Michael Tonge
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CONTACT

Email: michael@theculturelp.com

Personal Instagram: @mikey718_

Personal Twitter: @mikey718_

Brand Instagram: @theculturelp

Brand Twitter: @theculturelp

How does New York, your hometown, inspire you?

My folks were split up and as a kid, I used to take the 4 or the A from Utica all the way up to Parkchester or over to Inwood on 207th Street. I’ve always been inspired seeing how demographics shifted and the depth of culture here. There isn’t an end to the kind of people or types of experiences you can get into. I've definitely seen this city chew people up and send them right back home. That's not shade or terrible. It's just a testament to how real the city can be and how deep it can go.

What are your thoughts on how people of color interact with art and culture?

The story of Black people in America is told as post-1600s starting with slavery, but in reality, we were creating long before then. This thing called the art market has created institutions and resources that we feel alienated and excluded from. I wish for everyone to have the confidence to interact with these materials despite whatever art historical context they may or may not have. I have no art history background, but being here at the Brooklyn Museum shows me my opinion is valid and I want everyone to feel that way. If you pull up for First Saturday, don't just stay on the first floor or the third floor where the party is. The galleries are open. Come before the turn up and take a look. If you come to a Ron Draper or any Culture LP show, talk to the artists and ask about their process if they're comfortable with it, as most of the artists I work with are. One of my biggest things with arts and culture is for us not to treat it like this foreign object. It's really in our DNA.

What’s the impact of you, a young Black man who's a native of Brooklyn, being in a role that is about attracting people to this cultural institution in the middle of Brooklyn as Brooklyn is changing?

When opening access for the museum and the arts in general, authenticity is a priority. I can't impact our curatorial decisions or things of that nature. So, how do I make sure we reflect the community we want to talk to in our marketing and communications, the partners we work with and the sponsorships we activate? I don’t want it to be a “no invite?” situation like when a person hits you up the day after an event you posted on social for a month. If institutions don't actually go into the community and speak to people to the extent they feel invited you might as well not even be inviting them. It doesn't matter if you're pay-what-you-wish or if your website has an event calendar. Direct communication is necessary.

Has it been strategy or coincidence that you’re in a role that sits at the intersection of your interests and skills?

I would say it started with coincidence and turned into strategy. I took a job in finance coming out of school and even then, I found myself trying to figure out rollout plans or working on marketing projects. Over time, I just kept leaning on what I'm good at. Then it gets to a point, and I feel like a lot of people can empathize with this, where no matter your skill set, if you're applying it to something you don't care about, it's really hard to come to work every day. I put down on paper that I wanted to be a brand strategist for global brands and I also wanted to curate and promote art shows all over the world. That wasn’t “I’m going to do marketing for one of the largest art institutions. It was “I need to do marketing for the culture.” Still, at the time, it felt like an audacious goal. But then time passed, opportunities arose and I moved into media. Then I had the opportunity to move to the museum through a contact that was able to help get my foot in the door.

The hand off was crazy though. I lost my dad last summer. He was one of the best portrait artists I've ever seen but worked at Colombia as a janitor for 20 years doing what he had to do to pay the bills. Before he passed away, all we talked about was the interviews I had for this job. He passed away adjacent to my final interview and I still went because I knew he wouldn’t have let me not go. That's just the kind of man he was. Through the tears, I realized it was one of those "Yo, this is everything that you've been asking for and it's coming together. You have to figure it out," moments. It was divine timing for sure.

What adjustments were necessary as you transitioned from the agency world into your current role?

The things that make you good in an agency are what you need to hold onto: being curious, collaborative and a quick thinker. Coming inside an institution and handling marketing from the inside out puts a lot more onus on politicking. To thrive inside a large organization, whether it's corporate or institutional, relationships are key because it takes so many more people to get things done. I felt like there was a lot of red tape at an agency selling in an idea before you can bring it to the client. The thing about client side is you have to sell an idea horizontally and vertically for it to get any traction and budgets move a lot slower. Having patience, being able to empathize with people and understand where everybody's coming from based on their specialty is really important. In an agency, you're all doing marketing whether it’s in strategy or operations or analytics. In a museum, you’ve got consevators, who preserve and restore artwork, so CRM or CPM are not even in their world.

What's the day to day of your role at Brooklyn Museum?

Overall, I'm responsible for media buys and partnerships for our exhibitions. I have to think creatively because the budget for a nonprofit art museum is not comparable to that of a Fortune 500 company. The day to day is a lot of meetings for updates on shows, briefing partners and negotiating. Some of those partners are from my side of the world, not the typical art side. Chats with artnet or Time Out are on my calendar, but so are MiM Connect, #blkcreatives and Support Black Art because I know their presence in the community we need to be reaching. There’s also a lot of research and I do try to get out and about as much as possible to other shows. An aspect of the day to day that people don't really acknowledge is saying no. Everyone wants to partner with the museum, which is a good thing. I have to discern what's worth the time of a staff that could always use another set of hands. I’m also trying to make protocol and guidelines around co-promotions and partnerships to lessen the amount of push back I have to do since as I mentioned, a lot of people internally are not marketers.

What's the most exciting project you've worked on thus far at your time at the museum?

Definitely the marketing rollout for the David Bowie exhibit. He has an archival show that's been running for five years organized by the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and we’re the final venue. It's on view until July 15th and the first project I got to work on that I saw from the beginning. What we were able to do with our lead sponsor, Spotify, was really dope. In addition to being a cash sponsor, they were able to archetype an advertising strategy with us that was really collaborative working with the state as well as the MTA to get it all done. We did custom MetroCards and a full station takeover at Broadway-Lafayette as David Bowie lived a couple of blocks from there. It was  cool to do something that resonated with a culture. The MetroCards flipping on eBay before they had even sold out let me know that was the case. It was a great mass project that reached a huge audience, but it also let me show my colleagues the potential of partnerships and gave them a reason to trust me.

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What led you and your partners to found The Culture LP?

The Culture LP started as a blog when I was still in college. I felt like social media was a place where there was a lot of trolling and cracking jokes. I'm guilty of that too, but there was also this need to highlight the cool, positive, creative things that were happening around us. Using a camera from the library, I filmed a couple of my homies who were doing spoken word poetry on campus about microaggressions and things that were happening on this really white campus at Bucknell. I threw it on Vimeo, came up with a logo and chose the name, which stands for culture, lifestyle and progress. It wasn't until I teamed up with former co-founder Jasmine and still co-founder Pavel that we started producing events and experiences to bring together a like minded community in New York. Now we're evolving more into a platform for these sorts of people to discover events like the ones we've been producing for the last 5-6 years.

What would you say is unique about programming and content from The Culture LP?

The arts can seem inaccessible, so we have a very approachable tone. I'm working now with Amirah Mercer, a really gifted culture writer, who's helping us shape our editorial voice even further. We’ve always had a progressive stance, in the sense of moving towards a better version of yourself, that runs throughout everything we do, whether it's content, events or even merch collabs. It's meant to inspire you, make you feel good about and want to challenge yourself. It's the idea of community. Someone once likened it to soul food. That's the vibe that we're always looking to emulate.

How are you approaching innovation with The Culture LP?

I think we all can feel that the internet is a bit too much sometimes. I wanted to create a product that if you are taking a social media hiatus, it doesn't have to mean you're taking a social hiatus. You should still get updates on where you can meet cool people or see wonderful artwork or a performance without needing to be on Instagram stories. We do promotions for event producers through our e-mail list and social, but now are focusing on using SMS messaging in a way that's not overwhelming. People can also text the hotline directly to inquire. On the art side of things, we’re working with local businesses to do short term installations for their spaces. Ideally black owned but even if they're not, I still want Black artists to have a presence. As long as these spaces can cover installation and transportation fees and we get the commission, we'll handle the install. From an editorial standpoint, we are focusing more on long form and being a platform for other voices. If there are any dope writers reading, talk with me or Amirah. We're also doing a big event with Cultural Crawl. They do bar and restaurant crawls with curated street art maps. So we're going to be the host partner for their Brooklyn Crawl on July 28th. Basically, guests will get discounted food and drink at a bunch of spots in Bushwick. We're going to host an open mic and unveil a mural on the basement level of Bushwick Public House.

What are the keys to balancing your 9-5 and 5-9 lifestyle?

I've been struggling with that a lot more lately because the two go quite hand in hand. I have to compartmentalize my time. I'm one of those people who color codes my calendar so I can glance and know the makeup of my day. For my side hustle, I set up weekly calls with my partners first thing in the morning or I have touchbases at lunch time. I batch when I'm checking social media and e-mail so it doesn’t overwhelm me. Then, just getting rest. I know I have a party called nvr sleep, but at the end of the day, I do get some. Nothing is worth dying early over. As much as I love the culture and working with creatives, I'm definitely making sure I take care of myself more and more these days whether that's self-care and meditation and just saying no to shit I don't feel like doing.

Can you share how meditation has impacted your life?

I got reacquainted with it as an adult through one of my agency jobs and a weekly group meditation. At first it was kind of tough and I still can't quite sit in the lotus position but taking time to think or not think and observe my thoughts passively helped me make decisions that I didn't regret. It wasn't until I was introduced to the Buddhist Insights Group that I really got into it. They have a house out in Queens in Rockaway Beach where they host silent meditation and yoga retreats. I've done three now. I went for the first time right after my pops passed away and my mom recommended it. It was the silence that I needed and really awakening for me to have nothing to overindulge in for two days. One of the things I learned in the earlier sitting sessions was this idea of active meditation. You could be on the train and play something that's meditative, whether it's classical music or actual binaural or subliminal meditation tracks on Spotify, no need for a quiet room. Taking that approach has really helped me not be overwhelmed. I do my best to just realize that it's all either going to get done or it's not going to get done. It's really binary. When things start to pop up, I’m no longer like “Oh, I have to react to that.”

What's on the horizon for you?

I want to do less and be more impactful. I think last year I did 50 events and that's crazy. For me, it's always been about quality over quantity in terms of attendees. Now I want to focus my attention on doing fewer events but bringing out more of those people that we've been able to touch. Scaling while keeping that same intimate community feel is pretty challenging, but I’m looking forward to tackling. Also, I really want to challenge myself more in the art space. I've curated a show called Futura Noir that I have reinstalled once after the initial installment and am planning to bring back. I can't speak too much about it right now, but hopefully this fall there will be a bigger show with a partner that I'm excited about. It will be a great way to put some more Black and brown artist on a platform. That and giving the people access to the art and the experiences are my priorities.

How do you stay motivated as you strive to achieve your goals?

My support system is so strong. Between my woman, Danielle, my closest friend, Anthony, and my mother, I have people I can really be vulnerable with about not feeling motivated or being in my own head about the lack of success a lot of us feel. It's weird because when these opportunities to share my story come, I'm like "Oh shit. I'm doing good things." But I'm constantly battling imposter syndrome. In terms of motivation, I find it by time alone and time with people I love more than any resource that I used to turn to.  Some of those make me think too much about money. Not that money is bad, but it can definitely distract you from being purposeful. A lot of times with these entrepreneur videos, I don't know them personally and they just makes me feel like I ain't shit again. It’s like "You don't have equity in some huge multi-million dollar company, so what are you doing?" Revisiting old journals is a big motivator because it's so affirming. Remember that was the thing you wanted and now it's the thing you have, so chill the fuck out.

I always feel this way after interviews like I didn't give enough shout outs. Shout out to my Mornin' Crew guys. Shout out to Rodney Hazard, Amirah, Patrick Eugene, Imani Shanklin Roberts and all the amazing creatives I get to work with. Shout out to my co-founder Pavel. There's so many people I always feel like I under do it. Michael John Macintosh, an amazing artist. He just did a TED talk with NYU, which is dope, about reshaping the artist landscape. Of course, all the Strivers.

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