Several hundred people with a stake in arts organizations, intellectual property and the Internet gathered in a Los Angeles auditorium last week to take a sober look into the future. But the future apparently neglected to read its script: It turned up to play comedy.
Conference notes detailing an agenda for the gathering, called "Communicating Culture," had set the tone of concern. "The challenge of the new millennium," organizers warned, "is enormous. How do traditional institutions such as museums and libraries capture the attention of a technologically sophisticated audience?"
Demonstrating the future as well as talking about it, organizers established three sites for their event. In addition to the main auditorium, conferees could participate at two other locations in the L.A. area via a remote feed -- the very way that increasing numbers of people will supposedly consume their cultural diet in the future, threatening those musty old museums and libraries. The speaker kicking off the first day of discussion promised "over 200" remote participants.
But the image projected at the front of the auditorium, as cameras at the remote sites panned across the audiences there, showed mostly empty chairs. At a glance, the two sites appeared to hold a total of maybe 50 people, lost in the unused space of venues designed for much larger crowds.
The new media elite back in the main auditorium, consuming their cultural communication live and in person, got the joke. They chuckled a bit at the first image, then laughed harder as a moderator at the second site chirped -- greatly undermined by the corresponding image -- that "over 50" people were in the room.
The thoughtfully organized conference addressed other issues besides the survival of museums and libraries in the digital age (its Web site should have some transcripts soon) -- but ironies kept popping up around the central issue. For instance, the first speaker had also asked those in attendance to turn off their cellular phones to protect the temperamental remote feed from interruption. Set your pager to beep or vibrate, it still won't cause the Rosetta stone to disappear if it goes off while you're walking through the British Museum.
And there were more significant contradictions. The keynote speaker that morning was the new chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. Bill Ivey showed up with his own press kit, which included a September news release: "The Arts Participation in America in 1997 report indicates higher arts participation rates than a 1992 NEA survey. The new 1997 survey reports that 50 percent of the U.S. adult population, or 97 million people, participated in the arts, while only 41 percent of adults reported participating in 1992." And the survey defined "the arts" pretty specifically: ballet, opera, theater, classical music, jazz -- and all in the form of live performances.
Oh, and one other thing: "More people attended museums than any other type of arts activities."
Ivey's attendance was valuable for other reasons. Despite his dark suit and white hair, the head of the nation's arts agency looks inescapably like a bookish kid, earnest in a low-key and instantly likable way. His background matches his appearance: He's a folklorist who also holds degrees in history and ethnomusicology, was director of the Country Music Foundation for 27 years before being chosen to run the NEA and is a writer and occasional teacher on the side.
I talked with Ivey, briefly, outside the auditorium. The NEA head told me that he hoped to hear "conversations that will provide for context in decision making," conversations that would involve "people who can look past the blur of the present."
After which, and most enjoyably, he went inside to give a speech that gently mocked the notion that either of those goals would be anywhere near wholly attainable -- or even particularly novel. It's true that Ivey spoke of artists "separated physically from both audience and inspiration" by the growth of online culture. And he warned that virtual consumption would be "a very real challenge to authentic experience."
But the folklorist who runs the nation's arts agency also noted that the challenge to face-to-face, on-site communication isn't exactly new. "Technology, since the invention of the printing press, has profoundly affected this kind of communication," he pointed out. More recently, Ivey added, the phonograph put "music in every parlor, but the tradition of family music declined."
About that phonograph: Ivey told his audience that Thomas Edison had viewed the invention as a major threat to the typewriter; busy executives, Edison figured, would just start mailing recorded messages back and forth. It would, after all, be quicker. A sales force mobilized to usher in the future, but the future refused to cooperate, and the typewriter somehow managed to survive.
"So even today," the NEA chairman said, "as smart as we all are, as long as we have been staring at the distant horizon, it still is very likely that, perhaps like those early Edison salesmen, we don't really have a sense of what's going to happen."
That "as smart as we all are" was a nice touch, I think.
Racing home to report on Ivey's speech, I was forced to stop and wait; the conference on the future of cultural institutions was held at the Getty Center, the new museum in L.A. that routinely turns away overflow crowds at the front gate. The tram to the parking lot sat at the bottom of the hill.
A docent wandered up to talk, cheerfully demanding that I concede what a wonderful place this was; an "Italian hilltop villa," he called it. And then the tram arrived, and children began spilling out of every door. I was still listening to the teachers trying to corral them, with limited success, as the doors closed.
At the bottom of the hill, the scene was being repeated. The Washington Explorers, in blue school T-shirts, wore bright green name tags to help the adults keep track of them. Behind them, a long line threaded from the gate to the boarding area. The line looked, at first, like a group of senior citizens. But then it began to move, and I saw teenagers, young adults, a few middle-aged couples.
Someone apparently forgot to tell them that they were visiting a threatened institution.