michael naimark

an open letter to the Presidio Trust
18 October 2001

Proposal for an Arts Lab in the Presidio

a unique hybrid

arts center + research laboratory

not-for-profit, commercial-friendly, and sustainable

Michael Naimark

< www.naimark.net >



I. Introduction


"It's a funny situation right now, because there isn't an N.E.A. to support experimental work, and there's so much money and activity in high technology. The question is, how do artists fit in? Nobody really has the answer."

"High Tech Is the Art in San Francisco"

New York Times, March 16, 2000

An extraordinary opportunity exists in the answer to this question. Actually, several opportunities converge, including 1) filling a open niche in the U.S. arts community, 2) creating value for industry and commerce, and 3) demonstrating not-for-profit financial sustainability. This is a proposal outlining initial steps to pursue these opportunities. The Presidio is ideally situated for this pursuit.

The above quote from the New York Times is mine. I am a professional media artist and researcher based in San Francisco for over two decades. Prior to that I was a graduate student and research fellow at M.I.T., where I was on the original design team for the M.I.T. Media Laboratory. Since then, I've had similar relationships with the major Bay Area "new media" research efforts, including at Atari (1982-4), Lucasfilm (1986-90), the Apple Multimedia Lab (1987-90), and, for the past eight years, at Interval Research Corporation, the for-profit "think tank" funded by Paul Allen. I teach, publish, and exhibit regularly. This past spring I exhibited a 3D interactive installation here in the Presidio, as a unique collaboration between the San Francisco Film Festival and SF MOMA. This installation, called "Be Now Here," was itself a unique collaboration between Interval Research and the UNESCO World Heritage Centre in Paris.

II. Art and Technology Today

Over the past 20 years, we have seen public arts funding in the U.S. shrink to a fraction of what is spent in other countries. According to the N.E.A., current per capita arts spending by local, state, and national governments is $57 in France, $85 in Germany, $46 in Canada, and $6 in the US. This is not likely to change in the foreseeable future.

But during this same period a revolution has begun with no end in sight. Computers have gone from large institutional machines to laptops carried by children. Digital cameras are available at drugstores. And the Internet and Web have ushered in the era of a wired planet.

Virtually everyone involved in these industries acknowledges the need for creativity, exploration, and new content. But artists are often suspicious of commercial enterprise for choosing profit over integrity. Not-for-profit arts institutions rarely have adequate funding models. The options, unfortunately, naturally gravitate to the extremes, toward high-return "blockbusters" or donation-based "pledge drives."

III. Arts Lab Concept

The basic concept of an "Arts Lab" is to serve as both an art center and research lab, structured as a not-for profit corporation and managed as a commercial enterprise. The goal is to be sustainable with little compromise of artistic or research values.

The Arts Lab would be a project-based laboratory with space and technical resources for working with computers, audio-visual media, and the Internet. Projects would be exploratory in nature and not exclusively driven by finding solutions or maximizing profits.

As such, the Arts Lab would be created as a 501(c)3 not-for-profit corporation, whose charter is based around art-making, risk-taking, and exploring new media technologies.

But unlike most not-for-profit corporations, the Arts Lab would protect and market what it creates as a means for financial sustainability. Examples range from intellectual property licensing, to limited edition art and mass consumer products, to services such as commissioned research and events.

The Arts Lab would be commercial, aggressive, and competitive. It would recruit, hire, pay, buy, sell, market, and advertise just as a for-profit corporation. But as a not-for-profit one, all revenue would go back into the Arts Lab.

This approach would attract the dedicated, the ambitious, and the young. It would serve as a mid-career perk and be an outlet for senior citizen masters in the field. It would be a great place to "do time." (Imagine doing time in the Presidio.)

IV. Existing Models

A. Art Centers


What makes a great art center is community, with a balance between permanent staff and visiting artists in-residence. Art centers involved in technology require additional resources, which can be expensive and difficult to maintain. Several such art and technology centers currently exist, but all rely on external funding from governments, universities, or corporations.

Among the most well-known of these centers are: the Ars Electronica Centre in Linz Austria; the Zentrum fur Kunst und Medientechnologie (ZKM) in Karlsruhe, Germany; NTT InterCommunication Center (ICC) in Tokyo; the Institute of Advanced Media Arts and Sciences (IAMAS) in Gifu, Japan; and the Banff Centre for the Arts in Canada.

Perhaps the best single model for an arts center, from the point of view of the Presidio, is the Banff Centre for the Arts in the Canadian Rocky Mountains. First, it’s set in a beautiful natural location. Artist residencies consist of 1-2 dozen artists and last several months, with regular theme-based "summits" usually lasting long weekends. The art and technology programs are components of a larger whole, which includes other art forms such as music, theater, and Aboriginal arts, as well as non art-related activities through the Banff Centre for Continuing Education.

No such art and technology center of similar scope and impact exists in the U.S.

B. Research Labs


The research labs most associated with the computer and media revolutions had "peak periods" characterized by lively communities and the freedom to take risks. Funding ranged from government (itself ranging from N.S.F. to D.O.D.) to university to corporate, with a variety of novel hybrid approaches. The M.I.T. Media Lab, for example, relies on corporate sponsors that pay large annual dues for access, get-togethers, and general inspiration.

Most labs in and around Silicon Valley are corporate-based, with "leash lengths" ranging from focussed development to "blue-sky" research. The linkage between research and profit also has a wide range - legends exist such as how Xerox PARC invented the Mac/Windows interface but didn’t commercialize it. Policies surrounding confidentiality, intellectual property, and I.P. protection have changed drastically over the past two decades, and continue to remain in flux.

The latest such "grand experiment" was Interval Research Corporation in Palo Alto. Founded in 1992 with a $100 million commitment from Paul Allen, its charter was to look ahead 5-10 years. Its CEO, David Liddle, recruited a diverse group, which included designers, artists, musicians, psychologists, ethnographers, and mathematicians as well as computer scientists and engineers. It was loosely modeled on Xerox PARC of the 1970s, but with a strict I.P. protection policy and an "advanced development" group ready to commercialize. In the spring 2000, after several unsuccessful spin-off attempts, Paul Allen decided to abruptly shut down the lab.

Interval filed for over 140 patents, whose value, many believe, at least approximates the original investment. It’s too early to know. From an investor’s point of view (particularly in April 2000), Interval may have been considered a failure. But from a sustainability point of view, Interval may be the first existence-proof that creative research labs can "break even."

V. First Steps

The single biggest hurdle getting started building an Arts Lab is the "cultural difference" between the art and research communities. Hence the first task is building bridges between relevant members of each group.

Models need to be investigated. Looking for symbioses between art, technology, research, and business is timely, and several new initiatives are emerging from governments, corporations, universities, and art centers worldwide. These need to be tracked and reviewed.

Initial support for an Arts Lab in the Presidio can be found. Many of the large U.S. foundations are currently developing their strategies for high-tech arts funding. They are looking for new approaches such as the Arts Lab.

These first steps can begin immediately. But this proposal is for the long haul. Many people with many talents will be needed. Such people exist: a lively community both locally and internationally would fervently welcome such an initiative. I am merely offering this outline as a starting point for discussion and feedback. Any and all comments are welcome.