Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Disintermediation: Trend 3 of 7 for the Future of the Arts

This is part four in an ongoing series of posts on 7 Trends for the Future of the Arts. Originally published (and partially reprinted here with permission of the publisher) in the book: 20 Under 40: Reinventing the Arts and Arts Education for the 21st Century. I'm presenting selections from each trend, and you can follow the whole post series from here. If you are interested in these arguments, check out and think about purchasing the book here.

Disintermediation—The Audience as Curator
Grupo Corpo Dance Groupphoto © 2005 alex de carvalho | more info (via: Wylio)
Also known as the rise of the crowd, digital technology has disintermediated culture, and this profoundly changes the top-down systems of the arts. For quite some time, arts institutions have talked about making art accessible to the masses. What was often meant, however, was that art resided here in this museum, with a special aura and we, the experts, will educate you, the masses, about its importance so you can come here and experience more of it.

Today, this talk continues, and true, a certain populism can be found in the blockbuster shows of Impressionism or Tim Burton, but disintermediation isn’t just about pleasing large crowds; it also means that audiences can gather around the long-tail of content. If audiences like obscure, niche works, they no longer have to wait for someone to bring it to them, but rather can pool themselves together online and form an audience for that art, often by connecting directly to the artist.

If one isn’t sure whether their tastes are shared by others, they can now find out by starting a blog, advertising it on social networks, and building an audience for, say, European free-jazz pretty quickly. If no local institution is bringing this work to a particular town, the digitally networked townsfolk can build their own tour, bypassing traditional booking agents, performing arts networks, and other middle-men to bring the artist directly to them. The fans no longer need to wait for a review in Artforum, receive a blurb via newsletter from their local orchestra, or wait longingly for their regional theater to stage a certain production. They can speak directly to one another, follow the opinions of those they trust, sample video and audio of performances or exhibits (often taken by amateurs), and coalesce around the art that they like.

Utilizing digital technology, audiences can now connect globally and discover new art forms and artists they would never before have found. They can also seek out more racial, ethnic, political, and religious diversity when they don’t see it reflected in their local arts organizations’ programming (or staffing). Having gotten used to the idea of digital content being available on demand, anywhere on any device—immediately, consumers will begin to demand this disintermediation and immediacy from other art forms and live arts experiences as well.

Arts institutions need to embrace this disintermediation. This doesn’t mean tearing down the walls and firing all the curators, but rather arts organizations should utilize the better aspects of this trend. True, many arts organizations have been experimenting with disintermediation and participation for some time (perhaps this is an ongoing experimentation for most), and many are having some success. That said, the field as a whole must contend with this phenomenon more directly and develop best practices because digital technology has compounded this expectation.

Today’s consumer expects that their content will be available on every platform simultaneously, watching their favorite film through Netflix, XBox, Amazon, iTunes on their cellphone, TV, or any other device. They don’t care about the established systems for discovery and access, and this too means that arts organizations must adapt and will need to collaborate and share more readily.

An audience member often follows the artist, so perhaps the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) should notify me when Grupo Corpo plays next in New York, even at a rival venue, not just when they next play BAM—and perhaps that venue would push their patrons back for another show. Perhaps subscriptions should be offered that allow me access not just to MoMA, but to multiple institutions, perhaps in multiple cities. Ticket selling systems of the future should likewise push content to me not just at my current location, but also to where I might be next. These systems should be “smart” enough to notify me of my favorite playwright’s next show, or my favorite actor’s new film. This sense of collaboration will be difficult because it challenges existing notions of competition and loyalty, but discovery of the arts is now disintermediated, and arts organizations that embrace these changes will thrive.
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