How Are Arts Organizations Using Digital Technologies?

BY Jeffrey Brown and Tom LeGro  January 4, 2013 at 1:54 PM EDT

Have you ever live-tweeted during a classical music performance? Used a museum’s mobile app? “Liked” a cultural event on Facebook? Done a yarn bombing?

A new study, “Arts Organizations and Digital Technologies,” published Friday by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, looks at the ways in which cultural organizations — theater companies, orchestras, museums — are using the Internet, social media and mobile apps to grow, promote and enrich the things they do.

The survey, taken by 1,244 arts organizations that have received funding by the National Endowment for the Arts, examined everything from budget demands and staffing to live-tweeting events and cell phone interruptions.

Earlier Friday, Jeffrey Brown talked to Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Internet Project, about the findings:



You can read the study here: Arts Organizations and Digital Technologies.

A transcript is after the jump.

JEFFREY BROWN: Welcome to Art Beat. I’m Jeffrey Brown. A new study called “Arts Organizations and Digital Technologies” is just out, and it looks at just that: the impact of new technologies on contemporary arts organizations. It’s been done by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, and Lee Rainie, the director of the project, is here with us. welcome.

LEE RAINIE: Thanks, Jeff.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, first of all, why a study like this looking at this particular sector?

LEE RAINIE: For a long time the Pew Internet Project has been looking at the impact of technology on users. We talk to people about how they use the Internet, mobile technology, social media and things like that. It occurred to us that organizations are also going through the same kinds of disruptions and changes that individuals are, so we got the donor list of the National Endowment for the Arts and talked to major arts organizations about the ways that they were incorporating these new technologies into their lives, and it’s pervasive.

JEFFREY BROWN: That’s the first finding, right, is that it has been embraced out of necessity, I suppose, just the way everybody has had to kind of figure out how to deal with it?

LEE RAINIE: It’s partly of necessity. There are obviously ways that you have to get your message out and promote yourself and get into the message streams that people are using, but there is also an excitement in the arts community, too. They are creative people, they are people who want to be on the cutting edge, so I was stunned at the level of embrace of technology. Ninety-seven percent of arts organizations in our survey use social media, so it’s a lot more than the general population and they are using it for all kinds of things.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, in what ways? Because it’s one thing to have the aspiration, and then you have the implementation.

LEE RAINIE: That’s the hard part. One of the challenges, of course, is to have new staff and to have new levels of funding to use all of these platforms, but they are excited because they use these technologies to promote their missions, to grow their audiences, to make their audiences more diverse, to offer their material in lots of new and different ways and to engage their audiences. There is so much participation now. Art is a participatory activity now in a way that it never was before, partly because these technologies let people talk back.

JEFFREY BROWN: Are there specific examples of — I don’t know if you can give specific examples of companies or productions — what kind of arts organizations are we talking about and how are they using it?

LEE RAINIE: We kept the answers confidential, but we asked people about the ways in which they were excited about it. We heard about it from an organization that did yarn bombing of some of the –

JEFFREY BROWN: A what?

LEE RAINIE: A yarn bombing — it’s sort of polite graffiti where you surround local artifacts with yarn, with knitting.

JEFFREY BROWN: I’ve never heard of polite graffiti before.

LEE RAINIE: Well, the New York Times called it that. So they went around town and said, we’ve got a new show coming out and here are some of the ways that we’re going to be using some of the artifacts in town. And they surrounded it with art. Other people have set up Twitter accounts for some of the characters in their plays. Some of the performance groups allow people to tweet, to take pictures, to share things on Instagram from performances, so there are lots of ways now that the interaction between these organizations and their patrons has made a much richer experience.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now you used this word earlier: disruptive, and there is a section here called the Darker Side, which as all kinds of industries experience the difficulties, the disruptions that technology brings.

LEE RAINIE: They are confused in a way that lots of people are about how to live in these spaces. One thing that was disorienting for the groups, for instance, was to have a lot more criticism out there in public about them.

JEFFREY BROWN: People just talking back.

LEE RAINIE: People just talking back and talking about their experiences and what they did and didn’t like about a performance or about their exchanges with the arts organization. There is also a sense that the wider public now thinks that lots of art ought to free.

JEFFREY BROWN: Exactly. This is affecting all kinds of –

LEE RAINIE: The business model is under siege in the way the news model is and the way the recording industry model is. And then there is the standard thing that almost everybody has experienced in a public place of having those cell phones go off in the middle of a performance. That really annoys these groups fairly well. There are also ways in which there is some level of concern that the very definition of art might be diluted now, because so many people are creators themselves and maybe there are just too many — too much commotion in the field and a little bit too much stuff masquerading as creativity.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now what does that mean? So everybody can be an artist in some sense or can talk back and be creative and therefore the definition of the organization is a little diluted?

LEE RAINIE: Both the organization and the creative process of making art itself, and most people are excited about that. They like the interaction and they even like the criticism. They’ll take it as an aspect of engagement, but there are some folks who worry that when you hand these tools over to lots and lots more people, that some of the stuff that is created is just silly and not real art.

JEFFREY BROWN: Right. Because you also mention that the technology for some has, what I wrote down, has changed the very definition of art. Now that’s the organizations using the technology into their art, the art that they do.

LEE RAINIE: But inviting patrons into that process now. In some sense these organizations are encouraging people to respond to the things that they are seeing. The head of the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh was quoted in the morning paper after our survey came out talking about how great it is that people can’t stand Andy Warhol’s art and are talking about why should soup cans be considered art and things like that. Well, for them, that’s a marker of engagement.

JEFFREY BROWN: They like that up to a point, as long as everybody just doesn’t stop loving Andy Warhol.

LEE RAINIE: When we were talking about the expanded boundaries of art, I think most of the organizations were thinking that, you know, lots more things are creative now and lots are more things are collectively creative, so collaboration as a part of the story maybe wasn’t there before and that’s disruptive to the very definition of art.

JEFFREY BROWN: And I assume as in almost all of the studies you look at, this is very much a work in progress. Where are we? You say they embrace the technology, but is it just at the beginning stages?

LEE RAINIE: Yeah. One of the best ways to start an argument in the technology world is to try to argue about what stage we’re in. Some people say we’re in the toddler stage, that these technologies have only been in organizational life and in personal life for a couple years now and we’re still trying to figure what to do with them. Some people say we’re maybe in the adolescent stage, that the Internet itself is about 20 years old now, and it’s clearly permeated the way that these organizations think about their internal activities as well as how they engage the world, and yet the story is hardly over. There are organizations now that give apps. Mobile apps are used by about 24 percent of these organizations. Some people can sit in concert calls now and look at an app on their phone and get notes about what was happening in the artist’s life in this part of the performance.

JEFFREY BROWN: While they are watching.

LEE RAINIE: Yeah, so it’s changing the very experience of art, too.

JEFFREY BROWN: For better and worse, I suppose.

LEE RAINIE: Probably they would say for both, and that’s the story of all technologies.
They’ve got an upside and for some people a dark side.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, this new study is “Arts Organizations and Digital Technologies” by the Pew Internet & American Life Project. Lee Rainie, nice to talk to you.

LEE RAINIE: Thanks, Jeff.

JEFFREY BROWN: And thank you for joining us again on Art Beat. I’m Jeffrey Brown.