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How Technology Is Transforming the Arts

We are living in a time of immense and painful transformation in the arts.

All across the country, many of our biggest arts institutions are facing extinction. In my home city, for example—DC—the Washington National Opera had to be subsumed into the Kennedy Center so that it didn’t collapse. The NEA has a gun held to its head by conservative legislators every time the budget gets debated in congress. And the percentage of philanthropic giving directed to the arts keeps getting smaller and smaller year after year.

Meanwhile, artists have been totally marginalized. The average successful playwright earns $5,000 a year from royalties and commissions. That’s it. And we usually live in big cities, too, where the cost of living is much higher. It isn’t that we aren’t making a good living. It isn’t that we don’t have any health care. We literally can’t afford to make art.

And at the same time, audiences are diminishing. Even the most frequent consumers of culture—people who visit three or more arts institutions a month—have dropped by a third. Only the digital art forms are doing somewhat well… because almost all of our leisure time in America is spent at home watching television, surfing the internet, and playing video games.

I believe all three of these issues are related—the extinction of institutions, the marginalization of artists, and diminishing audiences—because the arts are an ecosystem… and an ecosystem is only healthy when the relationships between the elements that make it up are healthy. Right now, in America, that just isn’t the case.

The relationship between artists and institutions, for example, is totally one-way. The big arts organizations, or at least many of them, often act like elitists. Artists have to petition for entry with the right graduate degrees from the right programs and the right agents… and the ones who do somehow manage to get let into the castle are woefully homogenous. There aren’t enough women, there aren’t enough people of color, there aren’t enough artists from rural areas of the country, and so on.

The relationship between arts institutions and audiences, meanwhile, has become painfully fleeting. It’s sort of like audience members have a series of one-night stands with different institutions: one visit to a museum here, one concert there, one article in one magazine, etc. Even if you happen to see three plays in a year, you see them at three different theaters. People think of their visits to galleries and the symphony and so on as special indulgences. There’s no loyalty.

And then of course there’s the relationship between artists and audiences. Only there isn’t any relationship at all. The two groups are completely estranged. And it’s totally our fault. On behalf of all artists, I hereby claim responsibility. See, we don’t like to think about our audiences. We only want to talk to them through our work, and we sure don’t want to listen. We want to make art for ourselves, not for others. So naturally, as a result, they think of us as snobs and outsiders. You can’t blame them.

So you’ve got arts institutions sitting in that castle on top of a mountain. And they reach down one side and pluck a few artists out of the faithful and haul them on up, then they shout down the other side to tell audiences “Hey, for $37.50 you can hike on up here and see who we picked.” So the only conversations that ever happen between artists and audiences are happening on top of that mountain, in that rarefied, mediated, institutional space. And there’s a lot to discover up there. There’s plenty of delight, too, to be sure. But it just isn’t enough.

So… what would make for a healthy arts ecosystem with healthy relationships? It’s not magic: it’s the same thing that makes for healthy relationships everywhere: open, honest, two-way communication. Engagement between equally-respected partners. And part of what’s been getting us there in the past few years—and what’s going to keep getting us there faster than anything else—is technology.

Technology has always up-ended the arts throughout history. Writing on clay tablets became the printing press became the Amazon Kindle. Storytelling around a fire became radio became HD flat-screen television with a DVR. With every evolution, technology changes not only how we express ourselves, but also (and more importantly) how we connect with each other.

Think about that estranged relationship between artists and audiences. Until the last decade or so, the art most of us made rested on the assumption that artists are creators and audiences are passive consumers. You stare at the painting, you watch the show, you listen to the concert. That was the dominant paradigm.

But we’ve been living in the internet age for 15 years now. There are audience members today who have literally never known life without it. Their brains have been wired by their interactions in digital space. And when you surf the web, you don’t “consume” what you see; you create your own narrative by the click choices you make within a website and from website to website. A website isn’t passive art, either; a website is art you manipulate. They fully expect the art they’re interested in to be available online and on demand, which is why digital participation in culture is actually up. What they expect, really, is choice.

So to those audiences, it really makes no sense at some level that you can’t click on the placard next to the Mona Lisa, for example. What if you don’t want to just move on to the next room in the museum, like you’re supposed to? What if you want to go deeper into a particular painter? This is why the Smithsonian has been “gamifying” its museums, designing these huge digital experience to enhance the art, adding a social layer with iPad and iPhone applications and building detailed FourSquare adventures.

But the level of customization we expect, thanks to the internet age, goes much deeper. We want to be able to take the Mona Lisa and personalize her. And I’m not talking about drawing a mustache on her face; I’m talking about making her look like your late Uncle Tony. On the internet, your data follows you. Your preferences follow you. The internet looks familiar wherever you go, and to some extent, we now want our art to be somewhat familiar, too. (Not entirely, but somewhat; maybe “relevant” is a better word.) Think about the online video the band Arcade Fire released online not long ago—the one where you could enter your childhood street address and pictures of your neighborhood would be automatically set to their music. That’s the kind of thing audiences are expecting.

It might be only the beginning, too. There’s an online service called Eventful that allows you to “demand” appearances from artists. If you want to get Lady Gaga to come play in your area, for example, you can log on and say so, and if enough other people join you, and she’s smart enough to listen, you might convince her to come. So if you can do that… how far can we be from audience members commissioning new plays directly from playwrights, for example, or new paintings from a painter? A few technological tweaks and we’re already there.

So what about the fleeting connection between audiences and institutions? Compare a churchgoer’s relationship with a church to an audience member’s relationship with a theater, for example. Churchgoers commit. They tithe. Audience members buy tickets. And they spread their purchasing power out among multiple venues. They don’t belong anywhere.

But look what’s happening with online funding services like Kickstarter and IndieGoGo. You can now actually invest in an arts institution by making a donation before the exhibition or production or concert or whatever you want to support even exists. When it’s just an idea, long before anybody’s actually selling tickets. The same sort of thing is starting to happen with community-supported theatres, too, where everyone chips in to help support an arts organization. Instead of conducting transactions, audience members are planting seeds and reaping harvests. That’s loyalty.

There are also now technologies that are giving audience members a real voice with institutions for the first time, too. Reviews of concert halls on Yelp. WordPress blogs about dance troupes. Facebook comments and posts on a publisher’s wall. See, it used to be the only way an arts institution ever listened to its patrons was by counting up the box office receipts. But ticket sales only measure the volume of the response to a production or exhibition, not thecontent. You can tell whether your patrons liked something, but not why they liked it. With all the new feedback mechanisms that are available, though, an institution that’s smart enough to listen can learn a whole lot… and maybe give its audience members more of what they’re looking for, too.

And finally, there’s the totally out of balance relationship between artists and institutions. For a playwright to make a connection with an artistic director, for example, she typically has to try very hard, have the right introduction from the right person or the right representation, be very clever, and get very lucky. It’s not easy. And at the same time, artistic directors are totally overwhelmed: everybody wants a piece of their attention.

What we need here is a better kind of access… and no technology offers access between artists and arts leaders quite like Twitter. You can tweet something interesting about an exhibition to its curator and the conversation’s off and running immediately. The Twitter stream flows so quickly there’s no time for gatekeepers: there are ideas and personalities, and the most compelling earn the highest Klout scores. It’s a meritocracy instead of an oligarchy. How much better is that than the really formal, really regulated ways we typically interact with each other? Query letters, audition packet submissions, portfolio reviews: they don’t hold a candle to a great, egalitarian, democratic mélange of Tweets.

What the leaders of arts institutions need, at the same time, is a way to find a signal in all that noise and make real connections. And there are more and more websites that are devoted to making those connections. There’s an online service called Pitch Central, for example, that helps playwrights put their work directly in front of the theaters that are most likely to be interested in it… and that’s just one of four or five different examples. In the publishing world, there’s a digital tool called Submttable that lets publishers manage their submission processes and manuscript reviews so much more easily than ever before. They can focus on editing manuscripts and getting to know the authors they work with instead of licking stamps and maintaining spreadsheets.

So, thanks in part to technology, we’ve got choice, personalization, investment, voice, access, and connections. It’s a start. But what we really need now is a major transformation of the entire ecosystem: one that helps arts institutions complement their role as cultural curators and stewards of our shared artistic history … with a role as platforms that are focused on empowering direct creative engagement between artists and audiences. We need institutions to become, at least in part, service organizations less focused on the personal creative visions of their leaders and more on the needs and experiences of their constituents.

This is the same transformation, incidentally, that’s starting to happen with the federal government, which is beginning to complement its role as a centralized controlling authority that makes and enforces laws and regulations… with a role as a mechanism for connecting citizens to other citizens and to businesses. Tim O’Reilly’s been talking about this sort of change under the umbrella of Government 2.0 for years.

As for businesses themselves, the most successful are making a similar transformation: instead of competing for the most market share and, in essence, manipulating more and more people into buying things, which undermines their brands in the long term… they’re focusing on helping consumers get connected to the products and services they’re interested in.  It’s the difference between the Washington Post classifieds, which have all but died, and Craig’s List.

Ultimately, this transformation is really just a big generational shift: from the Greatest Generation, who had enough faith in centralized institutional power to build the arts organizations I’m talking about in the first place; to the Baby Boomers, who started to question that centralized authority and erode the foundation of institutions; to Generation X, my generation, which totally lost faith in the ability of institutions to provide real value; to the present day, the Millennials, who are actually ready to believe in institutions again… but only the ones that help them express themselves. They’re looking for platforms they can stand on, to continue the metaphor, not mountains to stand in the shadow of.

Millennials are the future, and the arts institutions that start orienting themselves to the Millennial age will stand the greatest chance of surviving long-term. Because while artists and audiences will always survive, because making and interacting with art are fundamental parts of being human, institutions are vulnerable. We don’t watch plays in the same places we watched them in fifty years ago, and we might not watch them in the current institutions fifty years from now. In the ecosystem of the arts, institutions have to adapt and evolve or die. And when they die, we lose a little bit of the cultural knowledge they’ve kept for us for so many years. We’d all be better off not letting that happen.