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

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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February 14, 2011

OK Cupid and the attraction curve

It’s Valentine’s Day, so it’s fitting that I finally visited the dating website that my favorite podcaster, Rob Long, had talked about in a recent episode. Turns out the clever nerds who run OK Cupid, a booming singles site, have stumbled on a surprising statistical truth about which members get the most attention...a truth that helps explain something I’ve noticed in our own surveys of cultural audiences for years.

Now, bear with me. It’s a big leap from dating-website data to how and why people connect to an orchestra or a natural history museum. But as Rob notes in his characteristically wry take on the data, the ins and outs of attraction are a pretty good metaphor for all kinds of human preference-related behaviors, especially in leisure-time, feel-good categories like music, art, and entertainment. “Everything, when you get down to it, is kinda like dating.”

And this post traffics in the objectification of women, a dubious first for me. The OK Cupid crew have analyzed stats from their site about which female members are considered hot and which get the most messages from other members. They promise to do the same for (to?) men soon. Meanwhile, if you’re particularly sensitive to “lookism,” skip down to the bottom and post a disgruntled comment.

So what’s the big reveal? That the women on the site who get the most attention (in the form of messages from other members) aren’t the ones with the highest average attractiveness ratings. They’re the ones with the most disparate ratings — the ones about whom opinion is divided. Lots of 1s and 5s in your ratings is better than lots of 4s. As OK Cupid co-founder Christian Rudder puts it in his post about the analysis, “Guys tend to ignore girls who are merely cute” (that is, fairly but not outrageously attractive), “and, in fact, having some men think she’s ugly actually works in a woman’s favor.”

The whole post is fascinating, and the statistical analysis looks strong, especially for that counterintuitive last bit about how the lowest attractiveness ratings actually contribute more to the attention the member receives than the second-highest ratings. (And for the record, we’re not talking about negative attention. We’re talking about the correlation between the distribution of attractiveness scores and the number of approaches that men make to female members, presumably with a relationship on their minds.) ...

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Categories: Culture sector, Engagement, General, Museums, Participatory engagement and co-creation, Performing arts, Research findings, Social media
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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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January 06, 2011

The happiness curve and alumni engagement

In the airport with my family over the holidays, I ran into a newsstand to pick up some things for our flight. There on the rack, the cover of The Economist caught my eye: “The joy of growing old (or why life begins at 46).” Being 46 at the moment, of course I bought it.

I thought the article might feature tips relevant to us mid-lifers, like how to prevent your knees from hurting when you hike, or how to remember what you walked into the kitchen for. What I found was something a little bigger-picture, something surprisingly related to my work with colleges and universities.

The not-particularly-happy news about happiness, according to the studies cited in the article, is that, in cultures around the world, people tend to start out happy and get increasingly less so, until they hit a collective rock bottom at age 46. Ouch.

The good news is that, as people continue to age, they report feeling happier and happier until their mid-80s, when (on average) they’re happier than they’ve ever been.

As I stared at the U-shaped chart, pondering all the ways I might feel happier in the future, I realized that I’ve seen this same graph before in our research with alumni.

Alumni tend to stay involved with their school for the first few years after graduation. But then engagement drops, bottoming out with alums in their 40s. It then begins to rise, with greater engagement and positive feelings as they age into retirement.

Common sense and our own research suggest that alums in their 40s are the most time-starved cohort, with jobs, kids, houses, and 401Ks taking up time and energy. So they have less time to devote to life’s optional commitments, like alumni events and class reunions. The Economist article made me wonder how happiness factors into the equation. If you don’t feel particularly good about your life, are you less likely to want to connect with your school and fellow alums? ...

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Categories: Demographics, Engagement, Fundraising, Higher ed, Research findings
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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 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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November 08, 2010

A stolen painting shines a flashlight on the “public” domain of art

Did you hear about the museum in Sweden that didn’t realize three of its paintings were missing…until they were found by police raiding an apartment? Thank goodness for those “Malmo Art Museum” labels on the back of the canvasses. The story should remind us not to get too self-righteous about museums selling art to private collections, where (heaven forbid) they might not be available for public viewing.

Apparently the Malmo Art Museum in Sweden was unaware that a $1.5 million work by Edvard Munch and two other paintings in its collection had been stolen, until police discovered them in a raid. It’s a cringe-laugh-cry tale for anyone who cares about art and museums, with the laughter permissible only because it has a happy ending.

(By the way, the stolen Munch was "Two Friends," which I couldn't find an image of, not "The Scream." But the latter seems apt.)

For me, the story also shines light on the current debates about deaccessioning. (For those of you outside the visual art orbit, that’s the process by which museums sell, trade, or otherwise get rid of objects in their collections.) The furor over museums and universities like the National Academy Museum, Brandeis's Rose Art Museum, and Fisk University (pictured) trying to sell artworks from their collections to put themselves on a firmer financial footing — and the hawkish response from professional and accrediting bodies like AAM and AAMD — is understandable. But it hinges on several arguments about the harm that such sales would do to those institutions’ credibility and to the “public trust.” And the story of Malmo’s Munch suggests that one of those arguments doesn’t (pardon the pun) hold up.

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Categories: Accountability, Engagement, Museums
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October 26, 2010

Crowdsourcing the next great science museum exhibit — Yes! (But…)

My colleague Sarah noticed this little bombshell in a recent e-newsletter from the Museum of Science, Boston: the museum is holding an Innocentive contest to dream up a large-scale science or technology exhibit. Think fast, though, because the deadline is tomorrow.

If you’ve heard the term crowdsourcing, you’ve probably also heard of Innocentive, the online matchmaker between “seekers” of solutions to technological, scientific, commercial, civic, or other kinds of problems and “solvers” with bright ideas to share. The company believes that “breakthrough thinking can come from anywhere,” and that the future of innovation is open, distributed, and untethered from traditionally-defined professional and scholarly domains.

Since it was founded in 2001, Innocentive has posted more than a thousand challenges, more than half of which were successfully met by a community of 200,000 solvers from 200 countries. The awards have ranged from $5,000 to a million bucks, but the vast majority are on the low end of that scale: the average is about $8,000, which is the amount that the Museum of Science (MOS) is offering.

As someone who’s been thinking about innovation and its discontents in the museum field for several years, I’m excited about this. The MOS team are clearly a forward-thinking, energized bunch who understand that, these days, authority works best when it’s shared. (Check out the museum’s Creativity and Collaboration Center and its current exhibit, which is based on stories from users.) ...

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Categories: Arts participation, Engagement, Institutional personality, Museums, Science museums
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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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August 23, 2010

More on subjectivity, this time from the north woods

As some of you know, I’ve been thinking about what cultural institutions might gain if they let their own personalities and motivations shine through a little more. Maybe that’s why I’m seeing examples of subjectivity everywhere, including places far from concert halls or science museums.

I was camping last week with my family and some others in the Hiawatha National Forest in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Our group had arranged for a visit by the “raptor lady,” Gayle Bruntjens, who runs Upper Michigan Raptor Rehab with her husband. Working with a few volunteers and a network of other nonprofits and government agencies, they take in injured eagles, hawks, and owls from all over the U.P., give them veterinary care, and eventually re-release the ones that heal.

The less fortunate birds — victims of accidents or human abuse, some of it mind-boggling — end up residing permanently with Gayle and making unexpectedly adorable appearances in her educational presentations at schools, camps, etc.

On the surface, her talk to our group was just like the animal demonstrations that go on at nature centers, zoos, and science museums all over. She explained what differentiates the raptor family from other birds, told us what to do if we see an injured or orphaned bird, helped a few hawks and owls out of their wicker hampers to show around to us, and gave us some information about her nonprofit and its mission.

But before all that, she did something that I rarely see in more established, professionalized settings. She told us, in personal and forthrightly emotional terms, how she got into this work and what it means to her. She told us her story, as context for the birds’.

And it happens to be a good one: beating the odds on a rare form of brain cancer, switching careers to a dead-end night job that gave her time to dabble in genealogy and discover her Native American heritage, and serendipitously running into a friend who needed a hand with some wounded birds of prey. She now sees her work as a fruition, even maybe a destiny, and she feels connected to the birds on a spiritual level as well as an ecological one. In Anishnabe teaching, raptors are the Creator’s messengers, and Gayle sees herself as being a messenger for the messengers. ...

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Categories: Engagement, Institutional personality, Museums, Natural history, Performing arts, Personal reflections, Science museums, Subjectivity
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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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