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

August 09, 2010

Unsolicited advice for the Brooklyn Museum, much of it revealing

New York Times culture writer Robin Pogrebin continues her trial of the museum on charges of populism and attendance-mongering, this time by soliciting prescriptions from expert witnesses around the art world. But their advice tells us more about the conflicted state of thinking about art museums than about what’s going on across the East River. 

In a much-discussed article two months ago, Pogrebin challenged the Brooklyn Museum to explain why, after all those populist exhibitions and hip, admission-free social events, its overall attendance hadn’t risen. She noted that in 2004 the museum had set itself the goal of tripling attendance, and somehow managed to criticize both the fact that the museum had set such a goal — that’s bottom-line, crowd-oriented values, anathema to a true cultural institution! — and the fact that it had failed to meet it. 

Now, in a two-page spread in yesterday’s arts and leisure section, Pogrebin repeats those charges as the intro to a series of brief diagnoses and prescriptions from 18 invited observers. Some of them, like former Whitney Museum director David Ross and MFA Houston director Peter Marzio, are supportive of Brooklyn and its director, Arnold Lehman, while others, like Indianapolis Museum of Art director Max Anderson and New York State Council on the Arts chairman Daniel Simmons, Jr., implicitly criticize the museum for barking up the wrong tree.

But the assumptions and ideals that underlie their assessments are all over the map. The proverbial Martian anthropologist would read these capsule prescriptions and conclude that we Earthlings (or maybe, we New Yorkers) have no collective idea what our art museums are for or what might count as evidence of their success. 

Local community “ownership”? Trustee giving? Home-run exhibitions? World-class collections? Giving new artists their first shows? Curatorial vision? Empowering local artists? Creating touring shows? Diverse audiences? Large audiences? Web hits from around the world? Taking risks? Sticking to core competencies? Being like the Met? Differentiating from the Met?

As usual, there are two competing strains running through these comments, the same two strains that have riven the art museum world since the 19th century, when institutions like the Brooklyn Museum and the Met were founded. One emphasizes the separateness of art from daily experience and seeks to protect the curatorial, institutional authority that maintains that separateness. The other emphasizes the embeddedness of art in daily experience and wants to place curatorial and institutional authority in service to communities and their needs. ...

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Categories: Arts participation, Culture sector, Engagement, Metrics, Museums, Visual art
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August 01, 2010

Nudging the visitor research field to think more about [fill in the blank]

Sarah and I were in Phoenix these last few days for the Visitor Studies Association conference, where the debates ran well into the night over drinks. At the “marketplace” session on Thursday, we posed a question to our fellow attendees. Here‘s the data we collected…and an invitation to add your own.

Phoenix was hot, both meteorologically and politically. But in the cool confines of the Wyndham, we set up our table (see photos, a first for the firm) next door to our friends from Randi Korn & Associates. I scrawled this question on a flip chart:

“In your humble opinion, what should the visitor studies field be thinking more about?”

As people stopped by, Sarah and I invited them to write short responses on another pad. Here’s what we got. I‘ve re-ordered the responses to group and link the ideas, but left the wording verbatim.

The visitor studies field should be thinking more about…

  • Visitor studies as a tool for organizational change → need to work with CEOs

  • Accessing boards

  • Influence

  • Organizational culture

This was a frequent theme at the conference this year. Museum evaluators and other visitor researchers naturally want their work to make a difference to the institutions they inhabit (or work with as consultants). And they’re thinking big about visitors, impacts, values, and effectiveness — thinking in ways that could really help those organizations. But the fact is that most trustees and museum directors, not to mention many museum and informal learning professionals in other disciplines and departments, are kept at a distance from visitor studies because of institutional hierarchies, silos, and communication dynamics. So the field feels a little stymied, and its members are asking themselves what they should be doing to educate their colleagues and better communicate the value of their work. (Note this year’s conference theme: understanding the public value of visitor studies.) ...

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Categories: Assessment, Conferences, Learning, Metrics, Museums, Research issues, Visitor experience
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April 09, 2010

“Majority minority” and what it doesn’t tell us about the future of cultural attendance

Much is being made of the fact that, at some point 30 or 40 years from now, “non-Hispanic whites” will become America’s largest minority. But what will that mean for arts participation and museumgoing? In one sense, nothing at all.

A book review in this week’s New Yorker by Kelefa Sanneh, the magazine’s pop music critic, calls our attention to “Stuff White People Like,” that good-natured piece of social self-criticism in blog and book form by Christian Lander. The list of “stuff” reads like my firm’s client roster: film festivals (#3), non-profit organizations (#12), plays (#43), arts degrees (#47), graduate school (#81), public radio (#44), and of course classical music — or rather, “Appearing to Enjoy Classical Music” (#108). Jazz is also here, I think, under the heading, “Black Music that Black People Don’t Listen to Anymore” (#116).


Combine Lander’s jokey-but-perceptive point with the demographic shifts that will soon mark the end of white hegemony in the United States, and it may look like all of us — you arts and education professionals, and we consultants who help you — are in the wrong business. White, urban, liberal culture and the values associated with it have seen their heyday and are on the way out.
But Sanneh’s essay goes on to complicate that picture, if not undermine it altogether, by pointing out that the category of American whiteness is itself a moving target. Over the decades it has come to include “many previous identities that had once been considered marginal: Irish, Italian, Polish, Jewish.”

At one time, those ethnic minorities were visibly, audibly, even behaviorally other. Yet today, if you wanted to know whether someone is of Irish or Italian heritage, or is Jewish, you’d have to ask.

What changed over that period, the minority or the culture at large? Both. What it meant to be “Italian” or “Jewish” changed, and simultaneously what it meant to be “American” changed. And of course the two processes influenced each other.

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Categories: Arts participation, Culture sector, Demographics, Higher ed, Metrics, Museums, Performing arts, Survey research
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January 20, 2010

First “National Arts Index” pegs the problems

You don’t have to be a research wonk to be excited about the debut of the National Arts Index today. But the picture it paints is hardly cheerful.

The index, which was introduced at a press conference in DC this morning after four years of development, comes from Americans for the Arts, an advocacy-centric organization not known for spreading bad news about the state of the arts sector. But this looks to me, at a quick read, like an empirical synthesis of a wide range of relevant data — some 76 different metrics in four broad categories, many of them new to me. It’s the closest we’re likely to get in the cultural sector to a holistic portrait, and better yet it’ll be trackable over time.

Hats off to Randy Cohen, AFTA’s VP of Local Arts Advancement and former head of research, and his co-developer of the index, Roland J. Kushner, a business professor at Muhlenberg College.

As you can see from the graph, they applied their indexing method not just to the most recent year for which data is available, 2008, but the previous ten years for context. And the trends don’t look very healthy.

Sure, the recession plays a major role here. But the report doesn’t shy away from more systemic, long-term problems: a shrinking share of charitable giving going to the arts; steadily declining attendance at mainstream cultural institutions; and tremendous growth in the number of nonprofit arts organizations and accompanying growth in supply, with demand not keeping up. And that latter problem will only be exacerbated in the long run by the nominally good news here that more students are earning arts degrees.

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Categories: Metrics, Performing arts, Research findings, State of the arts, Visual art
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