Tuesday, January 8, 2008

A meeting of the minds: art and technology

I have been out of professional theatre management for quite some time now. I love going to shows, love reading about the industry. Every once in a while I get a twinge to go back to it, and then about 5 seconds later I have a moonstruck “snap out of it” moment. We idealize the past.

While I am not sure if I will ever return to the industry, I am passionate about propagating the arts. I read Michael Eisner’s book A Work in Progress about 6 months before I moved to New York City to begin my career in theatre. It is not an exaggeration to say that he very much influenced my decision to give it a shot and see what I could do in the industry. He has a quote in the front cover that to this day is one of my favorites, and it bears repeating. "What hope there is for us lies in our nascent arts, for if we are to be remembered as more than a mass of people who lived and fought wars and died, it is for our arts that we will be remembered. The fortunes wither, the kings depart. What survives are the creations of people who are makers and artificers of the spirit.”

I am now an outsider of the industry with some wonderful friends still very much inside. Over the past few months I have begun to wonder how on Earth the industry expects to survive without embracing technology beyond complicating lighting plots and set designs. With all of the competing interests for time that consumers now face and a shaky economy, the arts cannot expect to rely on local audiences and tourists to make up the whole of their subscriber base. The traditional subscriber model needs to be ripped to shreds and rebuilt. Why should Lincoln Center limit their viewers to only those who can get to NYC? Why not develop a subscriber base that spans the globe?

I’m talking about a technological platform that would film performances and museum exhibits in very high definition to be broadcast via subscription on the web to those who pay per log-in. I am already hearing the naysayers – “theatre is about being there”, “what about the live interaction that the actors need?”, “no technology can replace actually being there in person”. I agree with all of that. And the die-hard subscribers will, too. They will still come to performances and exhibits.

Let’s consider those who can’t get to the theatre or museum: why should art institutions leave that money on the table? Why shouldn’t all people everywhere be able to experience and appreciate art wherever it is? If we don’t do this, can we hope to hang on to young audiences who are so intrinsically linked to technology? And don’t our artists deserve to have the ability to reach audiences far and wide?

The other bonus that this kind of technology would offer is the ability for those who see the performances to interact with one another, to keep the artistic discussion going long after the curtain goes down. Not to mention the diversification of revenue – new subscribers and the increased ad money that could be made available to arts organizations to not only survive but to thrive.

I have a certain disdain for critics – how they kill works of art before the performers even get their arms around a piece. Why should the critics decide what shows stays open on Broadway and what closes? Why does this very select group of people get to determine the art we see and enjoy? Opening up the subscriber base and encouraging the conversation among patrons returns the power to the people it rightfully belongs to – the patrons.

The above images can be found at http://infocusmagazine.org/3.2/images/eng_beyond.gif

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