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The Digital Opportunity for Museums

What happens when great art meets new media? Education, a broader and more diverse audience, a deeper and richer experience, more engagement and exchange.
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Dear Arianna,

I read with great interest your recent post "Museums 2.0: What Happens When Great Art Meets New Media." As the Vice President/Arts for the Knight Foundation, and someone who works everyday on audience engagement and artistic excellence, I'd like to submit a modest rebuttal.

Virtually all of the new media innovations you reference are audience engagement efforts. They seek to go where the audience is -- not where it used to be. In the words of my friend, National Endowment for the Arts Chairman Rocco Landesman, "The days of flinging open the doors to the 'Temple on the Hill' and waiting for the masses to come are over." Arts organizations must find a way to meet their audience where they are. And increasingly where they are is on the web. Many are living their lives on the web. The typical 14 year old spends 53 hours a week on the web!

Like you, I am not advocating eliminating the live experience. Nothing replaces seeing Picasso's Guernica at the Reina Sofia or Van Gogh's Starry Starry night at MOMA, but you can't ignore 53 hours a week! And the most forward thinking institutions are not -- as evidenced by MOMA's recently released elegant iPod app that improves the viewer experience, the Bechtler Museum's microsite for its "School of Paris" show, the Wexner's Pinocchioisonfire.org site for the Mark Bradford show, or the Google Art Project which allows us to get a lot closer to the brush strokes of a Picasso than any museum guard would! Who gets to be one inch away from a Van Gogh? Everyone! when you use these apps. What do they all have in common? In all cases, they say to the user -- "Curate Your Own Experience."

These digital user experiences provide an ancillary, enriching opportunity for visitors but equally important, a rich direct experience to those who don't have access to the real thing. In a recent survey of 18,000 Americans, entitled "Participation 2.0", the National Endowment for the Arts found that people who view the arts on the web are 3 times as likely to attend a cultural institution and for many Americans, particularly the elderly and minorities, web-based cultural interaction is their only exposure to the arts.

Our world has changed dramatically because of the digital revolution. Museums and other cultural institutions are only beginning to tap into the possibilities for audience engagement via the web. We need to encourage them to use these tools to both educate and broaden their audiences. As Sir Nicholas Serota recently said "We need to provide places for individuals and groups to exchange skills, expertise and ideas. We need spaces for reflection and the intimate engagement with works of art, but we also need the friction and energy generated by the presentation of contested views and values."

The best way for this broad level of discourse and diverse exchange to take place is via social media.

What happens when great art meets new media? Education, a broader and more diverse audience, a deeper and richer experience, more engagement and exchange. All results that can only serve to weave the arts into the fabric of our everyday lives.

Dennis Scholl

VP/Arts, John S. and James L. Knight Foundation