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

January 30, 2011

Innovation starts with self-critique (which is why it’s so rare)

A line in a recent New Yorker article caught my eye. Tim Armstrong, the head of AOL, is bravely retooling the company, starting with a redesign of its homepage. He told a roomful of senior execs that the current homepage feels “like an Internet company designed it.” But isn’t AOL an…internet company? Shouldn’t they be proud of that?

The answer is no, not if they want to move ahead of the pack of “internet companies.” Leading means being different than: you can’t be better without doing something different than the other institutions in your category. Armstrong’s dissatisfaction tells us something about the spirit of innovation, the restlessness that drives it and separates it from just any old kind of change.

Think of the parallel critique in your world. An exhibition that “feels like an art museum designed it.” A concert format that “feels like a symphony orchestra designed it.” A conservation program that feels “like a science center designed it.” I can see the incredulity on the faces in that staff meeting.

And yet it makes all the sense in the world for cultural organizations to challenge themselves in just that way. In an era when building new audiences and staying relevant in a changing society are the rallying cries, it’s not enough for an art museum to look and act like an art museum, and the same goes for a dance company or a chamber music festival or a natural history museum.

Which turns out to be my litmus test for the innovations going on around the cultural sector. (I didn’t realize this until I read the AOL article.) When someone tells me about a cool new arts experience or new museum program, or better yet when I can check it out first hand, I ask myself whether it feels like it was designed by that kind of institution, within its traditions, values, and personality — its comfort zone.

If it does, it’s usually not that exciting, at least to me. And I’d bet it won’t feel very fresh and appealing to people who aren’t already into that category (say, opera, history museums, whatever the case may be). So it probably won’t do much to change the audience mix, which requires changing the image of that category in the minds of people who don’t attend it very often. ...

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Categories: Culture sector, Innovation, Museums, Other nonprofits, Participatory engagement and co-creation, Performing arts, State of the arts
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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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October 25, 2010

“Help me destroy public radio” and other lessons in postmodern fundraising

National Public Radio has poked fun at its own earnestness and nerdiness plenty in recent years. But Alec Baldwin’s new fundraising segments take the irony to a new level, putting the whole culture of public broadcasting — including us listeners — on trial. And a funny thing happens along the way.

Funny being the operative word. There are several spots in the series, which was produced by This American Life host Ira Glass and his friends at WNYC, along with Baldwin. This one made me laugh out loud, as did this one.

And that’s an important lesson right there. To make someone laugh is to give them a little gift — it’s an act of generosity and intimacy. And in the context of a fundraising pitch, isn’t generosity exactly the point? Baldwin and Glass are modeling the behavior they’re trying to elicit from us: they’re starting the exchange, offering us a gift in the hope that we’ll offer one back.

Humor is also a way of getting past our rational defenses. Laughter is an emotional response, involving different parts of the brain than those activated by a rational appeal. If the fundraising organization makes an argument, I can always make a counterargument. But if it makes me laugh, we’re already in a kind of relationship. (My old philosophy professor Ted Cohen wrote a great little book about the ways jokes both depend on and foster a sense of community.)

So why don’t more cultural and educational institutions use humor as a fundraising tool? If being funny can model generosity, soften us up, and create community, then why are these public radio promos an anomaly, even during recessionary times that would seem to call for every arrow in our quiver?

I’ve written before about the default seriousness of most cultural organizations and the anxiety about relevance and status that I think underlies it. These fundraising spots may be exceptions that prove the rule. Baldwin and Glass have stepped outside the institution’s accepted ways of thinking about itself and its relationship to its supporters: they’ve broken unwritten rules, especially the very sensible one about never insulting your donors. ...

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Categories: Arts marketing, Chicago, Classical music, Culture sector, Fundraising, General, Innovation, Institutional personality, Other nonprofits, Subjectivity, Young audiences
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October 12, 2010

Innovation, insecurity, and the real reason we need new business models

A young friend of mine who works at a major American arts institution tells a chilling story about the departmental brainstorming meetings he and his colleagues are asked to attend every few months. 'We need new ideas,' they’re told — and they come up with them. They put their heads and hearts into it. They get excited. You can feel the energy in the room. And then…

And then the department head, a veteran with a powerful reputation in the organization, wraps up the meeting with a blanket dismissal: Those kinds of things, she tells her staff as the smiles fade, just aren’t the way we do things at this organization.

In answer to your question, yes, my friend is looking for another job.

But wherever he lands next on the arts and culture landscape, it's likely to be at an institution that has trouble with change and risk. In fact, in my decade or so of working with nonprofits organizations, I’ve begun to wonder if that phrase, "an institution that has trouble with change and risk," isn’t a redundancy. Could it be that part of what that defines institutions as we know them is a systemic, structured-in aversion to risk?

If so, there’s a lot at stake. Without risk we can’t have innovation, and without innovation we’re doomed to stasis which, in a changing culture, sooner or later means irrelevance.

My friend’s tale notwithstanding, the problem isn’t usually people. Or rather, it's not the people as individuals. Over and over, I’ve seen creative, thoughtful museum and arts professionals, people with energy and passion and a wide sphere of reference, get excited about a new idea or way of doing things…and I‘ve watched as that idea works its way through the organization’s process, becoming less interesting, risky, innovative, and appealing at every step.

Sometimes the idea makes it all the way to implementation, but in barely recognizable form. Sometimes it's abandoned along the way, victim of senior-level dismissal or, more commonly, vague resistance and a failure to "gain traction."

What’s going on? Why do those institutional processes (call them 'planning' or 'development' or anything else) so reliably have those effects? . . .

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Categories: Business models, General, Innovation, Institutional personality, Museums, Other nonprofits, Performing arts, Strategy and strategic planning
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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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January 22, 2010

Upcoming webcast: a lecture on demographic change

The Center for the Future of Museums hosts a talk by Los Angeles Times columnist Gregory Rodriguez on cultural transformation. It’s not just for museums.

The free webcast is next Wednesday, January 27 at 2pm Eastern time. You’ll need to register here.

The lecture was actually given by Rodriguez in Washington, DC in December and taped for this webcast. But he’ll be online Wednesday for a live Q&A, and there will also be a panel discussion.

Rodriguez is a big name in the world of demographic change, ethnicity, and policy, especially on Latino issues. He was asked by Elizabeth Merritt, who runs the new Center for the Future of Museums at the American Association of Museums (AAM), to turn his gaze on cultural institutions and speculate about how demographic shifts will affect them.

You can get a glimpse of his thinking in an op-ed column he wrote after giving the talk, “Big Tent Salvation for the Arts.”

In audience research and evaluation, we’re often asked to study Latino populations as a distinct group with its own special needs. But that can be a form of segregation, or at least compartmentalization. It might be smarter — and it will probably become necessary, anyway — to try to integrate our understanding of Latinos and other growing minorities in every “general” study we conduct.

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Categories: Demographics, Higher ed, Museums, Other nonprofits, Performing arts, Research findings, Strategy and strategic planning
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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 »

About this Blog

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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