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September 18, 2020: On The Game-Changers

After last week’s webinar on alternative and inventive spaces, I’ve been thinking a lot about how the arts field can redefine the relationship between audience and space and how we can gather together in meaningful ways during — and after — the pandemic.

So stories that I’ve recently run across touching on these subjects have resonated even more so. After the webinar, I’m seeing these initiatives in this rapid period of innovation as less “ad-hoc fanciful” and more “long-term purposeful.”

It may not any longer be about the building. Perhaps it never was.

But what about that structure that so many arts institutions call home?

I was drawn to an article from the American Alliance of Museums that posed the question: “What about museums’ physical presences themselves: their buildings? Will they be reimagined and reoriented to follow suit?”

Museum architects and engineers at two leading firms responded: “There are questions about whether attendance will continue to be an important metric driving museum growth, which has implications for space….Similarly, those cultural venues may have opportunities for outdoor temporary exhibitions, if their artworks and exhibits can be properly protected. These provisional modifications have other benefits, for example, by offering patrons a change of pace from the usual museum experience.”

Stepping away from the familiar turf can be an exciting experience for audiences, especially younger ones.

One can imagine this audience responding, as I did, to the haunting visuals of a site-specific venture at an old factory building in New York. As related in a story in The New York Times, “the D.J. Carl Craig’s basement ‘club’ shows the affinity between minimal art and techno music. It’s an after-party for the Covid age, minus the sweat.”

Compellingly marketed and presented, there just might be new audiences at these unorthodox settings. And it might invigorate the older ones, too.

I read and was intrigued that the English National Opera is presenting — what it is being billed as “the world’s first drive-in opera" — a new version of Puccini’s La Bohème at Alexandra Palace later this month. “The singers will wear microphones relaying their voices into people’s cars via the radio. There is also an external PA system, enabling a unique duality of sound.”

And in Berlin, a techno nightclub (formerly a power station) is being repurposed for a gallery. “The idea of the Studio Berlin group show, containing works by 115 international Berlin-based artists that were produced in the city during lockdown, was ‘to send a message that Berlin’s cultural life is still very much alive,' says collector Christian Boros, who devised the collaboration with his wife, Karen, and curator Juliet Kothe after being approached by the club’s owners.”

But there’s an even bigger game-changer in terms of people and physical spaces: cities.

“From the pedestrianization of streets to the repurposing of public spaces, cities around the world have had to reshape themselves to meet the needs of their citizens amid the pandemic,” writes Yasmeen Serhan in The Atlantic. This speaks to the need — and perhaps a new willingness from local officials — to facilitate initiatives that go far and wide beyond an arts institution’s real estate. The climate just might be ripe for new collaborations, partnerships and community connections.

Yes, these alternative spaces are indeed a game-changer — and happening at an increasing pace globally — but new “virtual” spaces give us a new “cyber-stage” to play with, too.

Over the past six months, more and more folks have become adept with Zooming, streaming and making all sorts of other on-line connections. The process, once daunting, has now become familiar, propelled by people wanting to make far-flung family connections —and the hunger to see arts and entertainment in another format other than the problematic in-person way.

Especially when there’s a hot show. Richard Jordan in UK’s The Stage suggests “developments in digital arts were happening long before the pandemic, but two recent events have indicated that digital could become commercial theatre’s biggest game-changer.” He points to “Hamilton” on Disney-Plus and the upcoming “Diana,” the Broadway musical that was supposed to have opened last spring but is now going to be streamed on Netflix for a global audience.

Tom Wicker writing for the same outlet also is optimistic, saying some people's fears expressed –- that watching theatre on a screen will make people less likely to go and see it live -– are unfounded. "All the evidence points in completely the opposite direction."

A recent study showed some good news in this regards. “Eight out of 10 audience members would consider engaging with culture digitally in future, a major study has revealed…” — now the bad news — “but researchers have expressed fears around the viability of the arts’ shift online.”

Quality is a major factor in whether this expansive audience is reachable. Also, the data shows that arts groups should see this as a new potential revenue stream, not a replacement.

“However, as most people expect to pay less than they would for a live experience, without substantial audience growth digital revenues cannot be relied on to sustain the UK’s existing arts infrastructure."

One thing is sure from studies and surveys across the globe, there’s an appetite for arts, cultural and entertainment content — and for engagement. And they will seek it out. You just have to give them options, trust, excitement, quality — and a little help.

— Frank Rizzo


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