The Future Is Here! (and it needs to get paid before it leaves)

Your Lunch (in The Future)

Yesterday I attended an invite-only roundtable discussion on cultural economic development, featuring author and consultant Louise Stevens.  It was part of the ongoing dialogue on the arts in Austin hosted by the city’s Cultural Arts Division.

Ms. Stevens is from out of state, but has been studying the arts scene in Austin and other cities of comparable size.  She made some interesting observations, and her presentation was well-organized and thought-provoking.

That is not to say that I necessarily agreed with her vision for the future.  Of course, these people are paid to be visionaries.  When you take them to lunch, they don’t order what they want to eat today; they order what they think they will want in twenty-five years.  It gets annoying.

Anyway, at one point Ms. Stevens said that she was excited about the “tablet culture” and what that will mean for the arts.  She projected that patrons of the near future will pay for online content and even eventually “come to the shrine” to experience it firsthand.

I raised my hand, because that’s what I do at these things–I mouth off.  According to my friends, I put the ‘cur’ in ‘curmudgeon’.  (Just kidding!  I have no friends.)

“See, this is where we part company.  It’s easy for me to see a connection when I’m in front of an audience and we are interacting in a room together.  But the online culture is fickle, and people move through at the speed of a mouse click.  They will visit five sites in five seconds.  And they’re used to getting things for free.  I don’t see how that translates into bringing people to our venues.”

Louise took issue with the idea that people would not pay.  She envisioned (see?  she’s good, always with the vision this one) a time when one could be sitting in the string section of a (presumably virtual) major orchestra, right in the middle of the action.

At that point, I shut up.  Because good manners and social protocol reminded me that I was in a roomful of smart people, and there was no need to waste everyone’s time yammering on about a point already made.  (Hint, hint to some of my fellow attendees.  No, I shall take those names to the grave.)

But the great thing about blogging is that you don’t have to shut up.  So here is my response to her response.

Clearly, the internet is connecting people to art in exciting ways already.  I can go on the Smithsonian’s website and view all kinds of material all kinds of ways.  And perhaps in the not-too-distant future, that experience will be even more interactive–although I doubt clunky hand-held devices will get us there.  Probably at that point, a microchip implanted in the brain will be your ticket.

But even assuming that technology arrives–how does it benefit the arts scene in Austin, Texas?  Unless you live here or are planning a trip, you are unlikely to pay a virtual visit.  Because if I want to twirl through the air over fantastic sets, pulsating lights, and pounding music, all the while being surrounded by human beings with bodies much, much better than mine–well, I don’t know about you, but I’m heading over to Cirque de Soleil/The Beatles LOVE INTERACTIVE, now pulsating in frontal lobes across the planet.  As wonderful as Blue Lapis Light is, it’s not to that level in terms of sheer spectacle.  And what local arts group could hope to match that kind of budget?

If I want to run my hands over the bumps of thousand-year-old cowrie shells on an African tribal mask, without being pestered by officious noseypants in blue polyester blazers, it’s more likely that I’ll be doing it at the Virtual Metropolitan Art Museum overlooking Central Park, not the Austin Museum of Art overlooking a bus stop on Congress Avenue.

Not that we don’t have great art here–we do!  It’s fabulous!  But let’s face it–if the entire world is your banquet, you’re probably not going to start in Texas.

Assuming you start at all.  Those likeliest to embrace the new technology are young people in their 20’s and 30’s–not traditionally big supporters of the symphony and the opera.  And they may not have to worry about symphony orchestras and opera companies even being around in twenty years, at the rate they are folding.  Management has figured out that it’s cheaper to declare bankruptcy and get rid of all those costly union musicians in one fell swoop, and then rebuild with amateur and less-experienced players.  Pretty cool trick–now you can dust off that old violin from middle school and join a community orchestra, and really be part of the action!  But no more Mahler or Stravinsky, I’m afraid.  That’s probably beyond the ken of our freshly-minted artistes.

I doubt it’s a major concern, anyway.  Because given their virtual druthers, young people today are much more likely to be found in a Formula One Ferrari, or on court with the NBA, or in the nose of a Cruise missile heading straight into the sun.  Like my daddy used to say, “If you’re dreaming anyway…dream big!”

Of course, he ran a dress shop for a living.  And never touched a mouse of the non-fuzzy variety, much less stared into a computer screen.

At least he took me to the symphony.  A real, live one.



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