The rap on research for the arts, museums, and informal sciences

August 03, 2012

Classical music's biggest audience development problem may be its current audience

You may have heard about an incident last weekend of aggressive rudeness on the part of some London concertgoers to a cougher in their midst. You might assume the story was exaggerated, unless you’ve seen for yourself the muted surliness of many classical music patrons in moments when they have to interact with each other. Yet smart writers are still extolling the virtues of the arts in building empathy and tolerance. Is that just a story we culture-lovers tell ourselves?

I once saw a German opera audience pounce — verbally, I mean, but with hissing gusto — on someone who unwrapped a candy too loudly. That was downright courteous compared to what the New Statesman's music critic, Alexandra Coghlan (pictured), reports happening to her companion the other night at the BBC Proms (a venerable concert series once known for its festivity and youthful informality):

I was attending the concert with a university-age girl... A chronic asthmatic, she had coughed a little during the first half, but infrequently, and had stifled it to the very best of her ability. After the first piece a man turned round and told her off (not a whit of sympathy, concern or even basic politeness to his complaint). We apologised, and moved to some empty seats further away. When the interval arrived three middle-aged men accosted us in the foyer. My companion was told to get out, that she had no right to be there, and the parting shot from one — “You dirty bitch” — was announced loud enough for everyone nearby to hear (including two ushers, who did nothing).

Remarkably, Coghlan is able to offer a thoughtful, balanced analysis of the incident in her article. She also describes how...

One of the angry men followed us as we walked out, stopping us to elaborate more fully the reasons for his frustration. Music was, he explained, something he wanted to immerse himself totally in without distraction or exception. A rock concert, he laboriously added, was quite a different scenario, and there we would (and should) feel free to cough as much as we liked.

His attempt to cast classical and rock experiences as opposites has one obvious truth in it: amplification does make certain audience behaviors possible (something I've blogged about here). But it also embeds an old, increasingly creaky notion that classical music is somehow better, more meaningful than other kinds, and therefore more deserving of protection (from, for example, aural intrusions). After all, it’s one of ‘the arts,’ and therefore associated with a higher class of person: more sophisticated, better behaved, more likely to display liberal values like compassion, reason, and pluralism.

As my teenage daughters would say: Seriously? You would think the claims for a link between civility and classical music had been discredited by all those Schumann-whistling Nazi guards at the death camps. Yet coincidentally, it’s just that link — the idea that art has an ‘ethical power’ to reduce human cruelty and intolerance — that’s on the mind of the formidable humanities scholar Elaine Scarry these days. (Scarry is the Walter M. Cabot Professor of Aesthetics and the General Theory of Value at Harvard. She used to be called an English professor.)

In a long essay in the current Boston Review, Scarry hails “the capacity of literature to exercise and reinforce our recognition that there are other points of view in the world.” Beauty, she argues, gives us “sudden relief from our own minds,” taking our focus away from our own concerns about ourselves and thereby eliminating the self-regarding ‘asymmetry’ that leads to injustice. ...

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Categories: Accountability, Arts marketing, Classical music, Early exposure, Performing arts, State of the arts
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March 21, 2011

Nastygram from the NY Times on visitor research

Maybe the Times arts critics have it in for the Brooklyn Museum. Or maybe they just don’t believe museum curators should get to know the audiences they’re creating exhibitions for. Then again, some museums don’t believe that either, which is why “front end” evaluation is often a botched job.

So I tried not to get defensive when I read this paragraph in art critic Ken Johnson’s review of Brooklyn’s new show on Plains Indian tipis.

Beyond some basic historical context, the exhibition offers no revelatory perspective on its contents. That might be partly because, as the organizers, Nancy B. Rosoff and Susan Kennedy Zeller (both Brooklyn Museum curators) point out in their catalog preface, part of the planning process involved focus groups and visitor surveys “to determine the level of visitor interest in and knowledge of the tepee and Plains culture.” They also invited a team of American Indian scholars, artists and tribal members to vet their plans. The result is an exhibition that speaks down to its audience, assuming a low level of sophistication, and that does as little as possible to offend or stir controversy.

On one level, this is the familiar highbrow take on visitor studies: If you ask the public what they want from an arts or culture experience, you’re doomed from the get-go. Focus groups yield lowest-common-denominator thinking, which should have no place in planning encounters with the great or challenging or profound. The museum should exercise its cultural authority and decide what visitors need to see and learn, without getting sidetracked by what they want.

But when you gather museum-goers in a focus group or ask them questions on a survey, do they really tell you, “I want this exhibition to talk down to me. I want the interpretation of objects to be bland and inoffensive”?

Of course not. The real issue here is what kinds of questions the museum asks and how it understands — and makes use of — the answers. I hasten to add that I haven’t seen the exhibition yet, and I may not agree with Johnson’s that it is condescending or bland. (From what I’ve been able to see online, it looks promising.) ...

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Categories: Accountability, History museums, Museums, Research issues, Visitor experience, Visual art
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November 08, 2010

A stolen painting shines a flashlight on the “public” domain of art

Did you hear about the museum in Sweden that didn’t realize three of its paintings were missing…until they were found by police raiding an apartment? Thank goodness for those “Malmo Art Museum” labels on the back of the canvasses. The story should remind us not to get too self-righteous about museums selling art to private collections, where (heaven forbid) they might not be available for public viewing.

Apparently the Malmo Art Museum in Sweden was unaware that a $1.5 million work by Edvard Munch and two other paintings in its collection had been stolen, until police discovered them in a raid. It’s a cringe-laugh-cry tale for anyone who cares about art and museums, with the laughter permissible only because it has a happy ending.

(By the way, the stolen Munch was "Two Friends," which I couldn't find an image of, not "The Scream." But the latter seems apt.)

For me, the story also shines light on the current debates about deaccessioning. (For those of you outside the visual art orbit, that’s the process by which museums sell, trade, or otherwise get rid of objects in their collections.) The furor over museums and universities like the National Academy Museum, Brandeis's Rose Art Museum, and Fisk University (pictured) trying to sell artworks from their collections to put themselves on a firmer financial footing — and the hawkish response from professional and accrediting bodies like AAM and AAMD — is understandable. But it hinges on several arguments about the harm that such sales would do to those institutions’ credibility and to the “public trust.” And the story of Malmo’s Munch suggests that one of those arguments doesn’t (pardon the pun) hold up.

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Categories: Accountability, Engagement, Museums
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July 12, 2010

Survey “coaching,” accountability, and dollars: a lesson from healthcare

“It only takes a second to fill out,” the x-ray technician told me cheerfully after an MRI I had yesterday. He was explaining that I would soon receive a survey in the mail asking about the service he provided, and he mimed checking off the boxes: “You just go down the list, five, five, five, five…”

Five, as you may have guessed, is the top satisfaction score.

Now, this was a community hospital affiliated with the University of Chicago Medical Center (which is a client of ours). But it’s an example of how all kinds of educational and cultural nonprofits could be thinking about the relationship between customer feedback, staff performance, and the bottom line.

At first it rubbed me the wrong way. My colleagues and I pride ourselves on being rigorous researchers, and we’ve criticized (here and here) survey processes that are less than scientific and objective. The whole point of social and market research is to get a true picture of how people think, feel, and act. You’re not allowed to coach them to give you high marks; you’re not supposed to influence them in any way.

But there was something else going on here, and it made me look more deeply at the role this kind of satisfaction research plays.

My tech’s name was Leo, which he wrote on the card he gave me so I would be sure to put it on the survey. Unprompted by any questions from me, he explained that the survey was a big part of the culture at the hospital. “We strive for five” is a staff mantra. At weekly meetings in each department, workers who received good survey ratings or comments are recognized. This presumably factors into their promotion and salary trajectories.

He even told me that the insurance companies link their reimbursement amounts to those patient satisfaction scores. I don’t know whether this is true or how much of the hospital’s revenue might be at stake in the formula. But what’s important is that Leo and his colleagues see the financial performance of the institution as dependent on the quality of the experiences it provides to individuals like me. ...

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Categories: Accountability, Customer satisfaction, Higher ed, Museums, Performing arts, Survey research
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Based in Chicago with an office in Boston, we help museums, performing arts organizations, and informal science institutions take a fresh look at their audiences and discover new ways to deepen the connection and broaden participation. More »

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Asking Audiences explores the fast-changing landscape in which arts and cultural organizations meet their public. What does relevance look like today? More »



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