FROM THE GREEN ROOM: Dance/USA’s e-Journal
By Marc Kirschner
The ultimate conclusion of the National Endowment for the Art’s Audience 2.0 survey, that “Arts participation through media appears to encourage – rather than replace – live arts attendance,” is neither a surprise, nor news. It’s not the first study to come to that conclusion, and, in fact, any other outcome would have flown in the face of conventional wisdom. That said, for the NEA to supplement its 2008 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts with an edition focused purely on media is an important first step in changing the dialogue, and putting to rest some basic fears that have impeded real progress in the performing arts.
The NEA survey’s primary function is to serve as a snapshot: here is the state of the art at this particular time. It serves this function well. But it’s not enough, nor does the NEA claim it to be. Whereas the survey provides a valuable data point that can kick-start forward-thinking dialogue, the practical impact of the survey is limited by the rapid rate of innovation that has taken place over the past few years. Since the beginning of the May 2007 survey period:
• Facebook’s user base has grown from 20 million to 400 million users
• The entire book publishing industry has been turned upside down by e-readers, such as the Kindle, Nook and iPad
• Millions of set-top boxes, Blu-ray DVD and home theater PCs have connected televisions to broadband Internet
• Hulu launched its online video service to the public
• More than 300,000 people viewed simulcasts and encores of the Metropolitan Opera’s Carmen
• The first 3-D network began broadcasting
• Four generations of iPhones have been released
Three vital audience behaviors – seeking, browsing, and consuming content and information – have changed dramatically over the past few years and are going to continue to evolve with new technology. The most popular technologies now in wide use are not the latest fads to hit the market – they are in their second, third and fourth generations. New business models have emerged, failed, succeeded, been modified, adapted, discarded and improved in real time over just three years.
There is value to all organizations in being able to recognize how out of date the research contained in this report is.
While some dance companies are still wondering what to do about YouTube and Facebook, and continue to take a “wait and see” attitude toward more intensive and productive uses of technology, other organizations and artists are taking risks and challenging long-held assumptions. The UK’s National Theatre (NT) released a report earlier this month about the impact of satellite cinema broadcasts of Phedre on its audiences. Dance can learn from this survey not because cinema audiences “reported higher levels of emotional engagement” than live audiences, but because the NT has already implemented the findings into its strategic plan.
Which raises another key issue: Once a dance company has actionable information and presumably wants to act, can it?
A general consensus throughout many dance company boards maintains that risk should be avoided, instead of managed. Progressive initiatives are stalled because decision-makers are unfamiliar, don’t understand, condescend toward or don’t even use the new technologies. A few months ago, John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts President Michael Kaiser wrote in The Huffington Post:
“… the biggest problem we face in the arts is a lack of trained arts managers and board members. One can trace the demise of virtually every bankrupt arts organization to a lack of competent staff and/or board leadership.”
Understanding these new technologies has to be included in the definition of organizational competency. Funders need to be a part of the process. They need to share in the risk and mandate progress by funding short-term technology-rich projects capable of returning incremental and current knowledge and experience. Failure should be viewed as being as valuable as success. Instead of funding a few massive multiyear programs where, by the time targets are defined, funds are awarded, data is analyzed and findings are shared, all of the basic assumptions have changed, let’s put future funding resources into smaller, faster, more nimble projects.
Fail. Fail again. Succeed. Build on that success. Move forward.
We can’t wait for long-range studies to tell us that three years ago data showed engagement via electronic media encouraged arts participation. We can’t wait for studies to tell us, three years from now, what is happening today.
Marc Kirschner is the founder and general manager of TenduTV. TenduTV aggregates and distributes dance-related programming through its network of more than 70 digital platforms capable of reaching over half a billion devices in ten countries. He currently serves on the Dance/NYC advisory committee.