“How the Arts Sector Can Support Transformational Technology”

By Omari Rush

Omari Rush

Photo by Doug Coombe

I was activated as a digital advocate at a 2018 National Assembly of State Arts Agencies conference breakout session titled "Transformational Technology." Few people left the two-hour session early. Few people asked questions. Few people blinked. I extrapolated that the room was transfixed by the imaginative and comprehension-stretching examples of tech-infused creative expression. (I understood maybe every third concept.) The innovations shared were burgeoning modes of artistry that would soon be mainstream expectations of our audiences, putting new technical demands on my peers and their facilities.

At the end of the session, I invited the presenter to Detroit to give the Southeast Michigan cultural sector the same talk. The Detroit metro area is already globally known for musical innovation and industrial prowess, and I wanted it to be ever-readier to embrace emergent digital futures and continue to set international standards.

Similarly, I use the occasion of the National Endowment for the Arts’ publication of Tech as Art: Supporting Artists Who Use Technology as a Creative Medium to offer humble provocation for the nation’s arts sector to proactively invest in administrative and programmatic digital cultures. I share this as a local arts agency executive director, state arts council chairman, and steadfast ally to creative people. If we do not engage these developments, we block organic evolution, invite future forced adaptation (likely painful), and deny access to both preparation and beauty.

Why Invest?

Digital is super convenient
The convenience of digital tech is irresistible. For example, our organization, CultureSource, has fully moved to online bill payment—a big change for us. It has worked so well that the spirit of this hack is incrementally touching other office systems. This convenience potential is driving content producers to make changes too.

Consumers' near-constant connectivity via wearable tech and mobile devices means that new content must now be a steady stream, not a special event. Conglomerates such as AT&T are collectively using producers and platforms across their holdings to get content rapidly to devices. Musicians are releasing trickles of singles and mini-albums to gain audience traction. Virtual tours and virtual delivery offer anytime-access to stored content. These developments are reshaping consumer expectations, responding to shortened attention spans, and reinforcing tech’s value as saving time, money, and energy.

Digital is being forced on us
Among many unknowns, a clear outcome of the COVID-19 quarantines is that people who previously avoided use of digital tools have now experienced forced, prolonged engagement—for socially distanced connection, housekeeping, and business operations—persevering through early failure that normally would have led to rejection. This exposure has increased baseline societal fluency with digital tech, and made digital competency a basic crisis survival strategy.

Moreover, the Internet of Things (IoT) related to common appliances and infrastructure continues to grow in prevalence and influence. The fact that the world's wealthiest companies are now largely tech-focused means their merger and acquisition activity guarantees expansion of algorithm-rich digital tech into other industries. Digital is a societal rip current we are all caught in, and our awareness and embrace of this will prevent us from drowning in and outside of our arts work.

Digital technologies are full of equity opportunity
The digital landscape is a multi-frontier space for realizing innovative or overdue aspirations for art creation and engagement that transcend bias and ability.

Responses to a WolfBrown survey on COVID-time audience attitudes about cultural participation indicate that people with physical disabilities enjoy the enhanced access of a virtual museum experience, where the physical one had been exhausting. While patron grousing about in-person barriers has not always driven change at long-standing institutions, the digital landscape has structures that can be built or easily reworked for universal access. Online space also makes a way for people who are more introverted to contribute to conversations or access learning experiences via avatars, chat boxes, or screen-presence equity.

Digital technology can also neutralize the power of oppressive gatekeepers of reward and recognition for artistic work. For example, in social media, content creators see lucrative incentives for working independently to capture the national (even global) zeitgeist via memes and video. And music streaming uses consumer data analytics, as opposed to authorizing agents’ biases, to determine an artist’s position and viability in the marketplace.

Where We Can Focus Attention

As an intermediary organization, CultureSource and our partners in philanthropy, advocacy, and policymaking have an opportunity. Alongside the wonderful, unbridled messiness of innovation, we can help the field manage the technical difficulty and shifting complexity of working with digital artists and content by refocusing our attention. To help, I’ve included related “focus questions” below.

Presentation platforms
Many prominent platforms for presenting work exist in the for-profit private sector and have tantalizingly large audiences: YouTube, Instagram, TikTok, Netflix, Zoom, the App Store. Yet, as digital content creation becomes more prolific, so do the vulnerabilities of using these platforms.

These companies are fundamentally incorporated to increase shareholder value first, and toward that end, they can unilaterally change terms of use to benefit the corporation, or veto content that displeases the chief executive. Plus, their fine-print intellectual property disclaimers can be violated in easy cut-and-paste keystrokes, allowing credit-less appropriation to flourish, barring expensive legal representation that few makers can afford. The centrality of these platforms, which have seen limited regulation, also means that as any one of them becomes corrupt or dysfunctional as an intermediary link, the chain between artist and audience is broken.

  • Focus question: How can we advance intellectual property policy development, support digital archiving efforts, or buttress presentation platforms where benefiting the public good is the virtue and aspiration?

Infrastructure investments
Resourcefulness and duct tape have held together nonprofit cultural organizations, allowing them to keep facilities and equipment in good working condition over decades. But these no longer suffice as maintenance strategies.

Software services are moving to the cloud, and cybersecurity requires such enhanced vigilance that organizations now have new monthly or yearly subscriptions across multiple new operational areas. Forced obsolescence of computers, mobile devices, and other digital equipment—a dismaying, wasteful, and intentional strategy of tech companies—means that organizations will perpetually have hardware expenses as opposed to enjoying the financial freedom of outright, long-term ownership. Such ballooning overhead tracks alongside the continued comfort of government agencies and philanthropists to support project expenditures.

  • Focus questions: How do we 1) calculate the cost of running a typical digitally sophisticated and secure arts enterprise and share standards with stakeholders; 2) invest in co-ops that reduce costs of software, hardware, and tech support; and 3) advocate for environmentally responsible creation, refurbishment, and recycling of digital equipment?

Digital leadership development
While many of today's arts groups began as neighbor-run associations of friends with shared interests, these activities have grown in complexity over the past four decades. Volunteers are now executives and entrepreneurs seeking business-management coaching from consultants, and rising arts leaders are enrolling in pre-professional certification programs.

A similar pivot to a digital framework is needed. Those same leaders—now skilled in HR, capital improvement planning, board development, and expense management—need support in understanding how to run an artistically and administratively digital enterprise in a networked world.

Related mindset shifts go beyond the complicated tasks of adding digital qualifications to job descriptions, or making sure equipment acquisition is sound. Instead, the shifts are about leaders visioning in code, designing community engagement for an amorphous online audience, and creating media- and platform-fluid experiences that generate reliable revenue.

  • Focus questions: How might a national arts service organization offer specialized digital leadership continuing education services or fellowships? How can digital job functions or positions be standardized across our field to create a new professional community of practice?

Artistic excellence
My dumbfoundedness during the Transformational Tech conference session likely mirrors that of grant reviewers or foundation board members when assessing proposals for digital ventures. A new toolbox of vocabulary, references, and critical standards is needed for these volunteer and professional adjudicators.

Given that digital artists compulsively assimilate new or decommissioned tech, the evaluation of such work needs to be guided by rubrics or professionals well-calibrated to evaluating edge contemporary culture. Within traditional forms, curators, artist peer networks, and well-researched publications have been targets of investment given their abilities to advance a creative discipline. Those tactics can be models for new media investments too.

Such investments are likely to cultivate important space in which artists converge to celebrate difference, emergence is recognized, and a baseline field ethos is cemented. They have the potential to expand the critical discourse beyond the margins (where it has flourished in its own right) and help expressions of digital artistic genius become more legible to a broader arts community.

  • Focus questions: How can networks for digital artists and presenters be nurtured? How can government agencies, higher education, or philanthropies spotlight tech mavericks and masters as community resources?

Digital identity
To date, many arts organizations have defined themselves by their physical identity: the city or metro area where they are physically based or the type of facility they possess. Their patrons come to them not always because they are the best, but because they are the closest or easiest to enter. As more programming moves online and competition for audiences becomes national, organizations face sustainability challenges and will feel pressure to re-imagine their value proposition and more clearly define a digital identity.

Chasing national audience attention for programs is seductive, and it gets stakeholders excited, but whether it is strategically sound or translates to reliable revenue remains an important question for local enterprises to interrogate. Organizations may need to newly understand their ability to 1) offer niche art services to a globally connected online audience, 2) more deeply understand their locale's lifestyle and reflect it digitally, or 3) create a new target audience exclusive to online space and market to it specifically.

  • Focus questions: How can service organizations help arts groups restrategize and rebrand with an emphasis on digital engagement? How can funders recalibrate and communicate expectations of success that do not privilege ever-increasing geographic reach or ever-increasing viewership metrics or clicks?

Time to Transform

The opportunities to do dazzling artistic work these days are as abundant as ever. With a little proactive and coordinated attention by our country's infrastructure of arts agencies, philanthropies, and advocates supporting creative expression, we can benefit from the work of artists and cultural producers in ways that we have only ever dreamed.
Omari Rush has engaged the arts as both a passion and profession, and in each mode, he continues to enjoy discovery and deepening impacts. As executive director of CultureSource in Detroit and as the governor-appointed chairman of the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs, he advances efforts to have creative expression thrive in diverse communities. Complementing that work, Rush is a board member of Arts Midwest in Minneapolis, the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies in Washington, DC, and the Lewis Prize for Music.

Rush earned degrees in music from the University of Michigan and Florida State University, and extended his love for learning by completing fellowships with the Salzburg Global Forum and Association of Performing Arts Professionals, by managing the K-12 education program of the University Musical Society (UMS), and by serving on the John F. Kennedy Center's Partners in Education National Advisory Committee.

A lapsed clarinetist, Rush now uses his voice to co-host an arts-focused radio show on NPR affiliate WEMU-FM and recite Robert Frost poetry.