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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May 20, 2012

From Europe with irony: Symphony marketing that's actually funny

American orchestras, like their cousins in dance, theater, and the visual arts, talk a lot about how to appeal to a younger crowd. The word 'authenticity' crops up a lot in those conversations, and for good reason. But in contemporary culture, sometimes the most authentic thing you can do is make fun of yourself for being authentic. Watch this promo from the Orchestre Philharmonique Luxembourg and see if you can resist a grin.

The video hits some of the same themes that US orchestras have tried to convey to twenty- and thirty-something audiences — that concertgoing is not just for geezers, that classical music is an emotional high, that it draws (or should draw) a multicultural crowd — while simultaneously making fun of itself for having to make such assertions. The orchestra is mocking its own desperation to be relevant to young people and its cluelessness about attracting them, but it’s doing so using some of contemporary culture’s most relevant and savvy modes, including a kind of goofy, improvisatory irony.

Plus, it makes you laugh, which may be the most basic recasting of classical music’s ‘brand’ that we could ask for.

By comparison, most American symphony marketing efforts seem...well, classical. They focus on the big name performers or conductors, the quality of the music-making, the power and timelessness of the repertoire. Even when they’re clever, they’re usually still in that proud, luxury-product mode we’re used to in the arts, in which earnestness is never far below the surface.

To appeal to young people, arts organizations usually assert that they offer experiences they think those audiences value. But the Luxembourg video reveals that sometimes that’s not enough: sometimes asserting can be a problem in itself. Good communication isn’t just about what you say, it’s about the personality and voice with which you deliver the message — your stance on what you’re saying. Or rather, the two are intertwined: the mode of delivery is the message. And in these postmodern times, a little creative friction between the two can signify that you don’t take yourself too seriously, that you get how popular culture works and you're part of it. (I made this point about Alec Baldwin’s self-spoofing NPR spots last year.)

So even when arts marketers have done their research and know what would appeal to young audiences before, during, and after the performance, they sometimes don’t know how to convey those values in a way that feels like they know the people they’re talking to. The genius of this promo is how it manages to do both, while admitting implicitly that it’s a tough sales pitch to make. 

Notice that there’s no concert footage in the Luxembourg video, which raises the question of whether the ticker-buyer's experience at the Philharmonique actually pays off the promises made by the promo. The onstage experience is reimagined with some of the same values (less mockery, perhaps, but equal whimsy and confidence) in a different European ad, this one for the Czech Philharmonic:

If you read ArtsJournal, you may have seen these both on Norman Lebrecht’s blog last month. That’s where I found them, and there are more where these came from. (Thanks, Norman, and keep ‘em coming.) Do they tap your funnybone? Do they feel, in some sense, authentic? And how does your age play into your reaction?

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Categories: Arts marketing, Classical music, Institutional personality, Performing arts, Young audiences
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May 02, 2012

Alan Alda warms up science communication with the Flame Challenge

How would you explain flame — what is it? what’s going on in there? — to an 11 year old? I grew up watching Alda play an army doctor on M*A*S*H, but his acting and PBS interviewing work have led him to some real-world questions about how science is conveyed to us laymen. In partnership with Stony Brook University, where Alda teaches scientists how to improvise and “be more authentically themselves” with the public, he has organized a contest for scientists and anyone else who wants to enter. Submissions are now being judged...by an 11 year old near you.

I blogged a year ago about how little patience the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman had for standard science pedagogy, which too often teaches us vocabulary (“energy,” “momentum”) but not what’s really going on.

Alda is putting on Feynman’s mantle when he describes his own 11 year old self asking his teacher what a flame is and being told, predictably, “It’s oxidation.” As he writes in a recent guest editorial in the prestigious journal Science, “I knew there had to be more to the mystery of a flame than just giving the mystery another name.”

 

Hence the Flame Challenge, which received more than 800 entries from 30 countries. After being vetted for accuracy by scientists, the entries were sent to kids at 130 schools around the US for judging. Finalists and a winner will be announced next month at the World Science Festival in New York. (That festival, as I’ve mentioned, is run by the real latter-day Feynman, theoretical physicist Brian Greene, along with his partner, the science journalist and media producer Tracy Day.)

The emphasis here is on clarity, on helping somebody really get the concept. Alda is no fan of dumbing down; there’s no condescension here about the sophistication of the average 11 year old. The point he’s making is that if you can communicate a complex idea successfully to a kid, you know you’ve really nailed it. And a sixth grader is less likely than an adult to nod sagely when he’s fed an “explanation” that’s really just a vocabulary list.

But Alda is onto something deeper here. When he pursued that clarity and accessibility in his interviews with scientists, he found that the interactions became warmer, more human, more connected. It wasn’t just the facts that came to life, it was the people behind the facts — as well as their relationship to Alda and, by extension, viewers at home.

Having to talk with someone who was truly trying to understand caused an actual human interaction to take place in these interviews. There was more warmth, and the real person behind the scientist in the white lab coat could emerge. Suddenly, both young people and adults could see that scientists were like them, with a natural way of speaking and even a sense of humor. ...

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Categories: Conferences, Informal science education, Institutional personality, Natural history, Public media, Science museums, Storytelling, Subjectivity
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April 06, 2012

Do cultural institutions tell stories? A new bestseller gets me thinking

The rise of live storytelling in recent years is remarkable, both for its bottom-up, scrappy scene (headquartered in Brooklyn, of course) and its rehabilitation of a historical form of entertainment and conviviality. A few storytelling events are held at museums, but that’s not the same as museums telling stories in their own exhibitions or programs. A new hiking memoir, of all things, just reminded me what the recipe has always been.

Having been laid up sick for a few days with the book, Wild, for company, I can tell you that its author, Cheryl Strayed, deserves the praise that critics have been showering on her. The book, which is about how she hiked the Pacific Crest Trail alone in order to put her reckless, splintered life back together, is heartfelt, honest, gripping, funny and, for me at least, deeply moving.

Those are critical clichés, I know. But there’s one kind of cultural narrative they’re almost never used to describe: museum exhibitions. Museum people often speak of exhibitions as “telling the story” of so-and-so, or collections as “telling the stories” of a particular time and place. But compared to the real storytelling that’s going on these days, from The Moth (pictured) to This American Life to books like Strayed’s, museums’ use of the word “story” feels like a mere metaphor, an approximation.

You’ve seen plenty of exhibitions with a historical shape, and a beginning, middle, and an end. But when’s the last time you came out of an exhibition feeling like somebody had told you a story? 

When’s the last time you’d have described an exhibition — or a symphony concert or dance program, for that matter — as heartfelt, gripping, honest, or moving? The individual artworks, historical artifacts, or performances, sure. But the exhibition — the evening — the program created by the cultural institution itself?

Strayed’s book got me thinking about the difference between a narrative (that slightly precious, academic word) and a story. Her book, like all good stories, moves in two directions, which we might call horizontal and vertical (see diagram, below). The horizontal direction is the unfolding of the plot: where the story is taking us, and how we’re going to get from here to there. It’s the dimension of surprises, twists, and the pleasure of wondering (or fearing or wishing) what’s going to happen next. When we say something is gripping or suspenseful, we’re praising the horizontal dimension.

Exhibitions, for all their traditional emphasis on chronological and other kinds of narratives, aren’t particularly good at this. As I’ve asked here before, when do museum visitors ever feel suspense about what the next gallery will tell them, or how it’s going to end? ...

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Categories: Classical music, History museums, Institutional personality, Museums, Public media, Science museums, Storytelling
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March 10, 2012

Why a little TED profanity makes me hopeful about Campbell’s Met

The recent TED Talk by Metropolitan Museum of Art director Thomas Campbell hasn’t been posted yet, but the summary on the TED blog sounds terrific — the clearest statement yet that this iconic institution is under new, 21st century management. And the rest of the museum seems to be getting the memo.

According to the blog, Campbell told the assembled TEDsters that the first art history course he took was taught by a hard-drinking, foul-mouthed professor, who at one point showed them a painting depicting a debauched scene with nude figures engaged in all manner of excess. He asked the class what the scene was, and good-boy Campbell — future heir to the throne of patrician prince Philippe de Montebello at the Met — answered that it was a  “bacchanal.”

“You fucking bookworm,” corrected his professor. “It’s a fucking orgy.”

It’s a great joke, particularly if you’ve ever read the labels at an art museum. Campbell’s point in telling it was that he has tried to incorporate that kind of directness in his own curation, part of his project at the Met (and the title of his TED talk): breaking down the walls of the museum. 

All of which must have been a conscious and brave declaration of departure from his predecessor, whose high-flown rhetoric about the timeless power of great art was altogether in the “bacchanal” register. Good for Campbell, and hello to the new Met.

The question is how he’ll put the museum’s money where his mouth is — and whether he’ll be able to do so, given the weight of tradition and the autonomy of senior curators at such an institution. Will the exhibition labels and wall texts really leave behind the kind of curator-speak that Campbell’s professor was so impatient with? Will the Met’s interpretive voice come that far down to earth, stripping away the academic objectivity and the distancing, Latinate rhetoric to get down to the personal, human pleasures of art? ...

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Categories: Institutional personality, Museums, 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 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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November 28, 2011

Everybody’s favorite astrophysicist leads science into new territory: popular culture

I’m not the target audience, and neither are you. Neil deGrasse Tyson’s weekly radio show and podcast, StarTalk Radio, is aimed at people with a high-school education who listen to commercial talk radio call-in shows — the “blue collar intellectual” segment, according to a grant summary from the National Science Foundation, which supports the show. But there are big lessons here for us white-collar intellectuals who work in museums and the arts.

I didn’t know anything about StarTalk when I stumbled on it a few days ago on iTunes. But I’ve been watching Tyson’s public science persona evolve for years and have read several of his books, so I downloaded a few episodes and played them in the car during a family Thanksgiving drive. I was immediately struck by the commercial sound of the show. Fast pace. Voices bantering and interrupting and laughing. Comedians and celebrities mixing it up with Tyson and his scientific guests. Rock and Motown hits pumping us in and out of the segments. And Tyson’s voice, more animated and...well, slicker than I’d ever heard it.

So I was excited but not surprised to read that StarTalk was created to “bridge the intersection between pop culture and pop science” and that it bills itself as the “first and only popular commercial radio program devoted to all things space.” In other words, it’s content you might expect from public radio or public television (and Tyson has put in plenty of time on those media), but repackaged in a commercial format for people who’ve never heard of Radiolab or Story Collider and don’t watch NOVA.

Which proves that innovation in public science — and by extension other social and cultural domains that are too important to leave to the experts — doesn’t have to be geared to the educated, urban, young creatives who stream Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me! and the Slate Political Gabfest on their smartphones, nor to the older, affluent generation that’s still watching PBS and attending lunchtime lectures at their local university. It can meet a different (larger?) demographic on its own turf. And that, for anyone who cares about reaching underserved audiences and getting the arts and sciences out of their 20th-century temples, is good news. ...

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Categories: Demographics, Informal science education, Institutional personality, Public media, Science museums, Subjectivity, Young audiences
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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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