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

August 05, 2011

Beyond learning: museums as aesthetic experiences

Part of the fun of the Visitor Studies Association conference two weeks ago was getting to bat around provocative ideas with some terrific colleagues. My own lob into the fray was a brief talk asking what we’d gain by seeing museum visits — even to science museums and the like — as aesthetic experiences. Here’s the gist of it.

It helped that one of my fellow panelists, Jennifer Novak-Leonard, had just talked about impact assessment in the performing arts. Everyone knows a symphony or a contemporary dance performance is an aesthetic experience, right? But in the museum world — even in art museum category, I’m afraid — what dominates the conversation about purposes and outcomes is learning. That fits the Enlightenment roots of museums, sure, but based on my experience researching audiences in the cultural sector (from Baroque music to science centers to zoos) it leaves out what matters most.

When we ask visitors why they came to the museum today, the top two responses are usually something about having fun and something about spending time with family or friends (the specifics depend on how we ask the question). Coming in third is learning something new or exploring the museum’s content area (natural history, wildlife biology, art history, whatever).

Whatever else it is, museum-going is a pleasure-seeking activity. Learning can be pleasurable, of course, and it’s a key ingredient in the stew. But it’s not, in itself, what draws people to museums. As the logicians would say, learning is a necessary but not a sufficient condition of a successful museum experience.

Yet what is our entire apparatus of museum evaluation built around? What are the funders paying us to assess? What do we set our exhibit and program outcomes around? Not our visitors’ first two goals, pleasure and social interaction — despite the fact that both of these are getting attention as components of a healthy, sustainable society. We focus almost exclusively on their third priority, learning.

Of course, we acknowledge that museum experiences have to be engaging, stimulating — pleasurable — in order to hold people’s attention long enough for them to learn something. But the hierarchy is clear: pleasure (if it’s present in our conversation at all) is the means to an end: it’s one of many things that can contribute to the desired outcome (learning). What if, for once, we flipped that and saw learning as one thing that can contribute to pleasure? What if pleasure, that basic building block of human and social happiness, were the highest goal?

In other words, what if museums took a page from the performing arts and thought of exhibits and programs as aesthetic experiences? By “aesthetic” I don’t mean “beautiful” or even visually striking. I’m using the word in a broad sense based on a tradition that runs from Aristotle to Kant and Schiller and right up through 20th century formalism. An aesthetic experience is one that’s intrinsically, not instrumentally important. It feels purposeful but doesn’t serve any purpose external to itself — except pleasure. It’s a sensory experience but somehow weaves sensation and rational understanding into a whole that transcends both parts, with results that are emotional. It’s a species of play. ...

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Categories: Conferences, Culture sector, Institutional personality, Museums, Science museums, Visual art
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July 31, 2011

Classical chops, rock vibe: 2Cellos shows what else can happen

A few days ago, Luka Sulic and Stjepan Hauser, two high-octane Croatian musicians known as 2Cellos, played at Le Poisson Rouge in New York. I wish I’d been in town to see them live, because their viral YouTube videos display all the qualities I’ve been saying classical music needs more of: rawness, energy, impoliteness, spontaneity, ego. If you haven’t watched them in action, you’re missing something.

The two young cellists are both classically trained: both attended royal conservatories in the UK and one of them (Hauser) was a student of the late cello legend Mstislav Rostropovich. Both were doing well on the competition circuit and were playing internationally at all the right venues. 

Apparently they avoided the indoctrination that usually comes with that kind of training — the traditional ideals that still shape the careers of many classical prodigies. They’re working outside of the culture of classical music, making other uses of their prodigious talent and rigorous training. For one thing, they’re playing rock, or at least that’s what they got famous for, almost overnight on YouTube: propulsive, virtuosic renditions Guns N’ Roses’ “Welcome to the Jungle” and Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal.”

But it’s not just what they play, it’s how: fiercely, almost animalistically, twisting with energy, stamping their feet, and beating up their instruments. Their bows literally shred during the performance. In other words, they embody the subversive energy of rock and roll, the Dionysian upwelling that felt, to the establishment in rock’s early days, so aggressive and sexual and threatening.

The response they’ve been getting is more enthusiastic and more genuinely human than any classical audience reaction I’ve seen. No wonder Elton John asked them to tour with him this summer and fall (see photo with Sir Elton).

The classical realm (if that’s where we are) hasn’t seen anything like it since Nicolo Paganini, who was something like the Eddie Van Halen of his day. Classical music people often bring up Paganini to show that classical music can have the rabid crowds and almost-destabilizing force of popular music. But that begs the question of what has happened in the 170 years between Paganini and, say, Lang Lang, who’s a major star by classical standards but about as subversive as a Harry Potter sequel.

Sulic and Hauser are answering that question by example. They’re also demonstrating that conservatory training can pay off in ways that look very different from the traditional picture of success. Not long ago they might have been considered apostates, but given the conversation that’s going on at arts colleges (at least in the US) about creativity, innovation, and the changing role of musicians and artists in society, I’ll bet those two handsome cellists become poster children for the new era.

What do you think? Is it classical? Does it matter? And what (if anything) does it mean for classical music’s relationship to the broader culture?

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Categories: Classical music, Culture sector, Demographics, Innovation, Institutional personality, Performing arts
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July 30, 2011

The Onion’s art museum joke is worth taking seriously

I know, there’s nothing more deadly than dissecting a joke. But last week’s Onion article about a new “art jail” in San Francisco suggests that those sophomoric editors remember their Foucault. It also suggests that Americans still see art museums, deep down, as authoritarian and heavy-handed. Otherwise, we wouldn’t get the joke.

Michel Foucault and other cultural theorists of the late 20th century viewed museums as “disciplinary” institutions, along with prisons, hospitals, schools and the like: places that represent and enforce political power, usually of the capitalist and imperialist variety.

The Onion’s clever twist is that it’s the artworks that are being punished, not the visitors. The new “detention facility” is designed to “imprison a large population of high-profile paintings and sculptures,” with “particularly prominent or notorious” works held in “solitary confinement”—that is, in “rooms all by themselves, where they hang on otherwise bare walls and are kept under close scrutiny by guards.” Which isn’t a bad description of how museums do treat well-known masterpieces.


The Onion's caption: "An art jail guard watches over three prisoners."

The art jail’s “warden and distinguished Rembrandt scholar” evinces both a fetish for organization —

“If you want to maintain order, you have to put each piece in its proper place,” said Paulson, explaining that inmates were strictly divided by genre, artist, and form.

— and a vague, do-gooder’s confidence about his institution’s value to society:

“By keeping these masterpieces within our walls…we hope to do a great service to our city and to society as a whole.”

It’s a sharp, Hollywood-style parody of the museum director. And the whole piece raises some surprisingly rich questions about where art belongs, whether its creativity is inherently subversive and therefore on some level a threat, and what the purpose of art museums really is. 

For Foucault, museums were one of the ways that society “exercises its controlling systems of power and knowledge.” But they were also (as a terrific paper [pdf] in a museum journal points out) places based on, and designed to promulgate, the Enlightenment values of critique, freedom, and progress, which are exactly what can help us overcome those controlling systems. They’re simultaneously stabilizing and destabilizing, conservative and progressive. 

But next time you visit an art museum, look around and ask yourself which impulse predominates.

The punch line was that, a few days after the Onion satire appeared, the New York Times profiled a contemporary art museum that opened last year in Uruguay in…you guessed it, an abandoned prison. “Cells allow viewers to see modern art and installations…in isolation,” the writer observes, sounding an awful lot like the Onion.

Of course, the Uruguay museum isn’t the first, even in South America. The National Museum of Colombia resides in a former fortress-prison built in the 19th century called the Panóptico. The design of that building was based on the Panopticon prison laid out in the 18th century by the English social reformer Jeremy Bentham, whose work Foucault had a lot to say about.

What do you think? Is the Onion article funny? Is the jail metaphor just flippant reverse-snobbery, or is it apt?

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Categories: Culture sector, Museums, Visual art
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May 01, 2011

Technology and its discontents in the arts — The Culturelab dust settles

My brain is still buzzing from two days of presentations, conversation, and debate at the second annual Culturelab convening at the University of Chicago. Day One was an invitational affair with a small group of philanthropic and government funders from the US, UK, and Australia. On Day Two we were joined by Chicago-area arts leaders (and some terrific grad students who will become arts leaders) for an "emerging practice" seminar. The heart of the agenda was a debate about technological layering onto arts experiences: enrichment or distraction?

I had assumed the conceptual action would be on Day One, with its big-picture agenda built around the recent supply and demand fracas in the arts (I spoke on the demand side of the equation). The topics for Day Two — technology in the morning, pricing in the afternoon — promised a more tactical discussion.

But things got interesting well before the lunchtime debate between Alan Brown, the well-known arts researcher (and founder of the Culturelab consortium), and Martha Lavey, the much-admired artistic director of Steppenwolf Theater, about whether audiences should be able to use their mobile devices during performances. Ron Evans (at left) gave a witty and eye-opening talk [pdf] about mobile interactivity and augmented reality, including a card-game app from the Tate Modern in which visitors (you have to be at the museum to play) pick artworks that they think would win in a fight if the works came to life and started brawling with each other.

You could hear the uneasy chuckles in the room: Sounds clever, but is that how we want people engaging with Art?

Evans was followed by another bright young light in the world of social tech: Devon Smith, who talked about foursquare and its current and potential uses in the arts. Among her examples: an art-treasure hunt and exhibition held last year in New York called Mission: Edition, from an art gallery interested in what it calls “psychogeography.” Not surprisingly, the Brooklyn Museum is also on Smith’s foursquare A-list.

What I began to realize, listening to Evans, Smith and others talk about technologies as simple as supertitles and as sophisticated as this amazing dance interactive, is that what’s “augmented” about these arts experiences is the social connection. There’s someone talking to you. Or you’re talking to someone. You’re not alone. ...

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Categories: Arts marketing, Chicago, Conferences, Culture sector, Participatory engagement and co-creation, Performing arts, Slover Linett events, State of the arts, Visual art
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April 18, 2011

More on supply and demand: The arts need a definition that’s not negative

In my last post, I wrote that the supply and demand debate that’s still simmering in the arts has raised fundamental questions about what we mean by “the arts.” In fact, these days every conversation in the arts field, from how to measure impact and how to harness the participatory energy to what kinds of facilities we should be building, seems to lead back to those questions. The arts are in a definitional crisis. And that’s a good thing.

The phenomenal growth of the nonprofit arts sector that began in the US in the late 1950s and 1960s was fueled in part by macro trends like rising postwar education and income levels and tax policies that led many well-off people to set up foundations. But of course it was also driven by cultural imperatives, and in retrospect it’s pretty clear that among these was a strong desire to be a counterweight to popular culture, which was coming into its own at around the same time and taking on a subversive, youthful energy that made traditionalists nervous. (I remember my grandfather curtly dismissing the Beatles as “noise.” The Beatles!)

This was a negative identity, premised on oppositions rather than intrinsic attributes. The arts were non-commercial, non-profit, “high” culture as distinct from “low.” It’s almost as if the purpose of the arts, as that category came to be defined, was to be an antidote to the rest of culture: civilized because everything else was increasingly uncivil; elegant and “serious” because everything else was coarse and frivolous; formal because everything else seemed to be coming loose.

In a way, the negative identity was nothing new: composers had been writing atonal scores and artists painting non-representational canvases since the Modernist era began in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, in part to distinguish their work from more vernacular forms. But the divergence of popular culture and the arts in the latter half of the 20th century ran deeper; it became a kind of aesthetically-based class structure, or rather many structures: dance companies, regional theaters, art museums, chamber music festivals, poetry societies, and so on.

And clearly that identity worked well, at least for several decades. As researcher Nick Rabkin points out in his recent NEA paper on arts education [pdf], demand in the 60s and 70s grew right along with, or maybe even drove, the increasing supply of nonprofit arts organizations. We built it, and they did come. And we kept building it because they were coming.

Obviously the negative definition is still working for some audiences and some organizations. I’ll occasionally hear a symphony trustee or an art museum curator lovingly describe their institutions in just those oppositional ways.

But it’s clearly not working for everyone. We’re still building it, but they’re no longer coming in those numbers. (We don’t know when the peak in attendance was, but it was probably before the NEA’s Survey of Public Participation began in 1982.) What changed? Among other things, the assumptions and mindset on which the oppositional definition was premised. ...

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Categories: Culture sector, Innovation, Museums, Performing arts, State of the arts
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April 15, 2011

The arts debate du jour is about supply and demand. But of what?

Unless you’ve been vacationing on Saturn’s moon Titan, you’ve probably heard about the flap over NEA chairman Rocco Landesman’s suggestion, at a conference back in January, that since nonprofit theaters (and by extension the rest of the arts) can’t expect to build demand, they’d better start thinking about reducing supply. Some sharp questions have been raised in the ensuing debate, and they’re on my mind because I’ve been asked to talk about demand-building at a symposium later this month.

I wasn’t going to blog about the Landesman kerfuffle since everyone else did. (By the way, why are there so many fun words for this kind of communal dismay and debate? I could have said brouhaha, hullabaloo, ruckus, or dustup.) When I first heard what he had said, it seemed like such a patently self-defeating position. Of course the arts can build demand, I thought; to say otherwise is to throw up our hands (not to mention our marketing budgets) and go home. Forget every outreach and education program, forget audience research on needs and perceptions, forget innovation, forget participatory experiences, social marketing, collaboration, pricing…

But wait a second. Haven’t we been doing all that, and doing it with increasing sophistication and funding and a quiver full of new technological arrows? Yet the Survey of Public Participation in the Arts and plenty of other evidence tell us it’s not working (not for the performing arts, at least, although art museum attendance appears to be holding steady). When I started laying out for my talk all the ways that the arts and culture sector works to stimulate demand, and thinking about how few of those ways actually seem likely to grow the audience overall, I found I had more sympathy with Rocco’s point than I realized. ...

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Categories: Culture sector, Innovation, Museums, Performing arts, State of the arts
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February 14, 2011

OK Cupid and the attraction curve

It’s Valentine’s Day, so it’s fitting that I finally visited the dating website that my favorite podcaster, Rob Long, had talked about in a recent episode. Turns out the clever nerds who run OK Cupid, a booming singles site, have stumbled on a surprising statistical truth about which members get the most attention...a truth that helps explain something I’ve noticed in our own surveys of cultural audiences for years.

Now, bear with me. It’s a big leap from dating-website data to how and why people connect to an orchestra or a natural history museum. But as Rob notes in his characteristically wry take on the data, the ins and outs of attraction are a pretty good metaphor for all kinds of human preference-related behaviors, especially in leisure-time, feel-good categories like music, art, and entertainment. “Everything, when you get down to it, is kinda like dating.”

And this post traffics in the objectification of women, a dubious first for me. The OK Cupid crew have analyzed stats from their site about which female members are considered hot and which get the most messages from other members. They promise to do the same for (to?) men soon. Meanwhile, if you’re particularly sensitive to “lookism,” skip down to the bottom and post a disgruntled comment.

So what’s the big reveal? That the women on the site who get the most attention (in the form of messages from other members) aren’t the ones with the highest average attractiveness ratings. They’re the ones with the most disparate ratings — the ones about whom opinion is divided. Lots of 1s and 5s in your ratings is better than lots of 4s. As OK Cupid co-founder Christian Rudder puts it in his post about the analysis, “Guys tend to ignore girls who are merely cute” (that is, fairly but not outrageously attractive), “and, in fact, having some men think she’s ugly actually works in a woman’s favor.”

The whole post is fascinating, and the statistical analysis looks strong, especially for that counterintuitive last bit about how the lowest attractiveness ratings actually contribute more to the attention the member receives than the second-highest ratings. (And for the record, we’re not talking about negative attention. We’re talking about the correlation between the distribution of attractiveness scores and the number of approaches that men make to female members, presumably with a relationship on their minds.) ...

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Categories: Culture sector, Engagement, General, Museums, Participatory engagement and co-creation, Performing arts, Research findings, Social media
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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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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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August 09, 2010

Unsolicited advice for the Brooklyn Museum, much of it revealing

New York Times culture writer Robin Pogrebin continues her trial of the museum on charges of populism and attendance-mongering, this time by soliciting prescriptions from expert witnesses around the art world. But their advice tells us more about the conflicted state of thinking about art museums than about what’s going on across the East River. 

In a much-discussed article two months ago, Pogrebin challenged the Brooklyn Museum to explain why, after all those populist exhibitions and hip, admission-free social events, its overall attendance hadn’t risen. She noted that in 2004 the museum had set itself the goal of tripling attendance, and somehow managed to criticize both the fact that the museum had set such a goal — that’s bottom-line, crowd-oriented values, anathema to a true cultural institution! — and the fact that it had failed to meet it. 

Now, in a two-page spread in yesterday’s arts and leisure section, Pogrebin repeats those charges as the intro to a series of brief diagnoses and prescriptions from 18 invited observers. Some of them, like former Whitney Museum director David Ross and MFA Houston director Peter Marzio, are supportive of Brooklyn and its director, Arnold Lehman, while others, like Indianapolis Museum of Art director Max Anderson and New York State Council on the Arts chairman Daniel Simmons, Jr., implicitly criticize the museum for barking up the wrong tree.

But the assumptions and ideals that underlie their assessments are all over the map. The proverbial Martian anthropologist would read these capsule prescriptions and conclude that we Earthlings (or maybe, we New Yorkers) have no collective idea what our art museums are for or what might count as evidence of their success. 

Local community “ownership”? Trustee giving? Home-run exhibitions? World-class collections? Giving new artists their first shows? Curatorial vision? Empowering local artists? Creating touring shows? Diverse audiences? Large audiences? Web hits from around the world? Taking risks? Sticking to core competencies? Being like the Met? Differentiating from the Met?

As usual, there are two competing strains running through these comments, the same two strains that have riven the art museum world since the 19th century, when institutions like the Brooklyn Museum and the Met were founded. One emphasizes the separateness of art from daily experience and seeks to protect the curatorial, institutional authority that maintains that separateness. The other emphasizes the embeddedness of art in daily experience and wants to place curatorial and institutional authority in service to communities and their needs. ...

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Categories: Arts participation, Culture sector, Engagement, Metrics, Museums, Visual art
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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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