At the end of September I read an article in “Inside Higher Ed” discussing some truly exciting advances in the ‘digital humanities’, a branch of the field that uses “technology-heavy approaches” to study and provide new ways of understanding and experiencing history, language, art and culture. The National Endowment for the Humanities recently hosted a conference with the 60 recipients of its Digital Humanities Start-Up Grants. Here’s how one is described in the article:
Heidi Rae Cooley, an assistant professor of new media studies at the University of South Carolina, presented [a]project, called “Desperate Fishwives.” The game “intends to introduce students to the kinds of social and cultural practices that would have been in play in a 17th Century British village,” Cooley explained. Students will be tasked with accumulating resources, completing social rituals, and solving some societal ill “before church or state intervene,” she continued. Afterward, students would render a prose account of their experiences — “and thereby learn of the nature and complexities of historiography.”
On the heels of reading about these innovative projects, which appear to have the potential to not only enrich research but also rejuvinate the humanities and open them up to a wider audience, I received an announcement from the NEA about the winners of the Knight/NEA Community Arts Journalism Challenge, which awards seed funds to projects pursuing innovative models for local arts journalism.
It’s also a terrific list of projects representing a diversity of approaches: a collective of trained journalists publishing across media platforms (Charlotte, N.C.), mobile video booths where audience members can record reviews (Detroit), an online marketplace and mobile app where citizen journalists can pitch stories on the local arts scene, team up with traditional media outlets, and produce the stories (Miami); a partnership between a university (staff, student, faculty, journalists) and a daily newspaper to expand arts coverage (Philadelphia); and a local arts event mapping feature + mobile app which enables people to add comments, reviews, and images (San Jose).
I was sincerely buoyed by the openness and forward-looking enthusiasm by those leading the projects featured in both of these articles, and by the government agencies and private funders providing a platform for them along with some seed funding.
Then, last week, I came across the article on the Metropolitan Opera’s Fundraising Feat for FY11: it was announced that the Met had successfully raised $182 million for its most recently ended season. [To be honest, I’m not sure that I would characterize this as ‘great news’ ...] In any event, the article also highlighted that the Met’s HD broadcasts had made a “profit” of $11 million (though the article does not clarify how this profit is calculated) and that, since 2008, attendance has flattened and even declined modestly for its live performances at Lincoln Center. On this point, the article states:
Mr. Gelb acknowledged for the first time that competition from the HD transmissions may have cannibalized box office sales, particularly from people in nearby cities like Boston, who might have traveled to New York before. But the financial loss was offset, he argued, by donor contributions from across the country that were generated by the excitement surrounding the broadcasts.
As I think I may have mentioned in a previous post, I was assigned as the lecturer for a course called “The Creative Economy and Creative Organizations” at Erasmus University in Rotterdam. One of the texts we read and discussed this term is a paper by David Hesmondhalgh, “The digitalisation of music” (a chapter in Pratt & Jeffcutt’s 2009 book Creativity, Innovation, and the Cultural Economy). Hesmondhalgh’s primary argument is that we need to understand the competing interests between those that produce and circulate “goods and services based on acts of symbolic creativity” (think: ‘operas’) and those that create the devices and processes on and by which they are increasingly experienced–many of which change the way we experience culture (think: file sharing, smart phones, etc.). He makes the point that these two sectors of capital have differing goals, notions of creativity, and abilities to lobby government.
The Hesmondhalgh paper and the articles mentioned above have been circling each other in my mind for the past few days and have raised some questions for me related to the nonprofit arts and culture sector:
- Are we conscious of the competing interests of different sectors of capital and how they may be shaping our future?
- As we embrace digitalization, is the nonprofit sector, in particular, holding itself accountable for making sure that artists are supported and not further exploited by the progress that digitalisation provides in reaching more people with great art? Put another way, in this ‘knowledge economy’ race to own, control, and exploit the global intellectual property rights in perpetuity to anything and everything, will and should nonprofits hold themselves accountable for fostering diversity and not consolidation, keeping culture accessible, and making sure that artists are able to retain rights to the work they produce or, if not, get their fair share of profits?
- As new media technologies enable us to develop new tools and methods for creating, distributing, documenting, and discussing the arts and humanities are we conscious that we are not simply providing additional outlets, we are forever influencing the ways that people experience these forms of culture and that in all likelihood a good number will prefer these new methods to the old ones. I don’t know the statistics on this, but I would imagine that it’s likely that HD broadcasts are a complement for the live performance for some and a substitute for others and that this balance will evolve over time (that is, that for more and more people the broadcasts may become a substitute for the real thing).
This last point, in particular, I do not put forward in an effort to quash enthusiasm for the HD Broadcasts (or Desperate Fishwives, for that matter). I am a fan of the broadcasts and they have clearly expanded the reach of the Metropolitan Opera productions in a way that is pretty mindblowing. But when I read the line in the article noting that Gelb suspects that the broadcasts “may have cannibalized box office sales” for the live performances in NY I thought, “Of course … it’s only natural that they would. And surely you thought about this before you pursued the HD path? Surely, having come from Sony, you understood where this would lead?”
These three projects are not the same and by lumping them into one post I don’t intend to imply that they are easily compared. But I would suggest (following Hesmondhalgh’s point) that they are all changing the ways that people experience the arts and humanities. It’s good we are marching forward with the times … these are exciting developments. One of the best parts of these NEH and NEA programs is the opportunity to experiment with new models and discover what happens as a result.
If there is a point I want to make at the end of this way-too-long post it is perhaps this: Better that we in the nonprofit sector wrestle sooner than later with commerce v. art, principles v. pragmatics, preservation v. advancement of art forms, tradition v. innovation, diversity v. consolidation, local v. global, and the ethics and legalities of it all than simply follow the practices of the commercial herd and hope for the best.