29 January 2012

Pirats and the Contraction of Second Life Art Spaces

IBM's Exhibition Spaces. The New Media Consortium. IDIA Laboratories. Caerleon. The University of Western Australia. The University of Texas - San Antonio. Odyssey. Immersiva. Crossworlds Gallery. All of them are major art spaces or supporting organizations that during the past couple of years, have either reduced their presence in Second Life, narrowly been rescued, or closed entirely. I'm sure I've missed several, and others are known to be in danger. True, some of these places pulled back (or out) for non-economic reasons, but contraction in art spaces affects SL art no matter what the reason. Now we may lose Pirats as well.

In the meantime, Linden Labs established a sandbox and self-curating gallery, and more recently opened a couple dozen sims for artists to work on (full sims by application, parcels by land rush), all under the auspices of the Linden Endowment for the Arts. The new sims quantitatively counterbalance at least some of the losses, possibly more so, but for various reasons the trade is not equivalent.

There's a petition going around asking (demanding?) that LL cover Pirats's costs, or maybe give Pirats one of the LEA sims. I certainly sympathize, but I think the idea is a bad one. It's also unlikely to succeed: Bryn Oh, who's worked a lot with the Lindens (e.g., through LEA) and has an international presence that brings attention and respect to SL, didn't get a penny of support (nor, from the sounds of things, even attention) from LL when her sim Immersiva was closed due to the loss of its sponsor.

Actually I think LL was right not to pay for Immersiva. For one thing, they would immediately be hounded by charges of favoritism, which they get often enough anyway. It's not LL's job to choose who gets land free and who doesn't, and I don't want it to become their job. LEA, for all its pros and cons, provides Linden Labs a bit of a firewall. Besides, from LL's perspective, better that charges of favoritism be directed toward LEA (as some have, rightly or wrongly) than at the Lab itself.

For another, there's no such thing as a free lunch. One of my concerns about the LEA sims is that they may foster a sense of entitlement among artists -- as it is, even without LEA, some artists (fortunately a minority) feel entitled to space merely because they're artists. Here's more food for feelings of jealousy and favoritism. There are hints that the LEA sims may already be undermining artists' feelings that they need to maintain relationships with private sim owners, which reflects a larger problem that artists don't really understand what curators do and how it contributes to the development of the arts.

However, unlike Thirza Ember, I don't think the trouble with the LEA sims is that what the Lindens giveth, the Lindens may taketh away: as my list above demonstrates, a sponsor might depart no matter who it is. That said, there's certainly the question of what Linden Labs gets by providing all those sims. I'm not certain I know what it is; but the fact the question leaps to many people's minds reflects their reasonable worries about dependence upon the company.

In other words, all told, I think the SL arts community is best served by independent art patrons.

One thing I do think Linden Labs should do is restore the discounted tier for educational and non-profit organizations. They brought more people and more respectability to Second Life than corporations or anyone else. They also have more reason to explore and exploit SL's capabilities. Of course, such a change won't help private landowners, but it would be a start.

Meanwhile, art sims are now turning to "crowdfunding" (numerous small or even large donations) for their survival. Immersiva was rescued this way -- Bryn obtained a couple of enormous donations and a great number of small donations, and due to her huge following, she reached her goal in a single day. But that experience is atypical.  Crossworlds tried something similar, but last I heard, they didn't make it. Odyssey squeaked through, just barely, by becoming an artist-supported sim. Pirats is now attempting crowdfunding too.

I've heard through the grapevine that a few people think that asking for donations is equivalent to begging, and yes in many ways it is, but so what? Every arts organization in the US has to do fundraising. And in SL, outside of a tiny number of people and organizations who can afford a sim singlehandedly, that's the only remaining option. Well, and leaving SL for other, less expensive grids; but there are drawbacks to that strategy too.

FreeWee Ling has started a group called ArtGyro to discuss the sustainability of SL arts. It hasn't met yet, but hopefully it will prove a venue for further discussion -- and action? -- on these issues.

For now, however, there's an immediate sustainability problem at stake.

Pirats is an important organization. Merlina Rokokoko and Newbab Zsigmond have done extraordinary work -- and it is work -- promoting SL arts and many, many artists. I've become a "passive member" at $50, and if you're reading this blog, click this link to become one too. Or if not Pirats, choose some other independent arts organization. Keep SL arts on its own feet.

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