Only days into the coronavirus pandemic, arts organizations and individual artists alike found ways to pivot to digital stages. Zoom readings sprouted up as the app became more and more a desktop fixture. Virtual concerts maneuvered lags to sync remotely performed accompaniments. We learned which camera angle creates the least glare in our own rooms. But even as conversations around reopening surface and details become more concrete, it’s clear that digital content is here to stay. The specialness of live performance can’t be replaced, of course, but neither can the reach gained through streaming offerings.
This new landscape means new challenges for artists, particularly those who do not have adequate access to technological resources. The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center hopes to alleviate the gap through a new program that could be a key asset to dancers, actors, musicians, composers, designers, and more.
The Library has developed “Tech Kits for Performing Artists,” available to check out for any NYPL cardholder 18 or older. Contents include an iPad Pro with cellular data and a suite of creation-oriented apps, a USB microphone, wireless headphones, a ring light, and a phone tripod stand; those with musical pursuits can also request a 32-key MIDI keyboard. Cardholders can reserve kits online and pick them up in various locations in the Bronx, Manhattan, and Staten Island.
NYPL crafted the program through the guidance of Dance/NYC’s COVID-19 Impact Survey. One finding: There is an increased need for technology and communication resources in the wake of the pandemic (another recent study from ArtsBridge shows that 87 percent of performers at high school and college levels had created content for social platforms, and 77 percent had participated in digital showcases in the wake of the pandemic). Another finding: Artists in BIPOC, immigrant, disabled, and older communities were disproportionately impacted by a lack of such resources.
Though born out of the circumstances of the pandemic and in response to these studies, the Library aims to continue to narrow the technological gap on the other side of theatre shutdowns. “The digital divide existed before the pandemic. It exists during the pandemic. And it will exist beyond,” says Library for the Performing Arts Executive Director Jennifer Schantz. “So I think this program is a start, a beginning, to help people who need these tools.”
To ensure the program reached and met the needs of these underserved communities, the Library worked with local branches and partnered with outreach initiatives like the aforementioned Dance/NYC in the soft launch phase. Their efforts have proven effective: As of March 22, all 81 of the Library’s kits have been checked out, with a waitlist of 300, with the number only rising as word spread across the artist community.
Schantz says the goal right now is to get the number of available kits up to an even 100. That, she says, will allow the library to serve 1,000 artists over the course of a year (kits are available to check out for one month, with the option of renewing up to three if there’s no waitlist). As the pilot program continues to take shape, that number could continue to grow, and the Library’s Dance, Music, and Theatre divisions—and, naturally, the IT department—will continue to identify potential kit additions and modifications.
Once venues begin to welcome back audiences, Schantz hopes participating artists will be able to share the work they created with these tools in the Library’s Bruno Walter Auditorium. But for now, even if that’s not possible, the chance to create should be.
“It’s incredibly important that artists continue to have many tools to share their work, whether it’s through live performance or online. COVID has actually helped the entire world—including the performing arts—rethink how they can share their works with a larger audience,” Schantz says. “The library is here to support our community… To be a resource for those who need us is something we do. That’s what we’re about.”