Why don’t techies care about art?

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!)

By the art world's standards, the tech world is incredibly young. However, despite its short history, technology is ubiquitous.

By the art world’s standards, the tech world is incredibly young. However, despite its short history, technology is ubiquitous.

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. 

In order to become an art world elite, you need to spend a fortune. To be a worshipped techie, however, you don't need to spend a penny of your money.

In order to become an art world elite, you need to spend a fortune. To be a worshipped techie, however, you don’t need to spend a penny of your money.

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 Economyin 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:

It’s all relative…

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.

Installation at SFMOMA's Ahhhcade: SoundSelf by Robin Arnott + Evan Balster

Installation at SFMOMA’s Ahhhcade: SoundSelf by Robin Arnott + Evan Balster

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 Agent Ruby Files" is a new exhibition at SFMOMA that deals with artificial intelligence. Ruby is accessible to anyone with an Internet connection. Click here to talk to her!

“The Agent Ruby Files” is a new exhibition at SFMOMA that deals with artificial intelligence. Ruby is accessible to anyone with an Internet connection. Click here to talk to her!

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?

9 thoughts on “Why don’t techies care about art?”

  1. Ben C.
     ·  Reply

    Except for the fact that museums, like all high culture (books, art movies, theater, classical music), ultimately do work out of a sense of guilt and obligation. I think about this a lot as a teacher of books that no one wants to read. You go to the museum not only because you like the stuff in it, but because you feel you should. Culture is coercive, and for me this is a good thing. You should feel stupid if you only do things that are easy. High culture conveys the invaluable message that it’s really not about you. So I wonder whether a) culture’s coercive power is fading altogether and b) marketing high culture is hastening its total demise or helping to turn it around. When you tell the disruption-obsessed south bay libertarians that art is more fun than an overpriced food cart to make them come see it, is it worth the part of the impenetrable authority of high culture you are surrendering? Is there a way to make people feel stupid and ashamed and out of it instead of empowered?

  2. Ian Aleksander Adams
     ·  Reply

    I got pointed to this article by Jennifer Chan, by way of sending it over to altcrit.tumblr.com for me to reblog.

    There’s a lot of excellent ideas in here and as an SF resident, I’m glad to see more thought about them. I also watch stuff like the Creator’s Project closely, and see a lot of things that seek to blur the lines between the creative and code communities – like hacker spaces or even hackathons that focus on the convergance (arthackday.net as a frontrunner.)

    While I think there’s a solid list here when it comes to places to start for museum workers (many of whom I’ve also personally interacted with on a level of ‘why should we care’ when it comes to huge technical innovations, so I understand your frustration), there are also some strange disconnects here.

    I think one can be noted by looking at that first graph, which I understand is tongue in cheek, but actually does represent how many people in the arts (an idea of ‘long’ culture) think about tech. As an art historian AND a tech worker and, ideally, a futurist, I’d say that this way of looking at the world around us is pretty dangerous, for both fields.

    Most of the artistic innovators I respect the most were either also inventors, refiners, or early adopters of the technical leaps around them, or were extremely inspired by the cultural dialogue between technical innovation and media use of the same tech. I know we’re focusing on a very ‘silicon vally | startup’ idea of tech here, but I feel like it’s missing key parts of the dialog, from Xerox PARC, to the MIT Media Lab, to Instagram – places where the creators of new mediums were intensely aware of artistic practices and have participated (I’d argue knowingly) in the shaping of contemporary art history.

    I think that most creative techies I know (whether they work at a start up, work as technical archivists at harvard, teach at saic, or participate in the gallery scene in new mexico) are more annoyed by what might be a false distinction that just isn’t necessary at this point. Many of us are concerned that the way cultural institutions are formed and function today do less to protect culture and more to impede a discussion (not just about contemporary work, but ways of examining all of creative history that take into account leaps in other areas of education and dialog – Kevin Johnson recently winged out that the problem was methodological – “Art History is the last remaining taxonomic discipline, the only one that still concerns itself only with describing things and classifying them on the basis of those descriptions. This is of interest to nobody else in academe; all other disciplines long ago passed from taxonomic method to explanatory method. “)

    I’m not sure if I agree with him in full, but I feel like there’s a pretty widespread frustration with art history and the cultural institutions on ideas of classification of what’s ‘important’ and why. I think Ahhhcade, for example, was an excellent exhibit, but I was sad to read the numbers and even sadder to read them written in a tone that seems positive – 1300 people is an insanely small number to many of us. I often talk to students about when I shifted to putting stuff mostly online – I’d had what I thought was a very successful gallery show with about 200-250 visitors at the opening, and when I put the work online the next day someone posted it on stumbleupon, leading to 40,000 visitors with an average of 1.5 minutes of looking at the page (longer, I thought, than anyone actually looked at any of my pieces during the physical show.)

    Obviously the traffic stats mean very different things and the venues serve up the work in very different ways, but at a glance it’s easy to see why young innovators are drifting away from brick and mortar institutions. I wonder if the disconnect is less about supporting culture and more about figuring out ways to make culture MORE accessible. After all, while SFMOMA is a great resource to those of us here in SF, it’s mostly a resource just for us in SF, which makes it a thing directed to those who already have a great deal of privilege.

    Another note is that many people are confused (perhaps not on a conscious level) about why this is ‘art’ and other cultural things they partake in are ‘entertainment’ or something else. I don’t know how many times I’ve had the barroom discussion with techies out here where they are eager to get into the ‘what is art anyway’ thing, but have a fairly conservative understanding of it. We end up at a place where I’m asking “well, if I’m entertained by art, isn’t it entertainment?” or “If a movie can be meaningful, can be art, can give you a perceptual shift – can’t a painting be pop, be shallow, be ‘just’ entertainment?” It seems like so much of it is just dependent on context, intent of author (or curator) and legitimization, and museums like SFMOMA are big C Context, big C Culture when it comes to deciding if something is Art. Those in the fast moving tech industry may be confused by this big C, but I’m sure they’re also very intrigued by it – it’s often those with an arts education and production background that seem more jaded with the idea of an art that’s been vindicated by an institution.

    Anyway, I’m bordering on writing you a book here – I don’t mean to poke holes in your arguments or only offer a divergent disjointed critique – I think that concern about these issues and discussion on them is wholly a positive thing. It’s going to be very interesting to see what happens as our generation of arts workers integrates more fully with the existing institutions, something that’s been happening slowly but DOES seem to be happening. Thanks for the thought food.

    • Rebecca Phillips
       ·  Reply

      THIS. This is it.

      I think it’s difficult for techies to break into the world of art as supporters when such a division between them is imposed by the art institution itself. I think about that argument about what is art, and what makes good art, and how it’s difficult for techies – and as Dallan points out, many other “non-art” folks – to engage in such a discussion with those in the arts when it feels like their thoughts will be deemed invalid. I think it’s too easy an excuse to fall back on to claim that people in tech haven’t had the cultural or intellectual preparation to understand and thus appreciate art enough to find value in it. Having followed the backgrounds of tech folks I admire (and my own background, if that’s worth noting ;)), that is simply untrue. Furthermore, the maths and sciences, particularly those connected to technology, are deeply reliant on creativity and abstract thinking, and it’s really exciting to see when the lines between these pursuits and art are blurred. But I feel like there’s a resistance from the larger institution of the arts to recognize the parallels between the two groups. Rather, the art world should be exploiting them to form a bond with the tech world beyond that of a financial one. If the art world wants the tech world to become more financially involved, they are going to have to give them a chance to be intellectually involved as well, and entertain the idea that such involvement might be of some value.

      I realize that this is something you personally, Willa, are actively pursuing, and it feels good to know there’s some of you out there. But the greater community is going to need to be convinced of the value of such an integration.

      Also, some interesting facts about techies:
      Techies are creatives and it’s ok to talk to them as such.
      Techies were in most cases social outcasts at a younger age, and are not particularly eager to enter that type of environment again.
      Techies (particularly the successful ones with $$$) work hard and a lot. It’s pretty much…all they do. Time is a major factor. (and like you said, Willa, Artsy et al are awesome ways to address these limitations!)
      Techies are engrossed in a field that is evolving at light speed and over a short period of time. One might argue simply that they just haven’t had the chance to realize they have the means to make art a part of their lives. (“give me a minute, would ya?” etc etc ;) )
      Techies are junkies for intellectual stimulation and engage as such in an open, collaborative community.

      Obvious stuff I guess, but nevertheless worth pointing out and pondering how it plays a role (or could play a role) in this situation.

      Great questions – I think exciting things can happen in the next couple decades, and discussions like this one will be the catalysts!

  3. Dallan Guzinski
     ·  Reply

    Hey Willa!!! Great and interesting read! Considering I just started and finished reading this at around 2AM, I am simply too lazy to express fully what I might like, but I think there are some important and interesting considerations to made regarding your central question, “Why don’t techies care about art?” …. I would add, “Why don’t construction workers, baristas, waitresses, mechanics, grocery store clerks, Burger flippers, etc etc care more about art?”, because the disconnect doesn’t only exist between techies and the artsy folk. I would argue, and would love to discuss with you at some point, that there are economic and educational perspectives of great concern when getting at the roots for why certain aspects of an institution or society become more or less valued in certain subsets of the population. Universities are largely becoming more and more corporatized and producing or pushing only that which can create massive profits, in effect creating a depreciation for the arts in general. This happens both in higher and lower levels of education. The economic, political, and educational considerations are equally important in addressing both your question and the potential for effectively moving forward and SAVING THE ARTS in our communities GREAT READ! Hope to talk more about it soon!

  4. julien
     ·  Reply

    this totally forgets about digital art which is the exact mix of both.
    check artist/programmer as aaron koblin, memo atken, kyle mc donald…

  5. Douglas Wittnebel
     ·  Reply

    This was really an interesting read. We swim around and try our best to make good, and do well, and treat others right. We try ever so hard to make a difference and think we can do it with the best reference points and finest donations of time and talent. It ure seems that those tech dervishes can defy explanation, but I sure can imagine the dreams they must have at night,…twisting tornadoes of doubt and then joy.

  6. Ben Bogart
     ·  Reply

    Please realize that for about 50 years artists have been using computational technology and working with robotics, artificial intelligence, electronics, radio, TV and more. I consider my work as contextualized in this history, following from Canadian artists such as Norman White and David Rokeby. The problem is that the mainstream art-work has largely totally ignored this thread of contemporary art. See this: http://archive.org/details/Tuchmann-ArtAndTechnologyAtLacma-Pulsa

  7. Anderson
     ·  Reply

    I find it ironic how so many of my peers display pure contempt for art, but most of the entertainment they get derives from some form of art.

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