January 28, 2010

Would you like any local flavor with that?

Starbucks is “eschewing its cookie-cutter ways” and letting variation and independence bloom. If they can do it, how about museums and symphonies?

You may have heard that Starbucks, a brand almost synonymous with product consistency, has begun opening coffee shops that look and feel like independent, neighborhood coffeehouses. No Starbucks logo, and barely the Starbucks name. Instead, they’re called things like 15th Avenue Coffee and Tea, just like the local options. They buy small-batch beans and brew carefully to order, like the artisanal coffeehouses do. The design of each location is a one-off rather than a knock-off, expressive of the local scene.

Sure, this is an attempt to co-opt the entrepreneurial and anti-corporate energies that have fueled (along with all that caffeine) the resurgence of the local coffeehouse in the last decade or two. As a consumer I’m not sure I like the idea, and clearly I’m not alone.

But as a consultant who studies how people make choices that confirm their sense of themselves, their desired identity (like museum visiting and concertgoing) – well, I have to admire the insight of the Starbucks folks into a certain kind of twenty-first century mindset.

Familiar, repeatable, perfect, and national may still be important values for truly mainstream consumers (and on that end Starbucks’s biggest competitors is McDonald’s, which started serving cappuccino a few years ago). But for another kind of consumer – and these may be people who are more likely to visit a museum or attend an arts performance – those values are resonating less these days. In order to feel affiliated with an experience or institution, they need to feel the opposite qualities at play: discovery, uniqueness, idiosyncrasy, and independence.

Which brings up a question I’ve been wondering about in the museum and arts fields for years. Why does attending a symphony concert in one American city feel so much like attending in another? Why do most art museums feel so similar to each other, despite the obvious differences in their collections, architecture, size, and so on? Ditto for most science centers and most children’s museums. (History museums are a little different in that their content is inherently more local, so they’re more differentiated.)

I emphasize “most” because there are vivid exceptions: museums and sometimes individual exhibits that break the mold and get talked and written about enthusiastically within the field, and innovative classical ensembles and concert formats that do the same (we’ve studied audience responses to some of these innovations at the Chicago Symphony, Minnesota Orchestra, and Philadelphia Orchestra).

But more commonly, there’s a sameness within those categories that works against a sense of localism and even regional character. The concert conventions and narratives, the exhibition design and interpretation strategies, that we experience in San Francisco are similar to those we experience in St. Louis or Sarasota. They emerge from the same assumptions, similar priorities, and a set of shared, nearly universal ideals in the minds of the professionals who lead and manage these organizations.

Even subjective qualities like the voice of the institution, the ambiance, the vibe, feel pretty much the same. We could be anywhere. We’re spending our time at Culture Inc. (See also: Bill Ivey's book.)

In the museum community, those who notice this sameness tend to ascribe it to the fact that the people in charge – curators and directors who used to be curators – are more concerned about the opinions of their national and international peers than about those of their visitors or local communities. Similar things are said in the classical music world of musicians and music directors.

In both fields, this “horizontal” concern of professionals about the judgment of their fellow professionals is in tension with the “vertical” concerns of the individual museum or arts organization, which in theory must be responsive to its place and community. (The spatial metaphor is from museum scholar Stephen Weil.) One impulse pushes toward sameness and “best practices”; the other toward localism and variety.

The anxiety of the professionals about localism usually comes down to quality. If we do things differently than our peers, if we cast off the behaviors and approaches that have been validated by decades of consensus, how will our audiences (and our newspaper critics) know we’re still excellent?

And beneath that: How will we know we’re excellent?

In other words, if we don’t do things the way the rest of the world does, will we continue to be “world class”?

Well, as Diane Ragsdale of the Mellon Foundation is going to tell us at the Arts Reach National Arts Marketing & Development Conference in March, quality is no longer everything. There are other reasons people do or do not build relationships with their city’s symphony or contemporary art museum – or, I would add, historical society or science center.

Those reasons have to do with the rest of the experience: what happens (or doesn’t happen) around the music, the art, the science, and how those elements shape the ways we take in and value that content and identify with the organization providing it.

And let’s not forget that your scrappy neighborhood coffeehouse may in fact brew a better latte than Starbucks. That’s partly why Starbucks is trying to go local. Or it may just taste that way, because it’s handed to you in a transaction – and in a setting – that feels more personal, authentic, thoughtful, and unique: more you.

At the risk of making a long post even longer, I have to add that what we’re talking about here is the challenge of innovation, a word that museum directors and arts administrators are beginning to use more frequently, thanks in part to the recession. According to the New York Times article linked above, the brainstorming at Starbucks headquarters that led to the local-shops idea were prompted by a new and unfamiliar “fear of failure,” and that they only happened when the CEO told his senior team to “break the rules and do things for yourself.”

The article’s author draws a vital distinction between management thinking and entrepreneurial thinking. One is about doing better what’s already being done: maintaining and protecting. The other is about creating new value in the first place in response to new conditions: trying new things in the hope that some of them will work. Starbucks’s new stores “are partly learning laboratories,” she reports.

We could use a few more learning laboratories in our fields, preferably local and by no means decaf.

Janis — January 28, 2010

" ... it’s handed to you in a transaction – and in a setting – that feels more personal, authentic, thoughtful, and unique: more you."

This makes me think about the message uniqueness sends. Come eat/drink/listen here, we're unique ... and by being here, you are, too.

A business that wants to sell itself as quirky isn't selling their own quirkiness so much as the idea that if a person consumes their product, they too will be quirky and off-beat and unique. It's like the uniqueness is the consumed product.

The approved uniformity is often also the consumed product for the standard orchestral experience, too. Consume our product, and you too will be validated by a global standard of excellence and become upper-crust by proxy.

Actually, it's been an annoyance to me for a while, that music and art is so often consumed as a means of expressing tribal affiliation instead of because it's any good. Nevertheless, it's the case.

(Hey, I like decaf!)

Janis — January 28, 2010

Translation of my blather -- you ask:

If we do things differently than our peers, if we cast off the behaviors and approaches that have been validated by decades of consensus, how will our audiences (and our newspaper critics) know we’re still excellent?

And beneath that: How will we know we’re excellent?

In other words, if we don’t do things the way the rest of the world does, will we continue to be “world class”?

I would add: And how will our audiences know that THEY ARE ALSO EXCELLENT for having sat there and listened to us?

Anne Arenstein — February 05, 2010

They won't know that they're excellent; they'll come away with a variety of responses. Some may be thrilled, some may be on a darkling plain, others may be emerging from slumber.
I'm puzzled by this post. Do you imply that museums are like a franchise or that the visitor's expectations for a museum don't vary from the Art Institute to SAM to the Met to the High Museum, and therefore, the challenge is to make each visitor aware how unique each venue is?
Well, duh.
As a museum educator, I constantly observe how much people want to connect with art, whether it's visual, dramatic, kinetic, or music. We're hard wired to respond to creative forms, even if we are not those who create those forms. So the challenge is to make our respective venues accessible and open, encouraging visitors to respond to our collections in their own ways. I suspect that's what most of my colleagues are doing every day.

Peter Linett — February 05, 2010

Anne, I love the Matthew Arnold reference (but what cultural conservative HE was!). I don't disagree with you about the innate desire to connect with art. But I was trying to suggest that the challenge is to make different museums accessible, open, and encouraging in different ways.

The variety in question isn't just the great diversity of visitors' possible responses and "personal meaning-making" (to use the museum term of the moment); it's the variety of approaches that museums could/should be using to help visitors do that. I actually don't think visitors' expectations vary much between SAM and the High et al. because art museums have taught us what an art museum exhibition is "supposed" to look and feel like.

So no, for me it's less about making visitors aware of how unique each venue is and more about making each venue more genuinely unique.

Janis, thanks for your points, too. I'm sure you're right about this validation by proxy mechanism. Visitors are borrowing something from the institution's brand that helps shore up their own "brand" (cultural capital).

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