The rap on research for the arts, museums, and informal sciences
It’s starting to look like the essence of innovation is seeing new uses for old tools. Take the humble movie theater, once synonymous with watching ... well, movies. But the Met’s Live in HD, and later LA Phil Live concerts, made that assumption look so 20th century. Now a London exhibition on Leonardo da Vinci has come to a theater near you. Will museums become local in a whole new sense?
You may have heard about the exhibition, at the National Gallery in London, which brings together works of Leonardo’s that have never been in the same place. More likely, you’ve read about the “live,” high-def satellite version playing at select movie theaters around the world, in last week's NY Times review and elsewhere. The program is distributed by the same people who give us the Met broadcasts, high profile theater performances, and the occasional rock concert, BY Experience, self-described “pioneers of global live cinema events.”
What’s new, obviously, is that this is an exhibition, not a performance. You’re looking at artworks. But you’re also (as with the Met’s and LA Phil’s appealing backstage footage and performer interviews) seeing and hearing far more about the art, the artists, and the exhibition itself than you would while snaking your way through the show at the National Gallery. You get the process, not just the product.
In a way, this is a natural evolution of what museum media and technology people have been trying to get their colleagues elsewhere in the museum field to do for years: to stop thinking of virtual experiences of objects as a threat to in-person encounters with the real thing — a seductive but empty thrill that competes with the more profound in-person experience — and start seeing them as a way of deepening, extending, and personalizing that live experience.
Few have argued openly that electronically mediated experiences can be legitimate, stand-alone ways of connecting with art, different from but on a par with seeing the genuine article face to face.
Yet technological advances are changing that calculus. The advantages of the virtual experience are becoming harder to forget about when you’re standing in a crowd trying to see a painting that you can’t get particularly close to and certainly can’t manipulate (as in Google's Art Project), with no globetrotting curators or famous actresses on hand to talk to you about it with a humanizing passion and wit. “Live” can have more than one meaning.
Not that the Leonardo production — which premiered on February 20 and will be shown again at select theaters through the end of the month — is particularly witty. Picture a cross between an Oscar-night telecast (appropriate, given that you’re in a movie theater) and a PBS great-artist documentary. I’ve been listening to enough science podcasts lately to find the tone here a little precious and self-conscious, as if the museum and the filmmakers are anxious to be taken seriously. (Not something that worries particle physicists, for example.)
But still, this is the proverbial game-changer. Not only has the phrase “traveling exhibition” been given a whole new meaning, economically. Art museums are going to have to join their performing arts cousins in grappling with questions about whether they’re in the business of serving local audiences with traditional, live museum experiences or in the business of serving global audiences with electronically distributed experiences.
Either way, they’ll have to think very differently about how they’re competing, and for whom. As Alan Brown argues in a forthcoming paper on the evolution of arts venues, local arts organizations may lose audiences as consumers head instead to their local multiplexes to see top-drawer international productions beamed in for a night or two. Institutions that aspire to be those international purveyors (like the LA Phil, pictured) will have to reinvent their business models in a way that embraces — and fully interweaves — local production and international distribution.
That won’t be easy. But these days, invention is the mother of necessity.
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