The rap on research for the arts, museums, and informal sciences
March 14, 2014

Multiculturalism is key for creating inclusive arts experiences

Last month, Coca-Cola aired its now-famous Super Bowl ad depicting people from various racial, ethnic, and cultural groups singing “America the Beautiful” together in different languages. Among the instant outpouring of polarized reactions to this ad rang much praise for its depiction of a multicultural America. Yet the ad provoked a slew of negative responses as well. Many of the ad’s detractors questioned whether this multicultural America could ever feel as cohesive as an America whose citizens speak a common language, and therefore have taken great strides toward assimilating into a common culture.

Arts and culture institutions have recognized the need to attract more racially and culturally diverse audiences for decades. Recently, Roberto Bedoya, head of the Tucson Pima Arts Council, challenged several museums professionals to think about how the White Racial Frame intersects with cultural policies and practices. These bloggers recognized the need for museums to create visitor experiences that are shaped by, and represent, people and perspectives from diverse backgrounds and cultures.

Yet, these sentiments have also raised concerns much like the skeptical reactions evoked by that now-infamous Coca-Cola ad. Cultural critic Edward Rothstein has expressed concerns that museums’ quests to affirm experiences of particular groups can draw focus away from a more universalist vision of art or history. And, in his recent blog post addressing the complex issues surrounding race and arts policy, Ian David Moss cautioned that calling attention to race might serve to exacerbate racial tensions. However, research on social behavior outside the museum context can help allay these concerns. Recognizing and celebrating cultural differences has actually been shown to help foster positive interracial relations between individuals and improve racial equity in society as a whole.

In his thought-provoking blog post, Ian David Moss referenced a 60 Minutes interview during which Morgan Freeman famously called Black History Month “ridiculous.” Freeman’s point was that calling attention to race prohibits us from truly seeing each other as individuals. In a similar spirit, terms such as “post-racial society” are often used to suggest that in an ideal society, race is irrelevant or ignored. On the surface, this colorblind ideology may seem like an admirable effort to get past interracial tensions and focus on our common humanity. But the goal of ignoring or downplaying racial differences is problematic in a few ways. In a colorblind society, the dominant group inevitably defines the common culture. As Stephen Colbert facetiously quips, “I don’t see race; I just pretend everybody’s white, and it’s all good.” Colorblind ideals ultimately disregard the unique perspectives, needs, and assets of people of color; allow white individuals to ignore or downplay racial inequities; and send a message that belonging to a race other than white is somehow bad or shameful.

A racially equitable society doesn’t have to be colorblind. We can instead envision a multicultural society that celebrates racial and ethnic differences, recognizing that each tradition has something valuable to offer. The problem is not that race exists; the problem is racial stereotyping, prejudice, and differential privileges conferred upon some groups over others. A multicultural ideology emphasizes the goal of doing away with racial inequities without ignoring race altogether. 

Plenty of evidence from the social sciences suggests that multicultural, rather than colorblind, ideologies promote racial equity between individuals, within organizations, and in society as a whole. Sociological survey and interview research across a diverse national sample shows that colorblind perspectives actually serve to maintain, rather than undo, racial stratification. And, a recent field study found that in workplaces where white employees espouse multiculturalism, rather than colorblindness, minority employees experience less racial bias and feel more engaged in their work.

Multicultural perspectives can reduce racial tensions on an interpersonal level as well. White individuals who endorse multiculturalism show less prejudice against racial minorities, compared to those who endorse colorblindness. Surprisingly, simply thinking about multiculturalism is enough to reduce racial bias. White research participants show less racial bias after reading a passage that endorses multiculturalism, compared to a different group who read a passage endorsing colorblindness. And, perhaps most importantly, interacting with a white individual who holds colorblind, rather than multicultural, ideals elicits stress among racial and ethnic minorities—enough stress to decrease their performance on a cognitively demanding brain-teaser

Taken together, these studies show that trying to ignore race puts a strain on interracial interactions that is felt by whites and minorities alike. Instead, seeing the world as the multicultural place it is diminishes these tensions and provides a framework for more open, positive, communication. And even subtle nudges toward a multicultural mindset—in these studies, simply reading a paragraph or two—can make measurable strides toward reducing racial tensions. In other words, we can all work towards, and succeed at, adopting a multicultural perspective.

What does all of this mean for arts and culture organizations? Rather than adopting a colorblind ideology by default, it is important for arts organizations to examine their ideals regarding racial and ethnic diversity and be deliberate about thinking, acting, and communicating with a multicultural mindset. For example, one important step toward connecting with diverse audiences may be for arts organizations to change their internal culture in ways such as hiring staff and board members with strong ties to underrepresented communities. But it is also imperative that these organizations hold, and communicate, multicultural ideals so that minority staff members feel engaged and empowered to make the changes needed to reach out to their communities.

In terms of programming, targeted efforts to appeal to more diverse audiences should be undertaken in the spirit of creating a multifaceted experience that feels inclusive to everyone, rather than expecting all visitors to appreciate the same artwork or adopt the same Eurocentric ways of experiencing art. Creating arts and culture experiences that are inclusive to all requires a genuine recognition of and celebration of our diverse cultural landscape; in many ways, idealizing a colorblind society ultimately stands in the way of achieving this goal. 

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February 25, 2014

Reflection: Crowdsourcing comes to a museum near you

Crowdsourcing didn’t become a part of my lexicon until recently, and I realize I’m a bit late to the game.  I’ve since learned that Jeff Howe is credited with coining the term in a 2006 article in Wired magazine and ultimately wrote a book entitled Crowdsourcing: Why the Power of the Crowd is Driving the Future of Business. Peter Linett interviewed Howe about the book as part of a panel at the 2009 AAM annual meeting and has written about crowdsourcing previously here on this blog

Wikipedia—an example of crowdsourcing itself—defines crowdsourcing as “a portmanteau of ‘crowd’ and ‘outsourcing;’ it is distinguished from outsourcing in that the work comes from an undefined public rather than being commissioned from a specific, named group.“ 

The widespread use of social media has made it possible for crowdsourcing to occur on a mass scale with little to no cost and proliferate across numerous sectors. I recently found a few examples of museum curating via crowdsourcing. The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston used crowdsourcing to determine which paintings would ultimately be shown as part of a special impressionist exhibition entitled “Boston Loves Impressionism” that opened on Valentine’s Day. People were able to vote for their favorite works, with a new theme provided each week, and over the course of several weeks, 30 paintings (from an original list of 50) were selected to be part of the exhibit. I voted one week and enjoyed feeling that I had a small part in the creation of an exhibit at the MFA—though I have yet to visit the museum to see the exhibit. 

Another recent example of a museum crowdsourcing curatorial work was the Chicago History Museum’s Chicago History Bowl. The museum asked the public to submit ideas via Facebook or an online survey for an exhibition they would want to see at the museum. “No cultural or historical moment is too big or too small for consideration” they said. Experts at the museum were to select 16 from the total number of submissions, and then the public got to vote again in a series of single-elimination brackets—a la “March Madness”—until they reached a “final four.” The final round of voting was left to the public again, and “Chicago Authors” eked out a win. It’s unclear whether the museum will ask the public again for help on specific exhibition items.  

Both of these examples of crowdsourcing still involve a fairly high level of expertise and curatorial input. For instance, a curator decides which 50 pieces of impressionist artwork the public will vote on and how to organize the pieces into weekly themes thereby ensuring that there is variety in the final exhibition.  In the Chicago History example, the public is given the opportunity to suggest the topic of an upcoming exhibition, but experts from the museum are the ones who winnow down the suggestions to a set of ideas that get voted on and then ultimately selected by the museum. There have been other examples of crowdsourcing that are a bit more directly participatory for the museum visitor.

For instance, a 2013 blog post on WestMuse spotlighted an exhibit at the California Historical Society that involved crowdsourcing to develop the exhibit content. Curator Jon Christensen created an exhibit of the San Francisco Bay’s environmental history, but also encouraged people to contribute their own stories and photographs to help “bridge informational gaps in history.” The exhibition guide said “through crowdsourcing, we now can include everyone who wants to participate in contributing, collecting, and caring for historical materials, crafting stories out of these materials, making histories and making history, in public, as co-curators.” Perhaps most interesting is the description of the exhibit being “less about telling strict facts; rather, it encourages and makes room for individual interpretation.”

As a researcher, I’m fascinated by how museums are already using this method for engaging their audiences. While museums seem to be using crowdsourcing in a variety of different fashions these days, I’ve not noticed an uptick in research on its use within the museum world. I’m curious about how the public perceives crowdsourcing. What motivates people to participate?  Are participants more likely to visit the resulting exhibition?  If they do visit the museum how is their experience similar or different from those who did not participate in the development of the exhibition in some way? If the experience is different, how is it different?

On a personal level, I look forward to more opportunities to be involved (even tangentially) in the creation of something that is meaningful to me and others.   I’d be interested in hearing from people in the comments below about whether you have participated in some sort of crowdsourcing activity (museum related or otherwise) recently and what motivated you to participate. Also, does anyone have more “extreme” versions of crowdsourcing curatorial work than the ones I’ve highlighted here that they would want to share?

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Categories: crowdsourcing, general public, popularity
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January 31, 2014

Reflection: Social desirability bias is lurking ‘between the lines’ in your audience’s answers

In a recent lunch conversation here at Slover Linett, my colleagues and I discussed how social desirability bias affects our research work and what we can do to minimize its impact. 

As research & evaluation consultants working in the arts and culture field, we try to understand people’s attitudes, values, behaviors, and beliefs. We often ask people to tell us about themselves and their experiences through a variety of methods: surveys, group discussions, interviews, ethnography, and all kinds of creative sessions and facilitated exercises. But many people find it difficult to access and accurately share their thoughts and feelings at the drop of a question. They tend to answer research questions the ‘right’ way — that is, instead of telling us how they really feel or behave, they answer in a way that they think is socially acceptable. This tendency can leave us with a false, idealized version of how people think and act. That’s social desirability bias, and it’s a universal challenge in social research. 

This is a very complex issue. Some participants answer researchers’ questions in a socially desirable way on purpose, for fear of being judged. Others may not be aware that they’re doing it at all. To better understand what influences social desirability bias, we need to further unpack these ideas. 

Part of what’s going on here is about the core of what makes us human: the need to be socially connected to others and the desire to belong to a group. Being socially connected to a group was evolutionarily important for our sheer survival, and these days it is still essential to our health and happiness. Part of what holds a group together is a shared set of beliefs, values, and behaviors — let’s call them social factors. For every group, these social factors are placed on a scale of desirability, from the taboo to the highly prestigious. The social factors on the highly prestigious end of the spectrum are where people may want to be, the ideal version of themselves that they want to see in the mirror. When people answer research questions from the perspective of this ideal self, social desirability bias is in play.

This is even more common in the cultural sector, where my colleagues and I do our research and evaluation work. People often ascribe an elevated level of status and prestige to arts institutions and museums of all kinds. That’s part of what it has meant, traditionally, to belong to the group ‘educated, upper-class, civilized Americans.’ Those beliefs are strong enough that people have a tendency to say that arts and cultural institutions are extremely important and praiseworthy even when their own needs as audience members are not being met. Instead of blaming the institutions, they often blame themselves. This bias can tilt their answers to researcher’s questions in favor of the cultural institution, inflating satisfaction ratings and other indicators of value and success. 

Social desirability bias can also be understood through self-perception theory. Developed by Daryl Bem, the theory states that we continually interpret our own behaviors in order to construct a sense of self. Rather than having a pre-existing, coherent identity that causes us to act in certain ways, we observe our own actions and decide on that basis who we are. But if our attitudes and motivations are really just after-the-fact rationalizations of our behaviors, how can social researchers ever truly discover what makes people tick? It’s a truly puzzling problem, and over lunch we got pretty philosophical about it.

But the practical challenges social desirability bias poses for us are very real. If audiences are prone to give idealized responses to our questions about cultural participation, and if they don’t readily have cognitive, conscious access to the values and desires that motivate them, then we need to use research methods that dig deeper.  Here are a few ways we try to minimize the effects of social desirability bias in our studies for museums and arts organizations.

  1. Designing good questions. As researchers, we put a lot of effort into designing questions that minimize the possibility of social desirability bias. If we have the time, and more importantly the budget, we often suggest conducting a round of cognitive testing as we develop the questionnaire. In cognitive testing, we ask people to think out loud as they read and answer each survey question, to see how they understand what we’re asking and how wording influences the way they respond. Those discussions give us a chance to see where and how social desirability bias may be cropping up. 

  2. ‘Challenging’ their answers. In order to help free respondents from the ‘right answer’ trap, we often, challenge or contextualize their self-reported attitudes byasking about the opposite attitudes and behaviors to see if they resonate. Let’s say you’re interested in understanding motivations. In addition to listing the ‘desirable,’ familiar motivations as possible answers — such as ‘learning’ or ‘exposing my children to something new’ — consider including less prestigious-sounding options, such as ‘getting away from my everyday routine,’ ‘impressing my date,’ or ‘because someone else dragged me along.’ This is also about question order: If there is an easy or obvious response (like, ‘free admission’) place it as the very last option. This will force the respondent to consider all the choices before they reach for the easy or obvious response.

  3. Let past behavior be a proxy for present attitudes. One of the most effective tools for getting around social desirability bias is to ask respondents about their past actions. After all, what we’re interested in is usually some kind of behavior — participating, joining, subscribing, supporting, recommending, or taking some civic or conservation action. All the attitudes, values and beliefs in the world don’t matter much unless they’re accompanied by action. And nothing predicts those behaviors better than whether someone has done them in the past. By probing into how people have actually behaved in the past and what influenced those behaviors, we‘re able to get a better understanding of who an individual truly is and how they are likely to act in the future. 

  4. Triangulate with multiple methods. Perhaps the simplest technique we discussed to mitigate social desirability bias is using a mixed-method approach: incorporating both qualitative and quantitative techniques in a single research study. By comparing the qualitative responses with the survey data, we can triangulate richer insights and get a sense of how candid respondents are being with us — and with themselves.   

Social desirability bias is a complex problem in social research, especially research in the arts and informal learning. There are many different ways to think about it and mitigate its effects; the ideas I’ve presented here are by no means exhaustive. If you’re a fellow researcher or evaluator, I’m interested in hearing how you think about it and what tools and tips you use to manage it. Please share your thoughts below in the comments.

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Categories: cognitive testing, self-perception, social desirability
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January 16, 2014

Announcement: Upcoming conference talks & conversations

As we re-launch our blog this month, we’re divvying up the content into new categories, such as colloquies like Peter’s post last week and reflections like Sharisse’s this week. We’ll also be keeping you in the loop as our practice grows, via newsy announcements like this post.

This winter and spring we’re giving talks at some new conferences (new to us, that is) and some intriguing one-off gatherings. We hope to see many of you at these events, which span the arts and sciences.

  •  This Friday, Sarah Lee will be part of an invitational roundtable on social impact assessment in the arts at UC Berkeley’s Arts Research Center.  The gathering is co-sponsored by the Triangle Lab and will involve people from several progressive Bay Area cultural organizations.  Sarah’s participation is connected to our ongoing work with the James Irvine Foundation on its New California Arts Fund.
  • On February 12, Peter will be helping open the International Public Science Events Conference (IPSEC) in Chicago, sharing some of the big ideas from his MIT/Culture Kettle conference from last September, the Evolving Culture of Science Engagement. The IPSEC gathering is a pre-conference of the much larger AAAS annual meeting, for science festival organizers and other event producers.  Not coincidentally, AAAS was a co-convener of the September conversation in Cambridge.
  • On the same day, over in Boston, Sarah has been asked to join a symposium on “The Value of Presenting: Arts Data & Research in North America” to help launch Northeastern University’s new arts research center, CREATE.  Sarah will speak on a panel about “Asking the Right Questions: Serving Our Changing Audiences.”
  • The following week, Peter will be participating in a charrette at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History to help brainstorm the museum’s upcoming Deep Time initiative.
  • Then, on March 23, Peter will speak at the annual conference of the Council of American Jewish Museums (CAJM) near Baltimore. He’s been asked to be part of a session on “the changing cultural and social landscape” (his favorite topic anyway) and to keep it TED-like.  We’ll let you know if video of the session is posted.
  • And as always, several of us will be at the American Alliance of Museums annual meeting in May and the League of American Orchestras conference in early June, both to be held in Seattle.

If you’ll be at any of these gatherings, be sure to say hello. Plus…stay tuned for pending news about a gathering of arts researchers we’ll be participating in to discuss Sarah and Peter’s new whitepaper for the Cultural Data Project, probably in Chicago.

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January 14, 2014

Reflection: Can the value of art be both extrinsic and intrinsic?

Two distinct perspectives regularly surface within the public discourse of arts nonprofits, and they are sometimes pitted against one another. 

1. At one extreme end of the spectrum, it is argued that art doesn’t need to make a case for itself. If the arts need to be advocated for at all, advocacy takes the form of promoting their intrinsic value, which can be immediately apparent to those willing to partake. Art stands on its own and doesn’t need to be heavily interpreted to be appreciated; it can be almost directly absorbed and contemplated. Art is positioned as an end in itself, and maintaining high standards of quality in the arts is the central value.

2. At the opposite end of the spectrum, it is argued that the power of the arts can and should be harnessed to make the world a better place. The arts have the power to heal, and this healing can take the form of bringing communities together or rebuilding our nation’s economic power by creating a more innovative workforce. (The arts can also heal in the more literal sense, as in art-based hospital or elder-care programs.) The arts need to be made accessible—and should be interpreted—to all, including those who are not arts-literate. Art is positioned as a means to an end, and the central value is the social good. 

These arguments, made with varying degrees of subtlety or intensity, have been around for a long time. Argument 1 has fallen out of favor with many innovative, influential practitioners, funders, and artists; it may even be perceived to be miserly or elitist. Argument 2 is seen as democratic and socially responsible; for many it is the only “correct” argument. So we are presently seeing an historic shift from the dominance of the first conception of the arts and the marginalization of the second, to the reverse. But does the second perspective have just as much potential for arrogance as the first?  

The art for art’s sake argument was born in the nineteenth century as a reaction against a prevalent belief that art’s value lay in its moralistic and utilitarian (and religious) functions. John Ruskin’s critical writings serve as an example of this kind of extrinsic value argument. He believed that both generative engagement with art (art-making) and receptive engagement with art (art-viewing and participation) hit us at an emotional, intellectual, and even moral level. Art has the power to unite people around truths and encourage civil behavior—a power which should be exploited by artists.

Numerous theorists of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries condemned this idea that art must serve a purpose greater than itself. For example, Oscar Wilde asserted that an art object should have no use. Many of them also contended that the artist should not aim to manipulate an effect on the recipient/viewer in order to serve his or her intentions (and the morals behind those intentions). Rather, any effect should issue naturally from the quality of the work, with the recipient/viewer treated as an autonomous agent. Boris Eichenbaum of the Russian Formalist movement, for example, elevated language that carried “independent value,” which needed to be distinguished from “practical language”; he argued the arts must be liberated from moralism and ideologies and freed to “dictate its own position on things.”

There are certainly problems with the art for art’s sake argument, such as its strong ties to a Eurocentric superiority that diminishes the social and functional aspects of art. But taking an empathetic eye toward the movement for a moment, we see that it sprang from a backlash against a moralistic vision of aesthetics most of us would consider dictatorial. In other words, those who first touted the idea of art for art’s sake were, in a sense, reacting against an arrogance that presumed an objective truth which artists were charged with communicating.

There is certainly a critical difference between arguing that the arts should be used to impart a specific morality and encouraging the use of the arts to achieve broadly-accepted social goods; but the similarities between the extrinsic arguments for art over time can be instructive. Perhaps the field is swinging a little too far back to a view of art as a moralistic vehicle—only minus the organized religion this time around. When we make assertions about the power of art to heal our communities, are we—like those of the nineteenth century—claiming a direct access to an objective truth about what is “good for” the masses?

To be fair, a lot of great advocacy work for the arts has been done by demonstrating how the arts contribute to other outcomes, such as creativity or general education. (Elliot Eisner, who passed from us just a few days ago, did a lot of good work in this area.) I personally often find myself making some variation of the extrinsic argument, and I admittedly tend to be more enthusiastic about working on projects that are built around its assumptions. 

But we should be careful to avoid taking a paternalistic tone with respect to arts audiences. Doug Borwick wrote in a recent blog about the “temptation to label what we want [the public] to need as needs,” and suggested that we in the world of arts nonprofits could use a nice dose of humility. I couldn’t agree more. However, Borwick also argued that we need to recognize “that the arts are not an end but a means.” I’d like to propose a “both-and” approach: art has intrinsic value in and of itself; this value can be powerful in bringing about positive change; we should work toward universal access to the arts; and we can’t always know what the positive change will look like and shouldn’t try to dictate it. In my career as a researcher in this field, I hope to help arts organizations deeply understand what their audiences’ and communities’ needs are from their own perspectives, and what role the arts can play in addressing those needs—while at the same time not reducing the arts to a mere tool for addressing societal problems. 

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January 10, 2014

Roundtable: Whose needs and wants?

My whole crew has been talking about the recent blog posts by Nina Simon, Diane Ragsdale, and Doug Borwick on the distinction between the needs and wants of arts audiences — and whether it’s really arts administrators and leaders who are doing the needing and wanting. I thought we’d share the conversation we’ve been having among ourselves over email. If this format works, we’ll make it a regular type of post on this blog. And we hope you join these “skull sessions” via comments and even a guest post or two.

Sharisse Butler started the ball rolling by telling my colleagues that she loved Borwick’s post:

It articulates so well my growing concerns about the paternalistic assumptions made by cultural organizations about the needs of the people and communities they aim to serve. Remember [our colleague] Nnenna’s comments about the importance of knowing the needs of a community from the inside, and the example I shared about how a certain citizen science program expects everyone to become wildlife biologists in their spare time? 

My favorite line from Doug’s post: “Giving people what they need rather than what they want is a form of deep respect, if that is indeed what we are doing. If we are simply giving them what we want to give, that is profound disrespect. In order to distinguish the difference, we need to reframe our own perspective and get to know them.”

To which Karlene Hanko added:

I was struck by this point: “The temptation to label what we want them to need as needs is a nearly insurmountable one.” (My emphasis.) This seems to be the heart of the problem. Arts organizations wholeheartedly believe in the value of the arts, and of their artistic product in particular, and it’s easy to project those values onto their communities and confuse what they offer with what the communities need.

Karlene knows about projection, being a social psychologist. Sharisse wrote back that she believes people do ‘need’ the arts in some general sense, and that it makes sense to think of culture as a ‘merit good’ like public health or other social goods (something Sarah Lee and I mention in our soon-to-be-released whitepaper for the Cultural Data Project). But, Sharisse noted, there’s a big temptation to use that general sense of value to try to justify specific interventions or expect certain responses in our communities.

Then Chloe Chittick Patton, just before heading out on maternity leave, reminded us that we’re also talking about ourselves:

I'd just throw out there that we arts researchers aren't immune to this same temptation. It's not only arts orgs that can project their own values or assumptions as the "needs" of the community.  We have to step carefully around that trap ourselves, especially during the interpretation stages of our projects.

So here’s to humility in the arts — including arts research. The idea that we always know what our audiences and communities ‘really’ need or ‘really’ mean is paternalistic. If we can be more about sharing what excites us and less about purveying lofty, ‘necessary’ experiences to those who lack and ‘need’ them, we’ll win more hearts and minds…and probably have more fun. 

For me, the concept that Simon, Ragsdale, and Borwick are all getting at — and the thread that can connect needs and wants — is empathy. If we think of the relationship between arts organizations and their audiences or communities like a friendship or some other personal, one-on-one relationship (a romance, even a one-night stand), then we don’t have to choose between binaries like “give ’em what they want” or “give ’em what they ought to want.” Instead we have to (as Ragsdale and Borwick point out) get to know them. We have to credit who they are and how they see themselves and see the world and see you, and try to negotiate some kind of mutually fulfilling connection...all while remaining authentically ourselves.

It ain’t easy. But only after trying all that — after taking the risks of intimacy and empathy — can we legitimately say, "Well, it just didn’t work out. We weren’t right for each other." (No arts organization can be right for everyone.)

If it does work out, though, a whole range of possibilities opens up.  We can surprise them one day with something they didn’t know they needed and didn’t think they were ready for, and the next week delight them by giving them exactly what they wished for. Just as we would love to do for a friend or loved one.

Okay, I’m getting sappy in my old age. It’s great to be back in the blogosphere with you. Please chime in below. And stay tuned next week for Sharisse Butler’s different take on Borwick’s post.

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Categories: Research issues, Roundtables, State of the arts
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February 06, 2013

A personal view: From one “and” to the other

I’ve co-led Slover Linett for almost 15 years, and agreeing to merge our higher ed research practice into Huron Consulting was the hardest thing I’ve done in all that time. Sometimes what makes sense rationally — as this does, on every level — is still a question mark emotionally. I hadn’t fully considered the human dimension, including how it would feel to lose some wonderful colleagues.

But ‘colleagues’ doesn’t quite capture it. Bill, Rachelle, Aaron, Jennifer, Jenny, and Megan were part of what it meant to be at Slover Linett, and why it was great to be there. Their banter, their laughter around the table or muffled through a door, their ideas and values — as people and as researchers — were part of why I loved being in that office and why I felt so lucky in my professional life. And I know my colleagues on the culture-and-informal-learning side of our organization feel the same way.

Of course, you can still see your work-friends for dinner or on the weekends; I guess that’s how you know they were more than just work friends. But it’s not the same as having them around and creating something together. I learned on a personal level something that we tell museum and arts leaders all the time: an organization isn’t an idea or a building or a service, or even an experience; it’s people. That’s what we connect to, are inspired by, and care about (or don’t). At bottom, it’s always social.

So why did Cheryl and I do it — aside from the financial incentive? Because there had always been a thorny “and” at the heart of our firm, a duality of higher ed and arts & culture that I could never quite reconcile. As both practices grew and became more active on the national scene in their respective domains, that “and” became more obvious, and more challenging. A small enterprise like ours can’t really do more than one set of things well. I began to wonder if the two practices needed to break free of each other in order to fully flourish.

So when our friends at Huron — smart people with whom we’d been collaborating on a few university projects over the last year — broached the idea of bringing our higher ed practice in house, I was intrigued. Today, those colleagues of mine are able to work on a bigger scale, nationally and globally, and explore a wider range of research questions for all kinds of institutions.

And our culture practice? Well, there’s a big “and” there too, but I think it’s a healthy one. Our domain is museums and performing arts and science communication and community engagement and… I’m excited about the broader, more inclusive and contemporary definition of culture that’s emerging in our work. I’m having fun exploring the messy multiplicity and creative overlaps within that category with and for our clients. We’ve now become a firm that can devote itself entirely to that challenge. That’s fruition, or at least a new pathway to get there.

So, now you know what I’ve been doing instead of blogging these last few months. But I’m getting back into the conversation. This year, I’ll be experimenting with shorter posts and will be bringing other Slover Linett and outside voices into the blog. I’ll also be making Culture Kettle official, finally. And I’ve just gotten on Twitter, where I hope you’ll follow me @PLinett.

And of course we’ll continue collaborating, growing, and learning as we go. Please stay in touch — and update our email addresses and website when you get a chance: it’s all now.

Two links for those of you who want more info on the transition: our arts & culture press release and Huron’s research page.

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August 03, 2012

Classical music's biggest audience development problem may be its current audience

You may have heard about an incident last weekend of aggressive rudeness on the part of some London concertgoers to a cougher in their midst. You might assume the story was exaggerated, unless you’ve seen for yourself the muted surliness of many classical music patrons in moments when they have to interact with each other. Yet smart writers are still extolling the virtues of the arts in building empathy and tolerance. Is that just a story we culture-lovers tell ourselves?

I once saw a German opera audience pounce — verbally, I mean, but with hissing gusto — on someone who unwrapped a candy too loudly. That was downright courteous compared to what the New Statesman's music critic, Alexandra Coghlan (pictured), reports happening to her companion the other night at the BBC Proms (a venerable concert series once known for its festivity and youthful informality):

I was attending the concert with a university-age girl... A chronic asthmatic, she had coughed a little during the first half, but infrequently, and had stifled it to the very best of her ability. After the first piece a man turned round and told her off (not a whit of sympathy, concern or even basic politeness to his complaint). We apologised, and moved to some empty seats further away. When the interval arrived three middle-aged men accosted us in the foyer. My companion was told to get out, that she had no right to be there, and the parting shot from one — “You dirty bitch” — was announced loud enough for everyone nearby to hear (including two ushers, who did nothing).

Remarkably, Coghlan is able to offer a thoughtful, balanced analysis of the incident in her article. She also describes how...

One of the angry men followed us as we walked out, stopping us to elaborate more fully the reasons for his frustration. Music was, he explained, something he wanted to immerse himself totally in without distraction or exception. A rock concert, he laboriously added, was quite a different scenario, and there we would (and should) feel free to cough as much as we liked.

His attempt to cast classical and rock experiences as opposites has one obvious truth in it: amplification does make certain audience behaviors possible (something I've blogged about here). But it also embeds an old, increasingly creaky notion that classical music is somehow better, more meaningful than other kinds, and therefore more deserving of protection (from, for example, aural intrusions). After all, it’s one of ‘the arts,’ and therefore associated with a higher class of person: more sophisticated, better behaved, more likely to display liberal values like compassion, reason, and pluralism.

As my teenage daughters would say: Seriously? You would think the claims for a link between civility and classical music had been discredited by all those Schumann-whistling Nazi guards at the death camps. Yet coincidentally, it’s just that link — the idea that art has an ‘ethical power’ to reduce human cruelty and intolerance — that’s on the mind of the formidable humanities scholar Elaine Scarry these days. (Scarry is the Walter M. Cabot Professor of Aesthetics and the General Theory of Value at Harvard. She used to be called an English professor.)

In a long essay in the current Boston Review, Scarry hails “the capacity of literature to exercise and reinforce our recognition that there are other points of view in the world.” Beauty, she argues, gives us “sudden relief from our own minds,” taking our focus away from our own concerns about ourselves and thereby eliminating the self-regarding ‘asymmetry’ that leads to injustice. ...

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Categories: Accountability, Arts marketing, Classical music, Early exposure, Performing arts, State of the arts
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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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July 20, 2012

Mini-post: What we should be talking about when we talk about the Trenton City Museum

My colleagues tease me that I never write a short blog post when a 1200-word essay will do. To prove them wrong, here’s a quick thought about the struggling Trenton City Museum — or rather, a recent diagnosis of it in the NY Times.

The Times piece lays out the dismal saga: city cuts budget, lays off museum director (along with a third of the Trenton police force), puts intern in the directors’ office. Donors panicked and angry, Brooklyn Museum retracts offer to loan a vase for upcoming exhibition, exhibition cancelled. Search for new director yields 10 resumes, most unqualified.

Why such a sorry state? Budget woes, according to the article.

But there, alongside the article, is a photo that makes a very different argument about what the problem might be:

Photo: Tim Larsen for the New York Times

Shouldn’t we really be talking about what a museum is supposed to do and what kinds of experiences it should try to make possible? About the relationship between the past and the present, and about how ‘culture’ looks and works today? About innovation in the cultural sector and how organizations of all sizes are renegotiating their relationships with their communities?

I suppose that in some situations the macroeconomics are so bad that no amount of reinvention would save the day. But until cultural organizations try it, they'll never know. Look at what Nina Simon is doing in Santa Cruz. My guess is that the budget problems we talk about so much in the arts are the water that seeps in when the foundations begin to erode.

"The City Museum still hopes to mount an exhibition of the vases,” we’re told. I hope they also take the opportunity to ask some new questions about why and how.

I’ll try a few other mini-posts in the next few weeks; let me know if they’re valuable.

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Categories: History museums, Innovation, Museums, Visitor experience, Visual art
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