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How Instagram Is Changing Life For Artists


So if you've been in a museum in, you know, any time in the last five years or so, you've probably seen people who are taking photos of some of the art. And they're taking photos for Instagram. You're not alone. A lot of people are seeing this happen. The social media platform really seems to have changed how museums and guests are interacting and how they're sharing art with the world. And it's really more than just museums. NPR's Sam Sanders has been looking into how Instagram is changing life for artists. And he's here in our studios at NPR West.

Hey, Sam.

SAM SANDERS, BYLINE: Hey, how are you?

GREENE: So what are you finding?

SANDERS: So to be clear, I'm not an artist. But I like art a lot.

GREENE: You're an artist in a different way. I mean...

SANDERS: I'll take it. I'll take it.

GREENE: ...Radio. Yeah. OK.

SANDERS: But I've been spending some weeks now talking with people who make art and share it on Instagram. And the biggest thing that I found out was that it's really, really hard to be a successful visual artist these days, period, without being on Instagram. It has become the gallery, the museum, the workshop. People are using this to leverage corporate sponsorships, book deals. A good Instagram feed can make an artist's career.

And I talked with one artist, Timothy Goodman. He shares his work on Instagram, but he also does these big, colorful murals in the real world too. So on top of just sharing what he does there to, you know, get exposure, he also uses Instagram as a kind of workshop.

TIMOTHY GOODMAN: So I always think about Instagram as this, like, sketch for me, you know? It's, like, let me throw something against the wall, put something out there to an audience and see how people relate to it, how they interact with it. I've always thought about Instagram as this kind of, like, shooting free throws before the game.

SANDERS: And then he takes that stuff that works there, and he can turn it into things like a big T-shirt campaign for a company like Unica.

GREENE: Which is no small thing. I mean, this is giving exposure to emerging artists who desperately need exposure, just that.

SANDERS: Yeah. But it's not all great. What's weird about making art on Instagram is that it kind of distorts reality. You can have tens of thousands - hundreds of thousands of followers, but it doesn't mean that Instagram is paying all of your bills.

I talked with this other artist, Pavana Reddy. And she puts these poems with illustrations on Instagram. And she has this really big following, but it's not enough. On top of having that platform and, like, two book deals from this, she's also a barista. And a big part of why that may be the case is because it's often too hard to spend all of your time trying to game Instagram for maximum exposure.

PAVANA REDDY: It's frustrating. I hate having to play that game. I don't want to sit on Instagram and look at what the best time to post is. I trust that the people that are waiting to see my work will come visit the page and look themselves. So I've really learned in the years to distance myself from that.

GREENE: You've brought up the tension here. You have artists who used to create in what you called the real world.


GREENE: And now they're having to spend so much energy thinking about a social media platform. It sounds like she's really frustrated. Like, what do artists think about this in general?

SANDERS: More than one artist told me that sometimes what it takes to get big on Instagram and stay big there, it means constantly giving your audience what they want. Do you share the big, bright, colorful stuff that always does well, or do you share that new experimental thing?

GREENE: It's no longer about the art you want to create. It's something very different.

SANDERS: Oh, yeah. And there's also this weird thing that happens. More than one artist told me, David, that they're penalized sometimes for being themselves on Instagram. Some of these artists told me they lose followers if they share pictures of their own faces.


SANDERS: It's such a weird conundrum, you know. On the one hand, Instagram can launch so many art careers and expose all of us to more art. But at the worst, you're in this space in which the artists aren't always the ones who are in control.

GREENE: So interesting. Sam, thanks for looking into this and talking to us about it.

SANDERS: Thank you, David.

GREENE: That is NPR's Sam Sanders, who is here at NPR West. And he hosts the podcast It's Been A Minute. If you want to hear the rest of Sam's reporting on how Instagram has changed the art world, listen to that podcast - It's Been A Minute.

(SOUNDBITE OF SOFI TUKKER & ZHU'S "MI RUMBA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sam Sanders is a correspondent and host of It's Been a Minute with Sam Sanders at NPR. In the show, Sanders engages with journalists, actors, musicians, and listeners to gain the kind of understanding about news and popular culture that can only be reached through conversation. The podcast releases two episodes each week: a "deep dive" interview on Tuesdays, as well as a Friday wrap of the week's news.