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Rememberances of Lost Opportunities

Via You’ve Cott Mail comes a NewMusicBox article on how the Mondavi Center is using Google Hangouts as a way to connect with audiences and perhaps as an update of the traditional concert talk.

Author Dustin Soiseth starts out talking about the ill-fated Concert Companion and the resistance to its use which helped to keep it from spreading.

In the context of my post yesterday decrying how social media was allowing people to escape from boredom and uncomfortable situations yesterday, when I read the article I thought, “now this is social media I can support.”

I know it can seem hypocritical to be against using social media devices unless people are reading what I want them to read, but having them semi-engaged is preferable to being entirely disengaged.

I mean, if you are on a first date with a person, if they are going to be surreptitiously using their devices instead of giving you their full attention, better they be looking up information on Neutral Milk Hotel so they can pretend to be a fan and try to make a connection with you than have them looking up cat videos on YouTube. (Not that I am speaking from experience.)

As I acknowledged at the end of my post yesterday, there is an inevitability to social media’s appearance/participation in arts events so it is important to find a way to make the experience constructive.

Soiseth points out much the same thing.

The use of supertitles in opera, while commonplace now, was quite controversial when it began in America in the 1980s. When Beverly Sills introduced them at the New York City Opera in 1983, she was called a “philistine” in The New York Times. In 1985, James Levine famously replied “Over my dead body” when asked about the possibility of supertitles at the Metropolitan Opera, and yet ten years later there they were, Met Titles in the back of every seat, and in standing room, too.

Concert Companion was rebuffed and now the technology is manifesting itself in performance halls in forms the arts organization doesn’t control. Though that opportunity was lost, other opportunities are presenting themselves.

Even though the Google Hangouts Soiseth attended/researched weren’t well attended, there appears to be some potential in the model the Mondavi Center is using. Some of the difficulties they seemed to face appeared to be related to awareness and lack of familiarity with the experience.

Organizations might even be able to replicate the Concert Companion experience by putting QR codes in their program books that people can scan at the change of each scene or movement in order to access notes on the performance at each juncture. After the performance, people can scan other codes for supplemental videos, discussion fora and the like.

We all know that even without an iPhone in hand, people are going to get bored and turn their attention elsewhere, look at their neighbors, read the program book, clean their fingernails, etc. It is okay to be bored.

Given that people are likely to become disengaged at some point and given that the presence of social media devices are only likely to increase, the prudent thing to do might be to provide an outlet for people’s impulse to grab their phones in the middle of the show.

Take the approach of: we would prefer you don’t pull out your phone, but if you feel you must, here is some interesting material to look at rather than to text your friends about going to the beach tomorrow. That said, this material isn’t going anywhere and you can look at it during intermission or tomorrow morning.

I can foresee that people may use hashtags or chat environments generated by the arts organization to discuss the performance during the show. My sentiment about that is the same as yesterday–encouraging audiences it some time to percolate in their brains and discuss it later.

Not to mention, the audience at large may potentially be upset by people spread throughout the theatre giggling as they try to outdo each other insulting the actors’ costumes.

On the other hand, that interaction may provide the arts organization more feedback about their show than they have ever gotten on a survey.

If you are feeling like I am flip flopping on this topic, I have to answer by saying it is a really difficult thing to address in an objective way. I don’t think the sentiments I expressed yesterday are at all unreasonable. I am concerned about what it means for society at large when people are afraid to be alone with their own thoughts.

But I also know that using a social media device during a performance and honestly facing the truths of one’s life are not mutually exclusive and room must be made for both.

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Fuel Your Growth Or Ignite Your Destruction?

Thomas Cott’s recent round up of stories raising questions about whether arts organizations should accept funding from energy companies which are poisoning the environment through oil spills and hydraulic fracking reminded me of the semi-controversial sponsorship of dance by Altria.

I haven’t been able to find it online, but some years ago there was a feeling that the relationship of tobacco giant Altria, neé Philip Morris, to dance was a little unseemly bordering on co-dependence due to the fact that dancers often resorted to smoking to curb their appetites and maintain their desired weight and figure.

They supported a great number of arts organizations, including Lincoln Center, but had a particular affinity for dance. It might have emerged as an issue in the wake of the anti-corporate sentiment of the Occupy movement last year if Altria hadn’t withdrawn their support of the NYC dance scene a few years back when they moved their headquarters to Richmond, VA.

Altria still provides support for the arts, a theatre in Richmond will be named for them in 2013, but their profile of support isn’t as visible since they have left New York.

It does raise the question about what elements should factor into a decision to accept corporate sponsorship or not. Many times corporations provide the sponsorship to bolster their image in the community. At the same time, an arts organization will be concerned about how the image of the corporation reflects on them in the community.

A theatre in Virgina or North Carolina will probably worry less about how their community will react to them being sponsored by Altria than those in NYC since tobacco has a long history in those places. But then Altria may have less incentive to provide sponsorships in those communities in order to bolster their image.

There is also the funding source to consider. Is there less of a stigma associated when Altria’s employees are directing where the funding goes?

This isn’t about Altria. You can substitute the name of an oil company for Altria and oil rich states like Alaska and Texas for tobacco growing states and the situation will be about the same.

In fact, with the stories about how big banks are mishandling money and putting the screws to people over their mortgages, accepting money from banks in some places may not endear you to the community. And since your community is in poor financial straits, banks may be the only significant source of funding enabling you to provide free and low cost services to the self same community.

Given all these factors, it may be wise for arts boards to draft policies and procedures for assessing sponsorship and donation opportunities which may arise.

If you are thinking these issues don’t really matter or don’t feel you even know where to start in developing criteria to evaluate opportunities, you may want to take a look at the blog post by Chris Garrard that Cott links to. There, Garrard addresses what he sees as the weakness of statements like: “But the arts sector needs the money…”; “But historically, the arts have always taken money from big business or sponsors… Why should things be any different now?” and “If we engage more people in the arts to learn about life and philosophy, then that has to counteract issues with where the funding came from…”

I am not necessarily saying Garrard is completely correct. His responses are highly idealistic. But these are all issues that need to be considered.

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We Have To Destroy Our Arts Organization To Save Our Arts Organization

The news of Hostess Bakeries making good on their threat to liquidate in the face of a baker strike reminded me of You’ve Cott Mail’s “Is bankruptcy the answer for arts money woes” round up from this past August.

Back then Thomas Cott linked to a story about how the Barnes Foundation let everyone believe they were going bankrupt in order to make the case for moving the art collection to Philadelphia easier. Another story recalled how the Philadelphia Orchestra also declared bankruptcy in order to help with their contract negotiations and relieve their pension obligations, suggesting that the stigma of doing so may be dissipating and other orchestras may be following suit.

Cott included an article by Terry Teachout acclaiming the success of the Detroit Institute of Art (DIA) in getting the citizens of three counties to agree to an increase in their property taxes (called millage) in return for free admission to the museum.

There was some talk that millage might especially be the wave of the future for funding the arts.

Yeah, not so fast. According to Judith Dobrzynski, the DIA might want to give a thankful prayer for their blessings. Residents of Ann Arbor, MI voted down millage to support a comprehensive public art project.

With that in mind, I wouldn’t necessarily count millage out as an answer. I suspect the biggest difference between Ann Arbor and Detroit was that DIA is a specific, visible entity, the benefits of which are easy to experience by walking in the door. If they were forced to close, it was clear what would be lost. Ann Arbor was looking to support art yet to be created which can be more difficult to become mentally, emotionally and socially invested in.

What I would really like to see is an arts organization successfully sell a community on a wide-ranging public support option like millage in the absence of a scenario of imminent demise. I have seen so many appeals in the face of an apocalypse that I wonder if it is even possible to rally significant community support for a healthy, stable arts organization.

Have we trained people only to respond to dire predictions? Or perhaps they have trained us that they will only respond to appeals couched in those terms.

Bankruptcy and tales of woe really isn’t the most constructive way to develop a relationship and confidence from your community. It impacts credibility and people soon become inured to news of financial crises. In this Hostess liquidation, the only person who wins is Little Debbie. (Come to find out, Hostess owns Drake’s Cakes)

The best evidence that you will not mishandle donated funds is that you are never in the position of telling people about the void that will open in their lives if they don’t rally to support you. It is harder to suggest people should have confidence in your business plan and financial practices if you are in dire straits, but more people seem ready to increase their giving in these instances because it is easier to be passionate in short bursts.

Yes, I know Joni Mitchell told us we take the things we love for granted many years ago, but there is nothing to say we can’t rally to change that behavior.

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All Your Dance Are Belong To Us

Thomas Cott recently included a link to a story about dance and visual arts that I found extremely intriguing. The article starts with a quote from Ralph Lemon, “I wait,” he said, “for the day when a museum acquires a dance.”

My first reaction was that this could be valuable for cross audience pollination. I thought back to an entry I did last February where the coordinator of a visual and performance art festival observed that there was little cross over between her audiences and that of a theatre oriented festival even though they had many of the same artists in common.

Then I started wondering about the logistics and arrangements involved for a museum to acquire and present dance. Fortunately, the article addresses all these things.

Apparently dance and museums are not strangers. A choreographer received top honors at the Whitney Biennial this year. The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) is featuring a 3 week dance series organized by Ralph Lemon. I was surprised to learn that both MoMA and the Guggenheim own several dance pieces and have paved the way for museums to collect “ephemeral works.”

Apparently working in a gallery space challenges choreographers to think in new ways about the visuals and use of space. Museums find they need to think differently about performance arts. (my emphasis)

“But dance isn’t performance art, as Jens Hoffmann, director of San Francisco’s Wattis Institute for Contemporary Art, well knows; he encouraged Mr. Sehgal to transition out of dance, and pursue an audience in the art world.

…Naked on a stage, Mr. Sehgal “re-danced” moves from famous choreographers. “I thought it was interesting that he was turning himself into a museum of dance.” Mr. Hoffmann invited him to participate in several shows in Berlin and Dusseldorf.

Mr. Sehgal, who also has a background in economics, is adamant that his work be treated like any other work of visual art—bought, sold and exhibited. To exhibit one of his pieces, an institution must follow certain contractual obligations—the piece must be shown for a minimum of six weeks, during which time it is presented all day, every day, like any other art exhibition.


According to Ms. Breitwieser, the rise in interest in dance does parallel a similar rise in interest in live art, or art like Mr. Sehgal’s. Since visual art has become so conceptual and predicated on a kind of “de-skilling,” live art, including performance, dance and theatrical works, she said, present an element of “re-skilling” that audiences crave. Awwnd dance presented in the white-cube context of a museum presents a new challenge to both choreographers and viewers that dance in conventional theater doesn’t offer. “The museum’s position is to write history,” Ms. Breitwieser said. “This makes one look at a piece of live art differently.”

How the dance is treated and viewed is of some concern to those in the dance community. If the relationship is to continue, the situation will likely have to move beyond one-offs and short run exhibitions. Tino Sehgal’s insistence that his work be experienced by visitors with the same degree of persistence as any other art work in the museum may become something of a precedent.

According to Judy Hussie-Taylor, the director of Danspace Project, there is chatter in the dance community over whether museums are co-opting dance without fully understanding what it takes to support dancers. There’s also concern that financial resources that now go directly to choreographers and dance organizations may be diverted to museums and visual arts institutions.

“Selling a dance performance as a work of art is an interesting proposition,” she said, “primarily because it’d be great for choreographers to have the same kind of economic control of their work and its distribution [that visual artists have].”

As I said, for me this whole discussion is intriguing to me. I haven’t even been able to imagine all the implications. What does it do for museums which have heretofore always been the site of static art work if they are regularly offering art that is transitory in nature?

One of the big selling points for the performing arts has always been that it happens only for a moment in time. What is the impact of being able to see it 9-5, Monday – Friday in a MoMA gallery? Even though there is still a higher degree of randomness inherent to 50 live performances than 50 viewings of the same YouTube video, do all those repetitions diminish the value of the performance?

On the other hand, does the fact that MoMA has exclusive rights to an exciting, highly acclaimed dance piece and no amount of begging and money can get it performed in Minneapolis enhance the value of both the museum and the company?

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