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

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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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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