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

May 27, 2012

Kid Rock amplifies the Detroit Symphony's cultural cred

In my last post, I showed videos from two European orchestras hoping to attract young concertgoers with irony, energy, and lighthearted panache. Easy to claim those attributes, less common to really offer them at a symphony concert. Which may be why the Detroit Symphony Orchestra’s recent high-octane, high-volume performance with Kid Rock has gotten attention in a classical music field worried about its contemporary relevance. (That, and the fact that the concert raised $1 million for the DSO in one night.)

The Detroit Free Press critic, Mark Stryker, who resembles the typical Kid Rock fan about as much as I do, sounded exactly the right note in this piece:

It would be silly to pretend that Saturday’s concert will convert a bunch of Kid Rock fans into DSO ticket buyers. But that’s not the point. The fundamental challenge facing orchestras is that the threads that once linked classical music to the broad fabric of civic life and popular culture have been severed. Saturday was about re-stitching a connection.

That’s an argument I’ve made in many of these posts, and it’s something other bloggers — notably my friend Greg Sandow — have been advocating for years. The idea isn’t to supplant classical and contemporary music with pop, nor to turn our astonishingly skilled symphonies into backup bands for rap and rock stars. By all accounts, the DSO Kid Rock concert was a real musical partnership. (And by no means the first of its kind, of course. Orchestras have done this off and on for years, with everyone from Radiohead to Ben Folds.)

This is about celebrating the collapse of the walls that used to neatly divide artistic categories, and embracing the mixtures that are going on all over contemporary culture (and not just in the arts). It’s about creating promiscuous, comfortable contexts in which fans of one performer or genre get a glimpse of what’s great about another:

You can’t witness thousands of rabid Kid Rock fans rewarding the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony with a roaring standing ovation and breaking into chants of “DSO! DSO!” without recognizing elitist stereotypes about classical music being put out to pasture.

Detroit’s music director Leonard Slatkin apparently understands that a legendary orchestra like the DSO is a tool that can be used for many purposes — and playing Beethoven is only one of them.

The usual question in these hybrid performances is whether the musicians will merely “go along to get along,” whether their participation will feel halfhearted. But I wouldn’t be the first to point out that their participation in a subscription concert playing Beethoven for the umpteenth time often feels halfhearted — so 'professional' that any sign of human enjoyment and passion is missing. So the real news here is that, by all accounts, the DSO musicians looked fairly into it at the Kid Rock concert, and Slatkin himself was smiling and relaxed. (His own post about the event is here.)

This seems to me a particularly good sign for an orchestra whose players battled management in a recent, bitter strike over (among other things) the role that musicians should play in community-building, education, and outreach to new audiences. The DSO players often sounded like stubborn purists in those days. But what was the Kid Rock concert if not community building and outreach to new audiences? It may have ‘educated’ a few thousand newcomers that what goes on in our historic, gilded concert halls, and what a symphony orchestra is all about, isn’t what they thought...or at least, isn’t only what they thought.

It may also have shifted the perceptions of some DSO regulars, including Stryker himself:

When Kid Rock unleashed a blitzkrieg of expletives in “Devil Without a Cause” it occurred to me that you don’t typically hear that many F-words at the symphony. Also, I never before smelled reefer smoke at Orchestra Hall...

Wish I’d been there.

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Categories: Classical music, Diversity, Institutional personality, New audiences, Performing arts, Young audiences
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April 10, 2012

Happy Arts Advocacy Day! Go bake a cake

Whether you know it or not, your life is affected by some form of art in every waking minute of every day. Architects design the buildings in which you live and work; graphic designers create the signs that guide you and the logos that bombard you; writers create the sitcoms and dramas that make you cry with laughter or just plain cry; chefs create the meals that look so good you almost don’t want to eat them (and the desserts you don’t have room for but you eat anyway). So, who needs Arts Advocacy Day? You do.

We are used to thinking of “the arts” in standard formats — from the masterpieces of sculptors and painters to the thrill of live actors sweating out their emotions to the splendor of dancers who move in ways we could never imagine. We tend to reserve outings to view these formats for special occasions. But art isn’t always a special occasion — it’s part of our everyday lives.

This is why Arts Advocacy Day, an annual tradition created 25 years ago by Americans for the Arts, is so important. It’s not just about advocating to your congressperson in support of museums, theaters, or dance companies. It’s about advocating for...well, humanity. It’s a time to think about what “art” is and what it can be. A smartphone app. A headphone design. A guerilla marketing campaign. In my mind, anything that stems from an idea and is meant to positively and impractically enhance a person’s state of being is art.

Broad, you say? Of course. Art is broad, but over the decades it has been troublesomely compartmentalized into stifling categories. It needs to come out of the box. 

So to recognize this year’s Arts Advocacy Day — actually two days, April 16 and 17 — you could see a play or go to a museum or attend a chamber music concert. (Frankly, I think you should do these things throughout the year.) However, I suggest some alternate art immersions:
 

  • Sign up for a pastry class, a great mix of science (for the taste) and art (for the presentation). Plus, yummy.

  • Read a book about typeface design. You probably use the font Arial every day, but do you realize each character was meticulously designed by graphic artists? 

  • Instead of e-mailing a loved one, find some markers and a piece of paper and hand-draw a creative greeting, and then send it via snail mail. Much more personal than any electronic note. (By the way, the stamp on the envelope? Art.)

I advocate for the arts. But more importantly, I advocate for a larger acceptance of what “the arts” really are. And if I'm wrong, then I'll eat my artistically designed hat.
 

Arts Advocacy Day: The 2012 National Arts Action Summit will be held April 16 and 17 in Washington DC. On the evening of the 16th, actor Alec Baldwin will give the annual Nancy Hanks Lecture on Arts and Public Policy at the Kennedy Center. To learn effective ways to advocate for your favorite arts organizations, visit the Arts Action Center at ArtsUSA.org

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Categories: Advocacy, Diversity, Museums, Participatory engagement and co-creation, Performing arts, State of the arts
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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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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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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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