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

January 06, 2012

At the Colorado Symphony, half-steps toward a “consumer-first business model”

The orchestra’s new business plan, “Creating a 21st Century Orchestra,” is being positoned as a radical step toward relevance and away from the pieties of the past. But compared to some of what’s going on in the arts these days, it doesn’t push very far. Where are the consumers in this new model? Largely in their seats, where they belong.

Reading the plan, I was reminded of what a friend said after returning from the League of American Orchestras conference a year or two ago. “It’s a dinosaur convention,” he reported. “They all know the comet has struck, but they have no clue what to do about it.”

In the Colorado document, there’s much talk of new realities and the need for “redirection.” “The program content and existing format of the orchestra is no longer appropriate to adapt to a viable 21 century model,” the plan declares. But that big diagnosis is followed by a small, familiar prescription: the orchestra will “expand its performances through full orchestra, chamber orchestra, and small ensembles to venues around the entire area.” 

The logic, presumably, is that what’s no longer relevant Coloradans when presented in Boettcher Hall will be relevant when presented in venues in their own communities. That makes a little sense, but only a little. Venues make a difference when they create alternative frames for the arts experience: new conventions, behaviors, participation, interaction, vibe. (Arts researcher Alan Brown has a terrific forthcoming paper about the role of venues, which I'll link to.)


Jeffrey Kahane leads the Colorado Symphony Orchestra. Photo Karl Gehring, The Denver Post

There’s no mention of any of that in the Colorado plan. Instead, it reaffirms the traditional, presentational model of classical music (“uncompromising artistic quality presenting music that is timeless and fostering new music”) as well as a taste-making function that sounds painfully self-justifying in this context (“our artistic responsibility to be a curator of the great music, traditional and contemporary, as a service to our community”). Nobody seems to have noticed that values like those are what led orchestras to the relevance and support challenges they currently face, and which the new plan is supposed to address.

In other words, everything’s being questioned except the underlying assumptions. 

I guess that’s a formula for incremental change, at least, and for the institutional stability that makes change possible. But it may also make institutions themselves—established, sizable, and reasonably well-funded arts organizations like the Colorado Symphony—vulnerable to competition from upstarts offering consumers more dramatic departures from tradition and more involving forms of relevance.  

I’ve blogged about some of those upstarts before, and in my next post I’ll look at a few more who are getting consumers out of their seats and into the business (and artistic) model.

Full Post »
Categories: Business models, Classical music, Innovation, Institutional personality, New audiences, Performing arts, Strategy and strategic planning
Comments (1)  ::  Share This


December 05, 2011

Flash-mob opera: The devil is in the attitude

So these four opera singers walk into a food court... It worked beautifully in Philadelphia’s Reading Market last winter, as I blogged at the time. But a week’s worth of Chicago Opera Theater singers doing the same thing in Chicago suggests that it’s not easy to make this kind of public arts-grenade infectious rather than merely interesting.

The setting and the surprise are the same: a busy downtown food market at lunchtime, with diners eating, reading, and talking. Some music begins—in this case a pianist at an electronic keyboard—and one of the people waiting on line for coffee turns around and begins to sing an operatic chestnut in a big, gorgeous voice.


Video and photos below: Marcus Leshock/WGNTV)

The folks at Chicago Opera Theater are clearly taking a page from their colleagues at the Opera Company of Philadelphia, who have done several of these stealth interventions under the Knight Foundation’s wonderful “Random Acts of Culture” program.

But compare the videos (Chicago and Philadelphia) and photos and you can sense a subtle but decisive difference. The bystanders—bysitters?—in Chicago don’t really get into it. They seem intrigued but not enlivened. Their faces have a slightly closed-off look, the look you get when someone's trying to sell you something. For the most part, they go on with what they were doing.

Whereas the faces in Philadelphia are smiling, energized, made happier. They pull out their smartphones to shoot video. Strangers talk and gesture to each other. A crowd gathers.

What’s the difference? Not artistic quality, at least in the usual sense. It’s something in the faces and body language of the performers. The OCP singers are clearly having fun, relishing the stunt and the connections it lets them make with people. This is classical music as a social practice.

The COT singers pull the same stunt gamely, but gamely isn’t the same thing as wholeheartedly or comfortably. Their smiles seem a little more stagey. Their eyes aren’t twinkling with the giddiness of the enterprise, the energy that turns a performance into a party. They're putting themselves out there, but they're not making a scene.

Predictably, they get back what they give. ...

Full Post »
Categories: Chicago, Classical music, Improvisation, Innovation, Institutional personality, New audiences, Performing arts, Venues
Comments (1)  ::  Share This


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?

Full Post »
Categories: Classical music, Culture sector, Demographics, Innovation, Institutional personality, Performing arts
Comment  ::  Share This


July 10, 2011

Guest blogger: Lily Ahrens on how new venues reach new audiences, at a cost

I was delighted a few days ago when someone who’s been freelancing in our office, Lily Ahrens, emailed me to volunteer a guest blog post. Of course I agreed, and not just because the question she wanted to raise is near to my own heart. Lily is a multi-talented young violinist and fiddler with a master’s degree in urban geography (she wrote her thesis on how performance spaces influenced the arts scene in Asheville, NC). Her background in both classical and folk music gives her the perfect perch for these observations:

I recently attended performances by rockabilly group Southern Culture on the Skids at the Old Town School of Folk Music here in Chicago, and Rebirth Brass Band at Symphony Center, home of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. These venues are drastically different from both bands’ typical spots, which allowed me to observe the influence of venue on performance. The new venue may have exposed these bands to a new audience, but they also created significantly different performance experiences.

The first time I heard them, Southern Culture was at an outdoor street festival. The crowd, mostly in their thirties, was rowdy: dancing, laughing, singing, and yelling back and forth with the band. Dancing was also a key feature at the Rebirth show I saw at the Howlin’ Wolf in New Orleans. The Howlin’ Wolf is a large music club with a big bar and open space to congregate in front of the stage. The type of music Rebirth plays is infectious. I can't imagine listening to it without dancing. At least I couldn’t, until I went to their Symphony Center performance.


Rebirth Brass Band plays the Howlin' Wolf in New Orleans

Symphony Center attracts a much older audience than the Howlin’ Wolf. The ornately-decorated, formal space dictates a more proper decorum. The audience stayed seated for much of the performance, even while the musicians danced and motioned for us to follow suit. For a couple of exuberant songs we did stand, as an entire audience. But as the song ended we dutifully took our seats. At one point, a small group of ardent supports danced near the stage while the rest of the audience sat. This lasted only until an older gentleman, whose view was slightly blocked, asked them to sit down. He was visibly annoyed that the dancers were interfering with his experience.

That’s the difference right there. At the Howlin’ Wolf, dancing is an intrinsic part of the experience, which is defined broadly to include the audience, ambiance, activities like drinking and talking — the whole thing. Whereas at Symphony Center, the experience is defined more narrowly as the music itself, so anything in addition to the music is viewed as extraneous or a distraction. ...

Full Post »
Categories: Arts participation, Chicago, Classical music, Demographics, Guest blogger, Institutional personality, Performing arts
Comments (2)  ::  Share This


July 02, 2011

A dubious pep talk from Norman Lebrecht: The orchestra as “relief” from our “communicative addiction”

Lebrecht, a prolific and provocative commentator on the classical music scene, has written an appropriately sober state-of-the-field piece in a British cultural monthly. The question being raised around the world, he tells us, is “Who needs a symphony orchestra?” His answer is that we all do, because classical concerts “restore balance to over-busy lives.” Maybe, but that argument is part of the problem.

Lebrecht’s summary of recent good and bad news in classical music draws from Europe and Asia as well as the US, so it provides some helpful context for us provincial Americans. But his reasons for believing that “that the symphony orchestra will always survive” are pretty familiar:

[I]n a lifestyle of wall-to-wall wi-fi and instant tweets, the concert hall is one of the few places where we become reachable, where we can switch off our lifelines and surrender to a form that will not let us go for an hour or more. The symphony orchestra is our relief from the communicative addiction. It forces us, willy-nilly, to resist the responsive urge. It is a cold-turkey cure for our reactive insanity, our self-destroying restlessness.

Sure, that’s an interesting twist: we become “reachable” in an emotional or spiritual sense only when we become unreachable in a technological sense: when our gadgets are turned off.

And I’m struck by how similar Lebrecht’s diagnosis is to Martha Lavey’s, which I blogged about here recently. Lavey, the artistic director of Steppenwolf Theater, argued that sitting quietly in the dark with our devices put away forces us to internalize and process our responses to the artwork, whereas putting those responses into words for a tweet or a text shortcuts that inward reckoning and diffuses the moment. Clearly Lebrecht would agree.

But at bottom this is the old notion that classical music is a retreat from contemporary life, an antidote to its poison, rather than a vibrant part of it. As I’ve argued here before, it’s a self-defeating position: you can’t argue for classical music’s relevance to contemporary culture while also insisting that its virtue lies in how set apart from that culture it is. ...

Full Post »
Categories: Arts participation, Classical music, Performing arts, State of the arts
Comments (3)  ::  Share This


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. ...

Full Post »
Categories: Arts marketing, Chicago, Conferences, Culture sector, Participatory engagement and co-creation, Performing arts, Slover Linett events, State of the arts, Visual art
Comments (5)  ::  Share This


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. ...

Full Post »
Categories: Culture sector, Innovation, Museums, Performing arts, State of the arts
Comment  ::  Share This


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. ...

Full Post »
Categories: Culture sector, Innovation, Museums, Performing arts, State of the arts
Comments (2)  ::  Share This


March 14, 2011

NEA report #2: Declining arts education, declining audiences

Last week I wrote about one of the three new reports that the National Endowment for the Arts released, each of which looks at the Survey of Public Participation in the Arts through a different lens. Today we’ll turn to Nick Rabkin’s eye-opening analysis of trends in arts education. We all knew the picture wouldn’t be pretty, but…

Rabkin has been studying and working in arts education for many years and knows the territory cold; he’s currently wrapping up a five-year, multi-funder study of the role of teaching artists in schools and other settings. (Full disclosure: Nick’s a friend, and he and I are developing a research project together.) Rabkin and his co-author, E.C. Hedberg, are both at the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, where Rabkin is also affiliated with the Cultural Policy Center.

Their paper, Arts Education in America: What the Declines Mean for Arts Participation [pdf], dives into two big questions. That there’s less arts education going on in our schools these days is no surprise, but how much less, and for which students? And we’ve known for some time that arts education in childhood is linked to later participation in the arts, but how does the evidence for that link hold up, and what does it imply for arts policy and arts management?

The answers here are pretty grim (my sentiment, not necessarily Rabkin and Hedberg’s). The authors’ ingenious parsing of the SPPA data reveals that arts education rose steadily from the 1930s to the 1970s, which helped create a large national audience for the arts and thereby fueled the terrific growth of the nonprofit arts sector in America: the rise of “a dazzling and diverse collection” of “producing institutions and venues in cities and towns coast to coast.”
 


But, as you can see, something happened in the late-’70s and ’80s, a reversal that’s unusually abrupt for macro-level social change. Who threw the switch? Probably the back-to-basics school reformers, who gathered steam around that time (and who eventually won passage of No Child Left Behind in 1992). They viewed the arts as a luxury, “soft” goods with no direct impact on broader educational outcomes.

The worst part — and for me the real bombshell of the study — is that the declines in childhood arts education since 1982 have been absorbed almost entirely by African American and Hispanic children. If you look only at white respondents to the survey, there’s been some variation but no decline from 1982 to 2008. It’s the non-white communities where the drop has been precipitous. Although the data is inherently sketchy, the authors believe these declines occurred mostly in in-school arts education, not the voluntary, after-school kind (like private music or dance lessons). ...

Full Post »
Categories: Arts participation, Early exposure, Learning, Museums, Performing arts, Research findings, Student research, Survey research
Comment  ::  Share This


March 07, 2011

Shining brighter light on the arts participation data

The NEA has just released three new reports it commissioned to look more closely at the Survey of Public Participation in the Arts from different perspectives. I’ll blog about all three of them this week and next, starting today with a quick look at the terrific paper by our friends Jennifer Novak-Leonard and Alan Brown about why we need to look “beyond attendance.”

Those two were the obvious choice to tackle this topic for the NEA. In 2004 Brown published a much-needed (and since then, much-cited) framework of five modes of art engagement [pdf], in which observational participation — sitting in the seat, wandering through the exhibition — is seen as only one slice of the pie, and not necessarily the tastiest slice. Novak-Leonard, the lead author of the new paper, worked on the influential RAND study “Gifts of the Muse” (also 2004) and soon thereafter joined Brown at WolfBrown.

Their paper, “Beyond Attendance: A Multi-Modal Understanding of Arts Participation,” [pdf] will speed the shift in the national arts conversation away from butts-in-the-seats thinking and toward a more holistic, contemporary definition of arts engagement. Their analysis shows that Americans are involved in the arts to roughly the same extent in three different modes: attending them live, enjoying them through technology, and participating in creative activities themselves. Their Venn diagram…
 


…is worth laminating and pinning to your cork board, even though it’s based on SPPA data that are far from perfect or comprehensive. (The next wave of the survey may look very different; the NEA’s research director, Sunil Iyengar, is rethinking the approach, with the help of papers like these three.)

If you add up the numbers in any one circle, you find about half of U.S. adults reporting that they engaged at least once in that mode in the past year. (Obviously, it’s not the same 50% in all three modes.) Note that the percentage of Americans who report engaging in all three ways is the same as the percentage engaging in none of these ways — the artless, we might call them, at least within the set of questions the SPPA asks. It’s roughly a quarter of the population in each case. And you won’t be surprised that the technology-participating crowd is slightly larger than the live-attending crowd; these are 2008 numbers, and I expect to see that disparity grow in coming years. ...

Full Post »
Categories: Arts participation, Museums, Participatory engagement and co-creation, Performing arts, Research findings, State of the arts, Survey research
Comment  ::  Share This


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