December 06, 2010

Culture Kettle, my new R&D enterprise — kickoff concept (part 1)

A month or so ago we announced the founding of Culture Kettle, a new enterprise to spur research and innovation in the cultural sector. Interest and enthusiasm around the field were immediate, which means we’re onto something. But how, exactly, will it work?

The honest answer is, Culture Kettle is still an idea in progress. We’re just forming the organization as an L3C, which, if you’re not familiar with the term, is a new structure that blends non-profit and for-profit characteristics into a hybrid meant to spur social entrepreneurship. You’ve heard the calls for “new business models in the arts”? Well, this is one of them. (Read more about L3Cs here.)

The “we,” by the way, is myself and Carroll Joynes, the founding and now former executive director of the Cultural Policy Center at the University of Chicago and one of the broadest thinkers I know. He and I are starting Culture Kettle out of two basic intuitions: first, that it’s hard for many cultural institutions to take risks and try out different — especially radically different — approaches, even though that kind of experimentation would probably make them more adaptive and relevant over time; and second, that the ways our society is changing have opened up new possibilities for public engagement with the arts, sciences, history, and other domains, possibilities that “indie” and popular culture have done a better job of exploring than mainstream arts and culture institutions and which may hold the promise of broadening audiences and deepening engagement.

The spirit of Culture Kettle will be speculative, intuitive, fearless: our mantras will be what if? and let’s try it. We’ll innovate not as a replacement for, or even really a critique of, current practice but in the hope of broadening of the range of meaningful experiences available to the American public. What if a classical music concert operated on the conventions of a rock club or a folk concert? Or of a basement jam session, or a dinner with friends? Let’s try it.

What if a science exhibit worked more like the physics or evolutionary biology bestsellers I read for fun — books written by scientists who sound like they’re writing for their friends, and who are present in a hundred human ways in the stories they tell? What if a history exhibit worked more like a Radiolab episode, or a conceptual artwork? Let’s try it.

And speaking of art, what if viewing art and making it were somehow part of the same encounter with creativity? What if “cultural consumers” were construed not just as beholders of creativity but as expressive, imaginative co-creators? Let’s try it.

I’m excited about what we might learn by taking such an attitude — not just about the experiences we offer but about our audiences and ourselves. ...

I’m not saying that the results of such experiments would always be successful, or even pretty. (The most important discovery may actually be for whom they’re successful or unsuccessful. If we don’t try new strategies, we’re not likely to serve new audiences.) What matters is asking the question and conducting the experiment.

Not coincidentally, those are the two sides of the R&D equation—research: asking new questions, or asking questions in new ways, with new methods; and development: implementing and testing new approaches, new “products” with the public. And those are the two things we plan to with Culture Kettle:

1. Conduct exploratory research about arts and culture experiences, studies that ask the kinds of questions that aren’t being asked in the field today and which could shed new light on how people do and could connect with culture, creativity, and informal learning;

2. Create and implement public experiments both inside and outside of existing cultural institutions and evaluate those experiments in multi-disciplinary ways that reveal what happens, what doesn’t, for whom, and why.

The idea is to close the loop between research, innovation, and evaluation so that we create a circuit of new knowledge about how culture can work. Right now, there’s plenty of audience research going on in these fields, some of it deep and illuminating. But it’s not closely tied to programmatic experimentation, and much of it embeds the very assumptions that I believe need to be tested.

There’s also plenty of innovation going on, both scattered around our cultural institutions and in a growing parallel universe of informal, often participatory ventures and “alt” venues (this is especially true in classical music). But those experiments tend not to be evaluated rigorously or documented and published, so the resulting insights can’t be extrapolated to other contexts around the field.

With Culture Kettle, we have as an opportunity to bring the pieces together to form a new and continuously evolving picture.

Still, all that leaves open as many questions as it answers, questions that Carroll and I are exploring in conversations with each other and a diverse bunch of smart and very helpful people in the museum field, the arts, and funding organizations. I’ll share some of those questions in another post in the not-too-distant future.

I’d also value your reactions to what I’ve sketched here — please jot a comment below. And if you’d like to discuss Culture Kettle offline, shoot me an email.

Meanwhile, Carroll and I will be writing a business plan in the coming weeks, finishing our mission statement, and putting together an advisory committee. Most excitingly, we’ll be announcing Culture Kettle’s first “Innovator in Residence,” hopefully before the holidays — stay tuned.

Dan Spock — December 11, 2010

Peter, cool to see this getting launched. I eagerly look forward to what's coming next! I'll be in Chicago over the holidays. Let me know if you'd like to have a chat over coffee or beer.

Karen Nelson — December 17, 2010

Very much interested in at least tagging along on this!

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