the Arts Bridge the Digital Divide
While describing the different definitions of various divides around the country, Open Studio participants articulated the ways in which the arts were contributing to bridging the divide. These can serve as examples for other community technology centers:
The Arts encourage communications proficiency in the digital age.
Communities are defined by their cultures and measured by their ability to communicate.
"The arts, in its traditional forms, teaches us how to express our ideas, emotions and cultural influences in as many different forms as we can imagine," commented Gordon Soderberg, Open Studio Program Coordinator at Ink People Center for the Arts in Eureka, California. Open Studio sites find that arts and technology training increases a person's ability to use technology to manipulate images, sound, text and movement to create meaningful content that will engage users. Robin Oppenheimer, Seattle Art Museum, commented, "Without basic arts training at an early age, people will not be prepared to communicate well with the expanded aural/visual language of multimedia that will soon be part of our daily lives as the [technology] pipes get fatter."
The Arts help people learn about and explore technology.
Open Studio sites report that arts-based technology training increases individuals' abilities to manipulate the technology tools that can allow them to express themselves creatively through a variety of media. At the same time, the arts can become the "hook" for testing the new, faster, higher versions of these tools, essentially becoming the R&D labs for many businesses.
The Arts support the interests of business, communities and life-long education.
Local businesses, art organizations, school systems, economic development groups and members of the computer industry are all looking either for trained workers for technology, or ways of teaching technology to the workers they have. The expanding scope of technologies calls for an expanding scope of teachers who are able to teach professional level computer applications while helping to build the identity or self-reliance of their students. Open Studio sites find that artists who serve as technology teachers can do this particularly well as they are accustomed to working with people of varying ages, abilities, and interests. This flexible teaching style appeals to students and supports the labor and training interests of the community.
The Arts make content and culture relevant to communities.
Artists are not separate from the communities in which they live. One benefit of the convergence of arts and technology is that the technology itself is always secondary to _ creative expression_. In other words, technology is only one tool for creating cultural content and is not the end in itself.
Community arts organizations are becoming important centers in facilitating creative expression for the immediate and broader community, such as cultural preservation and advocacy for important community issues. As Bryan Warren of the Portland Museum, in Louisville, Kentucky, commented, "A real example can be seen in classes taught to kids whose eyes glaze over as you discuss hardware, protocols and various tech anachronism. When the chance arrives to do photo manipulation or story writing those same eyes brighten up."
Media Alliance's Belinda Griswold offered the example of an artist-activist who spoke to an audience filled with community members, including artists. Once this artist-activist showed how she used the Web to further her cause, the audience became more interested in exploring new applications of technology for advocacy purposes.
Challenges for Arts Organizations Involved in Digital Divide Efforts
While the challenges that arts organizations face are somewhat similar to other community technology centers, arts organizations who have incorporated technology training into their missions face unique obstacles when talking with funders, advocating in their communities, conducting trainings and maintaining computer labs.
One frustration arises from an inadequate definition of the digital divide. Without a shared definition that incorporates the issues of creative expression, training and content, organizations have a tough time convincing funders to support their mission. In many cases, their traditional supporters in the arts funding community, are unaware of technology and its benefits. In addition, funders who support technology initiatives overlook the impact that the arts can have on the digital divide. Usually arts organizations are able to participate in digital divide initiatives only if they are part of a larger consortium of organizations, including school districts, large museums or cultural institutions. Yet the large size of these consortiums often prevent them from quickly responding to the changing shifts of the digital culture and needs of the community.
In contrast, many Open Studio organizations, which are small and community-based, have found that their close association with their communities allow them to be more responsive to technology needs.
Jessica Irish, Open Studio trainer with OnRamp, a small digital arts organization in Los Angeles, stated , "We feel we are uniquely positioned to provide direct and powerful steps in bridging the digital divide: we provide small classes, we operate on a production model, we provide all the youth that work with us with free donated computers as well as training, we have a growing 'word of mouth' outreach from artists all over Los Angeles.... and yet we most often experience our intimate and focused scale as a disability when it comes to funding."
These challenges are similar to those experienced by community technology centers as is the need to constantly advocate about the many uses of technology. Additionally, arts organizations must continue to justify and validate the importance of the arts. As Bryan Warren, Portland Museum, stated, "It is difficult to make an argument for art or technology in communities that struggle with the day-to-day material realities."
Like most technology centers, Open Studio sites find they must learn to accommodate varying levels of technology skills and must keep their labs up-to-date. Yet arts organization face the unique challenge of finding trainers who understand both technology and the arts -- and maybe who understand that the line of demarcation between art and technology is not very wide. Keeping the hardware and software up-to-date is an expensive process because artists tend to use multimedia software (graphics, animation, and streaming media), which is often more costly than traditional software programs (such as browsers, word processing, and email.) The amount of bandwidth available in a community also poses an ongoing challenge. Without broad and unlimited access, artists and arts organizations are limited in the amount of creative and diverse content they can produce.
The arts are uniquely positioned to help shape the dialogue about the digital divide and to create solutions for narrowing the technology gap.
Through the Open Studio program, artists and arts organization in low-income and underserved neighborhoods are learning to create online cultural content relevant to their communities. But being part of a community also means that arts face the same challenges as the communities in which they reside. If the neighborhood suffers from redlining of access to high-speed Internet connections or historically high poverty and low literacy rates, then those challenges will find their expression within the missions and operations of arts organizations. In the end, the greater capacity invested into the well-being of the community increases the potential of the arts and technology organizations. Conversely, the more capacity put into the arts and technology organizations' well-being, the greater the potential for community expression.
Benton Foundation 2000 www.benton.org