Profile: Marc Sands, director of media and audiences for Tate

Marc Sands, director of media and audiences for Tate, is relishing the task of bringing art to the masses. Interview by Noelle McElhatton.

Deep in the bowels of Tate Britain's Neoclassical-style building on London's Millbank, the art world's most recent senior marketing recruit has his feet firmly under the desk.

It's 10 months since Marc Sands, former marketing director at Guardian News & Media (GNM), joined the Tate to promote its family of galleries: Tate Britain and Tate Modern in London, and the lesser-known Tate-branded galleries in Liverpool and St Ives. Tate Britain, where we meet, and Tate Modern, are core to his remit.

Sands' job title is director of audiences and media, but he's really marketing director in all but name. Relations with Fallon, the Tate's creative agency since 2004, are his responsibility, and Sands' division comprises 80 people, with those reporting directly to him heading membership and ticket sales, marketing, PR, video, magazine Tate Etc and website.

Small wonder, then, that Sands insists his job is bigger than mere 'marketing', the 'audiences and media' moniker reflecting the goal set by Tate chief executive Sir Nicholas Serota and deputy director Alex Beard to bring the brand to a wider, more diverse market.

Sands pooh-poohs the notion that he faces stiff competition from other galleries and museums. Yet, ultimately, he is measured on maintaining visitor numbers, likely to involve grabbing market share from rivals such as The National Gallery and the British Museum. Any competitive-ness will be evident in summer 2012, when London expects a surge in visitors. Tate Modern will be showing a Damien Hirst retrospective, 'a 'blockbuster' show to attract Olympic Games tourists.

Such headliners are the exciting blips in gallery marketers' calendars. More prosaic-ally, Sands and his team must keep ticket sales up and the 98,000 Tate members happy all-year-round, by promoting the galleries' permanent collections. Membership levels have remained steady, but Sands still has the task of widening the Tate's reach. 'For many people, there's a barrier to engaging in art, a certain fear of galleries,' he says. 'Tate Modern has done a fantastic job in taking those barriers down.'

It helps that Tate Modern has achingly cool and populist exhibits, but Tate Britain is more esoteric and imposing, and the figures are telling: Tate Britain and Tate Modern had 1.6m and 4.8m visitors respectively last year.

That Tate Britain is located off the beaten track in Pimlico is not an issue Sands can solve, but he can make its art treasure trove more accessible through a revamp of the Tate website. 'The Tate has 72,000 pieces of art, of which only 2%-5% are on show at any one time. A frustration has been the inability to show the national collection, dating from 1500, which the Tate holds for the nation. The website is clearly the place for people to access (this),' says Sands.

The current site is 'very good, but in six months it will be extraordinary', he says, adding that the revamp is being handled internally. Accessibility is crucial 'for browsers of art, academics, researchers and those with a general interest. You will be able to search by artist, mood, colour, or whether there's a dog in the picture ', he says.

For Sands, a recent US art podcast saying gallery websites 'suck' resonated strongly, so he looks to retail examples such as Amazon, with its much-lauded referral functionality, for inspiration. He also admires New York's MoMA website for its 'fantastic ecommerce development, more sophisticated than ours'.

Meanwhile, Sands is addressing Tate Britain's fuddy-duddy image. A poster campaign by Fallon, launched last week, pushes the gallery's eclectic collection of great painters from the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, such as Whistler, Hogarth and Sargent, alongside current, hipper names including Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst. The creative concept plays on this juxtaposition, pitting classic masterpieces against their contemporary counterparts.

A similar juxtaposition exists in Sands' own office, where images from Arsenal FC's glory moments jostle for wall space with Tate exhibition posters. The vibe from Sands is suitably intellectual for the rarefied world of art, and yet intensely digital, an aspect he credits to his GNM years.

Sands joined the GNM board in 2000, and oversaw the publisher's award-winning campaigns. His role was axed in a 2009 cost-cutting restructure, which Sands describes as 'not the most pleasant experience'. He adds: 'But I understand why (it happened). The Guardian was and is losing a lot of money, and it had to cut its cloth accordingly.' The offer from the Tate came 'quite quickly' after he left GNM.

Marketing money is, you sense, too tight to mention. There are arts funding cuts to deal with, but BP's sponsorship of the Tate is set to continue until 2012. Does he think the BP association in the wake of last year's Gulf of Mexico oil spill damages the Tate brand? 'We're not of the view that it represents any problem for the Tate,' he replies. 'BP has been a fantastic sponsor and remains so.'

Return on marketing spend is a preoccu-pation, and on top of the Tate's marketing mix of posters, email, press PR and an improved website, exploiting social media is key to Sands' plan. 'Our website will allow us to generate content to spin out to Twitter, Facebook and other social networks,' he says, arguing that such media is far from 'free'. 'Whether it's taking part in Twitter's "ask a curator" day or alerting our base about the weekend weather using one of our paintings, it's still intelligence capital and takes time and effort.'

Social media has a part to play in achiev-ing Sands' other big task - attracting a div-erse audience to the Tate. Marketing alone won't extend the brand beyond its bourg-eois heartland; Sands must rely on gallery curators to craft exhibitions with broader appeal. 'Last year, Tate Britain mounted a Chris Ofili exhibition that drew in an Afro-Caribbean audience that is more reflective of London,' says Sands with some pride.

On the day we speak, Sands is on a high as Tate Modern begins displaying the mostexpensive painting ever sold at auction, Picasso's Nude, Green Leaves and Bust, on loan from the owner, who paid $106.5m for it. After a Tate press and social campaign, punters are 'queuing round the block', he says excitedly, observing that a 'mystery lender, nine-deep queues and free access to the public' is a gallery marketer's dream.

Picasso is a safe bet, however, and living that marketing dream is likely to be a sporadic occurrence. Clearly there are steep hills for Sands to climb in his mission to bring Tate's art both to the niches and the masses, but, on his record so far, the smart money must be on him succeeding.

1988-1991: Graduate trainee/account director, DMB&B (London/New York)
1991-1992: Account director, Simmons Palmer
1993-1996: Account director, HHCL and Partners
1996-1998: Marketing director, LWT/Granada Television
1998-2000: Brand marketing director, British Digital Broadcasting
(ONdigital) secondment
2000-2010: Marketing director of The Guardian, The Observer and their
websites; board director, Guardian News & Media
2010-Present: Director of media and audiences, Tate

Lives: Kentish Town, with wife, two children and two dogs
Drives: Cycles almost everywhere/Jeep Cherokee
Favourite apps: Scrabble and Code Reader
Listens to: Radio 4, Radio 5, Kermode and Mayo, This American Life, The
Moth and anything by Radiohead