As the Arts go Online, will they Lose their Localness?

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Image by David Bruyland from Pixabay

One of the surprise developments for arts in the pandemic has been the broadcasting of local groups to a far-flung digital audience. Is this a panacea or a Pandora’s Box?

Many of the Seattle groups have been pleased by the reach of their digital broadcasts, even to remote countries, and the local organizations mostly plan on continuing this virtual life, post-pandemic. (Seattle Opera, for instance, has acquired three video cameras.) There are problems, to be sure. Union contracts and royalties, for two. Many of these remote audience members will not attend in person or donate. Local groups are suddenly playing in the digital big leagues, where the competition has bigger stars and fancier production values.

San Francisco arts groups have experienced the same diaspora of their audiences, as told in this survey. Kelly Tweeddale, executive director of San Francisco Ballet and formerly managing director of Seattle Opera, weighs in. She says that “the company’s 2020 virtual season wound up playing to concentric tiers of viewers. ‘Digital content extends our reach dramatically, beginning with the local area,’ she said. ‘Then national reach is by far the next tier, and only then internationally.’”

The new audiences raise an old anxiety for local arts groups, which is how they maintain a distinctive local focus. When the nonprofit regional theater movement began in the 1960s, the hope was to develop local talent and plays and audiences. Instead, some of these theaters turned into tryout houses for plays headed to Broadway and the for-profit commercial world. Many local directors such as Dan Sullivan of the Rep and Bartlett Sher of Intiman sent plays to Broadway and soon decamped to New York City themselves. The national tail wagged the local dog.

Will the digital expansion have the same effect of de-localizing our arts groups and artistic directors? That could distort priorities — maybe already has in programming and fundraising. Just as Hollywood now favors movies with lowest-common-denominator international appeal (stars, violence, sex, familiar plots), the same pressures will be on local arts groups to take away local references and relevance in pursuit of a broader audience. 

Another concern is the drifting away of local audiences to the digital big time, as happened when the Met Opera started doing live movie-theater broadcasts — bigger stars and much lower ticket prices. Gradually the higher production values and editing and re-dubbing advantages of televised performances will wean away local audiences formerly drawn to the socializing and electricity of “live” performance.

These siren songs will be particularly loud if these digital extensions figure out a way to monetize these audiences. One of my favorite new digital series is the chamber music from Philadelphia Chamber Music Society, an admired organization with fine players, which now often takes in more money on a pay-what-you-wish basis than if it were selling tickets to Philadelphians.

Some cities such as Portland have the confidence to be local and to be content with the smaller budgets and more local artists. (“Thinking small is the big idea here,” goes the Portland motto.) But not Seattle, which has always aimed high. An example is the Seattle Opera’s quadrennial productions of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, which put the Opera and Seattle arts on the world map, skewed budget money from regular-season productions, and was funded in part by a Bay Area Wagnerphile. The Seattle Ring is now unlikely to return (too expensive and there’s too much competition), but that fatal golden ring at the heart of the story still gleams. 

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David Brewster, a founding member of Post Alley, has a long career in publishing, having founded Seattle Weekly, Sasquatch Books, and Crosscut.com. His civic ventures have been Town Hall Seattle and FolioSeattle.

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