Monday, May 17, 2010

Artistic Integrity in a Technological Age

Lately, I've spent a lot of time thinking about how arts organizations can maintain their artistic integrity and growth over the long term, especially as belts get tightened. True, economies seem to be recovering in some areas, but things are still far too uncertain to say that we have turned a corner. So in the face of potentially declining revenue, how do we continue to move our art forms forward? We all agree that it is vital for Art forms to continue to evolve and that Artists must continue to innovate and to risk in order to do that. How can we continue to do this in a time when the stakes seem so high and the resources to take those risks seem so scarce?

There are those who say that technology is the key. Max Wyman (both in his book The Defiant Imagination and in a recent talk at Grant MacEwan University) has made a strong case for the use of technology in various forms as a way to engage new audiences and make the Arts relevant to them. This is entirely valid, given that the use of the particularly social networking is becoming so widespread and there is no cost to the user. But while technology and in particular social networking have had a strong influence on society, in my view, they are really a tool for dissemination. In the case of the live performing arts, for example, internet sites like YouTube can show audiences what happens on stage, or services such as facebook and Twitter can be used to get the word out about what's upcoming on local stages, or even form a part of the artistic experience, but they are not a replacement for a live performance (and it should be noted that Mr. Wyman does not advocate the replacement of live performance in any way). Indeed, one of the other qualities that those who frequent social networking sites seem to have (again according to Mr. Wyman, and I have no reason to doubt him on this) is that they hunger for an authentic experience.

The question then becomes, how do we keep those live performance experiences relevant to our modern society? If we accept that today's audiences not only hunger for engagement and participation, but also for authentic experiences, then the answer may be very simple. Artists will do what they have always done and incorporate relevant elements into their work. They are innovators and explorers. Artists will seek out and use whatever they need to stimulate their creative fire and make their messages clear to their audiences. This is what moves art forward and continuously makes it a vital part of the fabric of society. Our jobs as organizations and administrators is to support this creativity in a sustainable way and to provide mechanisms for audiences to engage off the stages and outside the galleries (or outside of whatever venue an artwork is presented in). Sometimes we should even facilitate ways within the experience to engage our audiences directly with the work - if that is the desire of the Artist. We also need to become as creative as the Artists we work for and with, in order that the work we do becomes both relevant to the Art we facilitate and relevant to our communities.

There is no one formula for this adaptation, and in a fast-paced, technology-driven world, organizations can find this incredibly hard, but each Artist and each Arts organization must find ways to use the tools - because that's what technology really is, a series of tools - to facilitate the best, most relevant art possible. We must also realize that these tools and the ways in which we use them are going to change. That is the incredible thing about Art, its ability - indeed, its purpose - to constantly change and move forward, adapting and reflecting our societies.

Edited to add:
Here are two links to check out that are related to things in this post.

An interview on the Nonprofit Finance Fund website regarding adaptation and innovation.

Several papers and resources on the Australia Council for the Arts' website regarding what they term Artistic Vibrancy.

Both are extremely interesting in their ideas about the methods for adaptation to change and the processes that can be used to determine the nature of that change. The first is extremely interesting in terms of the conditions that need to exist for major adaptive change and the time that is needed to undertake it.

On Being An Arts Administrator

I frequently think that Arts Administration is a unique profession, but I really have no hard evidence upon which to base this, never having worked in a field outside the Arts. Every colleague I talk to recognizes that what we do is hard, and many have considered a career change (in fact, a lot of us consider it several times a month). As we frequently like to admit, we will never get rich and we will never get famous. But we stay on. Why? What makes us “tick?”

Here are some of what I think are some of the realities and rewards of Arts Administration:

Reality – Arts Administrators work hard: really hard. There is always a lot to do – often much more than we can get to in the time we have.

Reality – there will never be enough money or human resources to do what we want to do; however, many Arts Administrators make a living wage because many of us (but not all) have long term or permanent jobs, which is more than many artists can say.

Reality – however financially secure an arts organization (of any size or description) may be or seem to be, there is little margin for something to go “wrong”. The unpredictability of revenue is, unfortunately, the nature of the beast. I don't think anybody ever gets used to this, but we learn to live with it.

Reward – Arts Administrators are extremely resourceful, resilient and creative people in their own right. This is something we should celebrate from time to time. This trait grows and expands the longer we work in our field.

Reward – we work with people who care very deeply about what they do; most people work in the Arts because they love it.

Reward – the work we do is meaningful. Let's think about this: every day we will be working on behalf of something that makes humanity and civilization unique and beautiful; we are involved in things that transform people's lives.

Whenever I question why I do this really hard thing called Arts Administration, I try to remember the rewards and even if it seems like the rest of the world really doesn't care, there are some people out there who do. If that makes the world a better place, then I'm in.