News from the Field

Arts Institutions Could Benefit From Embracing Digital Media

Originally posted in Philanthropy.com

Patrons at the venerable Philadelphia Orchestra were invited to bring their smartphones and tablets to a special concert last week so they could follow along on the LiveNote app, which provides images and commentary information to illuminate musical themes as they are played. On a typical concert night for most orchestras, the Philadelphia Orchestra included, ushers would yank you out of your chair if you kept your mobile device open throughout the concert.

It may seem superfluous to say in 2015, but nonprofit cultural organizations — and the foundations and individuals who support them — need to embrace digital communications technologies to achieve their potential.

Social media and other information technologies have transformed every aspect of our lives.

Sadly, many traditional arts institutions have been reluctant to take full advantage of digital opportunities. Art and science museums, symphony orchestras, ballet and opera companies, and other legacy organizations operate under traditions and habits that have evolved over many decades or even centuries. And they are slow to adopt the tools and technologies that are now commonplace in the entertainment industry and other commercial enterprises.

A new report commissioned by the Wyncote Foundation, Like, Link, Share, encourages legacy arts institutions to integrate digital practices into all aspects of their operations to function more effectively, reach larger audiences, and attract a more diverse group of people.

According to the new report, digital innovation is sparking not only “cool new projects” but also “fundamental changes in the orientation of legacy institutions toward a more spirited public presence and a renewed sense of civic purpose.”

The report, by Sarah Lutman, a former executive at the Bush Foundation and American Public Media and former president of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, identified leading digital innovators who work in an array of art forms across the country and around the world.

The beginning point for most traditional arts organizations in applying technology innovation is to develop an overarching digital strategy, guiding a broad range of activities covering fundraising and database management, media production, archives and collections, and education, as well as live streaming, blogging, and social media.

For arts organizations that are already struggling to keep pace with their existing performance schedules and exhibition calendars, it’s not surprising that some find the challenge of digital change daunting. But establishing a strategy enables organizations to identify the full slate of activities and helps them set priorities for resources and staffing.

Equally important, strategy helps organizations establish measurements to gauge progress.

Among the strategies identified by the report:

The San Francisco Ballet uses social media to extend the global reach and reputation of the highly regarded dance troupe, as well as to deepen the engagement of the local audience.

The Philharmonia Orchestra, in London, creates new audience experiences in classical music using lush and vividly realized video concert previews and multilayered online resources, mobile applications, and digital-media installations.

The Steppenwolf Theatre, in Chicago, aims to deepen audience engagement by providing information in the form of articles, professionally produced videos and trailers, and podcasts, all intended to enhance the audience experience. The renowned theater company has a full-time digital-content producer to help carry out the strategy.

Digital-content producer is not a position on the traditional staff rosters of most legacy groups.

According to Like, Link, Share, a critical element for success in digital strategies is to shake up the organizational chart. Increasingly common is a high-ranking chief digital officer, on par with vice presidents of more traditional divisions.

The driving force behind all these digital efforts is the desire to reach people online and in person “all the time and from any device.”

“The same people who bank online, travel with online tickets and boarding passes, shop online, communicate online, and keep track of their fitness online expect to be able to engage with arts organizations and artists online,” the report states. “It’s as simple—and as complicated—as that.”

Of course, these demands also challenge some of the expectations and attitudes of key players at arts organizations. Some wealthy trustees may not recognize the importance of opening up their elite institutions to a wider group of stakeholders.

But even if the value of social equity is not universally accepted, the importance of institutional survival is.

“Traditional revenue sources for legacy enterprises are eroding as the public’s consumption habits change,” the report points out. “The middle class is getting smaller, resulting in a smaller pool of the audience legacy institutions have relied on for attendance, membership, and contributions.”

At the same time, some people within these institutions may feel that new digital activities will undermine their authority or tarnish the special nature of their work and the integrity of their institutions.

Classical musicians and their union representatives might object to presenting digital recordings online, demanding compensation levels for their recordings that do not reflect the current market value of recorded music. Likewise, museum curators might object to spending the institution’s resources and shifting audience attention to digital representations, believing that direct experience of an art object should be paramount.

These traditionalists’ views are not without merit. The rise of digital-media tools can be intrusive to the aesthetics and decorum of traditional arts experiences.

Anyone who has ever gone to a rock concert knows how annoying it can be to be stuck behind a sea of dull screens raised in the air, blocking the view of the stage, taking out-of-focus photos, or capturing grainy videos of the event. (I know. I’ve done it myself.) So it’s probably a good thing that most orchestras prohibit audiences from taking pictures or making recordings during performances. But before and after the performances, they could probably lighten up a bit.

Vincent Stehle is Executive Director of Media Impact Funders. The Wyncote Foundation, which commissioned the report Like, Link, Share, supports his organization.

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