Near the end of last year, the NEA released a report on arts attendance in the US; the results were not encouraging. According to their findings, the percentage of adults who attended at least one arts event dropped to 34.6% in 2008, down from 39.4% in 2002. To an arts organization, even numbers like 39.4% are dishearteningly low. You could argue that arts presenters should change course and show more populist work to garner attention and audiences, but that strategy would run counter to guiding missions and alienate many existing supporters.
What, then, can the strategy be for engaging new (or even existing) audiences in contemporary art? Our friends up at Seattle’s On The Boards decided to test out a new model for presenting contemporary performance. With the launch of their On The Boards TV, they’re staking out a place in the online, on-demand, video rental market. Their gambit is that cutting edge dance, theater and performance (with high production values) can draw a share of the booming online audiences and create new revenue streams for contemporary art. Already, they have beautiful footage of works by artists including Young Jean Lee, Reggie Watts, and Diana Szeinblum, complete with artist interviews and related content. The appeal of this service for educational institutions and peer organizations is clear – a subscription would be a valuable resource to students, artists, and audiences researching an artist.
However, the main question about in-house audiences remains: if people won’t come through the theater doors, is it truly possible to reach them elsewhere? Will OTB.tv be able to draw viewers who couldn’t make it to the live show? The quality of the content is certainly there, but will audiences readily replace the live experience with a recorded one?
Visual arts are facing the same issues of flagging attendance, but they’ve also had a longer tradition of reproducing artwork images, whether in books or on souvenirs. Moving forward, this could be a strength or a stumbling block. The argument has always been that the experience of seeing a painting (or sculpture, or installation) in-person trumps the interaction an individual has with a small photo in a textbook. But, if the image of the artwork is already so widely available, and audiences continue to decline, what can galleries and museums do to secure participation?
One potential answer is to increase the resources around the artwork, providing greater context and understanding. OTB.tv has already recognized this need, and has created podcasts and interviews with their featured artists. Alternately, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art recently started an online Reading Room, with a selection of digitized catalogs from their collection. The offerings are currently limited, but the reproductions are gorgeous and the interface is really nice. Again, this will be a great tool for currently-engaged audiences to research artists, but, much like OTB.tv, can online exhibition catalogs encourage fresh participation?
Interestingly, all of this comes just as artists have begun to enter the world of online sharing, led in part by the successes that musicians had with sites like MySpace. Now, you can find extensive footage shared directly by many performance artists, such as TBA:09′s Kalup Linzy. For years, artists have been (rightfully) hesitant to put recordings and documentation of their work out in the world, for fear of their ideas being copied. Perhaps the benefits of exposure and engagement are starting to outweigh the risk of plagiarism.
All of these efforts certainly represent a changing attitude among arts presenters (and artists) about the reproduction and dissemination of original work, but do they necessarily reflect a shift in how audiences will interact with art? At PICA, with our Resource Room full of recordings and publications, we’re excited by these models being pioneered by On The Boards and LACMA.They offer examples for how we can extend the theater and gallery experience and get all of our artist content out to the community. In looking ahead, our question is: will online content begin to replace those live experiences, or do we still face a struggle to encourage audiences? What do you think about the growing online presence of contemporary art; is it a boon for participation, or will it only attract the attention of our existing communities?