Live Arts Audiences Decline as Online Audiences Grow

Today, the Los Angeles Times culture blog shared some unfortunate findings from a National Endowment for the Arts report: the number of American adults attending arts and cultural events has sunk to its lowest level since 1982.  The economic climate is certainly one reason for the decrease, which might explain why adults are attending performances – museum shows, classical music concerts, opera, ballet, theater and jazz concerts – less frequently now than in 2002.  Meanwhile, The Washington Post reported that audiences are increasingly relying on new media and the Web to appreciate the arts, according to an NEA survey that polled 18,000 adults.  That is, “the mode of delivery is rapidly changing.”  Here’s an excerpt from the article:

“It sends a message to us that technology is increasing access to the arts, not only to artmaking, but also arts participation,” said Joan Shigekawa, NEA’s senior deputy chairman. “Now you are no longer geographically bound to see a live performance. Also, there is something about this technology that emboldens people to express themselves.”

Should we celebrate what technology has done for access to the arts, or mourn the impact that technology has had on live audiences?  Is sitting alone at home in front of a computer screen while watching a dance performance really the same as experiencing the same performance in a theater with other audience members?  Does it matter?  What do you think?

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4 Responses to Live Arts Audiences Decline as Online Audiences Grow

  1. It’s definitely not the same. Personally, I cannot do without the visceral energy of the real, the soul of the real living article in the same room as me. And I’m sure anyone who has experienced life-changing, soul-shaking performances in theater, dance or music would say the same. Is seeing the reproduction of a great work of visual art the same as standing in front of it? Hell, no. I want to be able to check out the smallest of those brush strokes and be blown away by the tiniest subtleties and the overall grandeur. But we have these fascinating new forms now, with their own virtues, and I think we can make good use of them as long as we recognize them for what they are and do not expect them to be what they cannot be. We have to work harder to keep and celebrate the best of live art, and we have to work equally hard to discover what’s fantastic and liberating about new media.

  2. Evan says:

    Well said, Eva! I agree with you one hundred percent that live and online arts experiences are entirely different. Would my first performances of Tharp’s “In the Upper Room”, Naharin’s “Decadance”, or Balanchine’s “The Four Temperaments” have left me so elated if I had watched them on a tiny laptop screen? Definitely not. And what’s the point of watching site-specific work if you’re not actually at the site? Even though more and more artists and arts organizations use new media to broadcast art, audiences shouldn’t replace their “live” attendance habits with an online habit. But for people who don’t live in proximity to many performances, online offerings are increasingly an option. Figuring out how to balance the two and make sure online attendance doesn’t surpass the incredible experience of viewing art live is the challenge.

  3. I also happen to agree with Eva. Watching dance on a screen should not be seen as a potential substitute for live dance, but it should be seen as an experience with its own merits and own disadvantages. If anything, the potential to expose larger audiences to dance will do just that, and the same consumers who might be watching something on a large (or small) screen will be that much more likely to want to consume the live product.

    As real distribution opportunities are made available for the field, and dance is no longer confined, as it is today, to what can best be described as a digital ghetto (bad clips, low quality, hard to find), the resulting higher level of audience engagement will only have positive benefits for the live art.

  4. janet says:

    In addition to the economic issue (it’s also cheaper to produce online than in live theater, let alone the economics of audience members), I think there are several issues at play here.

    First, it’s my observation as a young artist that many of my peers see the use of new media not only as a way of generating interest in and awareness of their work, but as a way of gaining and maintaining autonomy outside the realm of larger institutions. The internet as not just a tool but a revolution. (This parallels the digitization of news media as well, of course.) But larger institutions (in an attempt not to lose their audiences?) make increase their online presences in kind. But what does this do for live performance and the field of dance in general?? Cultural institutions are a way for artists to pool our resources. A way for us to legitimize our work and gain the recognition that leads to funding, etc. I challenge my generation to find solutions that empower the arts “system” and the artists within the “system,” rather than necessarily trying to buck or circumvent it.

    Second, would anyone think that seeing the Mona Lisa online is the same as seeing it in the flesh? People who own cds of their favorite bands still pay wild amounts of money to see them live. Same for sports fans. Why is it that dance has not been able to use digital media to INCREASE the value of live performance in the way that other disciplines have? What are musicians and athletes doing to capitalize productively on digital media that we’re missing?

    Finally, I would suggest that there are many ways to use digital media, but that dance film is not a substitute for live performance. It’s another form. Just like social networking doesn’t replace dance journalism or theoretical writing. It’s a different model with different goals. What is the goal of offering a live performance online? What do we want that goal to be? How is that goal different from our “in the flesh” live performance goals or our dance film goals?

    These, I think, are the great challenges of our discipline during this era.

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