Make some noise

fountain blogTaking some leisure yesterday in the sun, at the Lincoln Center fountain.

The fountain was putting on a show — dancing, playing, shooting high, falling back to nothing at all, making walls of water, so much fun. Here’s a video (from my iPhone), complete with dancing little girl. (It’ll take a while to load. And clicking the arrow on the right won’t show it.)

All this was completely unheralded. Nothing advertising the fountain dance, unless you count a guard coming around to warn people (like me) sitting at the edge that we might get wet.

A triumph. Such an adornment for Lincoln Center, and, I could wish, everything that goes on there.

But what was happening at the three surrounding big performance halls, the Met Opera, Avery Fisher (where the NY Philharmonic plays), and the David H. Koch Theater?

Major fail. The Met Opera should have been triumphant, since they’re showing four big banners, advertising the four operas of the Ring, their splash productions of the spring. But the banners are drab — beyond drab. Almost shockingly drab. And the already drab colors fade even more in the bright sun!

I think they’re ugly banners, too. And mismatched. And hard to understand. I’ve been looking at them for a couple of weeks, and it took some detailed up-close looking before I realized that the Siegfried banner shows Siegfried surging up toward Brünnhilde’s rock, and that the Walküre banner shows a woman. The Rheingold banner shows rippling water, and (like the others) the opera’s name. Except that when the wind puffs it, you can’t see either water or the name.

This completely baffles me. To fail with the Ring production, as I think the Met did, is honorable, if unfortunate and sad. Productions are difficult. But to fail with banners? What could be easier than to make sure your banners burst with life and interest, that they’re clearly visible, and that they look like they belong together? Graphic design, after all, is something our culture does consummately well. How could the Met have failed so badly here?

Avery Fisher Hall? A mostly blank facade, with one drab banner (less drab than what the Met gives us, but still drab) advertising the Philharmonic. At the very top, so you have to crane your neck to see it, is Alan Gilbert’s name (he of course being the music director). At the bottom, much more plainly visible, is something the Philharmonic might care about, but the public doesn’t, and that certainly isn’t anything that makes you want to go to concerts: the name of the orchestra’s big corporate sponsor, Credit Suisse.

The Koch theater? Oh, my. No banners. No sign of life even remotely visible, until you approach the entrance. Then you see posters for the New York City Ballet, which turns out to be starting its spring season…um, nest week! They couldn’t make more noise about it?

And the posters. The two I saw first, the ones right at the entrance to the theater (which surely is where anyone who wanted to know what was going on would first think to look), show each ballet the company will dance, in 65 smallish tiles, with the dates of the performances for each one shown underneath. Only — this is the literal truth — by scanning almost all the tiles did I discover that the season was about to start.

True, when I walked a bit to the left, I found other posters for the company, that more clearly told me when the season started. But would everybody see those? I only saw them because I wanted to be fair, wanted to be sure the posters with the 65 tiles weren’t the only ones on view. If I hadn’t made a point of looking further, I would very likely just have walked away, baffled yet again by how yet another Lincoln Center mainstay doesn’t seem to know how to promote itself.

Maybe you could say that the Philharmonic and the ballet have their own marketing tools, which address their likely audiences, and that these tools generate the ticket sales they’re getting. But that would miss two crucial points. One is that neither company, from what I hear, has  exactly been growing its ticket sales. More like they’ve been shrinking, over many years. So they need to address new audiences. Why not try to do it right where you’re performing?

And the other point is that you’d surely want New York’s most visible arts performance place to be, well, visible. You’d want some sense of action, of festivity, of buzz, of excitement. Something nobody walking through or past the plaza could miss, something to make us feel we’d want to be there for a performance.

Which isn’t happening. While the fountain, all alone, does exactly what’s needed, gives us joy, delight, interest, something to tell our friends about.

I’m a little wary of saying what I’d do if I were in charge, because in some crucial sense, nobody’s in charge of Lincoln Center. The Lincoln Center organization, which I’d assume made the fountain happen, represents only itself, and the performances it itself produces. The constituents — like the Met, the Philharmonic, and the City Ballet — go their own way.

But still, if you’re going to have such fun with the fountain, why wouldn’t the constituents want to join in? By, for instance, having something similar — something visual, arresting, fun, unmissable — going on in or near their halls. They could work out ways to have these things complement the fountain, not compete with it. The point would be festivity — have everyone join in to make Lincoln Center (and the Met, and the Philharmonic, and the City Ballet) feel festive.

And/or you could have a fountain competition. The show I saw the fountain do (the video I made gives only a small taste of how wonderful it was) was expertly choreographed, like the best fireworks displays. It would be fun to have each constituent — including those not visible on the plaza, like the library, the Film Society, the Chamber Music Society — design their own fountain dances. Then advertise which dance was playing, whenever one began, and let the public vote on which one they liked best.

Yes, maybe this would stretch the resources of some of the constituents (even the big ones), and maybe some wouldn’t want to do it. But maybe some would. You could have a special evening show, with lights, with everybody’s fountain fun on display. You’d get attention, and — no small thing — have a wonderful time.  There could be live music, food, a little festival.

The way to get attention is to make some noise. Don’t we want to do that in the arts?

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  1. Lawrence de Martin says

    I can understand why posters and banners have low priority. Few people look up from their phones to notice them. From the numbers pulling out their phones during performances, the digital attention deficit is more compelling than the drama on stage even in the “target demographic”. More telling, ticket sales are on the order of one third of the budget. Do you imagine that better posters are going to induce benefactors to write bigger checks? OTOH, the water feature fits perfectly with the sensibilities of the 1%.

    Attacking this problem has to start at the grassroots. A return to human scale shared experience makes a more compelling case to “capture eyeballs” and expand the audience for acoustic music than the spectacles in halls so large the intimacy and articulation is lost.

    • says

      You say this with such confidence. But I’m going to guess that you weren’t at Lincoln Center Wednesday, when I was. And when people were sitting in the sun, and walking around, and for the most part not looking at their phones. Instead, as people do in public places, they were taking in the scene. Perfectly ready to be drawn in by anything Lincoln Center or any of its constituents might want to show them.

      You talk, again with such confidence, about ticket sales amounting to only 1/3 of the budget, a rather well known fact. I may have encountered it previously myself. But a long-term decline in ticket sales is quite serious for any performing arts organization, for many reasons that should be obvious to you. First, loss of income, which is real even if ticket sales are only part of total revenue. An orchestra with a tight $60 million budget that loses $1 million in ticket sales might well (this is not theoretical) find itself running a $1 million deficit.

      Second, loss of donations. Many donors come from the audience. Certainly that’s the strategy organizations follow, as I’ve heard said countless times by insiders. Turn single-ticket buyers into subscribers, turn subscribers into small donors, turn smaller donors into people who give larger sums, turn larger donors into people who leave money to the orchestra in their wills. If your audience gets smaller, you’ll have fewer donors. Deficits loom once again.

      And then, of course, the question arises of the future. If your audience keeps shrinking, won’t you reach the point when your survival is at stake? Many institutions worry about this privately. So then, I’d think, they’d need to look for a new audience, and to do that successfully, they have to call attention to themselves. In the situation I described, they’re missing an opportunity to do that.

      Finally, there’s something else, in a city like New York. A reasonable part of the performing arts audience in New York is made up of tourists. Maybe more for the Met Opera than for other institutions, but still it’s an audience they need to cultivate. Tourists come to see Lincoln Center, and walk around the plaza, and hang out. In the warm weather, you see a lot of them. So wouldn’t the Lincoln Center halls want to get these tourists’ attention? Seems so elementary. Anyone can see the benefits of doing it. Do you think that people coming through Lincoln Center would _not_ want to know that the New York City Ballet was about to perform? It’s a legendary company. Many tourists have heard of it. If they knew it was performing, they’d go. A marketing study done in the ’90s showed that many people who live in New York don’t go to Lincoln Center events simply because they don’t know about them. That’s got to be true of tourists, too. So why not combat this?

      I’m still shaking my head at the thought of everyone so immersed in their cell phones that they don’t look around them, even on a gorgeous day. I guess we in Washington, where I live most of the time, should tear down our monuments, sell the Lincoln Memorial for whatever its materials will bring. Because of course no one looks at it. They’re sitting on the National Mall, looking at their cell phones.

      (And taking out phones during performances? At Lincoln Center events? During the music? I somehow haven’t noticed that. The most notable use of cell phones during performances of course happens at big pop and rock shows, when people call their friends and hold up their phones so the friends can hear some much-loved song. Not at all the same thing as letting the phone distract them from the performances.)

  2. MWnyc says

    Greg, aren’t there big banners promoting NYC Ballet on the side of the Koch Theater that faces out to Broadway and Columbus Avenue? (And maybe there are equivalent banners on the side of Avery Fisher that faces traffic? I can’t remember.)

    One could make the argument that banners facing Broadway/Columbus are a better option: they’re aimed at passersby rather than people who are already on Lincoln Center Plaza, they adorn the otherwise blank street-side wall of the Koch Theater, and they don’t interfere with the visual effect the façades of those three famous theaters/works of architecture make together on the plaza.

    I’m not necessarily making that argument myself, but the tenants of the Koch might well make it, and they might have a point.

    (The Met’s façade is the side facing the street, so their banners muck up the visual effect anyway, alas – in particular, the banners block the Chagalls, which exist to be seen from the plaza and the street, and that irks me no end.)

  3. Richard Hertz says

    Are you really saying that Lincoln Center doesn’t get enough attention because of their banners? I’m pretty sure art and music lovers in New York are plenty well informed in a lot of different ways.

  4. says

    That little girl is such a natural “mover”! (There’s the ex-ballet-dancer coming out in me).

    The first thing that pops into my head when I see dancing and fountains together? Those amazing projections they do onto nothing more than mist. For example This is monumentally cheesy and not at all my taste, but hey, it did apparently give a symphony orchestra a nice gig. They even run some footage of the orchestra playing… Wow. Imagine the potential of this medium to produce something genuinely magical.

    With a tranquil body of water at their disposal, Lincoln Centre could do stuff like this all the time. Well, they could if it were within a realistic budget. What can I say? Im a dreamer! I suppose what I’m wishing is that the marketers could allow themselves to dream just a little before the accountants come down hard on them. Then we might see a whole lot more advertising that’s visually exciting enough to get punters into the concert halls and theatres, because that’s where the real excitement is happening!

  5. Jeanne says

    What you describe with the banners sounds cheesy, Greg – sounds like you’re advocating flexible bilboards!
    But some human action on the Plaza would be nice. How about outdoor food service – or at least refreshments – umbrella tables? Movable plants in tubs to provide a little shade here and there amongs the tables? – a ittle hustle?

    • says

      Not sure what’s wrong with flexible billboards. And banners can be fabulous. The Met has had terrific ones in the past. Maybe one person’s festive is another person’s cheesy, but I’m all for festive.

      I love the idea of human action, though. They do have outdoor food service at Lincoln Center, when the weather gets warmer. And in the summer, they do something really huge in the plaza — Midsummer Night’s Swing. Big dance parties, with wonderful bands in various genres. The plaza is packed, night after night, with people dancing. I remember standing watching it with a former high-ranking staff member at Lincoln Center, thinking what an opportunity it could be to attract a new audience to other events. But as far as I know, neither Lincoln Center itself or any of the constituents tries to connect the dancers to anything else that’s going on. In fairness, the big performing arts constituents aren’t performing in the summer, but still. I can imagine that more could be done.