Using Technology to Connect Artists and Audiences

Today’s blog post is written by Shasti Walsh, Training Specialist & Supervisor, PatronManager. 

In the non-profit arts world, we talk a lot about audience engagement. We talk about how important it is to have personal relationships with your patrons, and how much it matters to them to feel like their experiences are personalized. Gene wrote a great blog post last year about the way technology can enable new experiences for audiences, and I love these kinds of engagement opportunities. When I go to a museum, I don’t just want to look at the art; I want to hear the stories that went into making the art or watch extra features after a film, play pop up trivia on a kiosk, watch a blooper reel… And I’m not alone. This peek behind the curtain can make your patrons feel more connected to the art you’re presenting. And with technology at our fingertips, it’s easier than ever to create these moments for our audiences in new ways.

For example, I spent some time in Newfoundland, and one of my favorite experiences from my time there was a self-guided walking tour of The Battery, a historic fishing village on the edge of St. John’s. The walk itself was beautiful, but the thing that made it really special was the guide I used, called Inside Outside Battery.

All I had to do was carry my phone and wear headphones (in other words, the same thing I would have done anyway). The app sensed my location and automatically played site-specific content created by local artists. This ranged from stories and history to songs, poems, and even soundscapes. It was a thousand times more interesting than a standard audio guide because it provided so much more than information — it gave me a connection to the people and the place in a way that would have been difficult to find on my own.

That app was amazing for an outdoor experience in a public space, but I’ve had similar technology-based interactions in arts institutions as well. Last year I visited MONA, the Museum of Old and New Art in Tasmania. Aside from being one of my all-time favorite museums, their app was especially engaging. The personality of the founder, whose voice is featured on the app, is very strong, and the content is unapologetically direct and authentic. It gave me the feeling of talking to a human, one who is opinionated, unfiltered, and wildly enthusiastic about art. It personalized the experience in a visceral way — you either hate it, or you want to sit down and have a drink with him and really hash things out! Personally, I like to be challenged and spoken to honestly about art and prefer that over the somewhat antiseptic tone I often see in program and exhibition notes.

Technology can also take us further beyond things like program notes and stories. When it’s done well (and when appropriate), it can facilitate special kinds of connections in which your patrons can even become part of the art itself. One of my favorite art experiences was a show called “Small Metal Objects” by Australia’s Back to Back Theatre Company. The performance I saw took place outdoors in an open-to-the-public sculpture park; the audience was seated together on a large stand of bleachers set up in the middle of the sculptures, while the performers mingled with passersby throughout the park.

Everyone in the audience received a set of headphones for their ticket and took their place on the stands. The show began quietly and without fanfare, with small everyday conversations being “broadcast” live through our headphones. The performers wore unobtrusive microphones, so it was nearly impossible to tell who they were for at least the first half of the piece. They spoke in normal tones, perhaps to themselves, perhaps to each other, maybe face-to-face and maybe from a great distance. The plot developed gradually and ended quietly — a snippet of normal life, perhaps, experienced in a very different way.

The audience then became a part of the art themselves, being placed among the sculptures in the park and centered on a sort of stage. Locals and tourists alike stopped to gawk at us, all wearing headphones and sitting silently together on a pedestal — and we stared intently back at them, trying to figure out if they were part of the show! It was a one of a kind experience that I will never forget.

All of these different experiences really made me think about the voices of artists (including the artists, curators, and designers working backstage), and how much I appreciate hearing/reading about them when available. I would love to go to a theatre, pull out my phone, put on my headphones, and wander around the lobby before the show, listening to the director or the stage manager or even the building’s architect talk to me about where I am and what I’m about to see. I’d like to “discover” a hidden treasure in a museum that feels secret, or that involves me in the process of finding it, perhaps lead by a series of virtual clues.

These kinds of interactions, even when they involve our devices instead of human contact, help me feel connected to a place and the art presented there. How might your organization use technology to give voices to your artists in new ways, and encourage your patrons to interact? It doesn’t have to be flashy or expensive; it just has to be meaningful, personal, and real. Are your program notes dry, or engaging? Could they be presented in a different way? How can you engage in more ways with the physical space your organization inhabits? Technology opens so many doors for new kinds of audience engagement, and I am personally excited to see what kinds of opportunities come next.

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