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23rd August 2011 Sara Lock

The future is up for grabs – Diane Ragsdale (BNW18)

Diane2 Diane Ragsdale speaks and writes about the arts around the world. She is currently enrolled as a Doctoral Student at Erasmus University Rotterdam and has previously worked for the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and On the Boards (Seattle) among many other cultural organisations.

This is a specially edited excerpt from Diane’s (virtual) presentation to AMA conference 2011 for AMA COMMONS.

This recession has revealed that we don’t simply have some failing organisations here and there that need to close or be restructured. Rather, we have entire industries, sectors, cities and even countries that cannot be sustained and that are questioning what makes the world go round and how they will generate sufficient revenue to stay alive in the future.

This brings us to the ongoing transformation of the economy as a result of the combined forces of technology and globalisation. Into what are we transforming and how can we prepare for it? Some say we are transitioning to a knowledge economy (a conversation that has been going on for about 20 years); some have extended this and describe the future as a ‘creative economy’ (an idea that has been circulating for around ten years and has been particularly prevalent in the UK). One would think that since we produce and disseminate artistic goods, that living in an era defined by creativity would be great for the arts.

But this creativity era has less to do with artistic imagination and more to do with technological change. And it brings us as many challenges as opportunities. I tend to see them as one and the same. I’m going to mention three.

1 – The consumer is increasingly powerful.

A blogger for the website The Craptacular which covers the Broadway scene, recently posted a blog taking on producers of two shows for comments made during their curtain speeches. In one case, a producer essentially asked the audience to stop listening to all the negative press the show was getting, because it was nonsense. In another, the audience was asked not to blog or tweet or otherwise converse on the internet about what they were about to see. The blogger wrote a passionate and critical response, including the following two comments:

‘To tell me not to blog is essentially telling me not to think. Or not to chat with my friends. It’s telling me to enjoy theater in a vacuum. It’s also telling me to enjoy art in a way that is only useful to the artist.’

‘As a blogger and an audience member, I straddle a weird line. But this is the future of theater, baby, so all the producers and audience-dev types, all the PR mavens and the marketing gurus, I have a message for you: Get used to it. We are not going away. Your audience is only going to get louder and savvier, and they will embrace the newest technology before you will.’

The growing strength of the consumer is particularly impactful for arts organisations because we produce symbolic and experience goods and services whose value is often uncertain and determined within a social context. Consumers thus have growing power to influence your reputation, your box office sales and your community support. They are listening to each other more than to you. But here’s the thing: many of them are saying things that it would benefit you to hear.

Which brings me to a related shift …

2. Consumption and production are collapsing into one another.

Video game producers are actively seeking input from their most passionate and skilled users to make their games better; Nike is selling consumers shoes that they design themselves; news outlets are soliciting stories, pictures, and videos from citizen journalists. These examples speak to the fact that, particularly with regard to creative goods and services, the engaged consumer is increasingly seen not as a pest but as a valuable co-producer – helping firms make decisions about future strategies, find solutions to seemingly insoluble problems, or generate creative ideas.

It’s particularly difficult for the arts to give up control. We’ve held onto the Romantic notion that artists and curators should be isolated from society to make their best work. We (rather self-servingly) cling on to the idea that only those with professional credentials merit the title of ‘expert’.

Loyal, invested, passionate, experienced consumers want in (and you should be happy that they want in). The question is no longer whether or not to let them in, it’s how will you let them in? And more importantly, will you trust them to show you the future of art?

TwitterTheater (and I use this term as a placeholder for whatever the future in art will be) is here but, by and large, exists outside of the establishment or so-called legitimate arts sector. Will we embrace the future or will we leave the door open for more entrepreneurial types to capture the revenue streams and, more importantly, the social capital?

Which brings us to the third challenge/opportunity …

3. Social networks are morphing and becoming more powerful.

I recently participated in a convening in the Middle East on the future of the arts at which I met an artist running a quite popular contemporary art gallery in Vietnam. Within several weeks of the revolution in Egypt, the ‘authorities’ began monitoring the activities at his art gallery in Vietnam. He eventually received word that his email activity was being curbed and that he was no longer permitted to advertise ‘opening nights’.

The authorities did not appear to be nervous about the content of the art in the galleries; they were nervous about the large size of his email list and his ability to convene a segment of society. I think it’s important to understand what this example conveys about the significance of the networked society and the fact that social structures have begun to shift (albeit, more dramatically in some places than others).

There’s a lot of talk about capturing young audiences, but the point is not simply to replace old bodies with young bodies so that you have ongoing revenue (although a sustainable revenue stream is critical). The point is that you need to be part of the cultural conversation, the cultural zeitgeist. To the degree that your organisation’s value is reliant upon old institutions, old habits, and old social networks (centred around an old concept of ‘the cultural elite’) you may very well be in a weaker position in the future, as the structures that have undergirded your organisation for years may be eroding.

While this unstable environment is disconcerting and makes long term planning challenging, it is also potentially more supportive of experimentation and change. Moreover, if the rules of the game are changing, if the status quo is being disrupted, there may be opportunities for those that have been on the bottom of the dog pile to make a move. The good news (except perhaps for complacent incumbents) is that the future is up for grabs.

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