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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June 23, 2011

Where have I been? (Hint: It has to do with where I’m going)

Did you see that article not long ago about the ridiculous percentage of blog posts that are apologies by the blogger for not having blogged in a while? Well, here’s my contribution to the genre. But it’s also a chance to share some big personal news with those of you who are interested. (The rest of you can skip it; I’ll have more musings on the changing cultural sector for you very soon.)

The news is something I’ve been telling colleagues and clients about for several months, though this is the first time I’m putting it in print. This summer, after almost twenty years in Chicago, I’m moving with Cheryl and our kids to Santa Fe, New Mexico.

The New Mexico Museum of Art on the Santa Fe Plaza (yes, I'm joining)

It’ll be a serious shift for us in a hundred ways, and it has all but taken over my life for the last few months. Fixing up and selling our house in Chicago, flying back and forth to Santa Fe to search for a new house there, dealing with realtors and inspectors and contractors on both ends — that’s only the half of it.

There’s also the professional side: working with our terrific team at the firm to ensure it’s a transition in which everyone grows. Because this is no stepping back for me, nor for Cheryl. We’ll continue to lead the firm from what everyone is calling our Santa Fe office, and we’ll continue to work with clients around the country in both our worlds (higher ed and arts & culture).

Sure, we’ll be giving up some day-to-day management, but that was happening naturally as we’ve grown to a staff of a dozen. More significantly, we’ll be sharing real leadership of the firm with Bill, Sarah, and Chloe, who recently received some overdue promotions and became our first vice presidents. (Anne and Mike were also appointed to more senior roles, becoming the firm’s first associates.)

All that would have happened organically anyway, but our impending move to the southwest has become the dust mote around which the whole cloud is rapidly condensing. In a small team — and especially in a family business, which this one literally is — sometimes the senior people need to make a little room so the next generation can step in.

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Categories: General, Personal reflections, Science museums, Visual art
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February 14, 2011

OK Cupid and the attraction curve

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

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

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

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

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

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Categories: Culture sector, Engagement, General, Museums, Participatory engagement and co-creation, Performing arts, Research findings, Social media
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January 08, 2011

What I’m excited about for the year ahead

Cheryl and I spent New Year’s Eve at a peace fire with some Native American friends up in the north woods of Michigan. I found myself thinking about the year just past and the year ahead and feeling pretty damn lucky. On the professional side, here are ten things I’m excited about working on in 2011.

If you have questions or suggestions about any of these, don’t be shy. The first few are about the innovation enterprise I recently announced. 

  1. Learning about campus art museums. College and university museums serve a dauntingly wide range of audiences, on campus and off. Tom Shapiro and I have been fortunate enough to gather a small group of wonderful directors of campus art museums to conduct joint research and then strategize together about the opportunities and challenges. I’m excited about working this year with Tom and our partner Betty Farrell, who directs the Cultural Policy Center at the University of Chicago, where the project is based. I’m also excited that this is Slover Linett’s first self-generated research project, a model that will let us explore new terrain and new partnerships around the culture sector and higher ed.
  2. Firing up the Culture Kettle. My new R&D organization has been a long time brewing, and in 2011 the real fun will start. And the real work. Luckily, several great people have volunteered their time (yes, as in free help), and many more have expressed interest in collaborating. I’m excited about cooking up (love these kettle metaphors, don’t you?) some out-there research projects and some out-there experiments with exhibits and classical music. The latter will be a leap for me: I’ve done plenty of research about cultural programming and audiences, but I’ve never created a program for an actual audience.
  3. Collaborating with Greg Sandow. Here’s a man who has created programs, and as Culture Kettle’s first Innovator in Residence he’ll be my guide and crony on the classical music side of the fence. Greg is a kindred spirit who is also very different from me. I’m going to learn a lot, and we’re going to have a lot of fun. The first experiments will probably have to do with young audiences, a category that neither of us fits in. But we’ll be working with young innovators, from musicians to marketers.
  4. Seeing how Americans frame “the arts.” On the “R” side of Culture Kettle’s R&D slate, one of our first projects will be a collaboration with Nick Rabkin to study how Americans frame (in the George Lakoff sense) the arts and how they frame creativity and expressivity. We suspect the two frames were once closely aligned but have been slipping apart in recent decades, which may have something to do with what we see today: declining attendance at traditional arts performances but increasing personal creation and participation in music, dance, photography, etc. We’re hoping to get a new perspective on these tectonic shifts and spark a new conversation about what’s next for arts organizations and creative communities.

    It’s not all Culture Kettle, of course. The majority of my gray matter will still be focused on Slover Linett’s clients, staff, and future, and on new projects and plans that are springing up on that soil. Such as…
  5. Thinking about science and social change. If certain national research grants come through for our clients and colleagues, 2011 will be a year of deep involvement for us in questions about science and society. How can we take action on climate change when the science is inherently uncertain? (Which doesn’t mean dodgy or political — just limited in its ability to predict complex interactions with certainty.) How can museums evaluate the impact of exhibits designed to change attitudes? How will the growth of “citizen science” (not to mention citizen history, citizen music-making, and other participatory trends) shape cultural institutions and the world around them? As the saying goes, I’m all over that.
  6. Playing with classical improvisation. Ten years ago, when I mentioned improvisation and classical music in the same breath, people frowned and cocked their heads, like a dog hearing an odd noise. Nowadays it’s a hot topic, and its history is being reclaimed. I’m looking forward to seeing Gabriela Montero next month here in Chicago; she’s one of the musicians proving how much sense improvising makes in a classical context and how much it changes the vibe in the hall from past-tense to happening. I want to write about that this year, and better yet I hope to study audiences’ experiences of it.
  7. Giving up books. No, not reading books, but the Books Editor job at Curator: The Museum Journal. After six years in that role, I was kicked up to Associate Editor–Theory & Practice, but we didn’t find a replacement for the book review department for many months. I’m happy to report that Theano Moussouri will be the new books editor starting early this year — happy not only because she’s a wonderful addition to the journal’s editorial crew but also because I won’t have to do double duty any longer. (Which I couldn’t have done at all without the expert help of Kate Flinner, the journal’s Editorial Assistant and until last year a colleague here at Slover Linett.)
  8. Seeing the Cultural Infrastructure Project bear fruit. Hard to believe it’s been seven years since I first brought the question to Carroll Joynes, then director of the Cultural Policy Center: Is all this building of cultural facilities (art museum wings, performing arts centers) a sign that the sector is thriving or economic hubris that will have dire consequences? Carroll took the question to some talented cultural economists and other scholars around the U.S., got serious funding from Mellon, MacArthur, Kresge, and others, and masterfully brought the project to life. It’s scheduled to culminate late this year. Based on my limited involvement in the project these last few years, I’m really looking forward to seeing the report, book, website, and guidelines that emerge…and to seeing how the field responds.
  9. Helping our team grow. Cheryl and I both became better leaders and mentors to our staff in 2010, I like to think, and that work has been more rewarding than I ever imagined. We added several staff members during the year, and now we begin 2011 as a cohesive team ready to do great things together. It sounds sappy, but I’m really excited to watch them continue to grow and learn and challenge themselves and each other in 2011. I’m also looking forward to collaborating more closely with our academic fellows, Rachelle L. Brooks and Michael Di Giovine, on projects that expand our collective skills and lead us in new directions.
  10. Helping our clients grow. We’re researchers, but we’re also, in a sense, consultants. That’s a role more of our clients are asking us to play, and it’s one I’m increasingly excited about as the new year begins. The audiences we study in our research and evaluation work speak through us. But we also speak with our own voice, helping our clients see new possibilities, new paths toward their goals—even, sometimes, new goals. This year I’ll be working with my colleagues and our clients to discover the right relationship between findings and action, insight and innovation. That’ll deepen the already great pleasure of working with some wonderful people and helping some wonderful organizations move forward.

Whew. Maybe this is why one friend of mine has been asking me when the emergency cloning procedure will take place. And I haven’t even mentioned the new retreat center I’m helping envision in the Upper Peninsula, a place for dialogue between Western science and indigenous wisdom and spirituality. Or the Chicago-area cultural tracking study we’re developing...

My cup runneth over. Which can be messy. But it’s not a bad problem to have. Happy New Year to you and yours.

Categories: General, Personal reflections, Slover Linett events
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November 14, 2010

Guest Blogger: Tom Shapiro on TEDx Midwest

Our colleague and collaborator Tom Shapiro, a partner at Cultural Strategy Partners, was one of the lucky few (okay, lucky 350) who attended Chicago’s homegrown TED a few weeks ago. The conference took place at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago on October 14 and 15. I asked Tom to share a few thoughts about the gathering with our readers. Here’s Tom’s take.

I found TEDx Midwest immensely enjoyable and often engrossing. It was fascinating to witness both the “TED-ness” of the event—a communal, anticipatory giddiness of being privy to something “important”—and the speaker’s talks themselves. While listening in the darkened theater, I observed three themes, not about the content, but about the conference as a whole.

First, a bit of background. These “x” versions of the TED conference are “local, self-organized events” put together under the “general guidance” of TED proper, the Technology, Entertainment and Design conference started in 1984 in Monterey, California. The TED formula is to bring a broad array of thought-provoking presenters together to speak to attendees in 18-minute talks—no notes, no bullet points, just wisdom and passion.

In this first-ever Midwest version, the twenty speakers and five performers included oceanographers, artists, entrepreneurs, architects, paleontologists, and authors, some of them MacArthur “genius” award winners. The assembled audience was hardly less illustrious, comprised of machers from the region, select high school students, and others seeking inspiration from the speakers as well as from each other.

The speakers didn’t disappoint. They were impressive and fascinating people telling impressive and fascinating tales. From paleoanthropologist Meave Leakey talking about finding the oldest human fossils in Africa’s Olduvai Gorge to Planet Space Company chairman Chirinjeev Kathuria promoting commercial passenger space flight, the talks covered a gamut of human opportunities and natural challenges (like resource depletion and global warming).

The gathering was perfectly situated in the MCA Chicago, which presents the best of current exploration and representation in the visual arts, and which hosted TEDx in a most welcoming and enthusiastic way. (Full disclosure: my wife directs the museum. The conference wasn’t sponsored or curated by the museum; the organizers rented the space.)

As a side note, I found that TEDx’s presence at an art museum raised interesting questions about the role museums and cultural organizations can play in bringing all kinds of contemporary issues and creative endeavors—cultural or not—to light. Should they stick to their knitting (e.g., “visual art”) or tackle the broader topic of creativity and innovation whole cloth? As museums increasingly try to function as “town squares,” bringing people together around complex issues and big ideas, they come to resemble a TED conference in certain ways.

But let’s get to those three themes, which I offer as possible ways to improve TEDx Midwest next year. (Note to cultural organizations: These principles might be worth keeping in mind when creating events, forums, and exhibitions that serve the broader purposes of social investigation and issue-tackling.) ...

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Categories: Chicago, Conferences, Engagement, General, Innovation, Institutional personality, Museums, Other nonprofits, Personal reflections, Visual art
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October 25, 2010

“Help me destroy public radio” and other lessons in postmodern fundraising

National Public Radio has poked fun at its own earnestness and nerdiness plenty in recent years. But Alec Baldwin’s new fundraising segments take the irony to a new level, putting the whole culture of public broadcasting — including us listeners — on trial. And a funny thing happens along the way.

Funny being the operative word. There are several spots in the series, which was produced by This American Life host Ira Glass and his friends at WNYC, along with Baldwin. This one made me laugh out loud, as did this one.

And that’s an important lesson right there. To make someone laugh is to give them a little gift — it’s an act of generosity and intimacy. And in the context of a fundraising pitch, isn’t generosity exactly the point? Baldwin and Glass are modeling the behavior they’re trying to elicit from us: they’re starting the exchange, offering us a gift in the hope that we’ll offer one back.

Humor is also a way of getting past our rational defenses. Laughter is an emotional response, involving different parts of the brain than those activated by a rational appeal. If the fundraising organization makes an argument, I can always make a counterargument. But if it makes me laugh, we’re already in a kind of relationship. (My old philosophy professor Ted Cohen wrote a great little book about the ways jokes both depend on and foster a sense of community.)

So why don’t more cultural and educational institutions use humor as a fundraising tool? If being funny can model generosity, soften us up, and create community, then why are these public radio promos an anomaly, even during recessionary times that would seem to call for every arrow in our quiver?

I’ve written before about the default seriousness of most cultural organizations and the anxiety about relevance and status that I think underlies it. These fundraising spots may be exceptions that prove the rule. Baldwin and Glass have stepped outside the institution’s accepted ways of thinking about itself and its relationship to its supporters: they’ve broken unwritten rules, especially the very sensible one about never insulting your donors. ...

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Categories: Arts marketing, Chicago, Classical music, Culture sector, Fundraising, General, Innovation, Institutional personality, Other nonprofits, Subjectivity, Young audiences
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October 12, 2010

Innovation, insecurity, and the real reason we need new business models

A young friend of mine who works at a major American arts institution tells a chilling story about the departmental brainstorming meetings he and his colleagues are asked to attend every few months. 'We need new ideas,' they’re told — and they come up with them. They put their heads and hearts into it. They get excited. You can feel the energy in the room. And then…

And then the department head, a veteran with a powerful reputation in the organization, wraps up the meeting with a blanket dismissal: Those kinds of things, she tells her staff as the smiles fade, just aren’t the way we do things at this organization.

In answer to your question, yes, my friend is looking for another job.

But wherever he lands next on the arts and culture landscape, it's likely to be at an institution that has trouble with change and risk. In fact, in my decade or so of working with nonprofits organizations, I’ve begun to wonder if that phrase, "an institution that has trouble with change and risk," isn’t a redundancy. Could it be that part of what that defines institutions as we know them is a systemic, structured-in aversion to risk?

If so, there’s a lot at stake. Without risk we can’t have innovation, and without innovation we’re doomed to stasis which, in a changing culture, sooner or later means irrelevance.

My friend’s tale notwithstanding, the problem isn’t usually people. Or rather, it's not the people as individuals. Over and over, I’ve seen creative, thoughtful museum and arts professionals, people with energy and passion and a wide sphere of reference, get excited about a new idea or way of doing things…and I‘ve watched as that idea works its way through the organization’s process, becoming less interesting, risky, innovative, and appealing at every step.

Sometimes the idea makes it all the way to implementation, but in barely recognizable form. Sometimes it's abandoned along the way, victim of senior-level dismissal or, more commonly, vague resistance and a failure to "gain traction."

What’s going on? Why do those institutional processes (call them 'planning' or 'development' or anything else) so reliably have those effects? . . .

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Categories: Business models, General, Innovation, Institutional personality, Museums, Other nonprofits, Performing arts, Strategy and strategic planning
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January 15, 2010

Say it ain’t so, statistician

I’m just getting to a recent book about the buying and selling of scientific “truth,” and it’s enough to make a grown researcher cry. Any lessons for us in the culture and higher ed crowd?

Unfortunately, yes. Doubt is Their Product: How Industry's Assault on Science Threatens Your Health by David Michaels, an epidemiologist who last month became Obama’s OSHA chief, is an infuriating look at big industry’s manipulation of scientific evidence to derail or delay safety regulations. Think cigarettes, lead, asbestos, or remember Silkwood and Erin Brockovich.

The book’s title refers to an infamous 1969 memo from a Brown & Williamson tobacco executive who wrote that, "Doubt is our product, since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the mind of the general public. It is also the means of establishing a controversy."

The companies and their mercenary scientific henchmen didn’t need to work too hard to find uncertainties to exploit, since doubt and uncertainty are built into the scientific method. (The physicist Richard Feynman called doubt the essence of science.) Real science is about disproving hypotheses, and there are always outlier data, competing explanations, and marginal numbers requiring interpretation. Research is supposed to be empirical and objective, but deciding what counts as knowledge – the process of scientific consensus-building by which we decide what it is we know – is messy and human.

Why does this hit home for us researchers in the arts and education? Well, the science we do is social science, but the statistical and interpretive questions are similar. The advocacy impulse in our world may be socially positive, but it’s still an advocacy impulse and has to be kept from influencing our empirical findings about how audiences think, feel, and act.

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Categories: Advocacy, General, Higher ed, Museums, Performing arts, Research issues, Survey research
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January 06, 2010

“Engagement” is ready for prime time

One of President Obama’s early changes at the White House was turning the institutionally-flavored Office of Public Liaison into the Office of Public Engagement. I’ll nominate that as word of the year.

According to a White House press release, the mission of the renamed office will be to “serve as the front door to the White House through which ordinary Americans can participate and inform the work of the President.”

So the Obama team, famous during the 2008 campaign for its ability to read and respond to the national sentiment, has intuited the relationship people now want to have with the institutions in their lives: more active than passive, more participatory than receptive.

For cultural nonprofits and educational institutions, “engagement” is the new watchword. Leaders use it almost religiously. And I’ll bet that the changes it connotes – esepecially the idea that institutions need to work at being...well, engaging, and that it’s about two-way relationships rather than one-way communication – won’t be just a passing trend. Engagement is here to stay.

But what does it really mean for a college, a ballet company, or a science museum? How can we tell whether it’s happening, and for whom? How do we quantify it and track its growth?

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Categories: Engagement, General, Higher ed, Museums, Performing arts
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Based in Chicago with an office in Boston, we help museums, performing arts organizations, and informal science institutions take a fresh look at their audiences and discover new ways to deepen the connection and broaden participation. More »

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Asking Audiences explores the fast-changing landscape in which arts and cultural organizations meet their public. What does relevance look like today? More »

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