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

November 28, 2011

Everybody’s favorite astrophysicist leads science into new territory: popular culture

I’m not the target audience, and neither are you. Neil deGrasse Tyson’s weekly radio show and podcast, StarTalk Radio, is aimed at people with a high-school education who listen to commercial talk radio call-in shows — the “blue collar intellectual” segment, according to a grant summary from the National Science Foundation, which supports the show. But there are big lessons here for us white-collar intellectuals who work in museums and the arts.

I didn’t know anything about StarTalk when I stumbled on it a few days ago on iTunes. But I’ve been watching Tyson’s public science persona evolve for years and have read several of his books, so I downloaded a few episodes and played them in the car during a family Thanksgiving drive. I was immediately struck by the commercial sound of the show. Fast pace. Voices bantering and interrupting and laughing. Comedians and celebrities mixing it up with Tyson and his scientific guests. Rock and Motown hits pumping us in and out of the segments. And Tyson’s voice, more animated and...well, slicker than I’d ever heard it.

So I was excited but not surprised to read that StarTalk was created to “bridge the intersection between pop culture and pop science” and that it bills itself as the “first and only popular commercial radio program devoted to all things space.” In other words, it’s content you might expect from public radio or public television (and Tyson has put in plenty of time on those media), but repackaged in a commercial format for people who’ve never heard of Radiolab or Story Collider and don’t watch NOVA.

Which proves that innovation in public science — and by extension other social and cultural domains that are too important to leave to the experts — doesn’t have to be geared to the educated, urban, young creatives who stream Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me! and the Slate Political Gabfest on their smartphones, nor to the older, affluent generation that’s still watching PBS and attending lunchtime lectures at their local university. It can meet a different (larger?) demographic on its own turf. And that, for anyone who cares about reaching underserved audiences and getting the arts and sciences out of their 20th-century temples, is good news. ...

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Categories: Demographics, Informal science education, Institutional personality, Public media, Science museums, Subjectivity, Young audiences
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July 31, 2011

Classical chops, rock vibe: 2Cellos shows what else can happen

A few days ago, Luka Sulic and Stjepan Hauser, two high-octane Croatian musicians known as 2Cellos, played at Le Poisson Rouge in New York. I wish I’d been in town to see them live, because their viral YouTube videos display all the qualities I’ve been saying classical music needs more of: rawness, energy, impoliteness, spontaneity, ego. If you haven’t watched them in action, you’re missing something.

The two young cellists are both classically trained: both attended royal conservatories in the UK and one of them (Hauser) was a student of the late cello legend Mstislav Rostropovich. Both were doing well on the competition circuit and were playing internationally at all the right venues. 

Apparently they avoided the indoctrination that usually comes with that kind of training — the traditional ideals that still shape the careers of many classical prodigies. They’re working outside of the culture of classical music, making other uses of their prodigious talent and rigorous training. For one thing, they’re playing rock, or at least that’s what they got famous for, almost overnight on YouTube: propulsive, virtuosic renditions Guns N’ Roses’ “Welcome to the Jungle” and Michael Jackson’s “Smooth Criminal.”

But it’s not just what they play, it’s how: fiercely, almost animalistically, twisting with energy, stamping their feet, and beating up their instruments. Their bows literally shred during the performance. In other words, they embody the subversive energy of rock and roll, the Dionysian upwelling that felt, to the establishment in rock’s early days, so aggressive and sexual and threatening.

The response they’ve been getting is more enthusiastic and more genuinely human than any classical audience reaction I’ve seen. No wonder Elton John asked them to tour with him this summer and fall (see photo with Sir Elton).

The classical realm (if that’s where we are) hasn’t seen anything like it since Nicolo Paganini, who was something like the Eddie Van Halen of his day. Classical music people often bring up Paganini to show that classical music can have the rabid crowds and almost-destabilizing force of popular music. But that begs the question of what has happened in the 170 years between Paganini and, say, Lang Lang, who’s a major star by classical standards but about as subversive as a Harry Potter sequel.

Sulic and Hauser are answering that question by example. They’re also demonstrating that conservatory training can pay off in ways that look very different from the traditional picture of success. Not long ago they might have been considered apostates, but given the conversation that’s going on at arts colleges (at least in the US) about creativity, innovation, and the changing role of musicians and artists in society, I’ll bet those two handsome cellists become poster children for the new era.

What do you think? Is it classical? Does it matter? And what (if anything) does it mean for classical music’s relationship to the broader culture?

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Categories: Classical music, Culture sector, Demographics, Innovation, Institutional personality, Performing arts
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July 10, 2011

Guest blogger: Lily Ahrens on how new venues reach new audiences, at a cost

I was delighted a few days ago when someone who’s been freelancing in our office, Lily Ahrens, emailed me to volunteer a guest blog post. Of course I agreed, and not just because the question she wanted to raise is near to my own heart. Lily is a multi-talented young violinist and fiddler with a master’s degree in urban geography (she wrote her thesis on how performance spaces influenced the arts scene in Asheville, NC). Her background in both classical and folk music gives her the perfect perch for these observations:

I recently attended performances by rockabilly group Southern Culture on the Skids at the Old Town School of Folk Music here in Chicago, and Rebirth Brass Band at Symphony Center, home of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. These venues are drastically different from both bands’ typical spots, which allowed me to observe the influence of venue on performance. The new venue may have exposed these bands to a new audience, but they also created significantly different performance experiences.

The first time I heard them, Southern Culture was at an outdoor street festival. The crowd, mostly in their thirties, was rowdy: dancing, laughing, singing, and yelling back and forth with the band. Dancing was also a key feature at the Rebirth show I saw at the Howlin’ Wolf in New Orleans. The Howlin’ Wolf is a large music club with a big bar and open space to congregate in front of the stage. The type of music Rebirth plays is infectious. I can't imagine listening to it without dancing. At least I couldn’t, until I went to their Symphony Center performance.

Rebirth Brass Band plays the Howlin' Wolf in New Orleans

Symphony Center attracts a much older audience than the Howlin’ Wolf. The ornately-decorated, formal space dictates a more proper decorum. The audience stayed seated for much of the performance, even while the musicians danced and motioned for us to follow suit. For a couple of exuberant songs we did stand, as an entire audience. But as the song ended we dutifully took our seats. At one point, a small group of ardent supports danced near the stage while the rest of the audience sat. This lasted only until an older gentleman, whose view was slightly blocked, asked them to sit down. He was visibly annoyed that the dancers were interfering with his experience.

That’s the difference right there. At the Howlin’ Wolf, dancing is an intrinsic part of the experience, which is defined broadly to include the audience, ambiance, activities like drinking and talking — the whole thing. Whereas at Symphony Center, the experience is defined more narrowly as the music itself, so anything in addition to the music is viewed as extraneous or a distraction. ...

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Categories: Arts participation, Chicago, Classical music, Demographics, Guest blogger, Institutional personality, Performing arts
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January 06, 2011

The happiness curve and alumni engagement

In the airport with my family over the holidays, I ran into a newsstand to pick up some things for our flight. There on the rack, the cover of The Economist caught my eye: “The joy of growing old (or why life begins at 46).” Being 46 at the moment, of course I bought it.

I thought the article might feature tips relevant to us mid-lifers, like how to prevent your knees from hurting when you hike, or how to remember what you walked into the kitchen for. What I found was something a little bigger-picture, something surprisingly related to my work with colleges and universities.

The not-particularly-happy news about happiness, according to the studies cited in the article, is that, in cultures around the world, people tend to start out happy and get increasingly less so, until they hit a collective rock bottom at age 46. Ouch.

The good news is that, as people continue to age, they report feeling happier and happier until their mid-80s, when (on average) they’re happier than they’ve ever been.

As I stared at the U-shaped chart, pondering all the ways I might feel happier in the future, I realized that I’ve seen this same graph before in our research with alumni.

Alumni tend to stay involved with their school for the first few years after graduation. But then engagement drops, bottoming out with alums in their 40s. It then begins to rise, with greater engagement and positive feelings as they age into retirement.

Common sense and our own research suggest that alums in their 40s are the most time-starved cohort, with jobs, kids, houses, and 401Ks taking up time and energy. So they have less time to devote to life’s optional commitments, like alumni events and class reunions. The Economist article made me wonder how happiness factors into the equation. If you don’t feel particularly good about your life, are you less likely to want to connect with your school and fellow alums? ...

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Categories: Demographics, Engagement, Fundraising, Higher ed, Research findings
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November 23, 2010

Reinstalling familiar assumptions (and audiences) in Boston

New York Times critic Holland Cotter praises the new American wing at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, and it sure looks lovely in the pictures accompanying his review. But those images also suggest that the new installation affirms rather than reinvents the orthodox art museum experience, and that it will do little to broaden the institution's audience.

In his article, Cotter calls the MFA Boston’s new Art of the Americas wing “startling,” along with other admiring adjectives. His sense of revelation has to do mostly with what’s on display — some 5,000 objects, twice what was shown in the museum’s old American galleries — and how the curators have juxtaposed objects and arranged them into provocative historical narratives.

Photo by Boston Photographer Erik Jacobs

Cotter also clearly likes the aesthetic choices the curators and their designers made. He’s no stick-in-the mud about installation approaches, either: he mentions the “salon-style” hang of a room of 19th-century painting and sculpture (above) without comment, as if it were the most natural thing in the world. (Which it used to be.)

But the pictures that ran with his piece in the Times (and as a slide show online) tell another, parallel story. I’m struck by two aspects of them: first, how familiar the installations look (that salon gallery notwithstanding); and second, how familiar the visitors look, from demographics to behaviors and even posture.

The artworks may be different, but otherwise pictures like the ones below could have been taken at any major art museum built or renovated in the last ten years. These are spaces designed with an unquestioning faith in the ideal of “disinterested contemplation” (the phrase is Kant’s, so it goes back to the 18th century, but the museum practices it spawned date mostly from the late 19th and early 20th centuries).

Photo by Boston Photographer Erik Jacobs

In that ideal, artworks should be viewed as discrete, almost free-floating objects, separated from each other and even, to the extent possible, from the contingent, messy environments in which they’re seen. In fact, they should be separated from us: we must stand at a critical distance from them, without wanting or needing anything from them and without responding at a bodily (and therefore primitive) level.

So above all these are museum spaces: environments carefully designed to foster a particular kind of aesthetic experience by closing off the rest of the world (which can only be a distraction) and focusing us on the contemplative, inward — many think of it as sacred — work of encountering art. ...

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Categories: Arts participation, Demographics, Innovation, Museums, Visual art
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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 22, 2010

Upcoming webcast: a lecture on demographic change

The Center for the Future of Museums hosts a talk by Los Angeles Times columnist Gregory Rodriguez on cultural transformation. It’s not just for museums.

The free webcast is next Wednesday, January 27 at 2pm Eastern time. You’ll need to register here.

The lecture was actually given by Rodriguez in Washington, DC in December and taped for this webcast. But he’ll be online Wednesday for a live Q&A, and there will also be a panel discussion.

Rodriguez is a big name in the world of demographic change, ethnicity, and policy, especially on Latino issues. He was asked by Elizabeth Merritt, who runs the new Center for the Future of Museums at the American Association of Museums (AAM), to turn his gaze on cultural institutions and speculate about how demographic shifts will affect them.

You can get a glimpse of his thinking in an op-ed column he wrote after giving the talk, “Big Tent Salvation for the Arts.”

In audience research and evaluation, we’re often asked to study Latino populations as a distinct group with its own special needs. But that can be a form of segregation, or at least compartmentalization. It might be smarter — and it will probably become necessary, anyway — to try to integrate our understanding of Latinos and other growing minorities in every “general” study we conduct.

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Categories: Demographics, Higher ed, Museums, Other nonprofits, Performing arts, Research findings, Strategy and strategic planning
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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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