Alumni Column: Appearing Live! Audiences, Art and Balance Sheets



I remember vividly taking a modern art class at Colgate. The photographed images of such masters as Courbet, Monet, Manet, Seurat, Van Gogh, Matisse, Munch, Picasso, Braque, Bon­nard, Duchamp et al., beaming in a dark room, eyes fixed taking copious notes, in awe of the stills and their placement in not only art history but in history writ large. I not only took notes, but also included my own subjective comments on many works.

While the images were powerful and gave a chronological history of Western art of a partic­ular period, they did not convey the raw artistic process that was eminent in the actual canvases. As I sat in Brehmer one morning I realized I was viewing the slides of paintings that I had viewed numerous times on the second floor of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). This dis­play was not intentional but an inadvertence of a curatorial perspective of an institution, inter­secting with pedagogy. While the professor emi­nently discussed each of the works and asked us difficult questions, unveiling provenance, context, influences, style, coloring, etc., the two dimensional shapes on the screen bared no re­semblance to the canvases on the second floor of MoMA. What was missing were line, brush stroke, edging, mistakes, dimension, real colors, frames, hanging etc. In short, seeing works of art live in time and space, the visible creative and intellectual passion and manifest product of the artist(s).

I currently work in the performing arts sec­tor and am struck by a similar concern some 30+ years later. While I appreciate the poten­tial of technology to distribute content over the Internet, YouTube beaming large, many organizations and institutions have willingly sublimated the value of their art to two di­mensional clips that are viewed randomly by users with their own curatorial mandate, less than one minute, while dismissing ar­chitectural structure, process, composition, narrative, production values, positive and negative space over live performance. After sub­stitution, we then ask, where are our audiences at performances?

In short, our potential audiences think they have seen our creative product, which sometimes looks no better or different than amateur postings on the Internet. What pro­fessional (defining professional left to the dis­cretion of the reader) arts organizations have failed to do is to create web-based content that can be substituted or is representative of live performance. Giving credit where credit is due, Met Opera has created a wonderful experience through their digital telecasts.

So with declining audiences, generally, how in a digital age can performing arts or­ganizations induce audiences to view live per­formance? The answer may actually be a more expensive solution than marketing and adver­tising budgets permit. It may also lie in com­petitive differentiation between professional organizations and amateur productions that are not easily discerned on the web or two-dimensional broadcasts.

A recurring economic problem is a profes­sional organization’s ability to take risk. We generally take some degree of artistic risk in our work and live performances but what magni­tude of financial risk can arts organizations un­dertake a financial risk that is beyond the reve­nues of ticket sales. A risk that is inherent in the strength of our balance sheets. The answer un­fortunately is not much, particularly for most not for profit arts organizations that have en­dured a tumultuous nine years since September 11 and are grossly under capitalized. I have had artistic directors and artists indicate a willing­ness to make work expressively for the web and digital distribution. While clearly the creation of such content is admirable from a marketing perspective, isn’t such production a movement away from most organizations prime purpose of performing and creating work for a live audi­ence? Isn’t it the advent of mission creep? Ad­ditionally, on a more practical level, producing digital content is often more expensive than performing in a theater setting. Again, there is the allocation of resources and the monetization of creative content that must be considered. In general most organizations do not have balance sheets strong enough to leverage additional cre­ative capital whose sole purpose is for digital distribution, a problem that does need to be addressed on multiple fronts.

In the meantime I ask Colgate students to take some minimal risk. Explore the creative campus that is Colgate. It will provide visu­ally and intellectually stimulating opportuni­ties that will inspire creative solutions over a lifetime.

Those opportunities both as a creator of content and as an active observer of artistic content will most probably and unfortunately diminish after graduation. Hopefully appearing soon, “Live! Larger Audiences and Art.”