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

April 20, 2012

Universities amp up the arts. But who’s helping whom?

The arts on campuses seem to be entering a period of unprecedented investment and attention, with ‘arts districts’ and strategic initiatives and a new profile even at institutions famous for cultivating the other regions of the brain. Maybe it’s no coincidence that this comes at a time when the value and relevance of higher education and the value and relevance of the traditional arts (especially to young people) are being challenged  from all directions.

Yesterday, Dartmouth’s Hood Museum of Art announced that its new building would be designed by busy art-world architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien. Nothing surprising there; campus art museums at UC Berkeley, UC Davis, University of Iowa, University of Wisconsin, Michigan State and many others are building or recently opened gleaming facilities, most of them designed by the same architects that have been creating all those new wings and renovations for larger, non-college museums around the country.

What caught my eye was the university’s positioning of the new Hood and other Dartmouth arts facilities as an “arts district.” This centralizing impulse — thinking about the arts at the level of the university rather than the level of individual organizations or programs — is being felt widely these days. 

MIT just announced its new Center for Art, Science, and Technology (CAST) with a founding gift of $1.5 million from the Mellon Foundation and a vision of better integrating the arts into the rest of the curriculum. (That’s something Mellon has been interested in, and funding generously, for almost twenty years, with a particular focus on university art museums and their connections to other academic departments and disciplines.)

And new arts initiatives are underway at Stanford, the University of Chicago (including an interesting new center), Harvard, and many other universities, all promulgating the basic idea that the arts (doing them as well as seeing them) are good ways of learning about much more than the arts. Harvard describes the trend succinctly right on the cover of its 2008 “Report of the Task Force on the Arts” [summary here, full pdf here]: the arts must become

an integral part of the cognitive life of the university: for along with the sciences and the humanities, the arts—as they are both experienced and practiced—are irreplaceable instruments of knowledge.

Behind all this attention is a major shift in thinking about what the arts are and what they’re for. The language of these university arts plans visions puts notions like ‘creativity,’ ‘imagination,’ and ‘innovation’ front and center. It’s not about learning the arts, which was the dominant paradigm for several decades. In a sense, it’s not about music or dance or theater or painting and sculpture at all. It’s about cultivating the kind of capacities that we (nowadays) associate with artistic creativity and performance: the ability to start with a blank page and see what belongs there; to improvise; to make intuitive connections; to bring people and groups together; to bridge ideas and feelings in a spirit of playful challenge. ...

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Categories: Arts participation, Higher ed, Improvisation, Innovation, Performing arts, State of the arts, Visual art, Young audiences
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January 16, 2012

In the arts, audience-centered business models start with the art, not the business

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.)


The Gob Squad's Bastian Trost, in mask, with a passerby recruited as an actress. Photo Piotr Redinski for the New York Times 

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. ...

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Categories: Arts participation, Business models, Classical music, Innovation, Institutional personality, New audiences, Performing arts, Venues, Young audiences
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July 10, 2011

Guest blogger: Lily Ahrens on how new venues reach new audiences, at a cost

I was delighted a few days ago when someone who’s been freelancing in our office, Lily Ahrens, emailed me to volunteer a guest blog post. Of course I agreed, and not just because the question she wanted to raise is near to my own heart. Lily is a multi-talented young violinist and fiddler with a master’s degree in urban geography (she wrote her thesis on how performance spaces influenced the arts scene in Asheville, NC). Her background in both classical and folk music gives her the perfect perch for these observations:

I recently attended performances by rockabilly group Southern Culture on the Skids at the Old Town School of Folk Music here in Chicago, and Rebirth Brass Band at Symphony Center, home of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. These venues are drastically different from both bands’ typical spots, which allowed me to observe the influence of venue on performance. The new venue may have exposed these bands to a new audience, but they also created significantly different performance experiences.

The first time I heard them, Southern Culture was at an outdoor street festival. The crowd, mostly in their thirties, was rowdy: dancing, laughing, singing, and yelling back and forth with the band. Dancing was also a key feature at the Rebirth show I saw at the Howlin’ Wolf in New Orleans. The Howlin’ Wolf is a large music club with a big bar and open space to congregate in front of the stage. The type of music Rebirth plays is infectious. I can't imagine listening to it without dancing. At least I couldn’t, until I went to their Symphony Center performance.


Rebirth Brass Band plays the Howlin' Wolf in New Orleans

Symphony Center attracts a much older audience than the Howlin’ Wolf. The ornately-decorated, formal space dictates a more proper decorum. The audience stayed seated for much of the performance, even while the musicians danced and motioned for us to follow suit. For a couple of exuberant songs we did stand, as an entire audience. But as the song ended we dutifully took our seats. At one point, a small group of ardent supports danced near the stage while the rest of the audience sat. This lasted only until an older gentleman, whose view was slightly blocked, asked them to sit down. He was visibly annoyed that the dancers were interfering with his experience.

That’s the difference right there. At the Howlin’ Wolf, dancing is an intrinsic part of the experience, which is defined broadly to include the audience, ambiance, activities like drinking and talking — the whole thing. Whereas at Symphony Center, the experience is defined more narrowly as the music itself, so anything in addition to the music is viewed as extraneous or a distraction. ...

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Categories: Arts participation, Chicago, Classical music, Demographics, Guest blogger, Institutional personality, Performing arts
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July 02, 2011

A dubious pep talk from Norman Lebrecht: The orchestra as “relief” from our “communicative addiction”

Lebrecht, a prolific and provocative commentator on the classical music scene, has written an appropriately sober state-of-the-field piece in a British cultural monthly. The question being raised around the world, he tells us, is “Who needs a symphony orchestra?” His answer is that we all do, because classical concerts “restore balance to over-busy lives.” Maybe, but that argument is part of the problem.

Lebrecht’s summary of recent good and bad news in classical music draws from Europe and Asia as well as the US, so it provides some helpful context for us provincial Americans. But his reasons for believing that “that the symphony orchestra will always survive” are pretty familiar:

[I]n a lifestyle of wall-to-wall wi-fi and instant tweets, the concert hall is one of the few places where we become reachable, where we can switch off our lifelines and surrender to a form that will not let us go for an hour or more. The symphony orchestra is our relief from the communicative addiction. It forces us, willy-nilly, to resist the responsive urge. It is a cold-turkey cure for our reactive insanity, our self-destroying restlessness.

Sure, that’s an interesting twist: we become “reachable” in an emotional or spiritual sense only when we become unreachable in a technological sense: when our gadgets are turned off.

And I’m struck by how similar Lebrecht’s diagnosis is to Martha Lavey’s, which I blogged about here recently. Lavey, the artistic director of Steppenwolf Theater, argued that sitting quietly in the dark with our devices put away forces us to internalize and process our responses to the artwork, whereas putting those responses into words for a tweet or a text shortcuts that inward reckoning and diffuses the moment. Clearly Lebrecht would agree.

But at bottom this is the old notion that classical music is a retreat from contemporary life, an antidote to its poison, rather than a vibrant part of it. As I’ve argued here before, it’s a self-defeating position: you can’t argue for classical music’s relevance to contemporary culture while also insisting that its virtue lies in how set apart from that culture it is. ...

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Categories: Arts participation, Classical music, Performing arts, State of the arts
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March 14, 2011

NEA report #2: Declining arts education, declining audiences

Last week I wrote about one of the three new reports that the National Endowment for the Arts released, each of which looks at the Survey of Public Participation in the Arts through a different lens. Today we’ll turn to Nick Rabkin’s eye-opening analysis of trends in arts education. We all knew the picture wouldn’t be pretty, but…

Rabkin has been studying and working in arts education for many years and knows the territory cold; he’s currently wrapping up a five-year, multi-funder study of the role of teaching artists in schools and other settings. (Full disclosure: Nick’s a friend, and he and I are developing a research project together.) Rabkin and his co-author, E.C. Hedberg, are both at the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, where Rabkin is also affiliated with the Cultural Policy Center.

Their paper, Arts Education in America: What the Declines Mean for Arts Participation [pdf], dives into two big questions. That there’s less arts education going on in our schools these days is no surprise, but how much less, and for which students? And we’ve known for some time that arts education in childhood is linked to later participation in the arts, but how does the evidence for that link hold up, and what does it imply for arts policy and arts management?

The answers here are pretty grim (my sentiment, not necessarily Rabkin and Hedberg’s). The authors’ ingenious parsing of the SPPA data reveals that arts education rose steadily from the 1930s to the 1970s, which helped create a large national audience for the arts and thereby fueled the terrific growth of the nonprofit arts sector in America: the rise of “a dazzling and diverse collection” of “producing institutions and venues in cities and towns coast to coast.”
 


But, as you can see, something happened in the late-’70s and ’80s, a reversal that’s unusually abrupt for macro-level social change. Who threw the switch? Probably the back-to-basics school reformers, who gathered steam around that time (and who eventually won passage of No Child Left Behind in 1992). They viewed the arts as a luxury, “soft” goods with no direct impact on broader educational outcomes.

The worst part — and for me the real bombshell of the study — is that the declines in childhood arts education since 1982 have been absorbed almost entirely by African American and Hispanic children. If you look only at white respondents to the survey, there’s been some variation but no decline from 1982 to 2008. It’s the non-white communities where the drop has been precipitous. Although the data is inherently sketchy, the authors believe these declines occurred mostly in in-school arts education, not the voluntary, after-school kind (like private music or dance lessons). ...

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Categories: Arts participation, Early exposure, Learning, Museums, Performing arts, Research findings, Student research, Survey research
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March 07, 2011

Shining brighter light on the arts participation data

The NEA has just released three new reports it commissioned to look more closely at the Survey of Public Participation in the Arts from different perspectives. I’ll blog about all three of them this week and next, starting today with a quick look at the terrific paper by our friends Jennifer Novak-Leonard and Alan Brown about why we need to look “beyond attendance.”

Those two were the obvious choice to tackle this topic for the NEA. In 2004 Brown published a much-needed (and since then, much-cited) framework of five modes of art engagement [pdf], in which observational participation — sitting in the seat, wandering through the exhibition — is seen as only one slice of the pie, and not necessarily the tastiest slice. Novak-Leonard, the lead author of the new paper, worked on the influential RAND study “Gifts of the Muse” (also 2004) and soon thereafter joined Brown at WolfBrown.

Their paper, “Beyond Attendance: A Multi-Modal Understanding of Arts Participation,” [pdf] will speed the shift in the national arts conversation away from butts-in-the-seats thinking and toward a more holistic, contemporary definition of arts engagement. Their analysis shows that Americans are involved in the arts to roughly the same extent in three different modes: attending them live, enjoying them through technology, and participating in creative activities themselves. Their Venn diagram…
 


…is worth laminating and pinning to your cork board, even though it’s based on SPPA data that are far from perfect or comprehensive. (The next wave of the survey may look very different; the NEA’s research director, Sunil Iyengar, is rethinking the approach, with the help of papers like these three.)

If you add up the numbers in any one circle, you find about half of U.S. adults reporting that they engaged at least once in that mode in the past year. (Obviously, it’s not the same 50% in all three modes.) Note that the percentage of Americans who report engaging in all three ways is the same as the percentage engaging in none of these ways — the artless, we might call them, at least within the set of questions the SPPA asks. It’s roughly a quarter of the population in each case. And you won’t be surprised that the technology-participating crowd is slightly larger than the live-attending crowd; these are 2008 numbers, and I expect to see that disparity grow in coming years. ...

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Categories: Arts participation, Museums, Participatory engagement and co-creation, Performing arts, Research findings, State of the arts, Survey research
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February 21, 2011

Flash-mob arts performances where you least expect them

Are you one of the millions of people who've watched videos of the surprise arts performances that the Knight Foundation has been sneaking into grocery stores, malls, and office lobbies in eight US cities? If not, you're missing something that's both a kick and a revelation. The program, called Random Acts of Culture, pulls the arts off their pedestal and sets them, literally, in the marketplace.

These guerilla interventions into daily life have been met with delighted surprise, bemused attention, joyful laughter, lots of cell phone picture- and video-taking, even some moist eyes. The biggest Random Act so far (Knight is hoping to fund 1,000 of them by the end of 2013) was a Hallelujah Chorus at the Philadelphia Macy's in which 650 of the holiday "shoppers" (actually professional singers organized by the Opera Company of Philadelphia) burst into song, accompanied by the store's legendary organ. The video has drawn more than 7 million hits on YouTube and thousands of comments. In three months.

What struck me most forcefully, watching videos of Random Acts of dance, poetry, classical music, and opera from around the country, was that the bystanders (well, they start as bystanders but soon become an audience) are obviously experiencing a range of real, pleasurable human emotions. That’s something you can't usually see on the faces of arts audiences sitting in concert halls and auditoriums.

Why is that? Not just because they're not expecting an arts attack and are thrown off balance, although clearly that's part of the fun. I think it has to do with the fact that, in these Random Acts, the performers and the audience are in every sense on the same level. The performers are dressed like you and me. They're in our midst, not on a stage. We're together in this crazy business (opera, life).

And they have to compete for our attention. They can't presume it — they have to earn it by being terrific. (Historically, that was the norm rather than the exception. Think of Shakespeare's actors quieting the groundlings at the Globe by sheer presence, or a keyboard solo that makes people put down their drinks and pay attention at a jazz club.) So it feels more like an honest, spontaneous transaction: you be amazing, and I'll stop what I'm doing and watch with a grin on my face. ...

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Categories: Arts participation, Classical music, Engagement, Improvisation, Innovation, Participatory engagement and co-creation, Performing arts
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January 17, 2011

Move over, arts education — The real problem may be play

Ask an arts professional what’s wrong with today’s arts ecology and you’ll probably hear something about cuts in arts education in the schools. But there could be a more basic challenge to developing tomorrow’s audiences, a cultural shift with causes and effects well outside the arts: the death of childhood play.

If you work in the arts, you’ve heard the point made so many times by so many people that it may seem obvious, irrefutable. The decades of declining attendance at traditional art forms like classical music, ballet, and theater can be blamed on decades of declining arts education for schoolchildren. If kids aren’t exposed to Beethoven, Balanchine, Botticelli, and other exemplars of the “fine arts” when they’re young, the argument goes, they won’t make them part of their cultural repertoire when they’re older.

So if we want to stem the declines in arts attendance, what we need to do is reinvigorate arts education in the schools. Education breeds affinity. Our children will, literally, learn to love it.

I’ve never quite bought this argument, in part because there are plenty of things we learn about (are “exposed to”) in school that most of us don’t choose to spend our time with later in life: algebra, geology, European history. If anything, a classroom encounter with Mahler or Matisse in junior high could do more harm than good, branding such domains as drudgery for life. Besides, the social scientists have demonstrated pretty convincingly that what happens (or doesn’t) in school is far less influential than what happens at home: family and friends are the predominant influences.

I know that the declines in arts education are real and that, historically speaking, they’re correlated with the declines in attendance. My friend Nick Rabkin has just written a very good monograph for the NEA delving into just this question. But correlation is not causation, and I’ve wondered for a long time whether there could be something more fundamental going on — some broader social change that may not seem to have much to do with the arts but is nonetheless altering our desire or ability to engage with them. ...

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Categories: Arts participation, Classical music, Early exposure, Engagement, Learning, Museums, Performing arts, State of the arts, Theater, Visual art, Young audiences
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November 29, 2010

Should cultural institutions be in the business of “romance” or “precision”? Ask your newcomers

The ever-valuable museum consultant Beverly Serrell, who wrote the book on museum labels, recently pointed me to the early 20th-century philosopher Alfred North Whitehead. I’m glad she did, because his ideas about the stages of learning help organize something I’ve long believed about classical concerts, museum exhibitions, and other cultural experiences.

In the old days — say, mid 20th century — the rap on museums and the performing arts was that they were set up for people who already knew something about the content. You had to bring your own knowledge in order to make sense of the Latin-filled labels in a natural history museum or the formalist program notes in a concert hall.  And not just the written interpretive texts, but the objects or performance itself: you needed cultural “training” in order to find meaning and enjoyment in the conventions of exhibition or performance.

No wonder left-leaning sociologists tried to “out” those cultural institutions as markets for the accumulation and affirmation of class status, “cultural capital.”

Times have changed, of course. The sector has made big strides toward democratic accessibility. You no longer need a PhD or a dictionary to understand the annotator’s comments in your program book or the introductory panel at an art exhibition. At natural history museums, those cases of inscrutable specimens were long ago surrounded (or supplanted) by explanatory graphics and texts geared to middle-school students.

But if arts and culture institutions are no longer catering narrowly to the cognoscenti, there’s still a sense in which they’re catering to the converted. You may not have to bring your own knowledge, but you do usually have to bring your own interest in the subject. The conventions of presentation still, by and large, presume that if you’ve shown up, you’re already interested in this content. They proceed (again, implicitly and unconsciously) from the notion that you’re there—in your seat or at the exhibition—because you care about this stuff, and the institution can get on with the business of giving it to you.

What about the newcomers? What about people in the categories we culture professionals dub “experience seekers” or “cultural tourists,” who have come just to check out the symphony or the history exhibit, perhaps with a friend or on a lark? Shouldn’t the experience be designed for them, too? Isn’t that the only way to broaden the audience over time? (Megachurches, by the way, get this. They play to the newcomers and fence-sitters every bit as much as to the devout, all within a single experience.)

To do that, cultural organizations would have to stop taking for granted that what they offer is a priori, automatically valuable, and start taking responsibility for sparking a love of that content in people who may never have given it much time or thought. Here’s where Whitehead comes in handy. ...

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Categories: Arts participation, Classical music, Diversity, Engagement, Innovation, Learning, Museums, Performing arts, Subjectivity, Visitor experience, Visual art
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November 23, 2010

Reinstalling familiar assumptions (and audiences) in Boston

New York Times critic Holland Cotter praises the new American wing at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, and it sure looks lovely in the pictures accompanying his review. But those images also suggest that the new installation affirms rather than reinvents the orthodox art museum experience, and that it will do little to broaden the institution's audience.

In his article, Cotter calls the MFA Boston’s new Art of the Americas wing “startling,” along with other admiring adjectives. His sense of revelation has to do mostly with what’s on display — some 5,000 objects, twice what was shown in the museum’s old American galleries — and how the curators have juxtaposed objects and arranged them into provocative historical narratives.

 
Photo by Boston Photographer Erik Jacobs

Cotter also clearly likes the aesthetic choices the curators and their designers made. He’s no stick-in-the mud about installation approaches, either: he mentions the “salon-style” hang of a room of 19th-century painting and sculpture (above) without comment, as if it were the most natural thing in the world. (Which it used to be.)

But the pictures that ran with his piece in the Times (and as a slide show online) tell another, parallel story. I’m struck by two aspects of them: first, how familiar the installations look (that salon gallery notwithstanding); and second, how familiar the visitors look, from demographics to behaviors and even posture.

The artworks may be different, but otherwise pictures like the ones below could have been taken at any major art museum built or renovated in the last ten years. These are spaces designed with an unquestioning faith in the ideal of “disinterested contemplation” (the phrase is Kant’s, so it goes back to the 18th century, but the museum practices it spawned date mostly from the late 19th and early 20th centuries).

 
Photo by Boston Photographer Erik Jacobs

In that ideal, artworks should be viewed as discrete, almost free-floating objects, separated from each other and even, to the extent possible, from the contingent, messy environments in which they’re seen. In fact, they should be separated from us: we must stand at a critical distance from them, without wanting or needing anything from them and without responding at a bodily (and therefore primitive) level.

So above all these are museum spaces: environments carefully designed to foster a particular kind of aesthetic experience by closing off the rest of the world (which can only be a distraction) and focusing us on the contemplative, inward — many think of it as sacred — work of encountering art. ...

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Categories: Arts participation, Demographics, Innovation, Museums, Visual art
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