Should the cultural sector copy Tomorrowland?

Journalist Ben Van Alboom's takeaways from 'Dataism' and 'New Business Models' - 21.01

“If the cultural sector hasn’t drawn its conclusions by now, then when will they?” Cultural institutions were being prepared for the digital post-COVID era at Media & Culture Fast Forward 2020. Because aren’t they always lagging behind when it comes to  technology? Possibly, notes cultural journalist Ben Van Alboom. But does everyone necessarily have to be like Tomorrowland?

I reportedly mention too often that I lived in New York for a few years, so I’m probably not scoring any points with this first sentence. But what can I say? Living in New York does something to a person. Especially when you’re a cultural animal like me. The question over there usually is: “What is nót happening today?”

Not that I spent every night on Broadway or going to a concert, because both are very expensive. By far the only place accessible to everyone is The Met(ropolitan Museum of Art). New Yorkers can pay what they want when they go. Few people know this, because they only display the general admission price ($25). Also, if you pay $5 – because I got a rent of $2.700 to pay – they look at you as if you were robbing them. FYI, The Met got $336 million in revenues in 2019, of which “only” $55 million came from entry tickets. I just want to say: they know how to raise money, undoubtedly due to the lack of subsidies.

I noticed this too when I bought two tickets to the opera, paying $650. And if you do decide to go to the opera, you don’t want to end up on the fifth balcony. So we bought tickets for the second balcony. Ever since this visit, I have been receiving weekly mails, asking me when I’ll be coming back. Whether I also want to see the new performance by composer X with soprano Y? Or why not subscribe right away? A donation of $100 could be a good idea too! I’ve always been able to resist quite easily, because I got a rent of $2.700 to pay. But I’m assuming it works. The Metropolitan Opera raised $312 million in 2019, of which $146 million through donations.

Two small, but remarkable comments though. One: The Metropolitan Opera made a loss of $2 million in 2019. Which is surprising for what is essentially a greatest hits factory. Albeit one of an exceptionally high standard. Two: all musicians were sent on unpaid leave on April 1 of last year, because it seems financially unsustainable to keep paying them during a pandemic. And they probably got a rent of $2.700 to pay too. So, no matter how good American art institutions are at raising money, this doesn’t make the American system sustainable. Nor does it leave a lot of room for experimentation.

But wait! The Flemish system isn’t free from sin either. You pay one visit to an American art institution and they’ll stalk you eternally. After one visit to a Flemish cultural institution, they barely know you’ve been there. Perhaps I will stumble upon a general newsletter sent out at irregular intervals, so after a visit to a classical dance performance I might be invited to an avant-garde metal band performing in two months (because that is clearly within my field of interest). But that’s about it.

In that sense, I agree with the participants in the panel discussion about “Dataism”. Flemish cultural institutions are missing out on an incredible number of opportunities in the field of collecting, processing and using data. Not only in-house, I think. It is quite absurd that we pay money to American companies such as Facebook and Google to tell us where to find the fans of avant-garde metal near Ghent. As cultural players we could know exactly who those 472 people are if we would manage and share the data of their ticket buyers in an orderly manner. (Yes, I have heard of GDPR, but does that make a national database of cultural consumption completely impossible? If Facebook can build a business model based on our surfing behavior, why should Flemish concert halls, museums and theaters – provided the necessary small print – not be allowed to do so, based on our cultural consumption?)

Although that is of course just one crazy mercantile example of what you can do with data. I certainly agree with Saskia Scheltjens of the Amsterdam Rijksmuseum that data in art opens the door to so much more – from creation to international collaborations.

Which brings me to the question of who should take the lead in this: everyone for themselves or the (already involved) government? I learned from the debates that it’s a matter of speed, which is important. So the latter might be the obvious choice. Or, as Luc Delrue of the Department of Culture, Youth & Media rightly pointed out during the session on business models: “Instead of investing one hundred million euros in a new building, wouldn’t we be better off putting that money into digitisation and data?”

Which brings me to the second debate: “New business models in the cultural sector”. I sometimes had a hard time during this debate, because the cultural sector seemed to be compared to a dinosaur that doesn’t realise how to make money. Even worse: maybe the sector has nothing of value to sell, because what other reason could there be for Rosas to upload one of its performances, Drumming, on YouTube for free during the pandemic?

It is not untrue that the cultural sector is a dinosaur. It is partially true the sector doesn’t know how to make money. That might be largely due to the fact that many art institutions’ most important customer happens to be the government. It’s certainly an interesting theory. However, saying the industry isn’t very interesting or relevant because it doesn’t aim to or succeed in making a profit, that’s a stretch to me. Especially in a world where successful companies that offer fifty million songs or a few thousand series and films for €10 have never managed to make one cent profit either.

It’s not that I don’t believe there is a future in streaming concerts and performing arts. (Although, to be honest, I don’t find Hamilton very interesting to watch on Disney+. But that’s probably just me.) Here’s the thing. Not everyone has as much clout as Tomorrowland. Last year, the festival attracted millions of people for its impressive livestreams. Flanders has a flourishing and very lucrative live music market and other players in the Flemish music and performing sector have been experimenting as well. And yes, those experiments are valuable, even if they have rarely generated any money. And that makes sense for a country as small as ours. Even in the US, 2020 didn’t bring an overflow of lucrative live streams.

And perhaps an even more important question arises: do we really want to put all art and culture behind a paywall? Or do we want to give everyone the opportunity to watch Drumming and visit The Met? Whether we’re in lockdown or not. Or do we believe that art should follow the same economic logic as – let’s say – toasters? (It’s not that I don’t get it. I just don’t think it’s that innovative to assume that in the future everyone will only look at culture on a screen, from an opera performance to a techno party. The Mona Lisa has been on Google for twenty years, but the Louvre is still the most visited museum in the world.)

To be clear: art institutions must think about the changing concepts of distribution and appreciation. By the way, I have yet to meet the first artist who is keen to reach the smallest audience possible. But as a society we have chosen not to apply the same market logic to the cultural sector. We could implement the American social security system here and suffer the immense costs of either health insurance or hospital bills. But do we want that? And do we therefore believe that all art should be lucrative? Or do we think it is more important that it is accessible? I know the first type shouldn’t rule out the other type, but you definitely get a completely different kind of art, if you only aim for the first goal.

Two weeks after the debate, I had to think about it again, when I read an interview with musician Jef Neve in De Tijd. When asked about his highlight of 2020, he spoke about the free concerts he gave at the invitation of Gent Jazz at UZ Gent. “In between concerts, a doctor and a nurse came to me with a video of a woman who fought for her life and had watched my concert in her room. Tears ran down her cheeks. Something like that takes your breath away. Suddenly, it became very clear to me what it means to be a musician in a society. We are troubadours. We are here to fill people’s hearts.

Full disclosure: Jef Neve also indicated in the same interview that he does not believe that live streams will disappear along with COVID-19. “We are moving towards a hybrid model where people who can not physically attend a show can follow at home at a reduced rate.” Sounds good to me. Although I will personally remember “reduced rate” and the sentiment from the previous paragraph. Not because I believe that art should by definition be free or cheap, but because the challenges facing the art sector in the coming decades are not just about more money. They also (and perhaps mainly) revolve around filling the hearts of as many people as possible.

This doesn’t prevent art institutions from becoming more dynamic, less rigid or more participative. The cultural sector has to focus more on the use of data. It should constantly look for new audiences and innovative models or applications. Because that’s exactly what you expect from subsidised institutions, as the world-renowned economist Mariana Mazzucato told at Media & Culture Fast Forward. There must be room for artistic experiment, but just as much for broad public activities. And yes, it should also be possible – without hesitation – to talk about other revenue models. But preferably without putting all the art behind a paywall.

Because art is not only of monetary value, but also of emotional and social value. And for this contribution, the government should pick up the check.