Inside the Box

by Aaron Wilson

No one would argue last year won’t go down in history as the year-of-cancellations. No concerts, no festivals, no trips abroad or, for that matter, even to a neighboring state. Most industries took, and continue to take, a detrimental financial hit. The arts and entertainment world, whose revenue relies on the pockets of patrons seeking a visceral experience, is right up there.
A study conducted by the Americans for the Arts in June 2020 cited a $5 billion loss for U.S. arts and culture organizations from March to June 2020.
Though auditorium doors have closed, our desire to connect to culture has not gone away. If anything, we’ve developed an almost desperate desire to be engaged and enlightened. Thankfully art centers, museums and tourist destinations got to work alongside everyone else and upped their online game, utilizing technology to, hopefully, entice and sustain audience tune-in.
The Google Arts and Culture initiative alone digitized over a thousand museums, including The Anne Frank House in Amsterdam and The Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. This is in addition to all the private efforts from smaller museums across the world scrambling to offer gallery exhibitions and live performances online.
Ruth Waalkes, executive director of Moss Arts Center in Blacksburg offers: “One early question was how would our own community respond to online programming. Were people even going to be interested?”
When the visual art galleries closed in the spring of 2020, a Moss curator documented them with photographs and put together a virtual walking tour of the exhibitions. The tour logged more than 2,300 views. Furthermore, they salvaged a fall season by launching an online HomeStage series of seven ticketed performances. Almost 3,500 tickets sold with audience members from 30 states and eight different countries.
Financial and geographical boundaries are no longer a factor with streaming programs. The freedom to explore varieties of art is also cheaper and easier. Not historically a Broadway musical fan? Queue up “Hamilton” with a 7-day free trial of Never really be keen on naked Renaissance sculptures? Try a 360-degree look at Michelangelo’s David in Florence, Italy.
One ticket, or one site log-in, has the potential to reach several people in a household. This could be seen as a negative impact of revenue dollars or, simply, more eyes on art. And more eyes on art may very well translate into new, diversified, and paying, audience profiles in the future.
Lora Brown, owner of Blacksburg’s Hello Bagel, purchased Moss’s fall performance package. “I love the theater and live performances in general,” she states.
Lora and her husband, Matt, are parents of two small children. “We most likely would not have taken them to an actual concert, but low key at home was nice. They were way more engaged than either Matt or I would have expected. We normally would have been worried about their behavior or not taken them at all.”
Now is the time to celebrate art reaching new minds. A Business Insider article from June 2020 reports: “This is, perhaps, art at its most accessible. Online viewing rooms and virtual tours are the new evening shows, and jet-set is from the bed to the couch.”
These days, you can get dressed up in your best sweatpants, settle on the couch with a glass of wine and your favorite throw littered with dog hair, turn on your TV and watch a live performance by the New York Philharmonic at Lincoln Center. You can take a walk around The Vatican or a section of The Great Wall of China with a cat on your lap and dinner simmering on the stove.
We no longer go to the art; art now comes to us. And while it doesn’t replace an in-person experience, there is a certain intimacy that occurs watching your favorite musician perform from their own home.
Convenience is king, as the old adage goes. The ability to zoom in on a painting likely outweighs standing in a gaggle of onlookers to catch a hurried glimpse of, say, The Mona Lisa. Or if you’re unable to catch the Friday night debut of your local orchestra’s rendition of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute,” you can always stream it later.
“Everyone misses in-person of course, and that’s what we are looking forward to. There’s something very different about having the community come together in one place for a shared experience,” Waalkes concludes. The energy of a full auditorium is, ironically, epidemic.
As time goes on, the creative community continues to get creative, adapting on the fly and brainstorming better practices to bridge the gap between art and audience. We feed our soul by way of the brain, which has the amazing ability to make the best out of what’s in front of us.


Text by Nancy S. Moseley

Nancy S. Moseley is a freelance writer who streamed Hamilton in the early days of lockdown from the comforts of home.

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