The dust-up over Chris Jones’ recent Tribune theater blog piece and ensuing discussion is something that hit especially close to the bone. A lay of the land: the arts organization I work for is in a city where one organization, one family, in essence, controls nearly all traditional media outlets. Over the last five years, the newspaper has literally downsized, in physical footprint as well as in staff (full disclosure: before my current position, I was a freelance writer for the newspaper). Of course, the areas of downsizing were the “fringe” areas of music critic, book critic, dance critic, and other general assignment arts critics. The paper still does employ several feature arts beat writers, but it’s indicative of the changing times when printed reviews of performances anymore read like a reporter at a city council meeting—who said what, how did the crowd react, what songs did they play, meeting adjourned. Let’s not get into your opinion, man, because we don’t want to anger potential subscribers. But the slash-and-burn reorganization or tone moves which a hometown media conglomerate needs to take to stave off extinction are not really my concern, nor interest. I’m much happier the city atleast has a daily newspaper, not always the case in comparable cities. What most interests me are how now do the residents of the growing metropolitan community get their news (pre-and post-event), and stay generally culturally aware with now a paucity of critics, reporters, column inches, or interest in anything but the most mass audience, general interest art-ish happenings. No digital outlets have really picked up the slack.
Hence, the attitude anymore is this: we’ll become our own arts news agency. Whether it’s internally generated news (not always having to do with the Wexner), or—here’s where it gets interesting—items on our website and social feeds (or perhaps Tumblr) written by the vast number of great writers with arts knowledge in our collective orbit (i.e, content we pay for, host, and share with our audiences, hungry for arts news and reviews). We take the bull by the horns. Our job is to inform, engage, and drive attendance. This is part of that, albeit through newly circuitous means. Aggregated arts news on museum and institutional websites isn’t a new thing, but everyone comes to it on their own time, dictated by the particular collision of circumstances of their community.
Here, the time to do this is now.
Here’s a project which a very talented team of folks here at the Wexner Center has been working on for several years now, Via Brasil. I’ll spare all the details (Mellon Foundation grant), save it’s an almost-all-encompassing effort, exhibiitons, films, performances, and, a new website, which is the subject of this post.
"Boutique" websites for exhibitions are nothing new, and determining when to undertake such an effort is no doubt a byproduct of resources, expectations, necessity and goals, not in that order.
The work behind this site was the work of an internal core team of a developer, content manager, designer, and several others (including myself) contributing content (video), keeping the work on track, and working closely with internal curators, artists, translators, and more to bring the whole thing to a finish line of sorts. Given the scope and scale of the programmatic undertaking, it necessitated an equal digital presence, hence, the Via Brasil site. More content will be added between now and this summer, but for now, have a look.
As much as it might send some arts marketers/experience/development professionals into convulsions, it’s hard to ignore the increased attention and collective brainspace that BIG DATA discussions are taking up in the processes and back halls of many arts institutions. This is not a bad thing, but as De La Soul put it so well: Stakes is High.
[On a somewhat depressing anecdote, I willingly chose to read this book below over Christmas vacation to grow my brain a little in this regard. Ho ho ho.]
A few chapters in, and I’m amazed at the volume of data science management information I had no clue about. It’s a start.
So, this isn’t new news, certainly in the corporate landscape. But in an underfunded, understaffed non-profit contemporary arts environment that is chronically years late to the game (except when exploring what is on stage/view/screen etc.) the recent push is very noticeable, and not surprising. It’s a combination of criteria: widespread adoption of CRM, data management and visualization tools, increased need for analytics by boards eager to understand and inform how every dollar is spent (and by extension, the philanthropic giving landscape), and rapidly changing patron consumption habits and preferences. How data impacts all manner of decision-making, whether it’s determining a paid advertising campaign, determining member churn rates, or plotting physical distribution of printed materials has grown more detailed and necessary.
I’ve heard it many times, though: “I didn’t chose to work in the arts to spend all day in an Excel spreadsheets.” Neither did I. I love Cassavetes, Sonic Youth, Frank Stella (in addition to thousands more). But the landscape is changing. Our roles are to creatively connect the emotion of the art experience with a more and more precise pool (informed by data) of potential converts. And hang on to converted. And get that email out tomorrow. Right brain, meet left brain.
And away we go.