Combining technology and the arts: In conversation with Robert O’Brien, General Manager of Hammerstep’s Indigo Grey project

robert-obrien-head-shotRobert O’Brien graduated from the third cohort of the MMIAM program in 2016. He has been involved in arts management since high school and already had valuable professional experience before applying for the MMIAM program, serving on arts boards, performing as an actor and singer, and working as a general manager of several arts organizations. In a recent interview with the Connecticut native, we discussed his experience in the MMIAM program and where his career in arts management has taken him since.

Why did you decide to pursue graduate studies in international arts management?

My goal was to gain a more theoretical business background with a focus on challenges in the arts industry. Two aspects of the program which stuck out for me were the international scope (to learn how arts are produced in other jurisdictions) and the one-year duration. I wanted to get back to work and gain practical experience as quickly as possible without taking the summer off.

Where are you currently working and what are your primary responsibilities?

I am currently working as the General Manager with a start-up organization called Hammerstep, based in New York. We have a project called Indigo Grey, which combines technology, dance, and non-traditional staging to create an immersive and interactive experience for audiences. Because it is a start-up, we have a small team of dedicated staff who each do a large number and broader range of tasks.

Which MMIAM courses were the most valuable to you for your career and why?

One course that stands out for me as having been immediately useful was process and information management. We applied topics covered in that course in our consulting class at Bocconi University in Milan. More broadly, I find process management to be extremely important to the efficiency of any organization and one which arts managers need to know in order to reform ailing organizations.

What did you gain personally and professionally from living and studying in four different countries with students from around the world?

It reinforced my ability to adapt to any situation and be flexible as new circumstances arise. It allowed me to see many places I have never been before and to enjoy the unique cultural assets different cities and countries have to offer. It is assumed, often incorrectly, that people outside your immediate cultural area consume culture the same way you do. I feel like I have an improved understanding of cultural consumption outside my area. It also gave me a very geographically dispersed network, which is very effective in testing ideas in different dynamics.

Which MMIAM campus was the most memorable for you and why?

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Robert O’Brien in Rome, Italy

This is a really difficult question because the four campuses are completely different and that is not an exaggeration. I attended McGill in Montreal for my undergrad. One of the best advantages of the school is its location in one of the most unique cities in North American, in a country that, while related, is different from my own [being from the United States]. But during my MMIAM studies, I would have to say Milan was my favorite campus. The lynchpin for this choice is not so much Bocconi University, but rather that, like McGill and Montreal, the campus for Bocconi in my eyes [represented] the entire country of Italy and I had the wonderful opportunity to travel all over the country and really take in what a diverse place that area of the world is, especially historically.

How did your studies in international arts management change your perspective of arts management practices in your home country?

I would not say it changed my perspective, but rather highlighted the difference. The United States takes a devolved view of arts funding with government support being on the low end. Amongst many of my colleagues in arts management in the United States, lack of government support looks like a clear disadvantage, and it certainly has its disadvantages. However, a devolved approach actually has many less obvious advantages. I would say I appreciate more the possibilities that come with having to seek funding outside of the government, including both earned and contributed income as well as equity investments.

What are the current trends in the cultural sector in your home country and what new opportunities are emerging for arts managers as a result?

I would say the biggest trend is the integration of technology into the product offerings of arts organizations. Words like “innovation” and “technology” are very sexy in organizations and arts councils today. However, I feel many misunderstand their implications. I personally have seen the integration of arts and technology be very effective and also very ineffective in arts organizations. There is still a lot of experimentation in the arts industry (especially in not-for-profit arts organizations whose funding is lower). When organizations discover what works, others will copy them, and the integration of arts and technology will become more the norm, but I feel we are not at that point yet.

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An Indigo Grey performance. (Courtesy of Hammerstep.)

On the other hand, many groups in the private sector have been integrating technology into arts and cultural ventures for a long time and very successfully. One major difference between the two is the availability of funding for these ventures. Technology can be expensive. An organization like Disney has vast sums of money to invest in technology. In many ways their product also succeeds and fails on its ability to innovate with technology. It can’t be ignored because of the companies with whom they are competing (for Universal, think of using magic wands in the Harry Potter world [The Wizarding World of Harry Potter theme park in Orlando, Florida]). A clever arts manager today could bridge the gap between the private and not for profit sector, tech companies and arts organizations to redefine how organizations offer their products.

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