Earlier this week, I attended the Beyond Dynamic Adaptability conference, the second in a series of free events, aimed at helping artists and arts institutions deal with the rapidly changing cultural & economic environment in the US. The conference was sponsored by The San Francisco Foundation, The Wallace Foundation, the San Francisco Arts Commission and Grants for the Arts (The San Francisco Hotel Tax Fund). It was held at the Marine’s Memorial Club/Hotel on Sutter Street, a classic 1920’s Beaux-Arts hotel that was originally dedicated as a “living memorial” to the U.S. Marines who served in the Pacific during World War II. I was relieved to see that they had refurbished the theatre since the last time I was there, although the leg room in the balcony still reminds me of flying coach (and not in a good way).
Anyway, the theme of this year’s event was adapting to on-line social networking. Museums, symphonies, creators, theatres, small arts organizations, and nearly everyone else involved in the arts is trying to get a handle on how contemporary, plugged in audiences want to participate in the arts, and how they can best communicate with this audience. Financial survival is a big issue, as artists and arts organizations find themselves in a squeeze between reduced arts funding in general, and an audience that isn’t stimulated by the traditional formats arts institutions have relied on for decades. One of the conference participants told the story of talking to a representative of a government grant-giving entity, who said (paraphrase) “You want people to participate in the arts? People are doing everything for themselves now, painting, dancing, singing on street corners. You people should declare victory and go home.” Not a great message if you’ve dedicated your life to your craft and want to make a living at it. What to do? This theme of inclusion, the expectation of audience participation on some level, has been the theme of almost every arts conference I’ve attended in last three years. This event was particularly interesting because audiences in the SF Bay Area must be about the most plugged in and culturally active community in the country aside from New York.
Although there were many points of interest, I found the opening panel to be the most entertaining and informative. John Killacky (Exec Director, Flynn Center) moderated a panel that included Ben Cameron (Doris Duke Charitable Foundation), Dante Di Loreto (Exec Producer of Glee and American Horror Story), Josephine Ramirez (Program Director, Irvine Foundation), and Nina Simon (Exec Director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History &; author of Museum 2.0).
Cameron (see his TED session on YouTube, above), really encompassed the goals and challenges discussed throughout the entire event ) asked, “what if the current arts environment is comparable to the religious reformation that happened in the 16th century”? Technological advances like the printing press allowed more people to learn and communicate, and they began to question whether they actually needed a mediated religious experience, many decided that it was possible to talk to God without the Church as a middleman. Cameron sees contemporary arts institutions in the position of the Church, trying to keep their footing as they figure out how best to work with an audience that has endless other options for learning, cultural participation and entertainment.
Di Loreto, probably one of the most sought after producers in Hollywood, commented that he was humbled by his co-presenters, and wasn’t sure why he was invited to participate. He had a good story to tell though, as a huge part of the stupendous success of Glee is driven by fans participating in social media. He told us that when the pilot of Glee aired, no one involved in the production had any idea that fans would begin to post their own videos mimicking the performances and choreography. Glee was a success, the moderator commented, because the producers decided not to enforce copyright infringement instead of zealous protecting their brand and image, allowing the community to form organically. Apparently, Say a Little Prayer for You was a fan favorite, and Di Loreto showed a fan video by “The Chunky Hunks,” as an example. He said he was blown away by the enthusiasm of the fans, and hoped that his quirky new show, American Horror Story, could generate the same kind of energy.
He was followed by Ramirez, who was Vice President of Programming and Planning for the Music Center in Los Angeles before coming to the Irvine Foundation. She presented research the IF had undertaken to understand audience involvement and expectations, from the receptive (spectator) to complete participation (audience as artist) and several variations in-between. Her chart is really worth a thousand words, you can see it here on the Irvine Foundation site.
The last panelist was Nina Simon, a force of nature that took over the non-descript Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History and made it a model of artist/visitor collaboration. Her advice was both funny and practical. “Tell your staff to get furniture off the street, when your trustees see it, they’ll gasp and give you better furniture” (this information was tweeted by about 20 attendees). Post-it notes were one of the stars of this conference, as the audience input mechanism of choice. Simon used post-its to get visitor commentary on exhibits, suggestions on improvements, and to find potential volunteers. I haven’t been to this museum in years, I’m going to have to go back there now, and check it out.
The conference included several arts performances. The one that most sticks in my mind was a short playlet by Liz Duffy Adams presented by the Crowded Fire Theatre Company, Talkback, A Play about Talkbacks, in which several actors posing as critical audience members give post-performance feedback to an actor, actress, playwright, director and dramaturge sitting onstage. After a few comments, it becomes clear that the play being discussed is Hamlet. “The cast is too big. It’s too long. Who the Hell is Yorick”? By the end, the critics were demanding a complete rewrite, which the playwright ultimately refused. “He’s not going anywhere with THAT attitude,” the “Director” commented. Another piece that really exemplified the theme of the day was Eric Whitacre’s Virtual Choir, 2052 people singing separately yet together through YouTube. I missed “The Art Bar” which had a whole afternoon of performances.
I finished the morning with three short sessions by Alan Brown & Rebecca Ratzkin (WolfBrown); Linda Ronstadt & Eugene Rodriguez (Los Cenzontles); and Jessica Lustig (Artistic Director, YouTube Symphony). Brown and Ratzkin were commissioned to create a report for this event, exploring the bell curve of audience participation from the initial decision to buy a ticket, through the performance and resulting post-performance response. Lustig spoke about how she began the YouTube symphony, the audition process, and the 2011 Grand Finale concert with Michael Tilson Thomas at the Sydney Opera House (embedded below). Ronstadt and Rodriguez spoke about their long collaboration and the importance of passing on cultural traditions.
After lunch (Café de la Presse, yay!), there were breakout panels. I choose one about how to invite audiences into active collaboration. This one was moderated by Nina Simon, and included Rudolf Frieling (SFMoMA); Rene de Guzman (Oakland Museum of California); Jessica Lustig; Sabrina Merlo (Maker Faire); Sean San Jose (Intersection for the Arts/Campo Santo); and Lise Swenson (filmmaker). The thing that was fascinating here was listening to the experiences of such a diverse range of cultural producers with very different problems and solutions. As an arts professional, and as a web designer that specializes in usability, I was intrigued by the issues raised in this conference, loved to hear the war stories of the participants, and most of all, was happy to be exposed to works and artists I was unaware of that are using the new technologies with great results.