Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Dancing With a Digital Presence - The Time To Create Digital Dance Content Is Now

I was asked by Dance/USA to write an article about the importance of dance companies participating in the digital world. This is a topic I feel very strongly about. For most companies, the dilemma is how to allocate resources to this new need when they are stretched so thin already. The article was published in the DUSA e-journal on June 28, 2011 at:

I am evangelical. Evangelical about the need for every dance artist and company to have a digital presence and footprint. Evangelical because any artist who does not plan and implement such a presence or footprint can only expect a diminished audience in the future

In 1995, Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen coined the term “disruptive technologies” to describe unanticipated technological changes that fundamentally alter the markets in which they are introduced. Such changes disrupt a then-existing market and the way consumers interact with that market, requiring companies to quickly and radically adjust their businesses. Some examples include the Ford Model T, which made the horse and buggy obsolete, or, more recently, downloadable digital media, which marked the severe decline of CDs and DVDs. Faced with such a change, a mature business must find the resources to adapt its methods to the new technology while, at the same time, maintaining its existing customer base and revenue stream.

Our younger and our future dance audiences, born into a world where digital content and communication are ubiquitous, have already incorporated these disruptive digital technologies into their lives. A soon-to-be-released study by WolfBrown finds that younger audience members have a significantly greater interest in technology-based dance engagement activities than older audience members.1 Therefore, I am unequivocal about the need for most artists and companies to find the required resources to create digital content. Unfortunately, this demands a complete rethinking because most non-profit dance company business models allocate resources to creating work for the stage and for marketing those works, with little, if any, surplus remaining to invest in creating media content.

In our metric-driven arts environment, which demands measureable results, the proposition of reallocating existing resources for media development is a challenge because there is minimal guarantee of a measureable return on that investment. Even those, such as the Metropolitan Opera, who have plunged into this new world wholeheartedly, have reportedly invested a level of resources beyond what even our largest dance companies or most prominent artists can afford. One would expect, then, that our younger, newer companies and artists, who have not yet allocated all of their resources and who are more naturally predisposed to living in the digital world, will more rapidly and completely adapt to the possibilities of the new technologies, incorporating such work into the essence of what they do.

And then, as always, the aesthetic questions of how media intersects with dance and choreography become paramount in considering presenting dance in a media format. The three-dimensional space a dance occupies differs fundamentally from the space a dance occupies in a virtual or digital medium. The rules of these spaces differ from each other, and achieving desired aesthetic results requires approaches uniquely appropriate to the performance medium. At the least, this requires modification to adapt the work to the space in which it appears. During periods when concert dance was regularly seen on television, choreographers adapted their works to capture their vision on camera in a way that was, arguably, successful in the choreographer’s mind’s eye.2 Unfortunately, that model -- adapting dance works in a studio with a media team whose expertise was in the aesthetics of the virtual space of television -- became economically unsustainable as the funding environment changed. Since then, the vast majority of dance (as well as theater and opera) is captured in live performances,3 and generally results in what are felt to be disappointing two-dimensional viewer experiences.

Paradoxically, the ease of creating and distributing digital content today has resulted in large amounts of available dance footage and a diverse set of viewing options of varying quality. Unfortunately, little of it seems to have the high professional standards we might wish to see representing our artform and our artists digitally. Currently, quantity seems to be trumping quality, partially due to the continuing stratospheric cost of creating high-quality digital performances. Recent data, however, seem to provide some clues about how audiences are using digital media to access dance and suggest an approach that may be helpful to those struggling with these issues.

In February, the NEA released a research report that provided deeper analysis of the 2008 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts.4 One of the critical findings for our field is that “the vast majority of participation in theater and visual arts is through attendance, whereas the majority of participation in music and dance occurs via electronic media.”5 Compared to the small portion (8 percent) of the U.S. adult population who participates in the arts solely by attending performances,6 “over half reported viewing or listening to a performing arts event or a visual arts program (via recorded or broadcast media), or accessing arts performances or programming online (via Internet).”7 However, other data indicates that active or serious dancers are the only cohort to express a real interest in watching a dance performance on a digital device.8 This relatively limited interest in watching digital performances, contrasted with the large portion of the audience participating in dance digitally, argues i) for creating digital content that is ancillary to the core business of putting dances onstage, and ii) for not investing the significant resources required to make acceptable digital performances for audience viewing.

In the face of this data, it is hard to deny that companies and artists must engage with digital technology in some fashion, the greater the better, or face diminished audiences for their work in the future. It may well be, however, that the best use of resources is not in the digital capture or presentation of performances but in areas of marketing opportunities and audience engagement programs. Despite this, it is possible to imagine the balance shifting toward reallocating resources for aesthetic issues as technology and audience tastes continue to evolve.

Of course, as the argument above implies, the key to success in the age of digital media is articulating a clear strategy, the goals desired, a plan for implementation, and the benchmarks to measure that success. With such a framework in place, any dance organization or artist can properly evaluate the need for and scale of acceptable allocation of limited resources to this endeavor. However, there is no question that such resources must be spent and that participating in the digital realm is essential for communicating with audiences and capturing their imaginations and support in the future


1 WolfBrown. (2011). How Dance Audiences Engage: Summary Report from a National Survey of Dance Audiences, July 2011, Draft made available June 1, 2011, p. 49.

2 There have always been artists who have attempted to incorporate media into their dance and movement work as one element of the total work they are investigating. Given the focus of this piece on the challenge for artists and companies in utilizing digital media or incorporating it into their business model, incorporating media as another element of a creative work is outside the scope of the discussion.

3 “Live” here refers to the method of capture of the dance performance, thus including simultaneous broadcast (Live from Lincoln Center, e.g.), as well as live-captured post-production edited versions of dance performances (Dance in America, e.g.).

4 Novak-Leonard, Jennifer and Brown, Alan. (February, 2011). Beyond attendance: A multi-modal understanding of arts participation (Research Report #53). Washington, D.C.: National Endowment for the Arts

5Novak-Leonard and Brown, p. 16.

6Ibid. p. 83.

7Ibid. p. 71.

8WolfBrown, p. 61. Given the greater interest in younger audiences for digital dance performances, an interesting question is whether the aesthetic disappointment is more or less important to artists dependent on the state of the digital environment in which they matured.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Scientists and Artists

Yesterday, I attended the kick-off meeting of a new partnership between SUNY, the SUNY Research Foundation, and the New York Academy of Sciences. This partnership, an outgrowth of the SUNY strategic plan and New York State strategic plans for SUNY to be a prime motivator of economic development in the state, was established to support the implementation team on which I serve. Our mandate is to develop an entrepreneurial culture throughout the state and in SUNY.

The meeting, held at the Academy offices overlooking the Ground Zero site, was all day and was attended by some thirty SUNY, Research Foundation, and Academy colleagues. Each of the SUNY representatives was asked to make a brief presentation on their campus' research, funding, technology transfer, etc. Needless to say, we don't compete in this arena, so my presentation took a different point of view.

Here are my comments with the five slides I was able to present.

Comments at the Kick-Off meeting of the
SUNY-New York Academy of Sciences Partnership
February 24, 2011

Well, I certainly feel like the “odd man out” in this group. Despite overseeing an arts training program, where we are creating entrepreneurs every day, I will not be able to present the same kind of quantitative information about technology transfer, incubators, and private-public partnerships as the rest of you. So I ask that you indulge me for a few minutes so that I can present a different perspective on the topics we have been discussing: entrepreneurship and economic development. I am very grateful to the Academy and the Research Foundation for giving me this opportunity to address you.

While it is a common perception that the arts don’t drive economic development, all the data show that the arts are instrumental in certain kinds of development. Over the past 50-75 years, we have seen, time and time again, that urban planners have turned to the arts as instigators of urban redevelopment. In addition to serving as engines of urban development, the public spends between $150-160 billion annually on the arts and there are some 2.2 million artists in the United States workforce.

But it is difficult to quantify the direct effect of the arts in terms of prospective economic development. While artists embody the characteristics we are looking for - risk-taking, innovative thinking, resilience, and a necessary tolerance for failure – the effect of producing art or of artistic communities is only indirectly measureable and almost only in retrospect after a great investment of time and effort. In a world in which precious resources must be allocated and in which we are less and less competitive, we are all striving to identify the most efficacious use of our resources to produce maximal results. As we have fallen behind other cultures and societies, we have focused on our competitive shortcomings in science, mathematics, and related subjects, choosing in many cases to elevate these areas over the arts, whose benefits are harder to quantify.

So how exactly can the arts participate in our goal of reenergizing our economy and in economic development?
Last August, I was graciously asked to address our faculty on the topic of creativity. One of the critical points I addressed was the existence of creativity in all spheres, not just artistic ones. Today, I would like to further develop that thought and look at artistic endeavor as an indicator of successful scientific creativity and innovation.

As a starting point, I would posit that the traditional distinction between the arts and sciences is, in some ways, a false one since artists and scientists engage in like explorations. I would go farther and argue that the essence of scientific advancement is driven by the very same impulses that drive artistic activity – understanding the world, taking risks in this exploration, pursuing this exploration until a satisfactory conclusion is reached, and a persistent attempt to conform the exterior world of experience to the inner world of the mind. While their means of expression may be different, both scientists and artists seek to respond to experience and increase our understanding of the wonder of nature and life.

Part of my argument last August was that creativity, the ability to imagine or invent something new, is not limited to any single discipline. In fact, the “symptoms” attendant to creativity - an openness to newness or change, a flexibility of thought and outlook, a natural curiosity, and, at least in certain areas, an ability to synthesize data in ways that may be at odds with common or accepted ways, can easily describe the successful scientist. It will not be a surprise to any of you that the successful scientist, like the successful artist, necessarily has a tenacity and corresponding tolerance for failure. Innovation, creating something new from the old, requires many of these same traits as well.

Recently, I have been reading the works of Robert and Michele Root-Bernstein, who have been looking into the relationship between artistic activity and successful scientists. What they have found is that there is a “very significant relationship between success as a scientist and evidence of adult arts and crafts avocations.”1 They surmise that successful scientists who are also practicing artists have a wider range of physical and intellectual skills than the average person or scientist. Their data show that a Nobel laureate in science is 29 times more likely to create in the arts than a member of the public.2

In my talk last year, I commented that creativity often involves the synthesis of complex and sometimes apparently unrelated data into a coherent whole. The Root-Bernsteins similarly state: “Creative scientists [have the ability] to explore a wide range of apparently unrelated activities and to connect the knowledge and skills gained thereby into integrated networks that can be brought effectively to bear in raising and solving important scientific problems.”3
Over time, many well-known men of wisdom have been scientists and artists. Leonardo DaVinci, Albert Einstein, Samuel Morse, Max Planck, and Alexander Graham Bell come to mind. Many of these and others have commented on the unity that their artistic and scientific endeavor created and how it was essential to their success. Laureate Santiago Ramon y Cajal [Ka-Chal] commented that “[a scientist] would possess something of this happy combination of attributes: an artistic temperament which impels him to search for, and have the admiration of, the number, beauty, and harmony of things.”4 Max Planck, echoing Ramon y Cajal and others said that “[t]he pioneer scientist must have . . . [an] artistically creative imagination.”5 As noted above and in the attendant list, I think it is fair to say that many of our great scientists were polymaths and omnivores who exceled in multiple fields to the benefit of us all.

But how, getting back to where we began, does this relate to economic development?
We live in a world that craves innovation and creativity. Not only are we all curators of our own experience, but we need new ways of building our businesses in order to compete. In a recent blog post, Root-Bernstein quoted a number of big business leaders who acknowledged the inter-relationship between creativity and innovation. These leaders, from companies such as Boeing, United Technologies, Lilly, and Bayer, go further, articulating their understanding of the necessity of the arts to creating an environment and set of skills to maximize creativity and innovation.6

Looking ahead and planning how to ensure New York State is competitive, there is a critical place for the arts. As data and experience show, those who integrate the arts into their training and experience are more likely to be more creative and, therefore, able to make a more impactful contribution to business and society. Let’s not forget this as we allocate our diminishing resources and strive to build an entrepreneurial culture and spur economic development.

Thank you.

1 Root-Bernstein, Robert, et al. “Arts Foster Scientific Success: Avocations of Nobel, National Academy, Royal Society, and Sigma XI Members.” Journal of Psychology of Science and Technology, Volume 1, Number 2 (2008): 53.
2 Ibid. 55.
3 Ibid. 56-57.
4 Ibid. 57.
5 Ibid. 58.
6 Root-Bernstein, Robert and Michelle. "A Missing Piece in the Economic Stimulus: Hobbling Arts Hobbles Innovation." Imagine That! Annals of Ordinary and Extraordinary Genius. Psychology Today, 11 Feb 2009. Web. 20 Feb 2011.