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

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

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Categories: Advocacy, Diversity, Museums, Participatory engagement and co-creation, Performing arts, State of the arts
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December 11, 2011

Art you enter, art you act — Carsten Höller show breaks records at the New Museum

Those people sliding down the tubes and lying naked in the flotation tank didn’t need a degree in art history or deep familiarity with contemporary art to enjoy the hell out of this show. They were the show, physically and socially. But the next time they visit a museum, how will they feel about, looking at art?

Visitor floating in Carsten Höller's "Psycho Tank" at the New Museum. Photo Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

Blogging last year about participatory or “social practice” art, I wondered if a divide might arise between audiences for that sort of art experience and audiences for the more traditional, look-but-don’t-touch kind.  The success of the Höller show — averaging 1,700 visitors per day, a 30% lift over the New Museum’s previous exhibition record of 1,300 per day — underlines the possibility that artists working in this mode are altering museumgoers’ notions of what an art exhibition should do for them and what their role in it should be.

What happens when they bring those expectations to the museum on their next visit? Does non-participatory art, or a museum that isn’t premised on active, socially-constructed engagement, suddenly begin to look stodgy and stale?

Above: Waiting for the three-story corkscrew slide. Photo Benjamin Sutton
Below: Taking the plunge. Photo Chang W. Lee/The New York Times

That would be a problem, of course. I’d hate to see the act of beholding something extraordinary fall to the cultural wayside. But as an alternative to the inwardness and preciousness — the self-contained, even smug feeling — that too many people encoutner in too many contemporary art settings, Höller’s vision of the museum experience is bracing and overdue.

Instead of “referring to” or “evoking” or “embodying” (as the wall panels at a modern or contemporary art museum might put it) basic human states and activities like play, fear, eros, bewilderment, and giddiness, Höller has us be and do those things. Talk about “Art as Experience,” the title of John Dewey’s 1934 contrarian take on aesthetics, which now looks way ahead of its time. (Or maybe Höller and all this immersive and participatory action look like the literalization of Dewey.) ...

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Categories: Innovation, Museums, Participatory engagement and co-creation, Subjectivity, Visitor experience, Visual art
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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. ...

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Categories: Arts marketing, Chicago, Conferences, Culture sector, Participatory engagement and co-creation, Performing arts, Slover Linett events, State of the arts, Visual art
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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. ...

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Categories: Arts participation, Museums, Participatory engagement and co-creation, Performing arts, Research findings, State of the arts, Survey research
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February 21, 2011

Flash-mob arts performances where you least expect them

Are you one of the millions of people who've watched videos of the surprise arts performances that the Knight Foundation has been sneaking into grocery stores, malls, and office lobbies in eight US cities? If not, you're missing something that's both a kick and a revelation. The program, called Random Acts of Culture, pulls the arts off their pedestal and sets them, literally, in the marketplace.

These guerilla interventions into daily life have been met with delighted surprise, bemused attention, joyful laughter, lots of cell phone picture- and video-taking, even some moist eyes. The biggest Random Act so far (Knight is hoping to fund 1,000 of them by the end of 2013) was a Hallelujah Chorus at the Philadelphia Macy's in which 650 of the holiday "shoppers" (actually professional singers organized by the Opera Company of Philadelphia) burst into song, accompanied by the store's legendary organ. The video has drawn more than 7 million hits on YouTube and thousands of comments. In three months.

What struck me most forcefully, watching videos of Random Acts of dance, poetry, classical music, and opera from around the country, was that the bystanders (well, they start as bystanders but soon become an audience) are obviously experiencing a range of real, pleasurable human emotions. That’s something you can't usually see on the faces of arts audiences sitting in concert halls and auditoriums.

Why is that? Not just because they're not expecting an arts attack and are thrown off balance, although clearly that's part of the fun. I think it has to do with the fact that, in these Random Acts, the performers and the audience are in every sense on the same level. The performers are dressed like you and me. They're in our midst, not on a stage. We're together in this crazy business (opera, life).

And they have to compete for our attention. They can't presume it — they have to earn it by being terrific. (Historically, that was the norm rather than the exception. Think of Shakespeare's actors quieting the groundlings at the Globe by sheer presence, or a keyboard solo that makes people put down their drinks and pay attention at a jazz club.) So it feels more like an honest, spontaneous transaction: you be amazing, and I'll stop what I'm doing and watch with a grin on my face. ...

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Categories: Arts participation, Classical music, Engagement, Improvisation, Innovation, Participatory engagement and co-creation, Performing arts
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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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February 05, 2011

Classical improvisation is not an oxymoron (ask Gabriela Montero)

“It’s how I speak through music,” Gabriela Montero told us last night at the Harris Theater as she shifted into the improvisation portion of her recital. This was the part we were all waiting for, and what followed was highly un-classical behavior both onstage and in the audience. Evidence: a few dozen of us lustily sang the first few lines of Billy Joel’s “Piano Man” to Montero from our seats.

I’ll come back to that Billy Joel tune in a second. First, some setup about this unusual pianist and this split-personality concert. Montero, who hails from Venezuela and made her debut at the age of five, has the interpretive vision and technical brilliance to have become a top “straight” classical pianist, the kind who plays recitals and concertos at famous venues around the world. And in a way, she’s done exactly that.

In fact, for the first two-thirds of her concert last night, you would have thought that was the whole story. Polite applause when performer emerges from wings. Performer plays pieces listed in program, exits between groups of pieces, reenters to more applause. All very conventional, which I found disappointing. When latecomers were seated between works, Montero smiled a tight, annoyed smile and waited what seemed to me a pretentiously long time for silence before launching into the next piece.

But that’s not the whole story. Montero has also been improvising since childhood, and she does it at almost every concert, as a kind of extended encore to whatever’s on the program. She does it so brilliantly you’d swear you were listening to a canonical work by Chopin, Schubert, Haydn, or Bach, depending on her mood, and sometimes with a Latin dance rhythm thrown in for fun.

But to emphasize that you’re not listening to one of those masters, or to anything composed at all, Montero invites her audiences to suggest themes or songs that she can riff on. Hence the Billy Joel song we belted, which Montero knew but only vaguely. This isn’t a parlor trick meant to emphasize her ability to think on her feet. As she explained to us in the midst of the laughter-filled, at time raucously participatory improvisational section of the concert, the idea is to incorporate a melodic fragment of a song the whole audience knows, so everyone can hear it peeking out and being transformed during the five-or-so-minute-long impromptu she spins from it.

I found the experience dazzling and giddily fun, even oddly moving. We’re used to hearing works composed in the past, played by performers whose primary job is to connect us as directly as possible to the music in the score. The performer speaks for the composer, using her own “voice” to express what someone else wrote — the musical equivalent of a quote, not an utterance. ...

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Categories: Classical music, Improvisation, Innovation, Institutional personality, Participatory engagement and co-creation, Performing arts
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January 30, 2011

Innovation starts with self-critique (which is why it’s so rare)

A line in a recent New Yorker article caught my eye. Tim Armstrong, the head of AOL, is bravely retooling the company, starting with a redesign of its homepage. He told a roomful of senior execs that the current homepage feels “like an Internet company designed it.” But isn’t AOL an…internet company? Shouldn’t they be proud of that?

The answer is no, not if they want to move ahead of the pack of “internet companies.” Leading means being different than: you can’t be better without doing something different than the other institutions in your category. Armstrong’s dissatisfaction tells us something about the spirit of innovation, the restlessness that drives it and separates it from just any old kind of change.

Think of the parallel critique in your world. An exhibition that “feels like an art museum designed it.” A concert format that “feels like a symphony orchestra designed it.” A conservation program that feels “like a science center designed it.” I can see the incredulity on the faces in that staff meeting.

And yet it makes all the sense in the world for cultural organizations to challenge themselves in just that way. In an era when building new audiences and staying relevant in a changing society are the rallying cries, it’s not enough for an art museum to look and act like an art museum, and the same goes for a dance company or a chamber music festival or a natural history museum.

Which turns out to be my litmus test for the innovations going on around the cultural sector. (I didn’t realize this until I read the AOL article.) When someone tells me about a cool new arts experience or new museum program, or better yet when I can check it out first hand, I ask myself whether it feels like it was designed by that kind of institution, within its traditions, values, and personality — its comfort zone.

If it does, it’s usually not that exciting, at least to me. And I’d bet it won’t feel very fresh and appealing to people who aren’t already into that category (say, opera, history museums, whatever the case may be). So it probably won’t do much to change the audience mix, which requires changing the image of that category in the minds of people who don’t attend it very often. ...

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Categories: Culture sector, Innovation, Museums, Other nonprofits, Participatory engagement and co-creation, Performing arts, State of the arts
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September 16, 2010

Audience diversity and participatory engagement — what’s the link?

You wouldn’t have thought that yet another symposium on inclusion and diversity in the arts would be anything new. We’re all (still) frustrated at how little changes. But at the MCA Chicago last night, I began to wonder about something I’d never questioned before: the role of participatory experiences in building ethnic and cultural diversity.

A friend of mine, the veteran museum consultant and author Elaine Gurian, came to town to speak at the MCA’s annual public dialogue about museums and diversity. I went largely to see her, and I was happy I did, for several reasons.

The first was a calmly revolutionary speech by the MCA’s still-relatively-new president, Madeleine Grynsztejn. I was tempted to call it a manifesto for a new kind of multivocal, responsive contemporary art museum, but it was less dogmatic than that. She put out there the question the museum is wrestling with at every level, staff and board: What’s the best architecture of participation for a civically-minded art museum in today’s world? (I’m not quoting verbatim here; my notes are sketchy.)

It sounds like a question about means, but it turns out to be about ends. “No one wants an uncurated museum,” Grynsztejn declared; “discernment” is crucial, because from it flows the museum’s credibility for all kinds of audiences, not just connoisseurs and collectors.

So far, so twentieth century. But she went on to frame — and embrace — the big challenge to that traditional line of thinking: the “civic turn.” Museums like the MCA must be places of “exchange and debate,” with artists and artworks acting as catalysts. Such a museum doesn’t want an “audience,” it wants “engaged participants.”

For Grynsztejn and her crew, that doesn’t mean subordinating the curatorial eye to the wisdom of the crowd. But it does mean sharing responsibility for making meaning and relevance. Such a museum must be both participatory and authoritative. It must have its own voice but also welcome in other voices, not just on the gins or occasionally but centrally. ...

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Categories: Arts participation, Chicago, Diversity, Institutional personality, Museums, Participatory engagement and co-creation, State of the arts, Subjectivity, Visual art
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September 06, 2010

The “dark matter” of the arts: informal and participatory engagement?

Physicists now believe that most of the mass in the universe is something very different from the stuff we’re used to observing and measuring. Could something similar be true in the more down-to-earth realm of arts participation?

I’m preparing for a panel next month at the Grantmakers in the Arts conference entitled “Are the Arts Gaining or Losing Ground in America?” The session was cooked up by Paul Botts, a friend of mine and program director at the Gaylord & Dorothy Donnelley Foundation. Paul is understandably impatient about the fact that, for all the data we’ve complied on arts audiences as a field, we’re not really sure what the numbers really mean, or even whether things are tanking, holding steady, or (as unlikely as it sometimes seems) growing.

As you probably know, the NEA’s Survey of Public Participation in the Arts says that most of the traditional or “benchmark” forms of cultural participation — which is to say, attendance — have been dropping steadily over the last two or three decades.

But many people, including the NEA‘s own head of research, Sunil Iyengar, have noted that times are changing fast and fundamentally, and it might be a good idea to update our definitions of both “benchmark” art forms and “participation.” (To its credit, the NEA's most recent SPPA report does away with the term "benchmark.") Because it’s entirely possible that, while attendance at things like opera, symphonies, ballet, and art museums has declined, engagement with less formal styles of art, culture, and creative expression has risen, and that participation (in the sense of doing something actively, rather than sitting there watching and listening to others do it) has grown.

If so, the question is whether that growth outstrips the declines in attendance at the traditional arts. Which way is the “total” needle pointing?

A strum-along class at the Old Town School of Folk Music's "First Friday" this past weekend. Sorry for the iPhone photo quality.

I had all that question knocking around in my head when I wandered into the Old Town School of Folk Music last Friday evening after work. It’s right in my neighborhood, Lincoln Square, and it‘s one of the most thriving, lively arts institutions I’ve seen. Even if you didn’t know it was there, you’d be able to infer its existence from all the people carrying guitars around here.

I paid my five bucks for the “First Friday” open house, a monthly mix of student performances, faculty-led jam sessions, goofy square dancing for toddlers and kids, and drop-in classes for grownups, capped off at the end of the night by performances by one or two people you‘d actually buy tickets to hear.

I bumped into some friends who had brought their two little kids, and we had a beer while catching sets by one class called 70s Ensemble and another called Rolling Stones Ensemble. As you’d guess, the talent on stage varied widely, from beginning strummers to polished electric licks. The teacher of each class sat in with the students and acted as bandleader, but that didn’t change the homemade, singalong vibe. Even when it was bad it was fun, and it was often pretty damn good. ...

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Categories: Arts participation, Business models, Chicago, Classical music, Engagement, Other nonprofits, Participatory engagement and co-creation, Performing arts, State of the 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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