Article: Arts groups are setting their sites on the web

Page E-1 Art groups on the Web

Arts groups are setting their sites on the Web

PAM DIXON is a San Diego-based writer and the author of several books about technology and trends, including the recently released “Job Searching Online For Dummies.”

23-Aug-1998 Sunday

A new postcard from the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego, reads: “Our new reality is virtual.”

For arts groups, it’s about time.

They are only now realizing that something has crept up on them, that there is a new reality that they as a community must respond to, grapple with, and tame, even.

That intruding reality is the ever-growing World Wide Web. The latest survey from Cyber Dialogue, a leading Internet research firm, clocks recent online traffic at 53 million regular adult users.

Peter Clemente, author of “The State of the Net” and vice president of Cyber Dialogue, believes that the Web has become too significant for anyone to ignore. “The Web will be as ubiquitous as the dial tone. It took 20 years for ATMs to catch on; this will happen faster,” says Clemente.

Terrence Dwyer, managing director of the La Jolla Playhouse, is also convinced of the Web’s inevitable impact. “Our Web site is an integral part of the organization, even though it does not have an equal impact yet,” Dwyer says. “We suspect that balance will change as the culture moves to rely more and more and that venue.”

But even those arts groups that are assertively working with the Web are still struggling to understand the nature of the Web medium, to wrestle with its long-term, real-world implications or to realize the full possibilities of the medium.

“We’re proud of what we have so far, but we don’t pretend to have fully utilized the Web yet,” Dwyer says.

Perhaps part of the reason some arts organizations have been reluctant to wholeheartedly enter the Web arena has been because the Web changes the balance of power among arts organizations in uncomfortable, fundamental ways.

Large arts organizations with established name recognition may not fare as well online as in the real world, particularly if the organization is not Web-savvy. “The Web puts the consumer in control and levels the playing field,” says Clemente. “Whichever organization best responds to what online consumers want, wins.”

Cutting edge

On the Web, it’s those who understand the unique rules of the game who can successfully build an online name for themselves, despite size, marketing budget or organizational clout. The San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego is not one of the nation’s larger museums. But the museum’s virtual identity via its Web site is so well thought out, informative, and suited to the medium that the Web site has earned the museum crucial national “mindshare” and has spawned an entire statewide cultural project, the CaliforniaCulture.Net.

That was no accident, says Anne Farrell, the museum’s development director. “The Web is the way of the future,” says Farrell, who took a year to develop the museum’s Web philosophy and site. “Because we are a contemporary art museum, we wanted to be cutting-edge and wanted to be visually very exceptional. We took our time to develop a master plan.”

With the Web becoming an integral part of daily life, even conservative arts organizations are beginning to embrace a long, slow dance with the leading edge, despite any former reservations. ”

We need to meet the customers’ needs no matter where they are,” says Linda Lipman, interim executive director of the Poway Center for the Performing Arts Foundation. “If a certain percentage of our customers are looking at the Web as a preferred method of getting information, then we have to be there for them.”

In the process of serving their customers, San Diego arts groups such as the Museum of Contemporary Art, the La Jolla Playhouse, and the San Diego Opera have at long last begun to create fresh, arts-centric models for the Web. But it isn’t an easy process.

Typically, arts organizations struggle with the Web in three main areas: mastering the intricacies of creating compelling Web content; building and using electronic commerce (or e-commerce) capabilities; and figuring out how to get people to discover and visit the Web site in the first place. As in most things, all is easier said than accomplished.

When the Web first burst into the mainstream in late 1994 and early 1995, simply having a Web site was enough. It didn’t matter so much if the Web site was just an online brochure or contained rehashed material not originally created for the Web (known on the Web as re-purposing). It was a wonder just to see colorful images from museums online and to read whatever material the organization had time to put up. As Farrell says, “Many museums jumped on the Web the minute it came into existence just because it was the thing to do.”

Now things have changed. Organizations don’t just “jump” on the Web anymore. Corporations and mega-entertainment companies have poured millions of dollars into creating the currently accepted Web models, and those models typically revolve around content that is created specifically for the Web medium and for Web users. That means that the old way of looking at the Web as a reproduction of the printed page looks first-generation, even amateurish now. “You can’t just re-purpose what you’ve done in print,” says Clemente.

Virtual concerns

Today’s most-effective arts sites are multidimensional experiences with content created specifically for the Web, e-commerce capabilities, and integrate the newest research about Web demographics. At the hottest arts sites, visitors can tour arts venues in three-dimensional photobubbles, check their seating, read about artists, browse museum shops, purchase tickets and even see snippets of performances.

David Kitto, director of marketing and ticket operations for Carnegie Hall, was the rare arts administrator who was ahead of the times in his understanding of the Web. For Kitto, the whole reason for placing high priority on the hall’s Web site is because the site allows people to experience the vital qualities of Carnegie Hall in a significant way, no matter where they live. And that virtual experience extends and adapts Carnegie Hall’s reputation into a whole new medium. And that is the whole idea — grabbing virtual mindshare that may eventually spill over to the real world.

The Carnegie Hall Web site launched two years ago with a groundbreaking, three-dimensional virtual tour of the hall. Secure online ticket purchasing and bookstore sales options also went up on the site.

“We spent a year in development of the site,” Kitto says. “Because there were not many examples of compelling arts sites at the time, we looked for engaging sites in the corporate sector for things that we could use.”

San Diego Symphony’s artistic director Jung-Ho Pak intends to follow and expand upon Kitto’s Web model in his efforts with the fledgling San Diego Symphony Web site. “In general, the Internet is the most obvious way we can keep people in touch with what we are doing,” says Pak. “But it must be pertinent.”

Like Kitto, Pak will be instituting a three-dimensional, photorealistic virtual hall on the symphony Web site. Visitors will be able to click on the v-hall and see the view from any seat. Pak also wants to eventually create a virtual tour of the orchestra and add brief audio clips of upcoming programs.

The ability to replicate a live experience — without paying radio or television advertising fees — is a significant communications advance for performance-oriented organizations such as the San Diego Symphony and the La Jolla Playhouse. “It’s difficult to communicate some of the vibrancy of a live performance in printed matter,” says Dwyer. “The options of having sound and video are tremendous new tools. The people that have responded like it very much.”

Audience perception

Another vital, fresh model for using the Web for the arts sprang from the San Diego Opera. The opera’s Web site is well-known nationally not because of its catchy graphics, but because of the opera’s innovation in using an e-mail distribution list to communicate regularly with audience members. The opera was one of the first arts organizations in the country to use a Web site in such a manner — now many arts organizations, including about a dozen in San Diego, are following suit. Ian Campbell, the opera’s general director, was by his own admission initially reluctant to get moving on the Web. But after he was persuaded to go online, Campbell invested enormous effort into thinking through the impact of the Web. “Our audience’s perception of us is going to be colored by the way the organization delivers information on the Web,” says Campbell. “We’re still learning how to use the Web as the message.”

Last season, the opera, like many other local arts organizations, began experimenting with e-commerce. In its first season of e-commerce, the opera sold $8,000 worth of individual tickets online. An even more surprising figure comes from the La Jolla Playhouse: Since mid-March of this year, the Playhouse has sold $25,000 worth of tickets online, which constitutes 7 percent of its total ticket sales during that time. And Ticketmaster, never one to miss an opportunity to make money, reaped more than $2 million in online ticket sales last year.

But there’s an important hidden component to the online numbers, says Peter Clemente: Shopping online is having a clear impact on offline spending behavior. “Our research shows that consumers spent $3.3 billion online in 1997. But consumers spent an additional $4.2 billion offline after looking for product information online, ” Clemente says. “The Web is the ultimate window-shopping environment.”

Arts organizations are sensitive to the window-shopping aspect of e-commerce and relate stories that support Clemente’s research. The small improvisational theater, San Diego TheatreSports, is a case in point. It regularly attracts audience members who didn’t buy tickets on the Web, but who discovered the TheatreSports Web site and came down for a look.

“It definitely has made a difference,” says Milo Shapiro, the company’s business manager. “People have found us through the Web, especially coming from out of town.”

Tickets and trinkets

While the majority of San Diego arts organizations on the Web are planning for a future where a significant portion of audience members purchase tickets and trinkets online, the technology is clearly posing an expensive hurdle. The temporary solution for smaller organizations such as the Museum of Photographic Arts and others is to rely on an informative Web presentation of products followed up by a telephone number to bring in the final sales. Through the use of volunteers, many organizations have gotten that far. But rigging online ticketing is a whole new area that most local arts groups are just now coming to terms with.

Neale Perl, executive director of the La Jolla Chamber Music Society, says his organization’s Web site is far from a hub of e-commerce activity, at least at this point. “For us it’s too early, but we don’t want to miss the boat,” says Perl, who launched the Chamber Music Society Web site in April. “Our business is a personal business — it’s not about ordering electronically yet. What the Web does for us is that it enables us to give people more information, and that’s great, because our audiences are starved for personal information about our artists.”

But even the best e-commerce setup requires enough word of mouth, printed marketing material and plain ol’ buzz to attract enough visitors to make it worthwhile. Web sites have little impact without visitors to see them. The saying “If you build it, they will come,” was clearly never intended for the Web, as many arts organizations have discovered to their chagrin.

Enter Web portals and online cultural calendars. Web portals, which are collections of links to related Web sites, are a big part of how arts organizations, especially smaller ones, get traffic directed to their Web sites. And arts calendars, while not linking directly to arts sites, have a dramatic window-shopping impact on local ticket sales by getting the word out to Web surfers.

“I think our role is to be a place that brings material together in an easily accessible format,” says Gayle Kidder, president of Beach Media, publishers of the Web portal Zoom San Diego.

Portals such as Zoom and arts calendars are offering free listings to arts organizations, but no one wants to bet on that arrangement lasting forever. The city has tentative plans for a site that would highlight San Diego arts organizations, says Victoria Hamilton, executive director of the City of San Diego Commission for Arts and Culture.

But, Hamilton says, “We don’t want to just replicate what is already available.”

At the state level, the CaliforniaCulture.Net is set to launch Dec. 10. It will provide an electronic, statewide Web gateway for all California arts organizations. The project should help artists and arts organizations define their roles in the digital world, says Gloria Woodlock, the California Arts Council’s special projects, research and planning officer. “We want to study the field and get ready for the digital revolution. When it happens, we want to have meaningful content available on our site.”

The revolution, however, has already begun, and the worst thing an arts organization can do is ignore it. “Ultimately, to not take advantage of the Internet is to ignore something that will someday be everywhere,” says Clemente. “What organizations should be doing is taking advantage of the affluent and educated community of online users, establishing stronger relationships, and providing information that users can’t get anywhere else.”