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

February 18, 2012

Your local multiplex — it’s not just for opera, symphonies, and theater anymore

Its starting to look like the essence of innovation is seeing new uses for old tools. Take the humble movie theater, once synonymous with watching ... well, movies. But the Met’s Live in HD, and later LA Phil Live concerts, made that assumption look so 20th century. Now a London exhibition on Leonardo da Vinci has come to a theater near you. Will museums become local in a whole new sense? 

You may have heard about the exhibition, at the National Gallery in London, which brings together works of Leonardo’s that have never been in the same place. More likely, you’ve read about the “live,” high-def satellite version playing at select movie theaters around the world, in last week's NY Times review and elsewhere. The program is distributed by the same people who give us the Met broadcasts, high profile theater performances, and the occasional rock concert, BY Experience, self-described “pioneers of global live cinema events.” 

What’s new, obviously, is that this is an exhibition, not a performance. You’re looking at artworks. But you’re also (as with the Met’s and LA Phil’s appealing backstage footage and performer interviews) seeing and hearing far more about the art, the artists, and the exhibition itself than you would while snaking your way through the show at the National Gallery. You get the process, not just the product.

In a way, this is a natural evolution of what museum media and technology people have been trying to get their colleagues elsewhere in the museum field  to do for years: to stop thinking of virtual experiences of objects as a threat to in-person encounters with the real thing — a seductive but empty thrill that competes with the more profound in-person experience — and start seeing them as a way of deepening, extending, and personalizing that live experience. 

Few have argued openly that electronically mediated experiences can be legitimate, stand-alone ways of connecting with art, different from but on a par with seeing the genuine article face to face. 

Yet technological advances are changing that calculus. The advantages of the virtual experience are becoming harder to forget about when you’re standing in a crowd trying to see a painting that you can’t get particularly close to and certainly can’t manipulate (as in Google's Art Project), with no globetrotting curators or famous actresses on hand to talk to you about it with a humanizing passion and wit. “Live” can have more than one meaning.

Not that the Leonardo production — which premiered on February 20 and will be shown again at select theaters through the end of the month — is particularly witty. Picture a cross between an Oscar-night telecast (appropriate, given that you’re in a movie theater) and a PBS great-artist documentary. I’ve been listening to enough science podcasts lately to find the tone here a little precious and self-conscious, as if the museum and the filmmakers are anxious to be taken seriously. (Not something that worries particle physicists, for example.)

But still, this is the proverbial game-changer. Not only has the phrase “traveling exhibition” been given a whole new meaning, economically. Art museums are going to have to join their performing arts cousins in grappling with questions about whether they’re in the business of serving local audiences with traditional, live museum experiences or in the business of serving global audiences with electronically distributed experiences. 

Either way, they’ll have to think very differently about how they’re competing, and for whom. As Alan Brown argues in a forthcoming paper on the evolution of arts venues, local arts organizations may lose audiences as consumers head instead to their local multiplexes to see top-drawer international productions beamed in for a night or two. Institutions that aspire to be those international purveyors (like the LA Phil, pictured) will have to reinvent their business models in a way that embraces — and fully interweaves — local production and international distribution. 

That won’t be easy. But these days, invention is the mother of necessity.

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Categories: Business models, Classical music, Innovation, Museums, Performing arts, State of the arts, Technology, Venues, Visual art
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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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January 06, 2012

At the Colorado Symphony, half-steps toward a “consumer-first business model”

The orchestra’s new business plan, “Creating a 21st Century Orchestra,” is being positoned as a radical step toward relevance and away from the pieties of the past. But compared to some of what’s going on in the arts these days, it doesn’t push very far. Where are the consumers in this new model? Largely in their seats, where they belong.

Reading the plan, I was reminded of what a friend said after returning from the League of American Orchestras conference a year or two ago. “It’s a dinosaur convention,” he reported. “They all know the comet has struck, but they have no clue what to do about it.”

In the Colorado document, there’s much talk of new realities and the need for “redirection.” “The program content and existing format of the orchestra is no longer appropriate to adapt to a viable 21 century model,” the plan declares. But that big diagnosis is followed by a small, familiar prescription: the orchestra will “expand its performances through full orchestra, chamber orchestra, and small ensembles to venues around the entire area.” 

The logic, presumably, is that what’s no longer relevant Coloradans when presented in Boettcher Hall will be relevant when presented in venues in their own communities. That makes a little sense, but only a little. Venues make a difference when they create alternative frames for the arts experience: new conventions, behaviors, participation, interaction, vibe. (Arts researcher Alan Brown has a terrific forthcoming paper about the role of venues, which I'll link to.)


Jeffrey Kahane leads the Colorado Symphony Orchestra. Photo Karl Gehring, The Denver Post

There’s no mention of any of that in the Colorado plan. Instead, it reaffirms the traditional, presentational model of classical music (“uncompromising artistic quality presenting music that is timeless and fostering new music”) as well as a taste-making function that sounds painfully self-justifying in this context (“our artistic responsibility to be a curator of the great music, traditional and contemporary, as a service to our community”). Nobody seems to have noticed that values like those are what led orchestras to the relevance and support challenges they currently face, and which the new plan is supposed to address.

In other words, everything’s being questioned except the underlying assumptions. 

I guess that’s a formula for incremental change, at least, and for the institutional stability that makes change possible. But it may also make institutions themselves—established, sizable, and reasonably well-funded arts organizations like the Colorado Symphony—vulnerable to competition from upstarts offering consumers more dramatic departures from tradition and more involving forms of relevance.  

I’ve blogged about some of those upstarts before, and in my next post I’ll look at a few more who are getting consumers out of their seats and into the business (and artistic) model.

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Categories: Business models, Classical music, Innovation, Institutional personality, New audiences, Performing arts, Strategy and strategic planning
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October 12, 2010

Innovation, insecurity, and the real reason we need new business models

A young friend of mine who works at a major American arts institution tells a chilling story about the departmental brainstorming meetings he and his colleagues are asked to attend every few months. 'We need new ideas,' they’re told — and they come up with them. They put their heads and hearts into it. They get excited. You can feel the energy in the room. And then…

And then the department head, a veteran with a powerful reputation in the organization, wraps up the meeting with a blanket dismissal: Those kinds of things, she tells her staff as the smiles fade, just aren’t the way we do things at this organization.

In answer to your question, yes, my friend is looking for another job.

But wherever he lands next on the arts and culture landscape, it's likely to be at an institution that has trouble with change and risk. In fact, in my decade or so of working with nonprofits organizations, I’ve begun to wonder if that phrase, "an institution that has trouble with change and risk," isn’t a redundancy. Could it be that part of what that defines institutions as we know them is a systemic, structured-in aversion to risk?

If so, there’s a lot at stake. Without risk we can’t have innovation, and without innovation we’re doomed to stasis which, in a changing culture, sooner or later means irrelevance.

My friend’s tale notwithstanding, the problem isn’t usually people. Or rather, it's not the people as individuals. Over and over, I’ve seen creative, thoughtful museum and arts professionals, people with energy and passion and a wide sphere of reference, get excited about a new idea or way of doing things…and I‘ve watched as that idea works its way through the organization’s process, becoming less interesting, risky, innovative, and appealing at every step.

Sometimes the idea makes it all the way to implementation, but in barely recognizable form. Sometimes it's abandoned along the way, victim of senior-level dismissal or, more commonly, vague resistance and a failure to "gain traction."

What’s going on? Why do those institutional processes (call them 'planning' or 'development' or anything else) so reliably have those effects? . . .

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Categories: Business models, General, Innovation, Institutional personality, Museums, Other nonprofits, Performing arts, Strategy and strategic planning
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September 06, 2010

The “dark matter” of the arts: informal and participatory engagement?

Physicists now believe that most of the mass in the universe is something very different from the stuff we’re used to observing and measuring. Could something similar be true in the more down-to-earth realm of arts participation?

I’m preparing for a panel next month at the Grantmakers in the Arts conference entitled “Are the Arts Gaining or Losing Ground in America?” The session was cooked up by Paul Botts, a friend of mine and program director at the Gaylord & Dorothy Donnelley Foundation. Paul is understandably impatient about the fact that, for all the data we’ve complied on arts audiences as a field, we’re not really sure what the numbers really mean, or even whether things are tanking, holding steady, or (as unlikely as it sometimes seems) growing.

As you probably know, the NEA’s Survey of Public Participation in the Arts says that most of the traditional or “benchmark” forms of cultural participation — which is to say, attendance — have been dropping steadily over the last two or three decades.

But many people, including the NEA‘s own head of research, Sunil Iyengar, have noted that times are changing fast and fundamentally, and it might be a good idea to update our definitions of both “benchmark” art forms and “participation.” (To its credit, the NEA's most recent SPPA report does away with the term "benchmark.") Because it’s entirely possible that, while attendance at things like opera, symphonies, ballet, and art museums has declined, engagement with less formal styles of art, culture, and creative expression has risen, and that participation (in the sense of doing something actively, rather than sitting there watching and listening to others do it) has grown.

If so, the question is whether that growth outstrips the declines in attendance at the traditional arts. Which way is the “total” needle pointing?


A strum-along class at the Old Town School of Folk Music's "First Friday" this past weekend. Sorry for the iPhone photo quality.


I had all that question knocking around in my head when I wandered into the Old Town School of Folk Music last Friday evening after work. It’s right in my neighborhood, Lincoln Square, and it‘s one of the most thriving, lively arts institutions I’ve seen. Even if you didn’t know it was there, you’d be able to infer its existence from all the people carrying guitars around here.

I paid my five bucks for the “First Friday” open house, a monthly mix of student performances, faculty-led jam sessions, goofy square dancing for toddlers and kids, and drop-in classes for grownups, capped off at the end of the night by performances by one or two people you‘d actually buy tickets to hear.

I bumped into some friends who had brought their two little kids, and we had a beer while catching sets by one class called 70s Ensemble and another called Rolling Stones Ensemble. As you’d guess, the talent on stage varied widely, from beginning strummers to polished electric licks. The teacher of each class sat in with the students and acted as bandleader, but that didn’t change the homemade, singalong vibe. Even when it was bad it was fun, and it was often pretty damn good. ...

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Categories: Arts participation, Business models, Chicago, Classical music, Engagement, Other nonprofits, Participatory engagement and co-creation, Performing arts, State of the arts
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July 07, 2010

Professionalism in the arts: an eroding beachhead?

I've written a bit here about the downsides of our highly professionalized cultural sector (the lack of passion, personality, and sense of community). Is it my imagination, or is the non-professional side of the arts becoming bigger and healthier while the professional institutions continue to struggle? 

Okay, that’s a little black-and-white. The two can coexist, of course, and they’re even necessary to each other (which I'll come back to in a moment). But there's more evidence every day that non-professional approaches are succeeding in new ways, and in new corners. Consider what caught my eye when I came back after the July 4th weekend and leafed through a few days’ worth of the New York Times:
 

  • An article about a cool place in Brooklyn called the 3rd Ward, which appears to be a blend of arts collective, small-business incubator, design and craft workshop, DIY school, and party venue. Which spawned a restaurant. “True to their mission, they created a real community,” says someone from the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce in the article, and it sure sounds that way: the people who use the space are all members, and they range from amateurs taking a woodworking class to established designers, craftsmen, artists, and entrepreneurs. 

    So the hobbyists and the pros work side by side in an atmosphere where that distinction isn’t particularly relevant.
    Which may be why the 4-year-old experiment is such a success. “Demand was so great that last year 3rd Ward opened its overflow space in Williamsburg, across from where its Goods restaurant now sits.” This will be my first stop next time I’m in New York.

  • An interview with Gareth Malone, host of “The Choir,” a BBC reality show in which Malone struggles to create top-tier choirs and opera singers of kids from the most unlikely, hardscrabble schools. Like the meteorically popular American show, Glee, Malone’s show presents music as something everyday people do, not just highly-paid virtuosos in tuxedos. There’s music in all of us, it seems to say: we don’t have to farm it out to professionals.

    And like the much-discussed Venezuelan model of music education, el Sistema, The Choir has a deep social agenda. The lives of a few young participants on the show have apparently been transformed, not by eat-your-vegetables exposure to classical music’s greatness but by the hard work and sheer heart involved. “[R]eally, it’s about getting people to aspire to come together to learn something,” says Malone.

  • A roundup of big issues in the design field today, in which the biggest of them all is how to “empower” people to contribute to the design of the things they use: in other words, “co-designing, customization, design democracy, participation, individualization and whatever else it is called.” Some museums have begun thinking about their exhibitions in just that way, thanks largely to Nina Simon’s work on participatory cultural experiences. (Her blog and new book will be of interest to all kinds of people in the arts and culture, not just museum professionals). ...

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Categories: Arts participation, Business models, Culture sector, Museums, Participatory engagement and co-creation, Performing arts
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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 »

About this Blog

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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