Nurturing Support for the Arts in Second Life
(A Guest Column by Larry Johnson, aka Larry Pixel)
I had an interesting conversation with Bettina Tizzy the other day when we met in real life for the first time. Over dinner she relayed to me her concern that there are fewer and fewer patrons willing to give artists a place to do their work in Second Life®. Knowing that the New Media Consortium (NMC) has been arguably the largest patron of the arts to the general SL arts community over the years, sponsoring show after show on Ars Simulacra, as well as NMC Campus West, the home of the Aho Museum, she asked if I had any insights.
I do, in fact. At one point the NMC dedicated 7 full sims and 9 voids regularly to art projects, generally passing full control to the artists. Over the last year, however, NMC has reduced its hosting of artists from dozens to a very small number — and none of those we currently host have control over a full sim. That is a big departure from past practice.
The reasons are largely *not* economic.
There is an odd dynamic in SL between artists and landowners. For the landowner, beyond perhaps some bragging rights of limited value, there is really almost no payoff for hosting artists. Most of them generally ignore you, and barely conceal the fact they'd be happiest if you just left them alone to do their thing.
For artists, on the other hand, access to land and lots of it is a huge status indicator. The most successful artists — be they conceptual or "pure" artists, or designers who just love to build — are the ones who have regular access to new land that they can do art on.
The need for new sources of land is important, for what drives the artist is the need to create. To continue to make new stuff, artists either need new land, or they have to pick up past creations, which means their work can't be seen.
There is a large class of good artists who have not sorted out how to manage getting new land, and are stuck building in borrowed spaces or sandboxes, and look to galleries to show their stuff. Galleries, of course, are businesses, so the goals are not very well aligned between the average artist and the average gallery owner. It is hard for these artists to grow, and without sponsors willing to give prims and space, much good art will simply never have the resources to be realized or seen.
Established artists are rare in Second Life, and to my knowledge less than a handful have sorted out how to regularly get free land for projects, which is the ultimate currency in SL for an artist.
Few of the thousands of other artists have been able to find that level of support. Indeed, after listing 3 or maybe 4 well-known artists, all of whom have regular access to land for new ideas, the list seems to fade away. Among that group, challenges are getting more common. One of the most popular has lost many of his early and most significant builds. Another ground-breaking sculpture that once occupied the full volume of a sim lives on only in video and blog posts. A major sponsor of several highly regarded artists is increasingly demanding a revenue flow from the works hosted there, and content is folded up regularly to make room for new projects. That is a very different story than just a year ago when almost anyone with a concept could get land for projects.
I agree with Bettina that big art in Second Life is in serious trouble, and the future looks less and less bright for artists who need to find that patron who will give them a place to work and create.
I'd love to sit down for coffee with some of the other large landowners who support the arts in SL. I bet we'd all share similar experiences, primarily that historically there has been little benefit that accrues to a sponsor from hosting an artist.
I'd bet $1000 that no one whose work is displayed in the Aho Museum, Ars Simulacra, or NMC Campus West really understands or appreciates what we do at the NMC, beyond hosting them, or for that matter, even cares. I'd venture to say even the artists we have given a home to for years would have a hard time explaining what it is we do at the NMC, or how our SL projects line up with our far more subtantial work in RL. The work we do to create a place to host the art is just not part of the story for them. I doubt that anyone who has been featured in our many full-sim exhibitions has had any sense of where they were, that they were taking part in a grand project with international reknown, or that many many other events happen there. They just know we host artists; the rest is a mystery of their own making.
That is a not an issue unique to NMC.
Generally artists in SL just don't pay attention to these things. Certainly there is no mention at all of the hosts on a typical artists' invitation to a show or a performance beyond a sim name. Indeed, I cannot name but one or two examples from all the artists I know that illustrate good practice in nurturing support for the arts.
How many artists list their patrons work in their picks for example? That would be a very very simple thing to do. I did a quick check of the the top artists we support, and not one mentioned our project anywhere in their picks, yet we've put out tens of thousands of actual real dollars in support for the arts over the last three years.
This does not mean artists have to shill.
Indeed, no one would like that. But I do think artists need to acknowledge, especially in here, that their patrons are not stupid rich people with no talent of their own. In fact, of the major patrons I know, all of them have a fantastic and massive vision for virtual worlds that is almost completely unacknowledged by the artists they support -- and all of them work their tails off to make it happen.
Our own project, for example, is the largest educational effort in Second Life by any measure -- a vibrant community of more than 150 universities doing all sorts of cool stuff. The project has been completely self-supporting for 2 years, and was built with no seed money. It now supports dozens of artists, hundreds of faculty, and thousands of students, from more than 50 countries -- and makes tier on nearly 100 islands every month! The average visitor spends an astonishing 98 minutes per visit -- and there are about 15,000 unique visitors to the NMC Campus each month. It is such a substantial project that Linden Lab spent six months documenting it for a case study on their site.
Yet not one artist we support, and there are a great many, would likely have any mention of NMC Campus in their picks. A few note the Aho Museum as a place to find their art, but none the larger project.
Does that seem as out of balance to you as it does to me?
Bettina is right. One day, we patrons are going to realize that the value equation here is way out of balance. Free land for artists is not an entitlement -- no matter how good they are, it should be a partnership, centered on the love of art, but grounded in mutual self-interests. At the end of the day, they need prims to create, and prims are not free.
There is a huge need in SL for artists to acknowledge the symbiotic nature of their relationships with landowners, and they need to take the time to learn and appreciate the work patrons are doing. And they need to help those people succeed. I can't point to a single example in SL that meets that standard.
It is more than showing up with art. If that is all it is, then this train is already grinding to a stop all across the grid. Large sponsorships are already down significantly, and I can see them drying up altogether.
I think learning how to nurture support for the virtual arts is a self-education project that SL artists need to undertake for their own good. In doing so, they need to acknowledge the role of entrepreneurs in making their art possible, and they need to see the artistry in their patrons' work as clearly as patrons see it in the artists.
It is an investment in the sustainability of virtual art.
I'd hate to see patronship erode further. Bettina thinks it is in crisis. As one who has worked for years to support virtual art and artists and musicians of all genres, I have to agree.
To my way of thinking, it is just devastating to see patrons disappearing across the grid as fast as they are, even as Second Life land ownership sets new records monthly. My hope is that artists in Second Life will work together to make clear what the value in supporting virtual arts is for patrons, and help each other learn how to nurture and sustain support for the arts in Second Life, just as artists do in the real world.
Virtual art is fragile enough as it is. The time to do something is now.
Monday, June 1, 2009
Nurturing Support for the Arts in Second Life