Forced by global pandemic, societal division and economic uncertainty over the past year, every industry including the performing arts adapted or lost the capacity to survive. These changes accelerated the arts field into the realm of reinvention via digital technology, which was both demanding and risky, yet critical for arts organizations to stay alive.
Traditionally, the performing arts has operated with a relatively simply business model involving filling a theater to capacity by selling tickets. In the non-profit world, ticket sales offset the expense of a stage performance and donations close the gap, and in the commercial sector, ticket sales alone (ideally) generate a profit. The model’s success depends on consistently congregating as many people as possible in enclosed space.
However, with COVID-19 and the closing of venues across the country, this model was shattered. As a consequence, many performing arts organizations, otherwise slow to embrace digital technology, quickly pivoted to create digital content with live streaming or on-demand offerings. In the midst of managing financial and organizational upheaval, most organizations redeployed staff with little digital training or experience into the role of digital content producers. The beginning efforts often yielded rudimentary-style content not particularly compelling as digital experiences, but, over time, products substantially improved, in many cases rivaling commercial video production.
Performing arts organizations experienced a steep learning curve that dictated a digital competency most probably never aspired to. Whether this new learning is the catalyst for widespread embrace of a technological revolution remains unclear: Was digital production simply a bridge to mitigate a difficult year? Anchoring the digital strategy of many organizations lies an unexamined assumption that digital work exists only until they “return to normal” and are back to the business of traditional live performance.
The flaw in this approach, according to Kamal Sinclair (executive director of the Guild of Future Architects, and senior advisor, Digital Innovation, at The Music Center) is that “COVID-19 ripped the band-aid off” and what patrons will expect when they return to arts venues will be vastly different than what they expected back in March 2020.
According to Sinclair, we will never get rid of “aliveness” in the performing arts, but for the sector to remain relevant, the “brick-and-mortar experience” needs to join a larger creative conversation involving new technologies and multiple platforms.
“More importantly, digital frees up our potential to create art for and with younger and diverse audiences in a medium that is relevant to them.”
Embracing the promise and opportunity of a digital revolution, arts organizations are recognizing that their reach to new audiences expanded exponentially under COVID. Many performing arts organizations struggle with the growing impact of audiences and donors that do not reflect the communities they serve, deeply lacking diversity regarding age, race, ethnicity, and class. At the same time, we witness through digital work how challenges of geography, mobility, and limited financial resources are mitigated, and how a wider range of communities engage with the performing arts in ways once unfathomable. More importantly, digital frees up our potential to create art for and with younger and diverse audiences in a medium that is relevant to them.
According to Sinclair, “The promise of interactive digital culture has yet to be realized”, but by using current digital technologies, an artist can tell a story across multiple platforms and formats, transforming venues and live performances into experiences that are much more immersive, engaging, and resonant with the times.
Over the past year, audiences learned many new ways to engage in arts experiences. Going forward, driving an hour in traffic to see a traditional proscenium-based arts performance will not be enough—audiences will want something richer. This expanded expectation represents the promise and the challenge of a digital future for the performing arts. Exploring what that might be, the institution I lead is starting by experimenting with innovative “touch moments” during a dance experience (pre-, during, and post-concert), finding ways for audiences to engage creatively with one another via digital technology, including the use of interactive graphics, projected visuals, as well as audio and lighting design. We have volumes more to learn on this journey.
While very real concerns remain about the performing arts field’s capacity to meet the
challenges of societal and technological change, the COVID lockdown could be a catalyst for renewal. With new digital tools, the arts can move beyond the traditional performances of the past and deepen and expand the artistic experience. For many of us, the work ahead involves creating and producing arts experiences in the digital realm that strengthen our collective capacity to heal and to grow from and move beyond the challenges of the pandemic.
Rachel S. Moore is President & CEO of The Music Center (Performing Arts Center of Los Angeles), which operates the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Walt Disney Concert Hall, Mark Taper Forum, Ahmanson Theatre, Grand Park and Jerry Moss Plaza.
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