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 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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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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March 03, 2010

Spontaneous natural history collection sur la plage

Is collecting nature or nurture? Some thoughts on a little “museum” of found objects I saw on vacation last week.

Museum directors of a certain stripe are fond of saying that collecting is a universal human impulse, especially among kids. The idea is that all kinds of people can relate to museums because everyone knows first-hand the thrill of gathering, organizing, comparing, and studying cool stuff — and it doesn’t matter whether the stuff in question is Renaissance sculpture or dead, soon-to-be-smelly sea stars that washed up in the tide.

Last week, at a hotel my family and I were staying at on St. Martin (I know, it’s a dog’s life), we noticed that a table near the beach had been covered by a collection of shells, corals, seaweeds, sea-glass, stones, and other eye-catching specimens. It seemed to belong to everyone and no one, and a security guard I asked told me that it had been there about two months. During our week there we added a few things to it and saw other guests (kids and adults) do the same. Everyone seemed to enjoy picking things up, touching them, rearranging. There was also some taking away, as my daughters and I discovered when the sea star we contributed was gone the next day. 

Still, I found it delightful. (My girls never got past their indignation that some people were treating it as a trading post.) In this age of participatory engagement and what Clay Shirky has called “the power of organizing without organizations,” here was a community collection that had arisen without rules or even communication but which mirrored (in a raw, messy way) some very old museological impulses: it was organized by form but in a pre-taxonomic way; it mixed biological and inorganic samples, marine and land species, the everyday and the exotic; it seemed to evolve over time as better specimens of the same sort or new categories altogether were added (and others were “deaccessioned” for communal or selfish reasons); and it was of course unlabeled, a piece of installation art as much as armchair science.

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Categories: Early exposure, Learning, Museums, Natural history, Participatory engagement and co-creation, Personal reflections, Visual art
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December 14, 2009

Back to the elephant

Peter and Sarah fly to Washington this week to present findings to the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. All of us are excited about the evaluation and what we've learned from visitors. But for me the project feels larger-than-life because now, at the age of 45, I find myself working with the museum I loved more than any other as a kid.

My family wasn't big on museums; my parents were dedicated suburbanites who shied away from cities, which ruled out many of the usual options.  But we did take a family vacation to Washington,  DC when I was about nine, and the Smithsonian was at the top of the agenda.

My most vivid memory of Natural History, oddly enough, is of my father being worried that we wouldn't get a table at the museum's vast cafeteria (the very place where we'll be conducting interviews with visitors in a few weeks).  He took the uncharacteristic risk of leaving me in charge of my two younger brothers while he disappeared into the sea of tables to wait in the distant lunch line.  As we waited, I felt a welling sense of responsibility and adultness, and that sense stayed with me as we explored the exhibits after lunch.

My memories of the exhibits are less concrete, with the exception of that huge elephant standing proudly in the lobby.  I recall thinking (or rather, feeling) that this was a place where new things can happen, where people can change. If there was a little risk involved, there was also an urgency and excitement. The cumulative effect of all the gems and minerals, the fossils and skeletons, and the dioramas wasn't just awe at nature's breadth and beauty.  It was also a sense that this museum was about who we can become, about surprising ourselves.

Hats off to a great museum for inspiring this kid for life.


Categories: Child audiences, Early exposure, Museums, Natural history, Personal reflections
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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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