Below your video lies a stream of unfettered, un-moderated, anonymous and LULZ-seeking comments. Next to your video is an uncontrollable sidebar of suggested video offerings. There are ads that YouTube serves prior to every video, and overlays in-stream on top of your videos. You can work very hard to design and curate the videos on your channel home page, but only a very small percentage of your YouTube audience will ever land there. On average under 5% of all video views will take place on this well considered, well-designed page. 70% or more of all video views take place on the YouTube watch page, which despite Google’s much-vaunted algorithms can sometimes recommend some very unlikely and unfortunate related content.

The ads were also a surprise for us. At launch in October 2012, YouTube was serving ads that outwardly pushed political and religious points of view. We received some calls and complaints from artists and contributors who were shocked to see adjacent to their videos campaign and religious organizations’ ads that were far from their own allegiances, and at odds with their works. We also worked through the question of overlays on the videos with artists. Some were opposed to anything they didn’t put there. On the other hand, some artists were pleased that MOCAtv had the ability to include a watermarked logo on a video as they felt it offered a measure of legitimacy and protection.

But over a relatively short matter of time, YouTube’s ubiquitous overlays, sidebars, comments, and ads have become so commonplace and omnipresent, that no one mentions it any more.

The challenge of dealing with YouTube’s copyright protection system still exists. No matter how careful and diligent you might be with clearing copyright and permissions, as we are, other YouTube users still have the ability to flag your content for an alleged copyright infraction, and whether they are right or wrong that can still hamper your ability to use all the functions of your YouTube channel until that copyright dispute is resolved or released.

Spurred by feedback from practitioners making work on Original Channels and by the demands of much sought-after advertisers, YouTube has addressed and solved some of the YouTube-native problems. Commenting on YouTube is now much more controllable: it can be moderated. Now linked with your channel’s Google+ page, comments from members of your community are surfaced and prioritized, while spam and objectionable content is hidden or made manageable.

The other source of challenges for MOCAtv was figuring out how best to integrate with the existing structures of the museum. Prior to MOCAtv’s launch, MOCA already had an active presence on social media, and this activity has been expanded further and made more effective with the addition of MOCAtv. Additionally MOCAtv’s content production and supporting programs at and outside the museum, such as regular events, screenings, performances, panels, etc. continue to be developed with stakeholders across every function of the museum. These processes are worked out through regular meetings, frequent updates and constant communication.

On May 1 2014, it will have been two years since MOCAtv began. So it is appropriate to ask, how has MOCAtv impacted the museum?

The simplest conclusion is that MOCAtv has evolved from being just a YouTube channel into a being a dynamic and vital part of the museum. MOCAtv is making content in support of the museum’s exhibitions and functioning as a digital annex. A stated goal for MOCAtv for 2014, as the museum celebrates its 35th anniversary, is to shine a light on MOCA’s history. For example, as part of an ongoing and important conservation project, MOCAtv will document the care and restoration of several works by Mark Rothko in the museum’s collection.

In addition, the museum’s members, donors, corporate partners and its wider global audiences are supported by MOCAtv’s video content, which provides new digital marketing and audience engagement opportunities in connection with the museum’s exhibition and public program. MOCAtv is a valuable and engaging addition to the museum’s program providing deeper engagement to a wider global audience. For those donors, corporate or other supporting exhibitions and programs, MOCAtv’s related video content and the museums growing social media presence provides additional opportunities for recognition, enhancing partnerships.

And finally, as part of its ongoing integration with the museum’s mission, MOCAtv continues to produce content that adds to the museum’s program, driving a large percentage of the museum’s online activity, expanding the museum’s global audience and providing a lasting record in support of artists’ work presented by and collected by the museum. MOCAtv continues to grow confident in its purpose and comfortable in knowing that it benefits the institution as a whole, leading the museum to focus greater attention on advancing an innovative, mission-driven digital strategy.

Cite as:
. "MOCAtv: A YouTube Channel and the Digital Extension of MOCA." MW2014: Museums and the Web 2014. Published February 5, 2014. Consulted .

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