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 20, 2012

Mini-post: What we should be talking about when we talk about the Trenton City Museum

My colleagues tease me that I never write a short blog post when a 1200-word essay will do. To prove them wrong, here’s a quick thought about the struggling Trenton City Museum — or rather, a recent diagnosis of it in the NY Times.

The Times piece lays out the dismal saga: city cuts budget, lays off museum director (along with a third of the Trenton police force), puts intern in the directors’ office. Donors panicked and angry, Brooklyn Museum retracts offer to loan a vase for upcoming exhibition, exhibition cancelled. Search for new director yields 10 resumes, most unqualified.

Why such a sorry state? Budget woes, according to the article.

But there, alongside the article, is a photo that makes a very different argument about what the problem might be:
 

 
Photo: Tim Larsen for the New York Times


Shouldn’t we really be talking about what a museum is supposed to do and what kinds of experiences it should try to make possible? About the relationship between the past and the present, and about how ‘culture’ looks and works today? About innovation in the cultural sector and how organizations of all sizes are renegotiating their relationships with their communities?

I suppose that in some situations the macroeconomics are so bad that no amount of reinvention would save the day. But until cultural organizations try it, they'll never know. Look at what Nina Simon is doing in Santa Cruz. My guess is that the budget problems we talk about so much in the arts are the water that seeps in when the foundations begin to erode.

"The City Museum still hopes to mount an exhibition of the vases,” we’re told. I hope they also take the opportunity to ask some new questions about why and how.

I’ll try a few other mini-posts in the next few weeks; let me know if they’re valuable.

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Categories: History museums, Innovation, Museums, Visitor experience, Visual art
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April 10, 2012

Happy Arts Advocacy Day! Go bake a cake

Whether you know it or not, your life is affected by some form of art in every waking minute of every day. Architects design the buildings in which you live and work; graphic designers create the signs that guide you and the logos that bombard you; writers create the sitcoms and dramas that make you cry with laughter or just plain cry; chefs create the meals that look so good you almost don’t want to eat them (and the desserts you don’t have room for but you eat anyway). So, who needs Arts Advocacy Day? You do.

We are used to thinking of “the arts” in standard formats — from the masterpieces of sculptors and painters to the thrill of live actors sweating out their emotions to the splendor of dancers who move in ways we could never imagine. We tend to reserve outings to view these formats for special occasions. But art isn’t always a special occasion — it’s part of our everyday lives.

This is why Arts Advocacy Day, an annual tradition created 25 years ago by Americans for the Arts, is so important. It’s not just about advocating to your congressperson in support of museums, theaters, or dance companies. It’s about advocating for...well, humanity. It’s a time to think about what “art” is and what it can be. A smartphone app. A headphone design. A guerilla marketing campaign. In my mind, anything that stems from an idea and is meant to positively and impractically enhance a person’s state of being is art.

Broad, you say? Of course. Art is broad, but over the decades it has been troublesomely compartmentalized into stifling categories. It needs to come out of the box. 

So to recognize this year’s Arts Advocacy Day — actually two days, April 16 and 17 — you could see a play or go to a museum or attend a chamber music concert. (Frankly, I think you should do these things throughout the year.) However, I suggest some alternate art immersions:
 

  • Sign up for a pastry class, a great mix of science (for the taste) and art (for the presentation). Plus, yummy.

  • Read a book about typeface design. You probably use the font Arial every day, but do you realize each character was meticulously designed by graphic artists? 

  • Instead of e-mailing a loved one, find some markers and a piece of paper and hand-draw a creative greeting, and then send it via snail mail. Much more personal than any electronic note. (By the way, the stamp on the envelope? Art.)

I advocate for the arts. But more importantly, I advocate for a larger acceptance of what “the arts” really are. And if I'm wrong, then I'll eat my artistically designed hat.
 

Arts Advocacy Day: The 2012 National Arts Action Summit will be held April 16 and 17 in Washington DC. On the evening of the 16th, actor Alec Baldwin will give the annual Nancy Hanks Lecture on Arts and Public Policy at the Kennedy Center. To learn effective ways to advocate for your favorite arts organizations, visit the Arts Action Center at ArtsUSA.org

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Categories: Advocacy, Diversity, Museums, Participatory engagement and co-creation, Performing arts, State of the arts
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April 06, 2012

Do cultural institutions tell stories? A new bestseller gets me thinking

The rise of live storytelling in recent years is remarkable, both for its bottom-up, scrappy scene (headquartered in Brooklyn, of course) and its rehabilitation of a historical form of entertainment and conviviality. A few storytelling events are held at museums, but that’s not the same as museums telling stories in their own exhibitions or programs. A new hiking memoir, of all things, just reminded me what the recipe has always been.

Having been laid up sick for a few days with the book, Wild, for company, I can tell you that its author, Cheryl Strayed, deserves the praise that critics have been showering on her. The book, which is about how she hiked the Pacific Crest Trail alone in order to put her reckless, splintered life back together, is heartfelt, honest, gripping, funny and, for me at least, deeply moving.

Those are critical clichés, I know. But there’s one kind of cultural narrative they’re almost never used to describe: museum exhibitions. Museum people often speak of exhibitions as “telling the story” of so-and-so, or collections as “telling the stories” of a particular time and place. But compared to the real storytelling that’s going on these days, from The Moth (pictured) to This American Life to books like Strayed’s, museums’ use of the word “story” feels like a mere metaphor, an approximation.

You’ve seen plenty of exhibitions with a historical shape, and a beginning, middle, and an end. But when’s the last time you came out of an exhibition feeling like somebody had told you a story? 

When’s the last time you’d have described an exhibition — or a symphony concert or dance program, for that matter — as heartfelt, gripping, honest, or moving? The individual artworks, historical artifacts, or performances, sure. But the exhibition — the evening — the program created by the cultural institution itself?

Strayed’s book got me thinking about the difference between a narrative (that slightly precious, academic word) and a story. Her book, like all good stories, moves in two directions, which we might call horizontal and vertical (see diagram, below). The horizontal direction is the unfolding of the plot: where the story is taking us, and how we’re going to get from here to there. It’s the dimension of surprises, twists, and the pleasure of wondering (or fearing or wishing) what’s going to happen next. When we say something is gripping or suspenseful, we’re praising the horizontal dimension.

Exhibitions, for all their traditional emphasis on chronological and other kinds of narratives, aren’t particularly good at this. As I’ve asked here before, when do museum visitors ever feel suspense about what the next gallery will tell them, or how it’s going to end? ...

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Categories: Classical music, History museums, Institutional personality, Museums, Public media, Science museums, Storytelling
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March 31, 2012

Good research isn’t about asking audiences what they want

There’s been a thoughtful discussion lately about whether arts organizations are leading or following their audiences, which they ought to be doing, and whether the two are actually opposites. But a sour note can be heard in that chorus on both sides of the debate: the idea that audience research is a tool for pandering. (Cue the Steve Jobs quote about consumers not knowing what they want.) There’s a better way to think about this.

As usual, some of the most constructive ideas in the conversation have come from Diane Ragsdale (top) and Nina Simon, both of whom see the lead/follow dualism as an oversimplification at best and a self-serving masquerade at worst. From their different vantage points, Ragsdale and Simon suggest that leading and following are necessary aspects of a healthy, mutually responsive relevance that is all too rare among today’s arts institutions.

Simon cites her friend Adam Lerner, head of the MCA Denver and the subject of an admiring New York Times profile a few weeks ago, who wrote in 2008 that art museums should become “less visitor-oriented” and that they’re (in Simon’s paraphrase) “misguidedly searching for direction from audiences.” The answers lie inside the organization, Lerner argued then, not outside: museums “need to look more carefully at themselves.”

I’ve heard a similar view from Martha Lavey, artistic director of the hugely successful Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago. She has no patience for the fashionable notion that the community should be consulted on artistic matters, at least at her theater (she acknowledges it makes sense for some other kinds of organizations). Lavey has argued — in harmony with Simon and Lerner, I think, and maybe Ragsdale on some level — that Steppenwolf’s job is to give people something that’s valuable to them but comes not from them but from an artistic impulse within the organization and the artists who work with it. Not from a “strategy,” and certainly not from a survey.

That’s the idea arts leaders have in mind when they quote Steve Jobs’s dictum that “It’s not the consumer’s job to know what they want” and the fact that Apple does no market research. (One of the commenters on Simon’s post sounds this familiar note.)

Except it’s not a fact. It’s one of the self-mythologizing semi-truths about Saint Steve. Apple during his tenure may have had a had a different relationship to consumer research than some companies, but it also had plenty of ways of understanding its customers and their experiences and needs, from user groups and support forums to surveys and “Apple Customer Pulse,” an online feedback panel the company launched about a year ago. It also has a market research department — sorry, Consumer Insights — with a budget we can only guess at. 

Even if we scale Apple way down to the world of art museums and theater companies, that’s far more audience research than most arts organizations have at their fingertips. ...

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Categories: Arts marketing, Museums, Performing arts, Research issues, State of the arts, Visual art
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March 10, 2012

Why a little TED profanity makes me hopeful about Campbell’s Met

The recent TED Talk by Metropolitan Museum of Art director Thomas Campbell hasn’t been posted yet, but the summary on the TED blog sounds terrific — the clearest statement yet that this iconic institution is under new, 21st century management. And the rest of the museum seems to be getting the memo.

According to the blog, Campbell told the assembled TEDsters that the first art history course he took was taught by a hard-drinking, foul-mouthed professor, who at one point showed them a painting depicting a debauched scene with nude figures engaged in all manner of excess. He asked the class what the scene was, and good-boy Campbell — future heir to the throne of patrician prince Philippe de Montebello at the Met — answered that it was a  “bacchanal.”

“You fucking bookworm,” corrected his professor. “It’s a fucking orgy.”

It’s a great joke, particularly if you’ve ever read the labels at an art museum. Campbell’s point in telling it was that he has tried to incorporate that kind of directness in his own curation, part of his project at the Met (and the title of his TED talk): breaking down the walls of the museum. 

All of which must have been a conscious and brave declaration of departure from his predecessor, whose high-flown rhetoric about the timeless power of great art was altogether in the “bacchanal” register. Good for Campbell, and hello to the new Met.

The question is how he’ll put the museum’s money where his mouth is — and whether he’ll be able to do so, given the weight of tradition and the autonomy of senior curators at such an institution. Will the exhibition labels and wall texts really leave behind the kind of curator-speak that Campbell’s professor was so impatient with? Will the Met’s interpretive voice come that far down to earth, stripping away the academic objectivity and the distancing, Latinate rhetoric to get down to the personal, human pleasures of art? ...

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Categories: Institutional personality, Museums, Visual art
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February 27, 2012

As the arts conversation shifts to 'creative placemaking,' will large institutions still count?

The NEA has been funding creative placemaking for a year or so, but it was only recently that I heard cultural economist Ann Markusen and her colleague Anne Gadwa — co-authors of a terrific 2010 whitepaper by that name — present their research for the University of Chicago’s Cultural Policy Center. It’s an exciting story about thriving, innovative arts activity from which the leading, mainstream cultural institutions are almost entirely absent.

In case the phrase is new to you, Markusen and Gadwa define creative placemaking as a process in which “partners from public, private, non-profit, and community sectors strategically shape the physical and social character of a neighborhood, town, city, or region around arts and cultural activities.”

As their case studies show, those activities only sometimes involve people showing up at an existing nonprofit arts venue. Most of the time, the action is out in the neighborhoods, in and around alternative venues: repurposed industrial sites, independent commercial entertainment venues, public outdoor spaces, etc. As Markusen and Gadwa write,

Instead of a single arts center or a cluster of large arts and cultural institutions, contemporary creative placemaking envisions a more decentralized portfolio of spaces acting as creative crucibles. In each, arts and culture exist cheek-by jowl with private sector export and retail businesses and mixed-income housing, often occupying buildings and lots that had been vacant and under-used.

Why? In part (and this is my take, not theirs) because these efforts aren’t really driven by the organizations we usually think of when we think of “the arts,” nor by the people we think of as “arts leaders” in the city in question. They’re driven by other community, civic, or business entities, and sometimes by artists or small, grassroots arts organizations. If we think of most major arts initiatives as top-down affairs, decided on and funded by the arts establishment, the placemaking projects that Markusen and Gadwa write about are bottom-up, or perhaps side-in.

Where are the major arts organizations in this new landscape? Slowly getting on the bandwagon, the authors imply. “Large cultural institutions, often inspired by their smaller counterparts, are increasingly engaging in active placemaking,” they write in their executive summary. But there are precious few examples in the rest of their report. ...

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Categories: Chicago, Innovation, Museums, Performing arts, State of the arts, Strategy and strategic planning, Visual art
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February 18, 2012

Your local multiplex — it’s not just for opera, symphonies, and theater anymore

Its starting to look like the essence of innovation is seeing new uses for old tools. Take the humble movie theater, once synonymous with watching ... well, movies. But the Met’s Live in HD, and later LA Phil Live concerts, made that assumption look so 20th century. Now a London exhibition on Leonardo da Vinci has come to a theater near you. Will museums become local in a whole new sense? 

You may have heard about the exhibition, at the National Gallery in London, which brings together works of Leonardo’s that have never been in the same place. More likely, you’ve read about the “live,” high-def satellite version playing at select movie theaters around the world, in last week's NY Times review and elsewhere. The program is distributed by the same people who give us the Met broadcasts, high profile theater performances, and the occasional rock concert, BY Experience, self-described “pioneers of global live cinema events.” 

What’s new, obviously, is that this is an exhibition, not a performance. You’re looking at artworks. But you’re also (as with the Met’s and LA Phil’s appealing backstage footage and performer interviews) seeing and hearing far more about the art, the artists, and the exhibition itself than you would while snaking your way through the show at the National Gallery. You get the process, not just the product.

In a way, this is a natural evolution of what museum media and technology people have been trying to get their colleagues elsewhere in the museum field  to do for years: to stop thinking of virtual experiences of objects as a threat to in-person encounters with the real thing — a seductive but empty thrill that competes with the more profound in-person experience — and start seeing them as a way of deepening, extending, and personalizing that live experience. 

Few have argued openly that electronically mediated experiences can be legitimate, stand-alone ways of connecting with art, different from but on a par with seeing the genuine article face to face. 

Yet technological advances are changing that calculus. The advantages of the virtual experience are becoming harder to forget about when you’re standing in a crowd trying to see a painting that you can’t get particularly close to and certainly can’t manipulate (as in Google's Art Project), with no globetrotting curators or famous actresses on hand to talk to you about it with a humanizing passion and wit. “Live” can have more than one meaning.

Not that the Leonardo production — which premiered on February 20 and will be shown again at select theaters through the end of the month — is particularly witty. Picture a cross between an Oscar-night telecast (appropriate, given that you’re in a movie theater) and a PBS great-artist documentary. I’ve been listening to enough science podcasts lately to find the tone here a little precious and self-conscious, as if the museum and the filmmakers are anxious to be taken seriously. (Not something that worries particle physicists, for example.)

But still, this is the proverbial game-changer. Not only has the phrase “traveling exhibition” been given a whole new meaning, economically. Art museums are going to have to join their performing arts cousins in grappling with questions about whether they’re in the business of serving local audiences with traditional, live museum experiences or in the business of serving global audiences with electronically distributed experiences. 

Either way, they’ll have to think very differently about how they’re competing, and for whom. As Alan Brown argues in a forthcoming paper on the evolution of arts venues, local arts organizations may lose audiences as consumers head instead to their local multiplexes to see top-drawer international productions beamed in for a night or two. Institutions that aspire to be those international purveyors (like the LA Phil, pictured) will have to reinvent their business models in a way that embraces — and fully interweaves — local production and international distribution. 

That won’t be easy. But these days, invention is the mother of necessity.

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Categories: Business models, Classical music, Innovation, Museums, Performing arts, State of the arts, Technology, Venues, Visual art
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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
.
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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December 06, 2011

A dream conference on public science — help me imagine it

A new grant solicitation from the NSF has me thinking about how and why scientists communicate with laypeople like us, and how and why some laypeople get excited about it. I’ve blogged before about what makes that connection work, but I don’t think there’s been a national conversation about it. Maybe it’s time.

After all, the proliferation of new science content — much of it of a kind you wouldn’t have seen even five or ten years ago — is remarkable. From podcasts like Radiolab and StarTalk and live series like the scrappy Story Collider or the star-studded TED Talks, to new approaches in old-media outlets like Scientific American and PBS, not to mention all those books for the “general reader” that scientists and science journalists are writing, there’s a new energy and a new flavor around science communication. Human narrative is becoming more central, as is humor. Personality and subjectivity are breaking in. The limits of science, and its blurry boundaries with mystery and speculation, are coming out of the closet.

And the whole thing feels less like “science education” than like...well, a cultural phenomenon. Creative intellectual expression meets audience enjoyment. Science as song.

The nature of this change is fascinating to me, and it seems to be largely unexamined. We should be talking about what impulses drive it, what its historical antecedents and social influences are, and especially what it hopes to achieve.

Enter that grant program from the National Science Foundation, which invites proposals for research into innovative evaluation methods in formal or informal STEM education. Don’t worry, it took me a few seconds to sort out the self-referentiality there, too. When I got my head around it, and especially when I saw that there was a grant category for organizing a conference, I realized that this could be an opportunity to bring the best minds in the field together to discuss both sides of the coin:

What is good public science? / What good is public science?

In other words, what does engaging, energizing public science look and sound like? How does it differ from its implicit opposite, professional or inward science, and from the traditional ideals of classroom-based or museum-based STEM learning? How does it relate to other domains of cultural production and engagement?

And the flip side: what is public science meant to achieve, and for whom? What kinds of social, civic, or individual goods are at stake? Most relevant to the NSF grant guidelines, how can we tell if it’s working? We could use this dream conference to come up with new evaluation metrics—or, to use that trendy term, a framework—sensitive to these new forms that science is taking all around us. ...

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Categories: Conferences, Evaluation, Informal science education, Innovation, Institutional personality, Learning, Museums, Science museums
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About Us

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 »

Blogs we love

Arts & Culture
Artful Manager (Andrew Taylor)
Createquity (Ian David Moss)
CultureGrrl (Lee Rosenbaum)
Jumper (Diane Ragsdale)
Life’s A Pitch (Amanda Ameer)
NAMP Radio (monthly podcasts)
Real Clear Arts (Judith Dobrzynski)

Museums
Future of Museums (Elizabeth Merritt)
ExhibitFiles
ExhibitTricks (Paul Orselli)
Expose Your Museum (Kathleen Tinworth)
Museum 2.0 (Nina Simon)
Museum 3.0
The Uncataloged Museum (Linda Norris)

Performing Arts
About Last Night (Terry Teachout)
Sandow (Greg Sandow)
Theater Loop