Digitisation in the arts: Is there a do-over if we get it wrong?

I’ve recently come across four articles/papers that have me grappling with the promise and the potential threats of digitisation in the arts and culture sector.

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:

  1. Are we conscious of the competing interests of different sectors of capital and how they may be shaping our future?
  2. 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?
  3. 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.


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  1. says

    There is no question that the rapidly declining costs of using digital technologies to capture and distribute artistic content represents either a huge threat or opportunity for arts organizations. Those that want to take advantage of the disruptive nature of this digitialization should:

    -reexamine their organizational missions (to determine whether technology should play at least a secondary role, as a means of expanding the audience beyond those who can be physically present to experience the excitement of the live event);

    -establish organizational technology goals and objectives, and the strategies to achieve them, using the same principles and standards that are used for the planning and implementation of their live events;

    -make a commitment to incorporate key technology activities into the operating budget as core priorities, even if subsidy is required; and

    -maximize the amount of financial responsibility it can assume for making the technological activity happen, especially in the areas of distribution, as there is usually a correlation between the economic return to the institution and the amount of control it has (i.e. disintermediate wherever possible)

  2. says

    This is about “riding the bicycle while inventing it” and we need arts organisations to innovate and frankly experiment around digitisation sooner, leading the public on the adoption curve. Waiting is not an option. We’ve seen innovation completely change a marketplace – recorded music for example – so we need to ensure the arts are in the van, not following behind. And if it doesn’t quite work out, we can change, and try something else. If we trust the public to try new things, we can afford to let the public trust us to try new things…

  3. says

    I continue to wonder how the question of “does HD broadcasts cannibalize live performance sales” compares to, for example, khan academy “cannibalizing” the value of in-classroom teaching (http://www.wired.com/magazine/2011/07/ff_khan/). With education, it seems relatively clear that if your end goal is “educating students” then “by any means necessary” is perfectly acceptable, and it is in fact good for the status quo to be disrupted–we value more people getting access to more and better education, even if it would mean drastically remaking what it means to be a “school” or a “teacher.” The end goal for theatre isn’t quite so clear (to me at least), but it does bring up the possibility that the “value” derived from attending theatre in person might change from “i saw the show” (which now I can do anywhere/anytime if it’s online) to “I talked about the show with someone else,” just like how Khan flipped the homework/classroom teaching model on its head. If students consume content at home, and practice understanding the content in the classroom, could audiences not consume content outside of the theatre, and practice understanding that content in the theatre instead?

  4. Ken Tabachnick says

    Over the past several years, I have struggled with the questions you ask as I have delved into diminishing audiences for live performances and the impact of digital media. So far, the data in a number of studies has indicated that audiences who attend digital performances of opera and theater do not replace their live attendance with digital ones – it appears that they find it is a different experience. Perhaps, however, Peter Gelb has seen something in his audience that differs.

    When does the digital version suffice as compared to the live version? The other day, I attended a lunch at which Leon Bottstein spoke on the impact of technology on people’s experience of music. One of his thoughts was that with the advent of the iPod, we have surpassed the “spectator” experience of music and are perfectly willing to accept lo-fidelity performances at anytime. However, this has caused in increase in the number of people actively participating in live music making for a “real” experience. My personal evidence on this point is that when I ask my 20 year old son why he likes going to the opera or symphony, which he only does for specific music (but that is a different discussion), he says, surprised that I ask the question, “Because it is a different experience from listening on my iPod.” Perhaps this is Mr. Bottsetin’s point and the one that we need to keep in sharp focus as we navigate this uncharted territory: it is a different experience. I would propose that both have their validity and value, but we must be diligent about their difference. If we are not, I fear, we will not even need to answer your question about whether we are protecting the artists and giving them their due.

  5. says

    The answer to Ken Tabachnick’s question “When does the digital version suffice as compared to the live version?” may have something to do with the environment in which the audience member experiences the performance. Listening or watching a performance by yourself on a device at home is usually a private individual experience, which is very different from the communal experience of attending a live performance. Perhaps the Met HD broadcasts are cannibalizing ticket sales for their live performances because the movie theater experience of watching the opera on a huge screen is more comparable to the social setting of the opera house than watching it in your own living room.

  6. says

    I like to look to other industries and other media to see if there’s anything I can learn and apply to our field. This New York Times article is a great example: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/17/technology/amazon-rewrites-the-rules-of-book-publishing.html A lot of times developments in media consumption that impact big for-profit industries are better understood than the dynamics of the non-profit arts world. The trick is just applying that stuff to our world in a sensible way.

    Maybe another good piece of guidance for thinking about this stuff should come from looking at what film did to theater when it came around. Theater used to serve all the needs it currently does (live performance, evening out, unique experience, access to certain cultural content, etc.) as well as a lot of needs that film took over when it came around (mass entertainment, access to a certain kind of content, shared arts experience etc.). Early filmgoers also got some new stuff they couldn’t in the old theater, like newsreels.

    Theater had, as we would now say, been disrupted. Its role in society changed a lot. It’s still around, and it probably always will be, because no matter what technology comes around, actually being in the room with people performing will remain unique. It’s just much more focused on things you can only accomplish in a theater than it was when it was the only game in town.

    We can learn a lot about how to handle the new media consumption disruptions from what happened in previous disruptions, and from the working artists who are figuring out new ways to function. We know our live performances have to take special advantage of the fact that they are live. It’s not enough to say “I’ve got the art, and you have to come here to see it!” because they don’t anymore. They can stay home and see it. There has to be something special about the performance, attendance has to fill a social need (be it the exclusivity of having ‘been there’ or a simple date), or come with benefits unavailable elsewhere.

    And we have to get ready for another thing that happened to theater when film came around, and to ‘classical’ music when pop music came around: a lot of the talent in the next generation will go to the new media. That’s where the excitement will be, and where the cultural energy will be. The choice we face now is a difficult, introspective one:

    Do I love filling the cultural needs that I fill in my current role, and will I follow to another medium to fill those needs elsewhere, or do I love the theater itself, no matter what it’s for? When I get up in the morning, do I want to be culturally relevant no matter the medium, or will I not be able to live with myself without the lights going down, the curtain going up, and the magic of live theater?

    That’s not a question for the field, it’s a question for individuals working in it, and there is no right answer. But I have a hunch if people who are worried about this stuff destroying their jobs make up their minds about how to answer that question it’ll clarify some of the options, both in their own career choices and in the direction they want to steer their organizations.

  7. R David Weaver says

    I would respond to these arguments in a basic and direct manner. Is it more important to read a collected edition printed in 1863 of Christina Rossetti’s Poems in your own hands or look at a digitalized copy on your computer screen? If you are researching Rossetti’s poems for a paper the convenience of the automated version for ideas and eiting is superior. If you want to realized the organic, spirtual, historical inspiration of actualization i would prefer the textual feel and feeling of holding it in my own hands.

    My suggestion relating to realizing culture and arts in context and presence would be to read
    Umberto Ecco’s collected volume on Hyperreality. One can experience “drift” at a certain point and not distinguish from the original artistic/historical intent and a distant fascimile world.

    R. David Weaver

  8. says

    I’ve been a traditional artist for over 35 years as well as being a graphic designer for a living. I can throw out my computer and do what I currently can on computer with just pen & ink or paint.

    What the article discusses is no different than when in the stone age they used rocks and sticks to create with but now it’s moving in to computers. I am able to draw some amazing pieces of art in Photoshop and in Illustrator all by using a mouse. Is it easy? Of course it is, I’m an artist. But it’s easy for others now too because they can draw a perfect circle and a perfect line and a perfect square. This allows anyone to be an artist now.

    We really are evolving technologically which makes it much easier and less expensive to produce art in general through digital means. But I feel it’s up to the non-artist to become educated mainly because I see photographs that are called ‘professional’ after someone’s bad photo gets a cool filter applied to it. Too much of this happening in art too. In my line of work, it’s the bad artist who finds public with bad taste and it just keeps snowballing.

    At this point, it’s all about educating the public. But hey, there have always been bad artists so is it really as simple as it seems?

  9. Ken Tabachnick says

    Joe Kluger makes a great point about the environment in which we view a performance. It is interesting, however, to consider that for certain audience members, their first – and possibly only – experience of a performance is through digital media. How will they distinguish between that experience, which they are accustomed to, and the live experience, which may be new to them?

    I would propose that the communal experience of a live performance for Joe and for me may be fulfilled for younger digital audiences in a digitally mediated space. In other words, the experience of community for those raised on digital media may be a digital collaborative experience that can exist with no physical proximity of the participants. The proximity and community are created online. From this point of view, the question of which experience is fulfilling changes based on the viewer’s definition and expectation of community. Not better or worse for the audience member, just different.


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