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

July 31, 2012

A new book by a colleague of mine, Kay Larson, helps bring classical music back to its spiritual roots

I’m smiling these days on behalf of Kay Larson, my fellow editor at Curator: The Museum Journal and a longtime New York art critic. Her new book, Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists, is getting great reviews. I concur: it’s a terrific, unusual read that humanizes an arcane composer and reminds us that classical or ‘composed’ music is too often talked about as if it were a purely intellectual or technical activity.

We knew Kay was working on the book, but we didn’t realize what a singular contribution it would make. Kay’s own Buddhism gives her a unique empathy for Cage’s story and his art, a kind of identification with her subject that lets her speculate fruitfully and intuitively in areas that few other biographers or critics have tread. Academic music history this is not, although it’s plenty rigorous and deeply researched.

While reading Kay’s book and as many reviews as I could find (NY Times, LA Times, Slate, and especially this one on Brain Pickings), I was struck by the possibility that it may be part of a broader re-acknowledgment of spirituality in the arts. The development of Western music was tied so closely to the church that we might say one invented the other (and not necessarily in the obvious direction). Something similar could be argued about the visual arts. And in indigenous cultures the arts and spiritual practices have always been inseparable. But with gathering momentum in the late 19th century, and through about the end of the 20th, music and art were secularized and walled off from those roots, and indeed from anything else that might make them seem like mere supporting players in some other pursuit.

In these postmodern times, though, something’s shifting. For the last three years, Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival has tried to reassert the connection between music and transcendence, with popular results. (Lincoln Center’s language betrays a little academic reluctance to really go there, though: instead of being openly spiritual about the festival, artistic director Jane Moss promises to “explore the spiritual dimension of music as manifested in different cultural and musical traditions, from masterpieces of the Western classical canon to Muslim and Hindu musical linkages in northern India and the mystical minimalism of the Baltic region.” This could be wall text at an art museum.)

Just last week, a NY Times piece by veteran critic James Oestreich described “a wave of spirituality that is surging through the world of classical music,” from the Salzburg Festival’s Spiritual Overture and the Lucerne Festival’s “Faith” season to the Pittsburgh Symphony’s “Music of the Spirit” week.

Then there are the recent calls by British freelance intellectual Alain de Botton, in his book Religion for Atheists and many talks and interviews, for the arts (and the sciences, for that matter) to reverse their historical secularization and reclaim their power to seduce and lift us spiritually. ...

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Categories: Classical music, General, Museums, Performing arts, Storytelling, Subjectivity, Visual art
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July 11, 2012

The Flame Challenge winners, and other attempts to get science communication out of its rut

I blogged recently about Alan Alda’s contest with the Center for Communicating Science: explain flame to an 11 year old. The entries, mostly from trained scientists, were judged by thousands of actual 11 year olds. But their picks, announced last month at the World Science Festival, suggest either a weak field or the kind of 11 year olds who spend too much time on Wikipedia. Compare the winners to a new NASA video that’s going around and a fizzling effort in Europe to get tween girls excited about science.

The Flame Challenge was won by Ben Ames, a 31 year old American doing graduate work in quantum optics. “I also have a passion for music, film, and the performing arts,” he writes. “So when I learned about this wonderful contest, I had finally found a project where I could put all of my interests to use.” To what effect? Channel your inner 11-year-old and take a look:
 


You can see the other finalists’ texts, graphics, and videos here. None of them, unfortunately, shows much clue about how the strategies and sensibilities of science communication have been changing lately.

Part of the problem lies that word ‘explain,’ which sets up someone who knows (an explainer) conveying what she knows to someone else. Right away we’re in the old knowledge-transmission model that science museums, for example, have been trying to move away from for the last decade or so (with mixed success).

And Alda probably didn’t help by emphasizing the ideal of ‘clarity’ when he talked about the contest. Making explanatory clarity the brass ring may have pushed the entrants toward the pedantic end of the spectrum. They seem to have been worried mostly about getting the facts right — and in some cases, cramming all the facts into the story.

But even within those guardrails, we could have hoped for something more than just a friendlier, animated version of a fifth-grade science textbook. What’s missing are the things that great teachers and professors do instinctively: Make us care about the question before we try to answer it. Helping us answer it instead of handing us the answer on a platter. Sharing his own personal enthusiasm for the answer in an infectious way. Making us feel like he’s talking to us, authentically, spontaneously, and without condescension. Ideally, telling us a story in which both he and (at least implicitly) we are present. ...

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Categories: Advocacy, Informal science education, Learning, Public media, Science museums, Social media, Subjectivity
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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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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
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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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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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April 04, 2011

Idiosyncrasy in museum design, an endangered species?

Finally, a NY Times museum article that even a progressive can love. Architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff sees the Barnes Foundation’s move to a new building on Philadelphia’s museum mile as the last nail in the coffin of eccentricity in the American art museum. To which I would add: it ain’t just the art museums.

It makes sense that the piece wasn’t written by one of the Times’s art critics or by is everything-but-art museums reviewer Ed Rothstein. As I’ve complained before here, they’re a traditionalist lot. They tend to see exhibitions as a kind of illustrated scholarly argument — a catalog essay with the objects in 3D.

Albert Barnes, whose patent-medicine company went big and who became a voracious collector of Reniors, Picassos, and the like, was no scholar. But he did think deeply (and eccentrically) about aesthetics and developed a pedagogy for looking at art that’s still being taught at the Barnes Foundation. (Barnes died in a car crash in 1951.)


A Cezanne-centric gallery at the Barnes Foundation, as Albert Barnes installed it. Photo: Barnes Foundation.

As Ouroussoff notes, Barnes saw himself as an outsider to, and a critic of, elite Philadelphia society, especially the art collectors and benefactors. Like J. Paul Getty and Isabella Stewart Gardner, he created a museum that bucked convention and showed visitors alternatives to the mainstream, increasingly professionalized and institutionalized art museum culture. The Barnes Foundation, the Getty Villa in Malibu, and the Gardner Museum in Boston were ways for the founders “to thumb their noses at cultural insiders — Barnes at Philadelphia’s insular community of art patrons, Getty at what he called the ‘doctrinaire and elitist views’ of the art world.”

In all three cases, writes Ouroussoff, the result was

a museum experience that felt deeply private. Walking into one of these galleries could seem like poking around in someone’s bedroom. The winking references, the quirky combinations of acknowledged masterpieces and minor oddities, the mix of personal and public missions — these served to narrow the gap between art and viewer. Instead of feeling lectured to from above, you felt as if you had been invited to share in a private joy.

But now the Gardner and the Barnes are both being modernized, as the Getty Villa was in the early 2000s, transforming (says Ouroussoff) once-magical experiences into “pedantic” statements of cultural consensus, “gorgeously crafted” but now “polite and well behaved” in ways that betray their founding spirit. ...

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Categories: Institutional personality, Museums, Subjectivity, Visitor experience, Visual art
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December 21, 2010

Making Schubert their own, so they can share it with us

My colleagues at Slover Linett tease me about being unable to write a brief blog post. So here, as a holiday gift to them, are some quick thoughts about the difference between playing classical music and playing with it (as in, playing with an idea). Three guys with three pianos in the East Village are currently doing both.

The show is “Three Pianos,” and it’s an antic, clever, casual, time-bending, personal riff on Franz Schubert’s wistful 1827 song cycle “Winterreise.” But it’s also a performance of that cycle, all twenty-four songs in one arrangement or another. Like the Peter Greenaway “vision” of Leonardo’s Last Supper that I just wrote about (here and here), it’s a contemporary artwork that enthusiastically and freely reinterprets an older one. 

I’ve often wondered why conductors don’t give themselves the license that theater directors do to alter a classic text (score, script) to suit their personal vision. In classical music, it’s all about “the composer’s intentions,” and the conductor and musicians are meant to get out of the way of the music. Sure, you’re expected to tailor tempos and phrasing and thereby create “your interpretation.” But compare that latitude to the creative freedom of theater, where — think of the last Shakespeare production you saw — the director can cut and paste lines or whole scenes, change characters’ genders, shift the action to different eras and contexts, and generally make it his or her own.

Neil Genzlinger makes the same comparison in his review of “Three Pianos” in this morning’s NY Times: “They do to ‘Winterreise’ roughly what the fractured-Shakespeare troupes do to ‘Hamlet’ and ‘Macbeth,’ enlivening through deconstruction.” Purists, of course, may prefer to attend a standard recital of Schubert, and some might not even define what goes on in “Three Pianos” as a performance of “Winterreise.” They want a direct line to Schubert, as provided by a well-dressed singer and pianist whose own personalities and perspectives aren’t a big part of the evening.

But others — and I bet this is a larger and faster-growing segment of the population than most classical music professionals would like to believe — would feel much more connected to Schubert if three guys messed around with him. (Especially if they poured wine for the audience while doing so, as the creator-performers of “Three Pianos” do, liberally.) The difference has to do with that sense of ownership, of someone on stage being in an intimate, human, creative relationship with the music and even with the composer — not just a musical relationship. ...

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Categories: Classical music, Innovation, Performing arts, Subjectivity, Theater
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December 17, 2010

Culture Kettle’s museum side: My post on the Center for the Future of Museums’ blog

This week I'm the guest blogger for AAM's Center for the Future of Museums, whose director Elizabeth Merritt has been an indispensible sounding board as I’ve developed Culture Kettle. As soon as I wrote the post for her, sever al people pointed out new exhibits that are just the kind of innovation I'm calling for. Or are they?

I introduced Culture Kettle in a general way last week on this blog, and before that in the news section of our site. My new post on the CFM blog focuses, not surprisingly, on Culture Kettle's potential museum work.

In that post, as an example of both the possibilities and the limitations of art museum practice, I mentioned Peter Greenaway’s Last Supper “vision,” a multimedia, immersive installation currently running in New York. I argued that there’s a reason Greenaway’s work is installed not in a major art museum but on the less contested, more theatrical ground of the Park Avenue Armory: it breaks most of the traditional rules of art museum display, including the one that says the museum’s job is to get out of the way of the artworks, to interpret them as unobtrusively and objectively as possible so visitors encounter the artist’s vision rather than the vision of the curators and exhibition designers.

Given that radicalism, it’s something a shock to hear that Greenaway’s hopes for his audience are just like those of museum curators and educators: he says he wants to bring people closer to the masterpiece in question, make them slow down and really look at it, and in general (in Holland Cotter’s paraphrase in his New York Times review) “to revive visual literacy.” Same goals, different means.

Which raises the question, which set of museological rules are better at generating those outcomes, and for which kinds of audiences? That’s a question Culture Kettle can help answer, in part by conducting deep, thoughtful evaluations of both familiar and experimental art experiences, and in part by setting up some of those experimental experiences in the first place.

I realize that museum curators work with artists all the time to do something interventionist and creative in their galleries. But would the curator do something like that on her own? Probably not. The impulse—and somehow the freedom—to do it usually comes from the artist or other outsiders. It’s hard to avoid concluding that this sort of creativity and active presence in the design of the museum-visitor interface is just not part of the curatorial job description.

The same question comes up when I think about three other examples people have mentioned to me this week: ...
 

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Categories: Innovation, Museums, Subjectivity, Visual art
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November 29, 2010

Should cultural institutions be in the business of “romance” or “precision”? Ask your newcomers

The ever-valuable museum consultant Beverly Serrell, who wrote the book on museum labels, recently pointed me to the early 20th-century philosopher Alfred North Whitehead. I’m glad she did, because his ideas about the stages of learning help organize something I’ve long believed about classical concerts, museum exhibitions, and other cultural experiences.

In the old days — say, mid 20th century — the rap on museums and the performing arts was that they were set up for people who already knew something about the content. You had to bring your own knowledge in order to make sense of the Latin-filled labels in a natural history museum or the formalist program notes in a concert hall.  And not just the written interpretive texts, but the objects or performance itself: you needed cultural “training” in order to find meaning and enjoyment in the conventions of exhibition or performance.

No wonder left-leaning sociologists tried to “out” those cultural institutions as markets for the accumulation and affirmation of class status, “cultural capital.”

Times have changed, of course. The sector has made big strides toward democratic accessibility. You no longer need a PhD or a dictionary to understand the annotator’s comments in your program book or the introductory panel at an art exhibition. At natural history museums, those cases of inscrutable specimens were long ago surrounded (or supplanted) by explanatory graphics and texts geared to middle-school students.

But if arts and culture institutions are no longer catering narrowly to the cognoscenti, there’s still a sense in which they’re catering to the converted. You may not have to bring your own knowledge, but you do usually have to bring your own interest in the subject. The conventions of presentation still, by and large, presume that if you’ve shown up, you’re already interested in this content. They proceed (again, implicitly and unconsciously) from the notion that you’re there—in your seat or at the exhibition—because you care about this stuff, and the institution can get on with the business of giving it to you.

What about the newcomers? What about people in the categories we culture professionals dub “experience seekers” or “cultural tourists,” who have come just to check out the symphony or the history exhibit, perhaps with a friend or on a lark? Shouldn’t the experience be designed for them, too? Isn’t that the only way to broaden the audience over time? (Megachurches, by the way, get this. They play to the newcomers and fence-sitters every bit as much as to the devout, all within a single experience.)

To do that, cultural organizations would have to stop taking for granted that what they offer is a priori, automatically valuable, and start taking responsibility for sparking a love of that content in people who may never have given it much time or thought. Here’s where Whitehead comes in handy. ...

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Categories: Arts participation, Classical music, Diversity, Engagement, Innovation, Learning, Museums, Performing arts, Subjectivity, Visitor experience, Visual art
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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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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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