Recently I’ve noticed the relationship between the art world and tech world becoming a bit strained. As techies earn more and more money at younger ages, the established art world looks older and stiffer by comparison. Of course, the art world is old – a visit to almost any museum will prove that, and any liberal arts graduate will remember the likely pairing of the two words art and history. When put in perspective, the art world feels practically as old as the dinosaurs, the dusty fossils with which might even share a wing in a history museum with the old, dusty artworks and artifacts of early civilizations.
Unlike the dinosaurs, though, art isn’t extinct – it has evolved into a well-adapted, very-much-alive creature of the 21st century. Artists these days are making more innovative, engaging, and provocative work than ever before, and yet the disconnect today between the art world and society’s other group of savvy cultural innovators–the tech world–has presented a perplexing problem for cultural institutions and galleries alike. Why do the youngest (and richest) cultural innovators not care about art? I have a few ideas…
(Before I begin, I feel the need to write a quick disclaimer: this post includes many generalizations about both the tech world and the art world. As person in the art world who also runs with the tech crowd, I have tried my best to be fair!)
As the Bay Area’s economy has been inflated by tech money, successful businesses have adapted by working to attract the young techy demographic, and the culture of commerce here has quite literally evolved to suit the taste of a new class of technocrats (yes, it’s problematic and controversial, but it’s the truth). Cultural institutions, on the other hand, have been slower to adapt their business models to attract the techie crowd, and therefore slower to gain from this newfound source of wealth. Of course, museums have every good reason to be slow about making change, as they must resist popular trends in favor of making a lasting impression on/careful presentation of history. However, just like the dinosaurs, museums run the risk of becoming obsolete if they cannot adapt and evolve to stay relevant. In this sense, museums truly need to attract the young techie crowd–but how?
As a museum marketer, I’ve attended many meetings in which we discuss new strategies to attract the coveted “young cosmopolitan” demographic– a hybrid generation of highly social, well-educated, technologically-savvy and creatively-engaged individuals. Attracting this YoCo demographic is one way we hope to bridge the gap between the art world and the tech world. However, despite throwing late-night cocktail parties replete with Instagram hashtags and mood lighting, this strategy hasn’t exactly panned out. While our outreach has been genuine, it appears that our efforts have been underwhelming, unable to compete on a higher level with the saturated world of food, entertainment, and parties that seem to spring up wherever tech moguls walk. For museums and most other arts and culture organizations, the YoCos remain elusively difficult to pin down, and their friends, the rulers of planet tech, remain as out of reach as ever.
So, we’re currently in this odd stalemate state where the art world wants the tech world’s money, but that’s not magically happening, and we in the art world keep asking, ‘Why?’. In the past few weeks and months, I’ve read some interesting articles on this subject: for starters, see The New York Times’ recent article, Does Anyone Here Speak Art and Tech?, in which writer Alice Gregory sites “the prevailing chill between the two spheres,” and this well-researched, compelling East Bay Express piece by Ellen Cushing, The Bacon-Wrapped Economy, in which she notes that the “tech world in general is notoriously uncharitable,” pointing out the flawed sense of importance that ultra-rich, ultra-young technocrats can project. She also surfaces the following astonishing fact: “according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy, only four of 2011’s fifty most generous US donors worked in tech, despite the fact that thirteen of Forbes‘ Fifty Richest Americans in 2012 had made some or all of their fortunes in tech.”
Although unfortunate, the fact that those belonging to this budding generation of new wealth haven’t been chomping at the bit to sit on the boards of museums and spend their cash on impractically expensive artwork hardly seems like news. Yes, it’d be great if museums and galleries could do a little outreach and succeed in turning technocrats into art collectors and museum trustees. However, I think that the mentality held by many individuals deep within the art world that young affluent techies have a responsibility to care about and fund art is hypocritical. I’ve met many members of the art world who don’t think it’s worth their time to figure out what Twitter is. If they’re getting along fine without navigating the complicated and possibly intimidating world of iPhone apps and social media, why would a curator or artist bother to spend valuable time dealing with such ‘trivialities’? One thing that the art world and the tech world have in common is this: time is money. Why would anyone waste his or her time trying to navigate an uncomfortable, unpredictable, foreign world, especially when it wasn’t necessary?
Turn the tables, and you see exactly why technical people aren’t rushing to throw their money into the arts. We are all creatures of habit, or at least creatures who live by what we know. The leaders of planet tech aren’t planning a big interstellar trip to planet art because planet tech is a self-sustaining, resource-rich ecosystem. Planet art is a foreign world where the residents have their own language and tend to throw elite parties where how to dress and behave can be anyone’s guess, and strange objects (with big price tags) hung on a wall can keep people entranced for hours. The art world is intimidating!
In order to gain tourism from citizens of the thriving, insular tech world, the art world needs to extend a hand and build some in-roads and attractions that techies will actually want to see and explore. In an effort to be productive, I’ve pulled together a few ideas about how I see that beginning to happen:
The art world needs to stop acting like the tech world is a finicky little baby that needs to be taught a lesson.
Just because the systems and histories of the art world have steeped over thousands of years doesn’t automatically make the tech world juvenile by comparison. Planet tech’s accretion occurred quickly and somewhat awkwardly, but it’s now a definitive mass with an undeniable gravitational pull. Art is not > tech, and framing things in this way is not productive. Let’s move on.
We need to work harder to create projects that not only interest techies, but also get them excited about working with us. Rather than watching as tech companies try their hands at curating, we should get the tech world working with us. Imagine if we could successfully join forces on collaborative projects that bring important art and ideas to the public through smartphones, laptops, etc. What if new sites like Artsy and the Google Art Project could succeed more fully and truly bring art to all corners of the globe? What if more social media companies cared about making art visible and successful on their platforms (kudos to Tumblr for doing great work here already). The #artstech group does a phenomenal job highlighting the ways that the art and tech worlds are working together already, and it would be great to see this happening on a larger scale. As #artstech’s “About” section states, “’Democratizing’ the arts has been a long-standing goal in the art world, and no medium makes it more feasible than the web.” Amen.
We need to do a better job making the stories of artists/artwork accessible and interesting to natives of planet tech. There’s a reason why projects like The Creators Project and The Bay Lights create huge amounts of buzz in the Bay Area – techies are inherently creative people and they want to learn more about these art projects. However, we need to do more than simply offering the same old art world description of what the work is– we need to approach the story-telling as a techie might. Why is this work of art useful to society? How was it made? What other types of artwork like this are out there in the world? If we could create engaging multimedia that was easily accessible through smart phones and social media, we’d find a lot more citizens of planet tech engaging with art world content.
We should let the definition of “art” be more flexible. Sometimes museums can seem like the stodgiest places on earth, but when we do do something new and cool, the tech world takes notice. A few weeks ago, SFMOMA brought nearly 1,300 visitors through the doors for Ahhhcade, an event organized by my stellar coworker Erica Gangsei featuring artful arcade games with the attendees of the Game Developer’s Conference (happening across the street) in mind. Since we had something specifically for them, many of the game programmers and designers (who might otherwise not have noticed that there was a museum across the street) came over just to check it out, but then ended up having an amazing time. I’m also willing to bet that some of them ventured out of the Ahhhcade and into other parts of the museum as well, and maybe learned something new about art during their visit. This is a perfect example of an in-road!
We need to get over the fact that most/many techies won’t ever care about all of art history. So much art is about the physical act of working a material by hand, and those of us who have experience putting oil paint onto canvas or bending metal under a hot flame have a unique appreciation for artists who have found formal success with those media. And, those of us who have an art education can’t help but associate art history with world history–we see the culture of the world unfold as we walk through a museum’s galleries. Techies, on the other hand, don’t see it this way. It makes sense that a computer programmer would have much more appreciation for an unconventional use of a computer program as art, and an app designer would be interested in seeing a crisply designed mural. Because we’re all inherently interested in things that we’re familiar with, a techie might not take a second glance at SFMOMA’s world famous Rothko, but that’s okay. In order to branch out from what we know, we need to make connections that lead us to new paths of knowledge naturally. I know I can’t force a techie to love a Rothko, just as he’ll never be able to get me all excited about his new app discovering video game, or whatever. And that’s OK! Computer science degrees typically require little or no units in art history, and art historians rarely take computer science courses.
The art world needs to do a little more to market the shows we have that will naturally interest techies. As museums begin to bring more new media art and design exhibitions into the galleries, it becomes more likely that residents of planet tech will come to see these exhibitions, since they’re more likely to be interested in that content. However, in order to make this natural connection happen, museums must spend a little money to market these smaller shows in interesting, tech-savvy ways. No print ads, duh – rather, we should look at a cost-effective mix of partnerships (that can leverage the influence of brands, restaurants, and apps that techies already trust) and content-driven social media marketing.
Prioritize well-contextualized online content. We’ve recently started making some of our public programs available to view by live-stream. It has been interesting to note that when the program has a bit of a techie tie-in, we’ll draw way more viewers than a program that’s more rooted in painting/sculpture/etc. For example, when we streamed Leo Villareal’s artist talk on The Bay Lights, we had probably 5x more viewers than we normally have. There are ways to set up a webcast that are very cost effective, and you’re suddenly able to increase accessibility by an innumerable percentage. We’ve found that announcing the webcast a couple of days before the event makes sure that we still sell tickets to the on-site event, while also building buzz about the event among social media communities. It’s a win/win!
Social influencers are key to engaging planet tech with museums. At SFMOMA, I’ve made it a habit to invite local social media influencers to see new exhibitions before they open to the public. This is a great experience for everyone involved, since those who I invite tend to have a pre-determined interest in the subject matter of the show (I make sure of this by doing the research beforehand), so they’re getting a highly exclusive behind-the-scenes experience, and in turn, the museum is directly benefitting from their word of mouth recommendation of the new exhibition.
Getting the tech crowd into the galleries is only the first step. I have a vivid memory of seeing a tweet posted by a certain high-level Twitter employee that included a photo taken in SFMOMA’s Dieter Rams exhibition. It made me happy, since we had worked hard to make sure that photography was allowed inside of that show. As museums work to make technologically-savvy folks feel at home in the galleries, making sure that photography is allowed is crucial. There’s nothing worse than that feeling of getting yelled at by a museum guard– even though I work in a museum, I still feel ashamed when I get scolded (which happens way too often). On a related note, museums need to do more to bring interpretive media into the galleries in interesting ways (no tech ghettos, please). It’s been hugely inspiring to work with Local Projects on the new interpretive technologies that’ll be installed at SFMOMA when we reopen in 2016, because Jake Barton and his team are truly thinking about how tech can channel the ways that people already want to engage into meaningful interaction that inspires both fun and learning. This is hugely innovative stuff! (You can read about Local Projects’ perspective in this terrific New York Times piece, Technology That Serves to Enhance, Not Distract)
As I run out of steam, I’d be curious to hear from all of you, my fellow art world + tech world enthusiasts. What can/should we do to help make the art world more comfortable with the tech world?