Research and Disruption

For a certain kind of dreamer,  Bell Laboratories feels like the Land Of Oz.  The scientists working at the Princeton, New Jersey campus were the technology explorers of their time.  In tandem to the basic telephony services that their colleagues on the other side of campus were administering, the engineers at the labs developed some of the most essential technologies of the 20th century leading to awarding of eight Nobel Prizes for Bell Labs scientists over its 100 year history.

The idea of Research and Development (R & D) has been around for longer than Bell Labs, but has been embraced by technology companies over the last 50 years in hugely influential ways.  Think of unmanned drones, iPhones, GoogleGlass and self-driving cars and you will soon understand why technology designers are on the edge of innovation in the spirit of the artistic Avant-Garde.  Through their work, we have evolved as a culture in ways that can only be rivaled by the Industrial Revolution in the early 19th century.

But what about the artistic Avant-Garde? What about the institutions that have, for the past 300 years, first bucked then gradually accepted its ‘breakthroughs’ as part of the accepted evolution of art and culture?  In some parts of the art world (mainly the visual arts), we can find plenty of examples of new research and development pushing curatorial practices, exhibition schedules, capital projects and marketing.  This continued support for newness and exploration in the visual art world is mostly driven by the object-oriented obsessions of collectors.  In music and theater, however, where tickets sold are the measure of financial stability, the cultural institutions have adopted a significantly more conservative stance that all but relegates research and development to a successful subscription series, production or festival, preferring to cordon off their explorations into low-risk, half-hearted attempts to find a younger and hipper audience.

Part of the appeal of R & D in the world of technology is the David and Goliath myth, which posits that small scrappy thinkers can disrupt the hegemony and economic models of the ‘big boys’ and refresh both the creators and consumers of materials and ideas.  Nowadays, all major players in the tech market must maintain their campus of wild experiments in order to find their strategic next-steps as ideas and consumers churn.

So why don’t all the major Opera Houses, Symphonies and Presenters absorb the lessons of technology companies and create true R & D departments to help shape their strategies and audiences?  The answer is simple: too many failures.  I don’t know the statistics, but I imagine for every R & D success, there are likely many, many ‘failures.’  And as those of us in the arts world are aware, the ‘failures’ lose money and are very difficult to defend to board members and donors eager to be a part of something hugely successful.  And yet, what if true and sustainable success can only be found in one of the experiments that are undertaken by intrepid explorers toiling away in a safe environment of the R & D campus?  

Part of my interest in this question is in the work that Experiments in Opera does as a kind of research and development organization: big artistic risk-taking using moderate financial support and working hard to maintain a spirited and well-documented conversation that can inform future explorations.   This work is full of peril and plenty of ‘failures’ but always reaching towards the kind of disruption that could radically re-frame the status quo.

For now, we can only dream about what life might look like on our own artistic campus where risks are applauded and failure understood as part of the process of success. Until large cultural institutions embrace R & D as central to their strategies for growth, I will reserve my pity for the corded telephone, alone and dusty on the basement shelf in Princeton, NJ, still asking “what happened?”

— Aaron Siegel