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

July 20, 2012

Mini-post: What we should be talking about when we talk about the Trenton City Museum

My colleagues tease me that I never write a short blog post when a 1200-word essay will do. To prove them wrong, here’s a quick thought about the struggling Trenton City Museum — or rather, a recent diagnosis of it in the NY Times.

The Times piece lays out the dismal saga: city cuts budget, lays off museum director (along with a third of the Trenton police force), puts intern in the directors’ office. Donors panicked and angry, Brooklyn Museum retracts offer to loan a vase for upcoming exhibition, exhibition cancelled. Search for new director yields 10 resumes, most unqualified.

Why such a sorry state? Budget woes, according to the article.

But there, alongside the article, is a photo that makes a very different argument about what the problem might be:
 

 
Photo: Tim Larsen for the New York Times


Shouldn’t we really be talking about what a museum is supposed to do and what kinds of experiences it should try to make possible? About the relationship between the past and the present, and about how ‘culture’ looks and works today? About innovation in the cultural sector and how organizations of all sizes are renegotiating their relationships with their communities?

I suppose that in some situations the macroeconomics are so bad that no amount of reinvention would save the day. But until cultural organizations try it, they'll never know. Look at what Nina Simon is doing in Santa Cruz. My guess is that the budget problems we talk about so much in the arts are the water that seeps in when the foundations begin to erode.

"The City Museum still hopes to mount an exhibition of the vases,” we’re told. I hope they also take the opportunity to ask some new questions about why and how.

I’ll try a few other mini-posts in the next few weeks; let me know if they’re valuable.

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Categories: History museums, Innovation, Museums, Visitor experience, Visual art
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April 20, 2012

Universities amp up the arts. But who’s helping whom?

The arts on campuses seem to be entering a period of unprecedented investment and attention, with ‘arts districts’ and strategic initiatives and a new profile even at institutions famous for cultivating the other regions of the brain. Maybe it’s no coincidence that this comes at a time when the value and relevance of higher education and the value and relevance of the traditional arts (especially to young people) are being challenged  from all directions.

Yesterday, Dartmouth’s Hood Museum of Art announced that its new building would be designed by busy art-world architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien. Nothing surprising there; campus art museums at UC Berkeley, UC Davis, University of Iowa, University of Wisconsin, Michigan State and many others are building or recently opened gleaming facilities, most of them designed by the same architects that have been creating all those new wings and renovations for larger, non-college museums around the country.

What caught my eye was the university’s positioning of the new Hood and other Dartmouth arts facilities as an “arts district.” This centralizing impulse — thinking about the arts at the level of the university rather than the level of individual organizations or programs — is being felt widely these days. 

MIT just announced its new Center for Art, Science, and Technology (CAST) with a founding gift of $1.5 million from the Mellon Foundation and a vision of better integrating the arts into the rest of the curriculum. (That’s something Mellon has been interested in, and funding generously, for almost twenty years, with a particular focus on university art museums and their connections to other academic departments and disciplines.)

And new arts initiatives are underway at Stanford, the University of Chicago (including an interesting new center), Harvard, and many other universities, all promulgating the basic idea that the arts (doing them as well as seeing them) are good ways of learning about much more than the arts. Harvard describes the trend succinctly right on the cover of its 2008 “Report of the Task Force on the Arts” [summary here, full pdf here]: the arts must become

an integral part of the cognitive life of the university: for along with the sciences and the humanities, the arts—as they are both experienced and practiced—are irreplaceable instruments of knowledge.

Behind all this attention is a major shift in thinking about what the arts are and what they’re for. The language of these university arts plans visions puts notions like ‘creativity,’ ‘imagination,’ and ‘innovation’ front and center. It’s not about learning the arts, which was the dominant paradigm for several decades. In a sense, it’s not about music or dance or theater or painting and sculpture at all. It’s about cultivating the kind of capacities that we (nowadays) associate with artistic creativity and performance: the ability to start with a blank page and see what belongs there; to improvise; to make intuitive connections; to bring people and groups together; to bridge ideas and feelings in a spirit of playful challenge. ...

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Categories: Arts participation, Higher ed, Improvisation, Innovation, Performing arts, State of the arts, Visual art, Young audiences
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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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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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December 11, 2011

Art you enter, art you act — Carsten Höller show breaks records at the New Museum

Those people sliding down the tubes and lying naked in the flotation tank didn’t need a degree in art history or deep familiarity with contemporary art to enjoy the hell out of this show. They were the show, physically and socially. But the next time they visit a museum, how will they feel about just...um, looking at art?


Visitor floating in Carsten Höller's "Psycho Tank" at the New Museum. Photo Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

Blogging last year about participatory or “social practice” art, I wondered if a divide might arise between audiences for that sort of art experience and audiences for the more traditional, look-but-don’t-touch kind.  The success of the Höller show — averaging 1,700 visitors per day, a 30% lift over the New Museum’s previous exhibition record of 1,300 per day — underlines the possibility that artists working in this mode are altering museumgoers’ notions of what an art exhibition should do for them and what their role in it should be.

What happens when they bring those expectations to the museum on their next visit? Does non-participatory art, or a museum that isn’t premised on active, socially-constructed engagement, suddenly begin to look stodgy and stale?



Above: Waiting for the three-story corkscrew slide. Photo Benjamin Sutton
.
Below: Taking the plunge. Photo Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

That would be a problem, of course. I’d hate to see the act of beholding something extraordinary fall to the cultural wayside. But as an alternative to the inwardness and preciousness — the self-contained, even smug feeling — that too many people encoutner in too many contemporary art settings, Höller’s vision of the museum experience is bracing and overdue.

Instead of “referring to” or “evoking” or “embodying” (as the wall panels at a modern or contemporary art museum might put it) basic human states and activities like play, fear, eros, bewilderment, and giddiness, Höller has us be and do those things. Talk about “Art as Experience,” the title of John Dewey’s 1934 contrarian take on aesthetics, which now looks way ahead of its time. (Or maybe Höller and all this immersive and participatory action look like the literalization of Dewey.) ...

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Categories: Innovation, Museums, Participatory engagement and co-creation, Subjectivity, Visitor experience, Visual art
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December 06, 2011

A dream conference on public science — help me imagine it

A new grant solicitation from the NSF has me thinking about how and why scientists communicate with laypeople like us, and how and why some laypeople get excited about it. I’ve blogged before about what makes that connection work, but I don’t think there’s been a national conversation about it. Maybe it’s time.

After all, the proliferation of new science content — much of it of a kind you wouldn’t have seen even five or ten years ago — is remarkable. From podcasts like Radiolab and StarTalk and live series like the scrappy Story Collider or the star-studded TED Talks, to new approaches in old-media outlets like Scientific American and PBS, not to mention all those books for the “general reader” that scientists and science journalists are writing, there’s a new energy and a new flavor around science communication. Human narrative is becoming more central, as is humor. Personality and subjectivity are breaking in. The limits of science, and its blurry boundaries with mystery and speculation, are coming out of the closet.

And the whole thing feels less like “science education” than like...well, a cultural phenomenon. Creative intellectual expression meets audience enjoyment. Science as song.

The nature of this change is fascinating to me, and it seems to be largely unexamined. We should be talking about what impulses drive it, what its historical antecedents and social influences are, and especially what it hopes to achieve.

Enter that grant program from the National Science Foundation, which invites proposals for research into innovative evaluation methods in formal or informal STEM education. Don’t worry, it took me a few seconds to sort out the self-referentiality there, too. When I got my head around it, and especially when I saw that there was a grant category for organizing a conference, I realized that this could be an opportunity to bring the best minds in the field together to discuss both sides of the coin:

What is good public science? / What good is public science?

In other words, what does engaging, energizing public science look and sound like? How does it differ from its implicit opposite, professional or inward science, and from the traditional ideals of classroom-based or museum-based STEM learning? How does it relate to other domains of cultural production and engagement?

And the flip side: what is public science meant to achieve, and for whom? What kinds of social, civic, or individual goods are at stake? Most relevant to the NSF grant guidelines, how can we tell if it’s working? We could use this dream conference to come up with new evaluation metrics—or, to use that trendy term, a framework—sensitive to these new forms that science is taking all around us. ...

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Categories: Conferences, Evaluation, Informal science education, Innovation, Institutional personality, Learning, Museums, Science museums
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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 31, 2011

Classical chops, rock vibe: 2Cellos shows what else can happen

A few days ago, Luka Sulic and Stjepan Hauser, two high-octane Croatian musicians known as 2Cellos, played at Le Poisson Rouge in New York. I wish I’d been in town to see them live, because their viral YouTube videos display all the qualities I’ve been saying classical music needs more of: rawness, energy, impoliteness, spontaneity, ego. If you haven’t watched them in action, you’re missing something.

The two young cellists are both classically trained: both attended royal conservatories in the UK and one of them (Hauser) was a student of the late cello legend Mstislav Rostropovich. Both were doing well on the competition circuit and were playing internationally at all the right venues. 

Apparently they avoided the indoctrination that usually comes with that kind of training — the traditional ideals that still shape the careers of many classical prodigies. They’re working outside of the culture of classical music, making other uses of their prodigious talent and rigorous training. For one thing, they’re playing rock, or at least that’s what they got famous for, almost overnight on YouTube: propulsive, virtuosic renditions Guns N’ Roses’ “Welcome to the Jungle” and Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal.”

But it’s not just what they play, it’s how: fiercely, almost animalistically, twisting with energy, stamping their feet, and beating up their instruments. Their bows literally shred during the performance. In other words, they embody the subversive energy of rock and roll, the Dionysian upwelling that felt, to the establishment in rock’s early days, so aggressive and sexual and threatening.

The response they’ve been getting is more enthusiastic and more genuinely human than any classical audience reaction I’ve seen. No wonder Elton John asked them to tour with him this summer and fall (see photo with Sir Elton).

The classical realm (if that’s where we are) hasn’t seen anything like it since Nicolo Paganini, who was something like the Eddie Van Halen of his day. Classical music people often bring up Paganini to show that classical music can have the rabid crowds and almost-destabilizing force of popular music. But that begs the question of what has happened in the 170 years between Paganini and, say, Lang Lang, who’s a major star by classical standards but about as subversive as a Harry Potter sequel.

Sulic and Hauser are answering that question by example. They’re also demonstrating that conservatory training can pay off in ways that look very different from the traditional picture of success. Not long ago they might have been considered apostates, but given the conversation that’s going on at arts colleges (at least in the US) about creativity, innovation, and the changing role of musicians and artists in society, I’ll bet those two handsome cellists become poster children for the new era.

What do you think? Is it classical? Does it matter? And what (if anything) does it mean for classical music’s relationship to the broader culture?

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Categories: Classical music, Culture sector, Demographics, Innovation, Institutional personality, Performing arts
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