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

June 23, 2011

Where have I been? (Hint: It has to do with where I’m going)

Did you see that article not long ago about the ridiculous percentage of blog posts that are apologies by the blogger for not having blogged in a while? Well, here’s my contribution to the genre. But it’s also a chance to share some big personal news with those of you who are interested. (The rest of you can skip it; I’ll have more musings on the changing cultural sector for you very soon.)

The news is something I’ve been telling colleagues and clients about for several months, though this is the first time I’m putting it in print. This summer, after almost twenty years in Chicago, I’m moving with Cheryl and our kids to Santa Fe, New Mexico.


The New Mexico Museum of Art on the Santa Fe Plaza (yes, I'm joining)

It’ll be a serious shift for us in a hundred ways, and it has all but taken over my life for the last few months. Fixing up and selling our house in Chicago, flying back and forth to Santa Fe to search for a new house there, dealing with realtors and inspectors and contractors on both ends — that’s only the half of it.

There’s also the professional side: working with our terrific team at the firm to ensure it’s a transition in which everyone grows. Because this is no stepping back for me, nor for Cheryl. We’ll continue to lead the firm from what everyone is calling our Santa Fe office, and we’ll continue to work with clients around the country in both our worlds (higher ed and arts & culture).

Sure, we’ll be giving up some day-to-day management, but that was happening naturally as we’ve grown to a staff of a dozen. More significantly, we’ll be sharing real leadership of the firm with Bill, Sarah, and Chloe, who recently received some overdue promotions and became our first vice presidents. (Anne and Mike were also appointed to more senior roles, becoming the firm’s first associates.)

All that would have happened organically anyway, but our impending move to the southwest has become the dust mote around which the whole cloud is rapidly condensing. In a small team — and especially in a family business, which this one literally is — sometimes the senior people need to make a little room so the next generation can step in.

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Categories: General, Personal reflections, Science museums, Visual art
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January 08, 2011

What I’m excited about for the year ahead

Cheryl and I spent New Year’s Eve at a peace fire with some Native American friends up in the north woods of Michigan. I found myself thinking about the year just past and the year ahead and feeling pretty damn lucky. On the professional side, here are ten things I’m excited about working on in 2011.

If you have questions or suggestions about any of these, don’t be shy. The first few are about the innovation enterprise I recently announced. 

  1. Learning about campus art museums. College and university museums serve a dauntingly wide range of audiences, on campus and off. Tom Shapiro and I have been fortunate enough to gather a small group of wonderful directors of campus art museums to conduct joint research and then strategize together about the opportunities and challenges. I’m excited about working this year with Tom and our partner Betty Farrell, who directs the Cultural Policy Center at the University of Chicago, where the project is based. I’m also excited that this is Slover Linett’s first self-generated research project, a model that will let us explore new terrain and new partnerships around the culture sector and higher ed.
  2. Firing up the Culture Kettle. My new R&D organization has been a long time brewing, and in 2011 the real fun will start. And the real work. Luckily, several great people have volunteered their time (yes, as in free help), and many more have expressed interest in collaborating. I’m excited about cooking up (love these kettle metaphors, don’t you?) some out-there research projects and some out-there experiments with exhibits and classical music. The latter will be a leap for me: I’ve done plenty of research about cultural programming and audiences, but I’ve never created a program for an actual audience.
  3. Collaborating with Greg Sandow. Here’s a man who has created programs, and as Culture Kettle’s first Innovator in Residence he’ll be my guide and crony on the classical music side of the fence. Greg is a kindred spirit who is also very different from me. I’m going to learn a lot, and we’re going to have a lot of fun. The first experiments will probably have to do with young audiences, a category that neither of us fits in. But we’ll be working with young innovators, from musicians to marketers.
  4. Seeing how Americans frame “the arts.” On the “R” side of Culture Kettle’s R&D slate, one of our first projects will be a collaboration with Nick Rabkin to study how Americans frame (in the George Lakoff sense) the arts and how they frame creativity and expressivity. We suspect the two frames were once closely aligned but have been slipping apart in recent decades, which may have something to do with what we see today: declining attendance at traditional arts performances but increasing personal creation and participation in music, dance, photography, etc. We’re hoping to get a new perspective on these tectonic shifts and spark a new conversation about what’s next for arts organizations and creative communities.

    It’s not all Culture Kettle, of course. The majority of my gray matter will still be focused on Slover Linett’s clients, staff, and future, and on new projects and plans that are springing up on that soil. Such as…
  5. Thinking about science and social change. If certain national research grants come through for our clients and colleagues, 2011 will be a year of deep involvement for us in questions about science and society. How can we take action on climate change when the science is inherently uncertain? (Which doesn’t mean dodgy or political — just limited in its ability to predict complex interactions with certainty.) How can museums evaluate the impact of exhibits designed to change attitudes? How will the growth of “citizen science” (not to mention citizen history, citizen music-making, and other participatory trends) shape cultural institutions and the world around them? As the saying goes, I’m all over that.
  6. Playing with classical improvisation. Ten years ago, when I mentioned improvisation and classical music in the same breath, people frowned and cocked their heads, like a dog hearing an odd noise. Nowadays it’s a hot topic, and its history is being reclaimed. I’m looking forward to seeing Gabriela Montero next month here in Chicago; she’s one of the musicians proving how much sense improvising makes in a classical context and how much it changes the vibe in the hall from past-tense to happening. I want to write about that this year, and better yet I hope to study audiences’ experiences of it.
  7. Giving up books. No, not reading books, but the Books Editor job at Curator: The Museum Journal. After six years in that role, I was kicked up to Associate Editor–Theory & Practice, but we didn’t find a replacement for the book review department for many months. I’m happy to report that Theano Moussouri will be the new books editor starting early this year — happy not only because she’s a wonderful addition to the journal’s editorial crew but also because I won’t have to do double duty any longer. (Which I couldn’t have done at all without the expert help of Kate Flinner, the journal’s Editorial Assistant and until last year a colleague here at Slover Linett.)
  8. Seeing the Cultural Infrastructure Project bear fruit. Hard to believe it’s been seven years since I first brought the question to Carroll Joynes, then director of the Cultural Policy Center: Is all this building of cultural facilities (art museum wings, performing arts centers) a sign that the sector is thriving or economic hubris that will have dire consequences? Carroll took the question to some talented cultural economists and other scholars around the U.S., got serious funding from Mellon, MacArthur, Kresge, and others, and masterfully brought the project to life. It’s scheduled to culminate late this year. Based on my limited involvement in the project these last few years, I’m really looking forward to seeing the report, book, website, and guidelines that emerge…and to seeing how the field responds.
  9. Helping our team grow. Cheryl and I both became better leaders and mentors to our staff in 2010, I like to think, and that work has been more rewarding than I ever imagined. We added several staff members during the year, and now we begin 2011 as a cohesive team ready to do great things together. It sounds sappy, but I’m really excited to watch them continue to grow and learn and challenge themselves and each other in 2011. I’m also looking forward to collaborating more closely with our academic fellows, Rachelle L. Brooks and Michael Di Giovine, on projects that expand our collective skills and lead us in new directions.
  10. Helping our clients grow. We’re researchers, but we’re also, in a sense, consultants. That’s a role more of our clients are asking us to play, and it’s one I’m increasingly excited about as the new year begins. The audiences we study in our research and evaluation work speak through us. But we also speak with our own voice, helping our clients see new possibilities, new paths toward their goals—even, sometimes, new goals. This year I’ll be working with my colleagues and our clients to discover the right relationship between findings and action, insight and innovation. That’ll deepen the already great pleasure of working with some wonderful people and helping some wonderful organizations move forward.

Whew. Maybe this is why one friend of mine has been asking me when the emergency cloning procedure will take place. And I haven’t even mentioned the new retreat center I’m helping envision in the Upper Peninsula, a place for dialogue between Western science and indigenous wisdom and spirituality. Or the Chicago-area cultural tracking study we’re developing...

My cup runneth over. Which can be messy. But it’s not a bad problem to have. Happy New Year to you and yours.
 


Categories: General, Personal reflections, Slover Linett events
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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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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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June 14, 2010

James N. Wood, my first museum client, rest in peace

Ten years ago, Cheryl and I were hired by the Art Institute of Chicago to study its audiences. We also studied its director, Jim Wood, and learned volumes. This morning, I was saddened to read of his unexpected death on Friday at age 69.

Many others knew him better and longer than I did, so I have little to add to what’s being said around the field (for example, here and here). But I don’t want to miss the chance to remember my first museum client and the subtle change he underwent as he got to know the institution’s audiences in a new way.

Patrician, penetrating, and affable, Jim led the Art Institute through an unusual combination of pragmatism and idealism. (The latter is on display in his chapter on “The Authorities of the American Art Museum” in Whose Muse? Art Museums and The Public Trust.) In fact, he had already been leading the Art Institute for two decades when we began our project, and he didn’t seem to be expecting to learn much new from the research we were about to conduct. I saw flashes of impatience during the first meeting at which we presented preliminary findings. “The art speaks for itself,” he said, gesturing professorially down the table, explaining a widely-known truth to us newcomers.

But that’s not quite how the museum’s audiences saw it, and over the next eighteen months of qualitative and quantitative research, Cheryl and I tried to convey their perspective to him and to the staff and advisory board overseeing our work. We presented every report (and there were half a dozen along the way) several times to different committees and staff groups. Jim was there every time, sometimes hearing the same presentation two or three times. ...

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Categories: Chicago, Museums, Personal reflections, Visual art
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March 03, 2010

Spontaneous natural history collection sur la plage

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

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

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

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

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Categories: Early exposure, Learning, Museums, Natural history, Participatory engagement and co-creation, Personal reflections, Visual art
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February 10, 2010

Familiarity can breed comfort, too

Re-reading Catcher in the Rye has me wondering about the delicate balance that museums have to strike between the new and the familiar.

Like many people, I’ve found myself thinking about the book since the death of JD Salinger last week. It’s been many years since I’ve read it, and the details are a little hazy in my mind. I remember Holden’s obsession with “phoniness” and that he has a kid sister named Phoebe. And one detail that’s always stuck in my mind: that he makes a visit to the American Museum of Natural History.

I paged through my copy of the book this morning and found the passage where Holden visits the museum. It’s a lovely moment and fun to re-read it now that thinking about museums is my full-time job. What really struck me, though, is why Holden likes the museum so much:
 

“The best thing, though, in that museum was that everything always stayed right where it was. Nobody'd move. You could go there a hundred thousand times, and that Eskimo would still be just finished catching those two fish, the birds would still be on their way south, the deers would still be drinking out of that water hole, with their pretty antlers and their pretty, skinny legs...”


Now, Holden’s psychological need for stability might be greater than most people’s. Nevertheless it got me thinking: I counsel museums about the need for new-ness in the visit experience far more often than the need for same-ness. In both qualitative and quantitative research, visitors (especially young adults) tell us that their desire to learn, see, or experience something new is a strong driver of their attendance at museums. So it’s natural to focus my thinking on how museums can keep the experience “fresh” so that the appeal of the new is a continual draw. But by taking that focus, have I under-valued the role of ritual and nostalgia in the museum experience?

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Categories: Culture sector, Museums, Personal reflections, Visitor experience
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December 14, 2009

Back to the elephant

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

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

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

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

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


Categories: Child audiences, Early exposure, Museums, Natural history, Personal reflections
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Based in Chicago with an office in Boston, we help museums, performing arts organizations, and informal science institutions take a fresh look at their audiences and discover new ways to deepen the connection and broaden participation. More »

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