The Impact of Technology on the Arts

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The internet and social media have increased engagement and made art a more participatory experience, and audiences more diverse. Yet at the same time, mobile devices, ringing cell phones and texting can create significant disruptions. Technology has had negatively impacted audience attention spans and has also contributed to an expectation that all digital content should be free.

The internet makes it possible for our organization to market themselves more effectively through online advertising, blog presences, and social media exchanges.  The internet has also played a major role in broadening the boundaries of what is considered art.

For arts programmers, the access to high quality media to review artists in advance of assessing them live has been a huge step forward.  Spotify alone has made it so much easier to get a first impression of an artist–no more waiting for press kits, accessing only what they’ve posted on their websites, etc.

Last-minute ticket-buying and the trend away from traditional subscription packages will probably continue, as the internet has freed people up from having to plan for most event attendance far in advance. This will affect the predictability of revenue. On the positive side, social media has been a wonderful tool for word-of-mouth marketing.

While it is impossible to know what internet and digital technologies will be like in 10 years, the trend of more information communicated more quickly to a more finely targeted audience with more immediate feedback from the recipient is likely to continue.  This leads people to delay their decision-making about how they will spend their leisure time. This has generally meant a decline in subscriptions, a decrease in advance ticket sales, and an increase in last-minute box office sales.

However, technology is helping them introduce more audiences to art. The digital world is a very populist force, leveling the world between rich and poor, educated and uneducated. An organization with a name like “Historical Society” has an invisible shield that bounces people who are below median income, do not hold college degrees, who hold blue collar jobs, who are a racial or cultural minority, off.  The ubiquity of the computer, whether through your home machine, school, or local library, means that all of those things that cause discomfort don’t matter.

There is the need for recognition that today’s artists must also be entrepreneurs. Digital technologies will level the playing field for all and old skool, professional artists will be left behind.

Technology has extended visibility to many isolated individuals who may never have heard about the services offered by arts organisations, explored the artform, or who may have financial barriers to membership. Organisations can show to them every day what they do, rather than expect them to find a printed annual report and program summary. Social media are concrete and immediate examples of arts living in the community.

Technology is also helping arts organizations extend their impact, far beyond a one-time performance or event. The internet and digital media provide an amazing opportunity for arts organizations to extend the impact of the arts. A live performance can be complemented greatly by opportunities for further engagement and education, and the ability to share information online maximizes our ability to provide these opportunities at a more in-scale investment ratio. Organisations can reach many more people with an article or video than with a one-time lecture, for example.

Arts organisations are now able to provide artwork that dates back more than 25 years to the communities they have worked with over the years. For many, these archives represent the only media history of their community.  The use of the internet has deepened and expanded the access for our constituencies that are often transitional, without a landbase, or have been historically isolated due to geography.

Technology has greatly improve accessibility to the arts field – from a monetary standpoint and from a logistical standpoint. People who live outside of urban areas are able to experience performances that are somewhat limited to large urban areas. Yet arts organizations will need to reconsider the level/type of interaction with their audience.

Technology is helping organizations reach more diverse communities – even on a global scale. The greatest impact will be the ability for non-profit organizations to share educational content and stimulating art and performances worldwide.  It will also spark conversations between diverse communities and help individuals develop a greater understanding – and hopefully, a life-long appreciation for the arts.

The internet will enable the performing arts to reach beyond a local audience, promote tourism, and make cultural arts created within a region accessible to the nation – and world.

Technology is making it possible to create community around a piece of art. There is a powerful opportunity for the arts to create communities around performances, shows, exhibitions and their themes and history.  For example, a Broadway show like ‘Next to Normal’ could (and probably has) created communities to discuss and share resources on mental illness.

Some organizations enthusiastically talk about the democratization of art and creation, while others expressed excitement about the challenge of meeting new demands and expectations, continuing the transition from passive to participation, from hierarchical to democratic, from traditional media to online media, from single art-form to inter-disciplinary.

The possibility to greatly expand and create a more diverse audience is very exciting because traditionally art audiences have been older and whiter.  Increasingly, we’re seeing content getting traction in surprising nooks and crannies of the internet – which definitely means a shifting audience.  The challenge will be for that audience to identify content with the creators and the institution, and not simply have it exist as more entertainment or noise out on the internet.  In the next couple of years, the role of mobile devices will only continue to shift how people curate their own experience and engage with artistic content.

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The challenges that digital technology present. Arts organizations realize that with these benefits come drawbacks. While digital technologies have led to the creation of ever-more dazzling tools and apps, many arts organizations worry about the long term effect on audiences, the field, and their very mission.

A number of respondents worry about meeting increased audience expectations. People will have higher expectations for a live event. For audiences to invest the time and effort of going to a live performance, the work they see will have to be more engaging and of higher quality. Events will have to be more social and allow for greater participation and behind-the-scenes access. The event spaces will have to be more beautiful, more comfortable, more inviting and more accessible.

The audience has already moved from “arts attendance as an event” to “arts attendance as an experience.”  This desire for a full-range of positive experience from ticket purchase, to travel, to parking, to treatment at the space, to quality of performance, to exit – this will only increase over the next 10 years.

The greatest impact of the internet on independent publishers will be audience expectations. Audiences will expect everything to be available digitally, and will require an engaging experience instead of a static one.

Some point out the problem of managing expectations and meeting audience expectations on a limited budget. The internet and digital technologies are powerful tools.  The public expects content to be free. There is a lack of awareness of the resources (funding and staff) that it takes to manage and preserve digital content.  These costs will need to be passed on to users.

The effort to meet audience expectations will undoubtably influence artistic choices, or even entire art forms. Some ideas cannot be condensed into 140 characters or less. I hope technologies do not negatively affect artists to create solely for a Twitter generation.

Live performance will be diminished.  Younger people don’t want to show up at a specific time, specific place for live performance — they want to download music at their own convenience.  The power of live performance is lost as is the civic convening – and so the community building is lost. Some arts organizations have recognized this change, and are doing their best to adapt. Digital technologies are here to stay, and we as an artform should embrace them and learn how to work alongside them.  We provide scripts to those sitting in our tweetseats, so they get the quotes right. We must work alongside or face alienating them.

Audiences will continue to have shorter and shorter attention spans and will insist upon being able to use smartphones and other devices in the context of a performance.  As an industry, we should stop fighting and try to find ways to incorporate that reality into our daily lives.We will need to become much less tied to live, in person programming and certainly less ties to anchored seats in concert halls. Programming will need to incorporate much more personal involvement by the consumers or they will not be interested in engaging.

There is a real worry about audiences’ decreasing attention spans, and the long-term impact on the arts. As attention spans decrease, programming of longer works (e.g., Beethoven’s Symphony #9) will become more problematic.  As we move forward, we may need to consider ways to embrace the digital, connected world to better engage live audiences or run the risk of making live music performances irrelevant.

The greatest impact could be the expansion of our audiences, but the worst impact is the attention span of the moment of interaction.  I worry that it may shorten our artforms’ performance times. Technology has blurred the lines between commercial entertainment and noncommercial art, forcing arts organizations to more directly compete with all other forms of entertainment. Basically, we are competing for the “entertainment slot” in people’s schedules, and the more entertainment they can get via HD TV, Netflix, Video Games, etc., the less time they have for live performances, which also entails making an effort to get to the venue (as opposed to slumping on the couch in front of the HD screen). Also, movies, video games, etc., are both more convenient and cheaper than live performances.

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Technology has also blurred the lines between a virtual and real experience. As the realism of participatory digital entertainment (video games, etc.) and the immersion ability of non-participatory digital entertainment (3D movies, etc.) increases, it threatens the elements that make the live arts unique–the sense of immediacy, immersion, and personal interaction with the art. 

We’ve long hung fast to the belief that there’s nothing like a live experience, but digital entertainment is getting closer and closer to replicating that experience, and live theatre will struggle to compete with the former’s convenience and cost.

For example film and cinema organizations talk about the pressure they face to preserve the “specialness” of the big screen when on-demand home viewing is already prevalent.  While streaming and piracy are increasing, organisations need to deliver the message that seeing films on the big screen with an audience is a singular, important cultural experience. As a film exhibitor, the challenge is to go through the digital convergence for projection and exhibition, a supremely costly change that doesn’t even have a long-range viability (these systems will have to be upgraded and/or changed every 3-5 years).  Finding the revenue for these digital systems is an enormous challenge and threat to ongoing activities.

Others working in film worry that the quality and quantity of movies will diminish. In the field of film production and distribution, more internet and digital access will result in far fewer movie theaters, as audiences have greater access in their homes to the medium. Already, as marketing dollars become more limited for films, production companies are shortening the movie lifespan in a movie theater and moving them to digital and television media sooner and sooner.

Organizations in the literary book tradition are facing similar challenges with ebooks. Literature and the book are being very impacted by digital technologies due to the growing popularity of ebooks and to the influence of huge online booksellers like Amazon. There are both good and bad effects associated with these technologies. These days books are more easily accessible to a greater number of people however it is difficult for the book industry to produce a sustainable amount of income whether for individuals and for organizations. It is crucial that the public understand the importance of supporting nonprofit literary orgs, publishers, independent bookstores, libraries and other supporters of book culture and in turn it is crucial for foundations and government to provide this support.

All literary magazines are in peril right now, so if magazines continue to exist it will be because of a paradigm shift in how literature is funded as an art form. I am loathe to believe that print publications will cease to exist because they are still more beautiful, but all publishers will eventually have to create simultaneous digital and print editions, I imagine, which will make the whole enterprise more expensive.

These disruptive technological and cultural forces will make it harder for some big scale artforms to survive. The more expensive arts producers ­– symphony orchestras, for example – will find it more difficult to draw enough audience to continue in the same manner they’ve operated for the past decades. Smaller groups will find it easier to adapt because they’re more flexible (they don’t require a large stage and hall). It is a grave concerned when you think of  the possibility of losing some of the greatest music ever written — symphonic music.

Others pointed to innovative experiments — like the Metropolitan Opera’s performances in movie theatres — as an example of what big institutions with funding can do. For opera, it has made it more accessible, by providing low-cost performance broadcast of Met performances. This has increased the potential audience for our live performances. It is a companies responsible to promote effectively to those audiences.

Museums have a unique perspective on technology’s impact. It has greatly improved their cataloging efforts, but some worry that it will eventually reduce audience interest in the “real thing”. It will radically shift the way in which Fine Arts catalog and share information about collections; the museum as less the all knowing authority and more the conduit for rich institution-driven and user-driven information. It will also allow regional collections the ability to link to similar collections worldwide – as such local collections can be recontextualize and made meaningful in ways not possible without linked data and semantic web technologies.

Digital technology and the resulting accessibility of information and images, while fostering accessibility of collections online, have the negative impact of diluting the desire of individuals to visit the museum to see works of art in person.

And of course there is the demise of trusted critics and filters, which has happened as print media — especially local newspapers — have cut back on staff and struggled with decreased ad revenue as part of this digital transition. Without critics, there is a worry about how arts audiences will gauge quality. Digital technologies have essentially made it impossible for book critics to support themselves in traditional ways; possibly the next 10 years will bring the shift of book criticism to academic world, where salaries are paid for teaching, and reviewing is a secondary activity. Twenty-five years ago, working critics had full time salaries from newspapers, magazines, other publications. Today there are only a handful of critics able to do this.

Our chief concern for the literary arts is the increasing “validity” of self-publication among reviewers, readers, and writers. Online publishing and book sales through Amazon (for example) contribute to this problem. If there are no gatekeepers, it will become even more difficult to draw attention to works of genuinely high quality.

For some, the absence of critics and mainstream media previews of arts events means that arts organizations are shouldering an even greater burden. The demise of daily and weekly newspapers and the increasing fragmentation of traditional radio and television media outlets combined with the increasing consolidation of media ownership due to revised FCC regulations has marginalized arts coverage and criticism to a point where it no longer plays a part in the larger civic conversation. Hence, it is becoming increasingly difficult to reach and engage potential audience members and arts participants, and has shifted the entire burden (and costs) to arts organizations that are ill equipped and unprepared to both engage in their traditional function (i.e., support the creation and presentation of art work) as well as build support structures to take the place of traditional media organizations.

It is the advent of the amateur. For those who are savvy and ahead of the curve, there is money to be made if the content is strong. It means the complete reversal of a contributed based model founded on single funding sources and moves toward an earned revenue model and crowd sourced funding. Now more than ever, artists need to be entrepreneurs and not just artists. You can’t survive now as an artist unless you have a strong business model.

Yet others worried openly about how artists will make a living as traditional revenue streams shift or disappear:

[The internet] is becoming the major distribution platform for documentaries, which is what we do. The DVD will be gone in ten years. Artists are going to struggle to monetize their work on the Web.

Access will be good for educational purposes and to increase awareness of the arts especially historical material in performance of all types.  However, issues of copyright and payment for that material, such as in apps and in streaming or downloading, are murky and hard to navigate for artists themselves as to value and fairness of payments to the artist for original content.

There were also some contemplative responses about the impact of technology on culture. One respondent pointed out that the ability to collaborate globally could lead to more cultural homogeneity while another worried about the future of non-digitized art:

Digital technologies allows for students and artists all over the world to be inspired by one another.  In some ways this is fantastic, in other ways, this breaks down the cultural differences that is so beautiful about having multiple countries involved in an art form.

Materials we have that aren’t available digitally will be lost from the human record.

Finally, several respondents summed up the issues facing arts organizations, connecting the challenges of meeting audience expectations with limited funding options:

Attendance at live performances will favor more fervent fans and those with disposable incomes who reside in cities, and the increased prevalence of simulcasts and livestreams will alter the viewing experience while also making it more democratic and affordable. Audiences will expect the digital presence of institutions to be well maintained and curated.

Organizations will continue to need to adapt and incorporate digital technologies into their programming. This will be a good thing for art consumers and patrons by increasing accessibility and improving collaboration. At the same time, organizations will struggle with funding to keep up with technology. Funders so rarely fund some of the infrastructure necessary to create top-notch digital programming, and that will be a major struggle.

Survey results reveal that on a purely practical level, the internet, digital technologies and social media are powerful tools, giving arts organizations new ways to promote events, engage with audiences, reach new patrons, and extend the life and scope of their work. “We can reach more patrons, more frequently, for less money,” said one respondent. “That’s been a huge change in the 30 years I’ve been in the business.”

But, technology has also disrupted much of the traditional art world; it has changed audience expectations, put more pressure on arts organizations to participate actively in social media, and even undercut some arts groups’ missions and revenue streams.

Beyond the practical, the internet and social media provide these arts organizations with broad cultural opportunities. There is an array of innovative ways that arts organizations are using technology to introduce new audiences to their work, expose more of their collections, provide deeper context around plays and exhibits, and break down cultural and geographic barriers that, to this point, have made it difficult for some members of the public to participate. Their responses suggest that the majority of these arts organizations, with enough funding and foresight, are eager to use the new digital tools to sustain and amplify their mission-driven work.

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About Art Selectronic

Art Selectronic is an artist-led initiative, that supports grass-roots contemporary art that remains unswayed by fashion, trends or the whims of government funding. The project involves ongoing research into the placing of contemporary art, it’s audiences and it’s relationship to the everyday. We place great emphasis on context. Our mission is to support new works of contemporary art and foster an audience from a wide range of backgrounds.
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