Audiences & Technology Series: HERE engages online and onsite

The multidisciplinary producing organization HERE is exploring what happens when artists open up their processes online and engage audiences in creative new ways before, during, and after performances.

A crowd gathers at HERE 

We spoke with the team at HERE in New York City about HERE: On Demand, to find out more about how this new initiative is changing relationships between artists and audiences.

This is one of a series of conversations with leaders from eight organizations convening in December 2011 around the topic of Audience Engagement and Technology.

Piama Habibullah (EmcArts): What is HERE?

Kim Whitener (Producing Director): HERE is dedicated to producing and presenting work by artists in cross-disciplinary forms through the multi-year HERE Artists Residency Program (HARP), a presenting program yielding 5-6 productions per year, and an annual workshop festival showcasing resident artist work.

PH: What is HERE: On Demand all about?

KW: HERE: On Demand began with efforts to completely redesign and reimagine our online presence. We went from soup to nuts in the initial EmcArts Innovation Lab for the Performing Arts through a complete reenvisioning, redesign, and rebuilding of a new website and a whole new presence with social media. We then tried to build ancillary and supportive programs in the onsite experience in terms of communications with our audience and bringing them along in the artistic development process.

PH: What are some new ways you’re engaging audiences online with what’s happening onsite?

KW: It starts way back when a resident artist joins the group. We work with them to build an artist page on our website.  We have created a very user-friendly backend that they can operate themselves. They are invited to load up descriptive, biographical, and written material on a blog. The idea is to create a living breathing space online that follows the development of their project over the few years they’re developing it.

You Are Here, a participatory group show featuring One Thing And Another by Fiamma Montezemolo

Amanda Szeglowski (Marketing Director) : We’re using the Twitter search function to attract people that are having conversations about themes that are related to work that is being presented here. We are beginning dialogue with those people, inviting them to the show, sharing the media, talking about the show before they come in and offering Twitter friend discounts. Social media content is also being integrated into the kiosk that is live in our space.

Kristin Marting (Artistic Director): We have a discussion module that we just built for the website. People can tune into curated conversations at a specific time and watch it unfold in real time.  We’ve also refined our ability to livestream.

KW: After they have experienced the show, we follow up with a post performance survey to engage them and other opportunities with incentives like the opportunity to win tickets to HERE If they engage in some way.

KM:  Our performance of Lush Valley was a unique audience participatory piece that became a really interesting model for how audiences can be engaged while they’re here. We conducted thinktanks that were open to the public over the time we were building the piece. We were using those conversations as ways to help us frame and create the show.  Some of the things we learned could potentially be applied to an audience’s experience whether they’re interacting with the kiosk or in the lobby.

PH: What has been the reaction from your staff and audiences?

HERE Resident Artist Michael Bodel's Sonnambula (photo by Ben Aron)

KM: Our staff is pretty young. They’ve been really enthusiastic about embracing these ideas and trying completely new things. If we feel like something’s not working, we move to something else. Our structure here is very flexible, nimble and geared on a project-by-project basis. We’re a particularly well suited organization to be trying different things and not being locked down into one approach.

KW: This has been a pretty rapid ramp up in terms of the intensive audience response to online presence over the last couple years.  Now it really infuses everything we do, making it part of the larger philosophy of reaching out in creative ways. We ask questions about everything we do and about every show or activity.

AS: Our audience has expanded so much from these initiatives. We’re reaching so many more people now via Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, and Vimeo. In Twitter alone, we’ve increased 50% in 5 months time. That is largely influencing the directions we’re taking in communication and print pieces.

KW: We have this amazing community of resident artists, all of whom are big thinkers and have a lot to say and share both in terms of their own populated artist pages and in more intellectually driven activities.

PH: What are some of the challenges you’ve faced?

KM: Time is definitely a challenge because of the limited resources the organization has while trying to be strategic and focused. And money of course.  One other frustration we’ve had is the degree of interactivity in some of the projects. For example in our online documentary series Made: HERE, there’s a blogging opportunity. We’ve had an astronomical success in terms of people tuning in and watching the videos. What we’re trying to brainstorm now is how do you make the videos more engaging and exciting rather than just asking a question? Is there a way you can spur people to be more interactive and more involved?

PH: What are some concrete next steps you hope to achieve with the Continuing Innovation grant?

KW: We’re so deeply in the midst of everything we’ve been trying to build. There are ways in which we’d love to deepen, strengthen, focus, be more strategic, and test out more things.

AS: In 2011 there is still resistance from artists to understand the need to have a personality online. We are having ongoing conversations with artists to explain the power of presence on these digital platforms.

HERE Resident Artist Laura Peterson's Wooden (photo by Steven Schreiber)

PH: Do you ever censor public comments about your artists’ work? 

KM: We had a lot of discussion with the artists about this and got to a really positive place with it. We agreed that for it to really be true dialogue, all of those things have to exist and we have to accept the idea that if someone doesn’t like the idea, we’re going to live with it in the interest of opening conversation. So far it’s been good.

PH: What would you like to learn from others in the field?

KW: We have wanted to develop a mobile app for a long time but it’s been prohibitive in cost. It would be great to hear if people have done it, what that means and how.

Trevor Martin (Marketing Associate): How are people successfully mapping the data coming in from social media and their websites? How are people culling the data and applying it to their organizations to grow their base and connect with people more effectively?  I’m also interested in hearing about different initiatives we can employ to fuse people from online to physical space, encouraging that crossover more frequently.

A lot of the success stories that I’m seeing and a lot of the most impressive statistics are coming from state organizations, large institutions, and big corporations whose roots run deep. Big money is being spent in the corporate environment and we’re always running to catch up in the not-for-profit arena. It would be great to find case studies that fit our mold.


Piama Habibullah is the former Online Producer + Communications Manager at EmcArts.