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

January 17, 2011

Move over, arts education — The real problem may be play

Ask an arts professional what’s wrong with today’s arts ecology and you’ll probably hear something about cuts in arts education in the schools. But there could be a more basic challenge to developing tomorrow’s audiences, a cultural shift with causes and effects well outside the arts: the death of childhood play.

If you work in the arts, you’ve heard the point made so many times by so many people that it may seem obvious, irrefutable. The decades of declining attendance at traditional art forms like classical music, ballet, and theater can be blamed on decades of declining arts education for schoolchildren. If kids aren’t exposed to Beethoven, Balanchine, Botticelli, and other exemplars of the “fine arts” when they’re young, the argument goes, they won’t make them part of their cultural repertoire when they’re older.

So if we want to stem the declines in arts attendance, what we need to do is reinvigorate arts education in the schools. Education breeds affinity. Our children will, literally, learn to love it.

I’ve never quite bought this argument, in part because there are plenty of things we learn about (are “exposed to”) in school that most of us don’t choose to spend our time with later in life: algebra, geology, European history. If anything, a classroom encounter with Mahler or Matisse in junior high could do more harm than good, branding such domains as drudgery for life. Besides, the social scientists have demonstrated pretty convincingly that what happens (or doesn’t) in school is far less influential than what happens at home: family and friends are the predominant influences.

I know that the declines in arts education are real and that, historically speaking, they’re correlated with the declines in attendance. My friend Nick Rabkin has just written a very good monograph for the NEA delving into just this question. But correlation is not causation, and I’ve wondered for a long time whether there could be something more fundamental going on — some broader social change that may not seem to have much to do with the arts but is nonetheless altering our desire or ability to engage with them. ...

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Categories: Arts participation, Classical music, Early exposure, Engagement, Learning, Museums, Performing arts, State of the arts, Theater, Visual art, Young audiences
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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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June 19, 2010

Guest Blogger (a first for us!): Holly Arsenault on engaging young audiences

You may remember a quote from Holly in my recent post about “pipeline” vs. “parallel” strategies for young artsgoers. Holly knows this turf far better than I do: she runs Seattle Center Teen Tix, a thriving program that lets teens buy $5 tickets to almost any arts organization in the Seattle area. And she has a secret wish.

Guest blogger Holly Arsenault is the program manager of Seattle Center Teen Tix and has taught theater and writing to students from kindergarten through college. She is also a playwright and dramaturg. I asked her whether engaging young people requires a shift in artistic programming to accommodate their distinct needs, or whether we can attract them to existing programming with targeted marketing messages, social events before or after the program, etc. Here’s her full response:


Ha! Yes. That is the question. I’ve always said (actually, I’ve rarely said, but I’ve always thought) that my secret, subversive goal with Teen Tix was to drag the median age of Seattle arts audiences down enough that it would start to have an impact on programming.

I’ll tell you this: if you were to look at our show-by-show numbers, you’d see that there’s no amount of packaging I can do that’s as impactful on our ticket sales to teens as a show simply being compelling to teenagers. Of course, I see a difference in our numbers when I’ve done a good job of illuminating for our members why a particular show is relevant to them in a way that might not have been apparent, but I can’t make something that’s clearly irrelevant seem like it is.

Nor would I want to. The last thing you want is to convince a young person to go see something by claiming that it’s something that it’s not, then have them bored or alienated by the experience. So, despite our success at growing this audience, I do spend a lot of time wishing that I had better (meaning: more youth-friendly) material to work with.

That said, I do find that teen audiences, particularly at the younger end of the age spectrum, tend to be more conservative in their tastes than you might expect. I think some of them have a preconceived notion of what an arts experience should look like, and they like to have that notion confirmed before they become interested in branching out and trying new things. ...

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Categories: Arts marketing, Child audiences, Museums, Performing arts, Theater, Visual art, 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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