The rap on research for the arts, museums, and informal sciences
July 11, 2012

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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Categories: Advocacy, Informal science education, Learning, Public media, Science museums, Social media, Subjectivity
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May 27, 2012

Kid Rock amplifies the Detroit Symphony's cultural cred

In my last post, I showed videos from two European orchestras hoping to attract young concertgoers with irony, energy, and lighthearted panache. Easy to claim those attributes, less common to really offer them at a symphony concert. Which may be why the Detroit Symphony Orchestra’s recent high-octane, high-volume performance with Kid Rock has gotten attention in a classical music field worried about its contemporary relevance. (That, and the fact that the concert raised $1 million for the DSO in one night.)

The Detroit Free Press critic, Mark Stryker, who resembles the typical Kid Rock fan about as much as I do, sounded exactly the right note in this piece:

It would be silly to pretend that Saturday’s concert will convert a bunch of Kid Rock fans into DSO ticket buyers. But that’s not the point. The fundamental challenge facing orchestras is that the threads that once linked classical music to the broad fabric of civic life and popular culture have been severed. Saturday was about re-stitching a connection.

That’s an argument I’ve made in many of these posts, and it’s something other bloggers — notably my friend Greg Sandow — have been advocating for years. The idea isn’t to supplant classical and contemporary music with pop, nor to turn our astonishingly skilled symphonies into backup bands for rap and rock stars. By all accounts, the DSO Kid Rock concert was a real musical partnership. (And by no means the first of its kind, of course. Orchestras have done this off and on for years, with everyone from Radiohead to Ben Folds.)

This is about celebrating the collapse of the walls that used to neatly divide artistic categories, and embracing the mixtures that are going on all over contemporary culture (and not just in the arts). It’s about creating promiscuous, comfortable contexts in which fans of one performer or genre get a glimpse of what’s great about another:

You can’t witness thousands of rabid Kid Rock fans rewarding the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony with a roaring standing ovation and breaking into chants of “DSO! DSO!” without recognizing elitist stereotypes about classical music being put out to pasture.

Detroit’s music director Leonard Slatkin apparently understands that a legendary orchestra like the DSO is a tool that can be used for many purposes — and playing Beethoven is only one of them.

The usual question in these hybrid performances is whether the musicians will merely “go along to get along,” whether their participation will feel halfhearted. But I wouldn’t be the first to point out that their participation in a subscription concert playing Beethoven for the umpteenth time often feels halfhearted — so 'professional' that any sign of human enjoyment and passion is missing. So the real news here is that, by all accounts, the DSO musicians looked fairly into it at the Kid Rock concert, and Slatkin himself was smiling and relaxed. (His own post about the event is here.)

This seems to me a particularly good sign for an orchestra whose players battled management in a recent, bitter strike over (among other things) the role that musicians should play in community-building, education, and outreach to new audiences. The DSO players often sounded like stubborn purists in those days. But what was the Kid Rock concert if not community building and outreach to new audiences? It may have ‘educated’ a few thousand newcomers that what goes on in our historic, gilded concert halls, and what a symphony orchestra is all about, isn’t what they thought...or at least, isn’t only what they thought.

It may also have shifted the perceptions of some DSO regulars, including Stryker himself:

When Kid Rock unleashed a blitzkrieg of expletives in “Devil Without a Cause” it occurred to me that you don’t typically hear that many F-words at the symphony. Also, I never before smelled reefer smoke at Orchestra Hall...

Wish I’d been there.

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Categories: Classical music, Diversity, Institutional personality, New audiences, Performing arts, Young audiences
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May 20, 2012

From Europe with irony: Symphony marketing that's actually funny

American orchestras, like their cousins in dance, theater, and the visual arts, talk a lot about how to appeal to a younger crowd. The word 'authenticity' crops up a lot in those conversations, and for good reason. But in contemporary culture, sometimes the most authentic thing you can do is make fun of yourself for being authentic. Watch this promo from the Orchestre Philharmonique Luxembourg and see if you can resist a grin.

The video hits some of the same themes that US orchestras have tried to convey to twenty- and thirty-something audiences — that concertgoing is not just for geezers, that classical music is an emotional high, that it draws (or should draw) a multicultural crowd — while simultaneously making fun of itself for having to make such assertions. The orchestra is mocking its own desperation to be relevant to young people and its cluelessness about attracting them, but it’s doing so using some of contemporary culture’s most relevant and savvy modes, including a kind of goofy, improvisatory irony.

Plus, it makes you laugh, which may be the most basic recasting of classical music’s ‘brand’ that we could ask for.

By comparison, most American symphony marketing efforts seem...well, classical. They focus on the big name performers or conductors, the quality of the music-making, the power and timelessness of the repertoire. Even when they’re clever, they’re usually still in that proud, luxury-product mode we’re used to in the arts, in which earnestness is never far below the surface.

To appeal to young people, arts organizations usually assert that they offer experiences they think those audiences value. But the Luxembourg video reveals that sometimes that’s not enough: sometimes asserting can be a problem in itself. Good communication isn’t just about what you say, it’s about the personality and voice with which you deliver the message — your stance on what you’re saying. Or rather, the two are intertwined: the mode of delivery is the message. And in these postmodern times, a little creative friction between the two can signify that you don’t take yourself too seriously, that you get how popular culture works and you're part of it. (I made this point about Alec Baldwin’s self-spoofing NPR spots last year.)

So even when arts marketers have done their research and know what would appeal to young audiences before, during, and after the performance, they sometimes don’t know how to convey those values in a way that feels like they know the people they’re talking to. The genius of this promo is how it manages to do both, while admitting implicitly that it’s a tough sales pitch to make. 

Notice that there’s no concert footage in the Luxembourg video, which raises the question of whether the ticker-buyer's experience at the Philharmonique actually pays off the promises made by the promo. The onstage experience is reimagined with some of the same values (less mockery, perhaps, but equal whimsy and confidence) in a different European ad, this one for the Czech Philharmonic:

If you read ArtsJournal, you may have seen these both on Norman Lebrecht’s blog last month. That’s where I found them, and there are more where these came from. (Thanks, Norman, and keep ‘em coming.) Do they tap your funnybone? Do they feel, in some sense, authentic? And how does your age play into your reaction?

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Categories: Arts marketing, Classical music, Institutional personality, Performing arts, Young audiences
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May 02, 2012

Alan Alda warms up science communication with the Flame Challenge

How would you explain flame — what is it? what’s going on in there? — to an 11 year old? I grew up watching Alda play an army doctor on M*A*S*H, but his acting and PBS interviewing work have led him to some real-world questions about how science is conveyed to us laymen. In partnership with Stony Brook University, where Alda teaches scientists how to improvise and “be more authentically themselves” with the public, he has organized a contest for scientists and anyone else who wants to enter. Submissions are now being judged...by an 11 year old near you.

I blogged a year ago about how little patience the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman had for standard science pedagogy, which too often teaches us vocabulary (“energy,” “momentum”) but not what’s really going on.

Alda is putting on Feynman’s mantle when he describes his own 11 year old self asking his teacher what a flame is and being told, predictably, “It’s oxidation.” As he writes in a recent guest editorial in the prestigious journal Science, “I knew there had to be more to the mystery of a flame than just giving the mystery another name.”

 

Hence the Flame Challenge, which received more than 800 entries from 30 countries. After being vetted for accuracy by scientists, the entries were sent to kids at 130 schools around the US for judging. Finalists and a winner will be announced next month at the World Science Festival in New York. (That festival, as I’ve mentioned, is run by the real latter-day Feynman, theoretical physicist Brian Greene, along with his partner, the science journalist and media producer Tracy Day.)

The emphasis here is on clarity, on helping somebody really get the concept. Alda is no fan of dumbing down; there’s no condescension here about the sophistication of the average 11 year old. The point he’s making is that if you can communicate a complex idea successfully to a kid, you know you’ve really nailed it. And a sixth grader is less likely than an adult to nod sagely when he’s fed an “explanation” that’s really just a vocabulary list.

But Alda is onto something deeper here. When he pursued that clarity and accessibility in his interviews with scientists, he found that the interactions became warmer, more human, more connected. It wasn’t just the facts that came to life, it was the people behind the facts — as well as their relationship to Alda and, by extension, viewers at home.

Having to talk with someone who was truly trying to understand caused an actual human interaction to take place in these interviews. There was more warmth, and the real person behind the scientist in the white lab coat could emerge. Suddenly, both young people and adults could see that scientists were like them, with a natural way of speaking and even a sense of humor. ...

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Categories: Conferences, Informal science education, Institutional personality, Natural history, Public media, Science museums, Storytelling, Subjectivity
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April 20, 2012

Universities amp up the arts. But who’s helping whom?

The arts on campuses seem to be entering a period of unprecedented investment and attention, with ‘arts districts’ and strategic initiatives and a new profile even at institutions famous for cultivating the other regions of the brain. Maybe it’s no coincidence that this comes at a time when the value and relevance of higher education and the value and relevance of the traditional arts (especially to young people) are being challenged  from all directions.

Yesterday, Dartmouth’s Hood Museum of Art announced that its new building would be designed by busy art-world architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien. Nothing surprising there; campus art museums at UC Berkeley, UC Davis, University of Iowa, University of Wisconsin, Michigan State and many others are building or recently opened gleaming facilities, most of them designed by the same architects that have been creating all those new wings and renovations for larger, non-college museums around the country.

What caught my eye was the university’s positioning of the new Hood and other Dartmouth arts facilities as an “arts district.” This centralizing impulse — thinking about the arts at the level of the university rather than the level of individual organizations or programs — is being felt widely these days. 

MIT just announced its new Center for Art, Science, and Technology (CAST) with a founding gift of $1.5 million from the Mellon Foundation and a vision of better integrating the arts into the rest of the curriculum. (That’s something Mellon has been interested in, and funding generously, for almost twenty years, with a particular focus on university art museums and their connections to other academic departments and disciplines.)

And new arts initiatives are underway at Stanford, the University of Chicago (including an interesting new center), Harvard, and many other universities, all promulgating the basic idea that the arts (doing them as well as seeing them) are good ways of learning about much more than the arts. Harvard describes the trend succinctly right on the cover of its 2008 “Report of the Task Force on the Arts” [summary here, full pdf here]: the arts must become

an integral part of the cognitive life of the university: for along with the sciences and the humanities, the arts—as they are both experienced and practiced—are irreplaceable instruments of knowledge.

Behind all this attention is a major shift in thinking about what the arts are and what they’re for. The language of these university arts plans visions puts notions like ‘creativity,’ ‘imagination,’ and ‘innovation’ front and center. It’s not about learning the arts, which was the dominant paradigm for several decades. In a sense, it’s not about music or dance or theater or painting and sculpture at all. It’s about cultivating the kind of capacities that we (nowadays) associate with artistic creativity and performance: the ability to start with a blank page and see what belongs there; to improvise; to make intuitive connections; to bring people and groups together; to bridge ideas and feelings in a spirit of playful challenge. ...

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Categories: Arts participation, Higher ed, Improvisation, Innovation, Performing arts, State of the arts, Visual art, Young audiences
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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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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)
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Museum 3.0
The Uncataloged Museum (Linda Norris)

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