Technobabble: A cyber tour of the Arts

  • Article by: RANDY A. SALAS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 7, 2008 - 9:53 PM

Join our docent as we survey the websites of Twin Cities arts organizations to see how they're doing. And watch your step.

As the Internet has grown, one might think that libraries and museums have taken a hit as users seek knowledge online rather than in person. But a recent study by the Institute of Museum and Library Services found the opposite to be true: The Internet might actually be prompting people to visit more.

People want several sources of information, the study found, so the Internet and real-world info depositories complement each other. So how are Twin Cities institutions faring with their websites? Libraries have fairly standardized offerings, including online catalogs, with the Hennepin County Library (www.hclib.org) leading the way in breadth and depth. But what about arts groups, such as the Minnesota Orchestra and Guthrie Theater?

All present the basics -- hours, prices, event details, even online ticketing. The Weisman Art Museum's website (www.weisman.umn.edu) is a perfect example, with much of its well-organized content geared toward priming people for a visit. But I was looking for more.

So I visited two major Twin Cities institutions in several categories with an eye toward unique, engaging online content. Here's what I found.

ART

WALKER ART CENTER WWW.WALKERART.ORG

It's ironic that a visual arts center has such a busy-looking home page. Three side-scrolling banners invite you to click on something (anything!), only to find that the top banner doesn't actually contain live links. Once you dive in, though, the amount of information can be pleasingly overwhelming. Background information on art exhibits and film showings include cross-referencing to related links, events and entries on the Walker's thriving blog. Nice extras include RSS feeds and e-mail reminders about upcoming events. Downloadable podcasts include a guided audio tour of the Minneapolis Sculpture Garden.

MINNEAPOLIS INSTITUTE OF ARTS WWW.ARTSMIA.ORG

Online information about the institute's exhibitions is a mixed bag. For example, a Japanese art showcase with a paid admission has a comprehensive microsite with an audio slide show, while other, free exhibitions get just short background info and sample images. On the other hand, individual pages for the thousands of paintings, sculptures and other art in the museum's permanent collections include the ability to zoom in on an object's image, add it to your virtual collection and send it as an e-postcard -- very cool. Its vast Online Resources offer surveys on a variety of art topics, such as the compelling "Restoring a Masterwork" and the engaging "Animal Locomotion."

Besides their individual websites, Walker Art Center and the Minneapolis Institute of Arts work together to produce the arts-education website ArtsConnectEd (www.artsconnected.org) -- an impressive one-two punch in Twin Cities visual arts.

THEATER

GUTHRIE THEATER WWW.GUTHRIETHEATER.ORG

The Guthrie's website is teeming with information about its plays, programs and classes, but there could be much more about its remarkable facility, such as videos and virtual tours. While many plays get little more than a short summary, some have detailed study guides that can be downloaded and printed -- a nifty feature that's somewhat buried in the Learn section. Another highlight is the Big Blue Blog, which offers a behind-the-scenes look at the theater's productions, including contributions by the actors.

CHILDREN'S THEATRE COMPANY WWW.CHILDRENSTHEATRE.ORG

The CTC does a nice job of augmenting online info about its stage productions, such as YouTube clips and downloadable study guides (including its handy season-long Family Guide). The new CTC Blog has an interesting focus: presenting reviews by community members who have seen a production. It would be more helpful, though, if the reviewers were credited consistently and if it were more obvious how theatergoers can contribute. The CTC also runs a hip microsite (www.ctc4teens.org) aimed at the audience for its teen-focused productions.

MUSIC

MINNESOTA ORCHESTRA WWW.MINNESOTAORCHESTRA.ORG

The vibrant website does an outstanding job of complementing the concerts at Orchestra Hall. Supplements include hundreds of audio samples of scheduled works, fully downloadable program notes and video clips of conductor Osmo Vänskä in action. Although there is a brief overview and photo timeline of the orchestra's history, there could be much more material about the ensemble's storied past. I'd love to see an iTunes-style library where fans could download complete recordings from the orchestra's radio broadcasts for a small fee.

ST. PAUL CHAMBER ORCHESTRA WWW.THESPCO.ORG

The SPCO's website keeps pace with its bigger cross-town sibling when it comes to functional information and online ticketing. Alas, the experience lessens on the musicmaking level. Program notes are available only for some of the chamber orchestra's concerts, and audio-sample links were not active on the events I checked. The concert calendar's Quick Search feature doesn't return accurate results.

MUSEUMS

SCIENCE MUSEUM OF MINNESOTA WWW.SMM.ORG

Just like its rambling facility in St. Paul, the Science Museum's website invites exploration. Start in the Online Activities section (under Learn) and click away. The community area Science Buzz is the real prize, with its regular blog updates about science news. The cheeky writing -- a recent headline: "Giant Sea Spiders: I don't fear them, but I don't trust them" -- creates an atmosphere where visitors want to comment. Other activities offer online versions of museum exhibits, including interactive elements, things to do and virtual tours.

MINNESOTA HISTORY CENTER WWW.MNHS.ORG/HISTORYCENTER

The Minnesota Historical Society augments the exhibits at its History Center with online components that add to the learning experience. For instance, the section for "Going Places: The Mystique of Mobility" includes a video excerpt of Twin Cities streetcars from an archived film. Even a traveling national exhibit such as "The Enemy Within" includes an online component noting Minnesota connections. The Minnesota Sesquicentennial project features the ambitious MN150 Wiki, a Wikipedia-style guide to the people, places and things that have shaped the state's history. Oddly, it has only about 100 registered users, with no reader comments even on major entries such as Bob Dylan and Garrison Keillor.

SMALL SURPRISES

SHUBERT CENTER WWW.MINNESOTASHUBERT.ORG

The Minnesota Shubert Performing Arts and Education Center occasionally presents special projects for students on its website, but they can be viewed by anyone. Updated through April 18 is "Men in Motion: A Dance Journey," a microsite that follows the creative process behind choreographer Sean Curran's new work for the Zenon Dance Company through video, text and interactive features. Shubert Center executive director Kim Motes also maintains a video blog on the main site.

PAVEK MUSEUM OF BROADCASTING WWW.PAVEKMUSEUM.ORG

The website for the St. Louis Park-based museum isn't much from a design standpoint, but it holds a treasure trove. Navigate to "Index to this Website," and then start clicking. You'll find loads of nuggets from Twin Cities broadcast history, including audio clips of Sid Hartman interviewing Packers great Max McGee in 1967 and KSTP-AM's Don Vogel ("the Round Mound of Sound") singing "New Dork, New Dork."

Randy A. Salas • 612-673-4542

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