How Interactive Media Can Aid Art Accessibility (via Art21)

by Kelsey Savage, PBS Interactive
Contemporary art is often criticized for being reserved for those with high brow interests and inaccessible to a wider audience. PBS Arts programming was crafted to respond to this dilemma and promote art appreciation nationwide.

The idea is that, with just the click of a button, our living rooms can be transformed into Broadway stages, black box theaters and music halls. Art21, a key fixture in the PBS Arts line-up, focuses on making art easily accessible by giving viewers an intimate look into the artist’s creative process. Now, through an experimental online project, the Art21 team is working on making contemporary art even more transparent and understandable.

The first episode of the season, Change, is currently available to stream online before its television debut and profiles three trailblazing artists: Catherine Opie, El Anatsui, and Ai Weiwei. In conjunction with this advanced screening, Art21 is also allowing viewers to submit questions to Opie and Anatsui. Their responses will be posted on the Art21 website. Jonathan Munar, Manager of Digital Media and Strategy at Art21, explains “the Q&A format also extends on the part of our mission that focuses on ‘access’… by providing a direct line of communication to the artists”. Viewers no longer have to passively have information presented to them. Instead, they can engage with the artist. Munar continues that “the Q&A format naturally lends itself to stimulating critical reflection and conversation about contemporary art and artists. We paired the episode with the Q&A because we wanted the episode to seed the conversation. We wanted to give viewers the opportunity to immediately respond to the themes, ideas, and processes covered in the episode.”

By streaming Change online before the scheduled on-air broadcast date, the Art21 Team was able to gain a lot of word-of-mouth promotion from social media sites, predictably from Twitter and Facebook. This kind of viral buzz would have been virtually impossible with just an episode teaser. Munar notes that “while our audience seems to really love that they could watch an episode immediately—by way of many tweets, re-tweets, and Facebook “likes”—trying to draw questions has been a bit more of a challenge.” It seems that people like the option of engaging with artists, yet very few people actually take the time to participate.

For future ventures, Munar has some suggestions for how to stimulate online contributions. First, content should be kept short and sweet. He recommends breaking the episode into segments using COVE chapterization. This will allow online viewers to skip to a specific artist's section instead of having to scroll through the hour long video. Another idea was to have a more real-time approach, like a live chat. Munar suspects the "asynchronous style" that Art21 used meant that viewers were less likely to be satisfied if they did not see immediate results.

Be sure to watch the premier of Art21 on April 13th. Questions for El Anatsui can be submitted up until April 18th at 11:59 EST using the hashtag #art21preview. We’re looking forward to seeing some of the engaging and challenging questions that viewers were able to pose to Anatsui and Opie.

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