July 14, 2018
BE MODERN MAN: MEET ‘THE CULTURAL CURATOR,’ MICHAEL TONGE
BE Modern Man is an integrative program that honors the essence, image, and accomplishments of today’s man of color. With features of today’s leaders, executives, creatives, students, politicians, entrepreneurs, professionals, and agents of change—these men share the common thread of creating a new normal while setting the bar in tech, art, philanthropy, business, and beyond. The BE Modern Man is making a positive impact, his way, and has a story to tell.
BE MODERN MAN MICHAEL TONGE
Profession: Senior Marketing Manager, Brooklyn Museum; Co-Founder, The Culture LP
One Word That Describes You: Curious
What does being one of the BE Modern Man 100 Honorees mean to you?
It is really an honor to be included on this list. Black Enterprise has always been a source of inspiration and insight for me. I still remember one of my mentors giving me a copy when I was still in college. Being featured in this publication, alongside Forbes and Fast Company was always an ambition of mine. Honestly, I find it ironic that I’ve been included only once I began focusing on my purpose and putting less onus on awards and recognition.
What is your “Extraordinary Impact?”
Our most unique skills tend to come to us with a sense of ease and have unforeseen benefits for others; and I believe my “extraordinary impact” is something that comes quite naturally to me. I’ve made it my purpose to use innovative marketing strategies to bring awareness to the arts. This can come in the form of implementing a branded listening station at an Imani Shanklin Roberts exhibition in Brooklyn, or partnering with Spotify to drive buzz around the David Bowie is exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum. A solid communications strategy prioritizes the exhibition attendee, meeting the audience where they are culturally to ensure the artwork can be enjoyed by a broad audience.
What are you doing as a BEMM to help support black male achievement now or in the future?
Recently I was accepted into the Global Shapers community in NYC. It is an initiative of the World Economic Forum with a focus on local impact in hundreds of cities around the world. Through this network, we’ve begun to co-program events with the Brooklyn Museum Teens to provide professional and personal insight we wish we had when we exited high school. This project is one of about a dozen led by Shapers based in NYC.
In addition to these more formal programs, I also make it a priority to simply provide career advice to young black men and women who are looking to make their way into the world of advertising and media. As many of us know, most of the time all it takes is a simple introduction or direct contact to secure an opportunity that can change one’s life.
What are some examples of how you turned struggle into success?
A couple of years ago, I put together a one-day, pop-up gallery show titled “Futura Noir” and didn’t sell one piece after investing cash on the transportation of the work, space, beverages, etc. Fast forward a couple of years and The Culture LP was installing a refreshed version of that same show for a corporate client to be exhibited for over a month in their SoHo office. They also ended up buying two pieces, which proved that the idea was worth the risk.
More recently, my father, Daniel Tonge, passed away last May due to heart disease and post-surgery complications. Though he made his living as a custodian at Columbia University for about 20 years, he was the most talented portrait artist I’ve ever encountered. The night before my final interview at the Brooklyn Museum was the night he unexpectedly took his last breath. Through the grief, I’ve been blessed to use the legacy of his personality and artistry to remain motivated and purpose-driven on a daily basis.
What is an important quality you look for in your relationships with others?
I am really fond of talented people who don’t take themselves too seriously. You can be serious and intentional but still realize that life is too short to, “sweat the small stuff” or to be uptight about things that will most likely be of no concern a few years from now.(Photo Credit: Vel Laforet; artwork by Patrick Eugene)
What are some immediate projects you are working on?
Currently, our team is knee-deep in the rollout of Soul of a Nation: Art In the Age of Black Power at the Brooklyn Museum. Opening this fall, it’s really a massive show containing over 150 works, so it’s important that our marketing efforts reflect the breadth of the works that will be on display. It’s also a great opportunity to educate non-art world folks on these Black art pioneers. I’ve personally been able to learn a lot due to the fact that I get to work directly with Ashley James, the curator of the Brooklyn show.
For The Culture LP, we’ve recently begun a text recommendation service called The Culture Hotline, which I’m really excited about. Given how overwhelming social media can be, I wanted to create a platform that keeps our community in the loop without having to rely on Instagram or Facebook notifications.
What is the best advice you ever received?
My father always told me to, “stay out of crazy people’s heads.” At face value, this might seem obvious or even a bit silly. But what he meant was we spend so much time worrying about what other people are thinking about us, or otherwise. Or even trying to rationalize behaviors and actions that, in reality, have nothing to do with us.
What is some advice you have for other men who want to make a difference?
My advice for anyone looking to make a change is to simply start from where you are. You don’t have to wait for the right door to open to make a difference. If you’re someone who is constantly working on self-improvement, you’ll probably never be in the position you strive to be.
How do you prep for an important business meeting and/or event?
It really varies, and I’m probably not the best person to ask as I tend to freestyle things—probably more than I should. For really big speaking engagements, I might go as far as recording my speaking notes to make sure I’m comfortable with the content. But generally speaking, I write down the key themes and stats I might want to discuss for a week or so prior, which helps me imprint the pillars of the speech or panel in advance. Also, if I’m meeting with someone about a project or introductory call, more times than not I’ve done a LinkedIn, Google, or social media scan prior.
As a busy Modern Man, how do you unwind on vacation? Share a story about your best vacation.
I have to admit, having a full-time job and a “side hustle” makes it difficult to unplug but one of the best trips I’ve ever taken was to Cinque Terre, in Italy, while my girlfriend, Danielle, was in culinary school there. Being able to take a train between the small, beautiful coastal cities, sharing meals, and swimming in the ocean directly off of the rocks was a dream come true. For me, time in the water and sun are mandatory ingredients to not only unwind, but to recharge.
If you could travel and stay anywhere in the world, where would it be and why?
Due to my previous agency jobs, as well as Danielle’s stint in Italy, I’ve been to Europe a couple of times. However, Ghana and Johannesburg are calling my name and I’m far overdue for my first trip to the motherland.
Anything else you’d like to say?
Keep creating, keep taking risks, and believe that everything will work itself out.
It’s our normal to be extraordinary. Follow @BEModernMan and join the conversation using #BEModernMan.
Come celebrate the BE Modern Man 100 Men of Distinction at the 2nd Annual Black Men XCEL, Aug. 29–Sept. 2, 2018, at PGA National Resort & Spa in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida.