Is the digital revolution the end of the arts as we know them? Commentary by David M. Rubin


By David M. Rubin | Guest columnist
on February 13, 2015

When historians look back on the early 21st century, they will surely name it “The Era of Digital Disruption.” No aspect of our lives has escaped the impact of digital communication: retailing (Amazon), the taxi industry (Uber), the music business (Spotify), film and television (Netflix), even face-to-face communication (Facebook).

So it should come as no surprise that live attendance at cultural events is a vanishing experience. Americans under 65 increasingly prefer arts content delivered digitally.

The alarming dimensions of this shift are laid out in a new report from the National Endowment for the Arts that surveyed attendance at cultural events in 2012 and compared it to data from past surveys. (The NEA’s focus, and mine, is on the health of the ‘benchmark’ arts that are often the not-for-profit institutions that historically have defined the cultural health of a community. The NEA’s focus was not on the for-profit popular forms of music, such as rock, hip-hop, or country.)

In a nutshell, here is the bad news:

Only 33 percent of Americans reported attending a “benchmark” cultural event even once during 2012. These benchmark events are jazz, classical music, opera, musicals and non-musical plays, ballet, and art museums. This is down from 41 percent in 1992.

Breaking this down by individual art form, the numbers are even bleaker: jazz (8.1 percent attended a live event); classical music (8.8 percent); opera (2.1 percent); musicals (15.2 percent); straight plays (8.3 percent); art museums (21 percent); and ballet (2.7 percent).

All these percentages are considerably below 2002 totals. The biggest declines were for classical music, straight plays, opera and museums. Only attendance at outdoor music festivals showed strength (at 21 percent), an argument for the amphitheater under construction near Onondaga Lake.

However–and here is where digital disruption becomes clear–71 percent reported using electronic media to watch, listen to, create or share art. For 18 to 24 year- olds, this figure is 80 percent. The trend is crystal clear.

If you are unconcerned about a cultural world in which most Americans experience art as a recorded event delivered on demand to a device, then you can stop reading this column. But if you agree with me that this poses an existential threat to the live, local artistic experience, then be very worried for our cultural future.

Syracuse’s arts institutions are hardly immune to this trend, although our numbers are not yet quite so discouraging.

At Syracuse Opera (where I am a board member), sales for the three yearly productions have been flat over the last decade, according to Lisa Smith, the company’s managing director. Given ups and downs, the company typically sells $350,000 in tickets, although a weak-selling Fledermaus last October poses budget problems.

Everson Museum of Art TourExecutive Director Elizabeth Dunbar talks about her favorite five works of art in the museum’s collection.

Sarah Massett, assistant director at the Everson, says the museum had “a boom year” in 2009 with the “Turner to Cezanne” traveling exhibition, but otherwise attendance has been “flat.” Visiting exhibitions, such as the current show “From Prendergast to Pollock,” are crucial to bringing people into the museum.

Classical music in Syracuse is a sad, special case given the bankruptcy of the Syracuse Symphony in 2011. Until that time, the SSO was banking about $2.5 million a year in ticket sales. That declined to a bit over $2 million in the 2008-09 season, presaging problems. Now Catherine Underhill, managing director of Symphoria, which has brought classical music back to Syracuse, anticipates $720,000 in ticket sales and performance fees this season. It’s a start, but clearly Syracuse is a poster child for the decline in classical music attendance.

Jeffrey Woodward, managing director of Syracuse Stage, reports that “since 2009-2010, attendance across the board has held steady,” and “musicals continue to be very strong for us,” reflecting the national trend. Woodward adds, “Electronic media is certainly here to stay. Our task is to use it to try to generate interest in live performance, partner with it instead of competing.” That advice is urgent, but how?

Museums are already putting their collections online and providing additional content to enrich the digital experience. Will this entice people into museums? I remember with shivers standing in front of Vermeer’s “Girl with the Pearl Earring” in San Francisco for ten minutes, staring at her. She was visiting from her home at the Mauritshuis in The Hague. Is there a digital substitute for this? I think not.

Ten times a year the Metropolitan Opera relays via satellite into Syracuse movie theaters live productions on HD that look and sound like television, providing none of the panorama of live opera or the thrill of live voices. The impact on Syracuse Opera revenues is unknown, but it hasn’t helped.

If live attendance at “benchmark” cultural events continues to be disrupted by the digital experience, are you prepared for a world in which live performance in cities such as Syracuse withers away, while a handful of international cultural
superstars and institutions dominate the digital sphere and make most of the money? How will professionals make a living if no one is buying tickets? What happens to our theaters and museums?