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

February 27, 2012

As the arts conversation shifts to 'creative placemaking,' will large institutions still count?

The NEA has been funding creative placemaking for a year or so, but it was only recently that I heard cultural economist Ann Markusen and her colleague Anne Gadwa — co-authors of a terrific 2010 whitepaper by that name — present their research for the University of Chicago’s Cultural Policy Center. It’s an exciting story about thriving, innovative arts activity from which the leading, mainstream cultural institutions are almost entirely absent.

In case the phrase is new to you, Markusen and Gadwa define creative placemaking as a process in which “partners from public, private, non-profit, and community sectors strategically shape the physical and social character of a neighborhood, town, city, or region around arts and cultural activities.”

As their case studies show, those activities only sometimes involve people showing up at an existing nonprofit arts venue. Most of the time, the action is out in the neighborhoods, in and around alternative venues: repurposed industrial sites, independent commercial entertainment venues, public outdoor spaces, etc. As Markusen and Gadwa write,

Instead of a single arts center or a cluster of large arts and cultural institutions, contemporary creative placemaking envisions a more decentralized portfolio of spaces acting as creative crucibles. In each, arts and culture exist cheek-by jowl with private sector export and retail businesses and mixed-income housing, often occupying buildings and lots that had been vacant and under-used.

Why? In part (and this is my take, not theirs) because these efforts aren’t really driven by the organizations we usually think of when we think of “the arts,” nor by the people we think of as “arts leaders” in the city in question. They’re driven by other community, civic, or business entities, and sometimes by artists or small, grassroots arts organizations. If we think of most major arts initiatives as top-down affairs, decided on and funded by the arts establishment, the placemaking projects that Markusen and Gadwa write about are bottom-up, or perhaps side-in.

Where are the major arts organizations in this new landscape? Slowly getting on the bandwagon, the authors imply. “Large cultural institutions, often inspired by their smaller counterparts, are increasingly engaging in active placemaking,” they write in their executive summary. But there are precious few examples in the rest of their report. ...

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Categories: Chicago, Innovation, Museums, Performing arts, State of the arts, Strategy and strategic planning, Visual art
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December 05, 2011

Flash-mob opera: The devil is in the attitude

So these four opera singers walk into a food court... It worked beautifully in Philadelphia’s Reading Market last winter, as I blogged at the time. But a week’s worth of Chicago Opera Theater singers doing the same thing in Chicago suggests that it’s not easy to make this kind of public arts-grenade infectious rather than merely interesting.

The setting and the surprise are the same: a busy downtown food market at lunchtime, with diners eating, reading, and talking. Some music begins—in this case a pianist at an electronic keyboard—and one of the people waiting on line for coffee turns around and begins to sing an operatic chestnut in a big, gorgeous voice.


Video and photos below: Marcus Leshock/WGNTV)

The folks at Chicago Opera Theater are clearly taking a page from their colleagues at the Opera Company of Philadelphia, who have done several of these stealth interventions under the Knight Foundation’s wonderful “Random Acts of Culture” program.

But compare the videos (Chicago and Philadelphia) and photos and you can sense a subtle but decisive difference. The bystanders—bysitters?—in Chicago don’t really get into it. They seem intrigued but not enlivened. Their faces have a slightly closed-off look, the look you get when someone's trying to sell you something. For the most part, they go on with what they were doing.

Whereas the faces in Philadelphia are smiling, energized, made happier. They pull out their smartphones to shoot video. Strangers talk and gesture to each other. A crowd gathers.

What’s the difference? Not artistic quality, at least in the usual sense. It’s something in the faces and body language of the performers. The OCP singers are clearly having fun, relishing the stunt and the connections it lets them make with people. This is classical music as a social practice.

The COT singers pull the same stunt gamely, but gamely isn’t the same thing as wholeheartedly or comfortably. Their smiles seem a little more stagey. Their eyes aren’t twinkling with the giddiness of the enterprise, the energy that turns a performance into a party. They're putting themselves out there, but they're not making a scene.

Predictably, they get back what they give. ...

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Categories: Chicago, Classical music, Improvisation, Innovation, Institutional personality, New audiences, Performing arts, Venues
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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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May 01, 2011

Technology and its discontents in the arts — The Culturelab dust settles

My brain is still buzzing from two days of presentations, conversation, and debate at the second annual Culturelab convening at the University of Chicago. Day One was an invitational affair with a small group of philanthropic and government funders from the US, UK, and Australia. On Day Two we were joined by Chicago-area arts leaders (and some terrific grad students who will become arts leaders) for an "emerging practice" seminar. The heart of the agenda was a debate about technological layering onto arts experiences: enrichment or distraction?

I had assumed the conceptual action would be on Day One, with its big-picture agenda built around the recent supply and demand fracas in the arts (I spoke on the demand side of the equation). The topics for Day Two — technology in the morning, pricing in the afternoon — promised a more tactical discussion.

But things got interesting well before the lunchtime debate between Alan Brown, the well-known arts researcher (and founder of the Culturelab consortium), and Martha Lavey, the much-admired artistic director of Steppenwolf Theater, about whether audiences should be able to use their mobile devices during performances. Ron Evans (at left) gave a witty and eye-opening talk [pdf] about mobile interactivity and augmented reality, including a card-game app from the Tate Modern in which visitors (you have to be at the museum to play) pick artworks that they think would win in a fight if the works came to life and started brawling with each other.

You could hear the uneasy chuckles in the room: Sounds clever, but is that how we want people engaging with Art?

Evans was followed by another bright young light in the world of social tech: Devon Smith, who talked about foursquare and its current and potential uses in the arts. Among her examples: an art-treasure hunt and exhibition held last year in New York called Mission: Edition, from an art gallery interested in what it calls “psychogeography.” Not surprisingly, the Brooklyn Museum is also on Smith’s foursquare A-list.

What I began to realize, listening to Evans, Smith and others talk about technologies as simple as supertitles and as sophisticated as this amazing dance interactive, is that what’s “augmented” about these arts experiences is the social connection. There’s someone talking to you. Or you’re talking to someone. You’re not alone. ...

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Categories: Arts marketing, Chicago, Conferences, Culture sector, Participatory engagement and co-creation, Performing arts, Slover Linett events, State of the arts, Visual art
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November 14, 2010

Guest Blogger: Tom Shapiro on TEDx Midwest

Our colleague and collaborator Tom Shapiro, a partner at Cultural Strategy Partners, was one of the lucky few (okay, lucky 350) who attended Chicago’s homegrown TED a few weeks ago. The conference took place at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago on October 14 and 15. I asked Tom to share a few thoughts about the gathering with our readers. Here’s Tom’s take.

I found TEDx Midwest immensely enjoyable and often engrossing. It was fascinating to witness both the “TED-ness” of the event—a communal, anticipatory giddiness of being privy to something “important”—and the speaker’s talks themselves. While listening in the darkened theater, I observed three themes, not about the content, but about the conference as a whole.

First, a bit of background. These “x” versions of the TED conference are “local, self-organized events” put together under the “general guidance” of TED proper, the Technology, Entertainment and Design conference started in 1984 in Monterey, California. The TED formula is to bring a broad array of thought-provoking presenters together to speak to attendees in 18-minute talks—no notes, no bullet points, just wisdom and passion.

In this first-ever Midwest version, the twenty speakers and five performers included oceanographers, artists, entrepreneurs, architects, paleontologists, and authors, some of them MacArthur “genius” award winners. The assembled audience was hardly less illustrious, comprised of machers from the region, select high school students, and others seeking inspiration from the speakers as well as from each other.

The speakers didn’t disappoint. They were impressive and fascinating people telling impressive and fascinating tales. From paleoanthropologist Meave Leakey talking about finding the oldest human fossils in Africa’s Olduvai Gorge to Planet Space Company chairman Chirinjeev Kathuria promoting commercial passenger space flight, the talks covered a gamut of human opportunities and natural challenges (like resource depletion and global warming).

The gathering was perfectly situated in the MCA Chicago, which presents the best of current exploration and representation in the visual arts, and which hosted TEDx in a most welcoming and enthusiastic way. (Full disclosure: my wife directs the museum. The conference wasn’t sponsored or curated by the museum; the organizers rented the space.)

As a side note, I found that TEDx’s presence at an art museum raised interesting questions about the role museums and cultural organizations can play in bringing all kinds of contemporary issues and creative endeavors—cultural or not—to light. Should they stick to their knitting (e.g., “visual art”) or tackle the broader topic of creativity and innovation whole cloth? As museums increasingly try to function as “town squares,” bringing people together around complex issues and big ideas, they come to resemble a TED conference in certain ways.

But let’s get to those three themes, which I offer as possible ways to improve TEDx Midwest next year. (Note to cultural organizations: These principles might be worth keeping in mind when creating events, forums, and exhibitions that serve the broader purposes of social investigation and issue-tackling.) ...

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Categories: Chicago, Conferences, Engagement, General, Innovation, Institutional personality, Museums, Other nonprofits, Personal reflections, Visual art
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October 25, 2010

“Help me destroy public radio” and other lessons in postmodern fundraising

National Public Radio has poked fun at its own earnestness and nerdiness plenty in recent years. But Alec Baldwin’s new fundraising segments take the irony to a new level, putting the whole culture of public broadcasting — including us listeners — on trial. And a funny thing happens along the way.

Funny being the operative word. There are several spots in the series, which was produced by This American Life host Ira Glass and his friends at WNYC, along with Baldwin. This one made me laugh out loud, as did this one.

And that’s an important lesson right there. To make someone laugh is to give them a little gift — it’s an act of generosity and intimacy. And in the context of a fundraising pitch, isn’t generosity exactly the point? Baldwin and Glass are modeling the behavior they’re trying to elicit from us: they’re starting the exchange, offering us a gift in the hope that we’ll offer one back.

Humor is also a way of getting past our rational defenses. Laughter is an emotional response, involving different parts of the brain than those activated by a rational appeal. If the fundraising organization makes an argument, I can always make a counterargument. But if it makes me laugh, we’re already in a kind of relationship. (My old philosophy professor Ted Cohen wrote a great little book about the ways jokes both depend on and foster a sense of community.)

So why don’t more cultural and educational institutions use humor as a fundraising tool? If being funny can model generosity, soften us up, and create community, then why are these public radio promos an anomaly, even during recessionary times that would seem to call for every arrow in our quiver?

I’ve written before about the default seriousness of most cultural organizations and the anxiety about relevance and status that I think underlies it. These fundraising spots may be exceptions that prove the rule. Baldwin and Glass have stepped outside the institution’s accepted ways of thinking about itself and its relationship to its supporters: they’ve broken unwritten rules, especially the very sensible one about never insulting your donors. ...

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Categories: Arts marketing, Chicago, Classical music, Culture sector, Fundraising, General, Innovation, Institutional personality, Other nonprofits, Subjectivity, Young audiences
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September 16, 2010

Audience diversity and participatory engagement — what’s the link?

You wouldn’t have thought that yet another symposium on inclusion and diversity in the arts would be anything new. We’re all (still) frustrated at how little changes. But at the MCA Chicago last night, I began to wonder about something I’d never questioned before: the role of participatory experiences in building ethnic and cultural diversity.

A friend of mine, the veteran museum consultant and author Elaine Gurian, came to town to speak at the MCA’s annual public dialogue about museums and diversity. I went largely to see her, and I was happy I did, for several reasons.

The first was a calmly revolutionary speech by the MCA’s still-relatively-new president, Madeleine Grynsztejn. I was tempted to call it a manifesto for a new kind of multivocal, responsive contemporary art museum, but it was less dogmatic than that. She put out there the question the museum is wrestling with at every level, staff and board: What’s the best architecture of participation for a civically-minded art museum in today’s world? (I’m not quoting verbatim here; my notes are sketchy.)

It sounds like a question about means, but it turns out to be about ends. “No one wants an uncurated museum,” Grynsztejn declared; “discernment” is crucial, because from it flows the museum’s credibility for all kinds of audiences, not just connoisseurs and collectors.

So far, so twentieth century. But she went on to frame — and embrace — the big challenge to that traditional line of thinking: the “civic turn.” Museums like the MCA must be places of “exchange and debate,” with artists and artworks acting as catalysts. Such a museum doesn’t want an “audience,” it wants “engaged participants.”

For Grynsztejn and her crew, that doesn’t mean subordinating the curatorial eye to the wisdom of the crowd. But it does mean sharing responsibility for making meaning and relevance. Such a museum must be both participatory and authoritative. It must have its own voice but also welcome in other voices, not just on the gins or occasionally but centrally. ...

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Categories: Arts participation, Chicago, Diversity, Institutional personality, Museums, Participatory engagement and co-creation, State of the arts, Subjectivity, Visual art
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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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June 14, 2010

James N. Wood, my first museum client, rest in peace

Ten years ago, Cheryl and I were hired by the Art Institute of Chicago to study its audiences. We also studied its director, Jim Wood, and learned volumes. This morning, I was saddened to read of his unexpected death on Friday at age 69.

Many others knew him better and longer than I did, so I have little to add to what’s being said around the field (for example, here and here). But I don’t want to miss the chance to remember my first museum client and the subtle change he underwent as he got to know the institution’s audiences in a new way.

Patrician, penetrating, and affable, Jim led the Art Institute through an unusual combination of pragmatism and idealism. (The latter is on display in his chapter on “The Authorities of the American Art Museum” in Whose Muse? Art Museums and The Public Trust.) In fact, he had already been leading the Art Institute for two decades when we began our project, and he didn’t seem to be expecting to learn much new from the research we were about to conduct. I saw flashes of impatience during the first meeting at which we presented preliminary findings. “The art speaks for itself,” he said, gesturing professorially down the table, explaining a widely-known truth to us newcomers.

But that’s not quite how the museum’s audiences saw it, and over the next eighteen months of qualitative and quantitative research, Cheryl and I tried to convey their perspective to him and to the staff and advisory board overseeing our work. We presented every report (and there were half a dozen along the way) several times to different committees and staff groups. Jim was there every time, sometimes hearing the same presentation two or three times. ...

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Categories: Chicago, Museums, Personal reflections, Visual art
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May 17, 2010

Mulling over the future of classical music

What’s going on in the classical music field — and what shape it could take in the future — is a common topic around Slover Linett. But a recent visit from classical music guru Greg Sandow inspired lots more talk than usual, and we’re eager to keep those discussions going (see invitation at end of post).

We were lucky enough to welcome Greg Sandow to Chicago recently for a talk he gave on the “Rebirth of Classical Music” at the Chicago Cultural Center (co-hosted by Slover Linett, the University of Chicago’s Cultural Policy Center, and the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs). It was a really active, thoughtful discussion, spurred by Greg’s remarkable expertise in the field and kept lively by questions and comments from the audience of classical music professionals. In fact, most of us had no interest in stopping the discussion after the allotted 90 minutes, which gave me an idea that I’ll pose at the end of the post.

But first, I’d like to share a couple of the thoughts and questions that have been tumbling around my brain since the talk. This is in no way an attempt to summarize Greg’s own points.  (Check out this article from the Trib for an overview of his thinking.) These are just some of the issues and curiosities that I’m eager to keep thinking about and debating.

I found it refreshing that the perspectives and references Greg brought to the discussion weren’t limited to the insular world of classical music. In fact, he emphasized that if classical music poses itself as the antithesis of pop/“low” culture, it will only ensure its demise. Instead, what classical music needs to do is reclaim its relevance and learn from the diverse ways that people are engaging with art, cultural expression, social issues, etc. — including mass-culture sources like Project Runway, Radiohead, and The Wire.

(A quick aside: I’m a huge fan of all three of those things, but they’re among the most mainstream of the mass-culture phenomena that “high-culture” people tend to think are acceptable to reference.  There’s a whole lot more innovation and newness out there that we can learn from.) ...

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Categories: Chicago, Classical music, Culture sector, Performing arts, State of the 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 »

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