The rap on research for the arts, museums, and informal sciences
In my last post, I asked where the consumers are in the Colorado symphony’s new “customer-driven” business model and promised a few examples of ways arts groups are getting audiences into the picture a little more creatively. It’s about not thinking of them as consumers or audiences in the first place, but as collaborators.
Take the street-filmmakers of Germany’s Gob Squad, whose recent film starring passersby in New York’s East Village, “Super Night Shot,” was screened at the Under the Radar festival only minutes after it was shot. (The last scene was filmed in the lobby of the theater, so the crowd watched themselves watching for the arrival of the actors.)
Or Martha Graham’s “On the Couch” video competition — actually more of a narration competition, in which you’re asked to imagine, write, and record the inner monologue of a Graham company dancer performing an evocative solo in one of two online videos.
Remember “reader response” theory from the ‘70s, that radically postmodern idea that the artwork is completed by the beholder? The object or “text” doesn’t exist as such until an audience engages with it. Well, that idea turned out to be just a foreshadowing of what’s going on today. Viewers are quite literally completing the art. And it doesn’t even feel particularly radical when they do.
Or think of the Plains Art Museum’s “You Like This: A Democratic Approach to the Museum Collection,” which crowdsourced the selection of objects for a permanent collection highlights show. (Apparently even the most progressive practices at art museums still involve a colon in the middle of the title, just like a PhD dissertation.)
Or all the ways that classical musicians are reinventing classical music “without the tuxes,” as one recent story put it. This alt-classical “revolution” (in, for example, the Pacific Northwest) isn’t news to anyone reading this blog, of course — some of you are the ones taking over bars and coffee shops armed with cellos. It may not be participatory in the same sense that the Gob Squad, Martha Graham, or Plains Art Museum examples are. But it shares their democratic, street-level ideals.
In an era when headlines like Salon’s recent “Can the Symphony be Saved?” are frequent enough to blur together, established orchestras will have to try harder to shake off the chains of caution, self-importance, and (maybe the heaviest shackles) nostalgia. Yes, it’s admirable that Colorado’s new plan was developed by the musicians and staff working hand in hand. That clearly took courage and leadership, and other orchestras should continue trying to tear down the same wall. ...
But for symphonies to make real strides toward relevance and engagement, they’re going to have to put on the table not just their “business” models but some of their deepest, most cherished assumptions about what classical music is and how it works. Assumptions like music-making has a clear “by” and a “for.” Like arts consumers belong in their seats, not on the soundtrack. Like classical music is “serious” art, and therefore “higher” than vernacular culture. Like music making is a collective and anonymous, rather than a personal and self-expressive, enterprise.
Hey, if filmmakers, dance companies, and art museums can do it—and individual classical musicians, especially (but not only) young ones, are doing it all over—then surely established nonprofit symphonies can do it. The Colorado Symphony got it right when it linked relevance to revenue. But it’s going to need to think harder about what relevance looks like these days. The examples I've cited may not be the answer. But the values and vibe they embody may be.
By the way, my friend Greg Sandow is more sanguine about the Colorado plan. Don't miss his post about it, or the follow-up he's planning.
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