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

April 20, 2012

Universities amp up the arts. But who’s helping whom?

The arts on campuses seem to be entering a period of unprecedented investment and attention, with ‘arts districts’ and strategic initiatives and a new profile even at institutions famous for cultivating the other regions of the brain. Maybe it’s no coincidence that this comes at a time when the value and relevance of higher education and the value and relevance of the traditional arts (especially to young people) are being challenged  from all directions.

Yesterday, Dartmouth’s Hood Museum of Art announced that its new building would be designed by busy art-world architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien. Nothing surprising there; campus art museums at UC Berkeley, UC Davis, University of Iowa, University of Wisconsin, Michigan State and many others are building or recently opened gleaming facilities, most of them designed by the same architects that have been creating all those new wings and renovations for larger, non-college museums around the country.

What caught my eye was the university’s positioning of the new Hood and other Dartmouth arts facilities as an “arts district.” This centralizing impulse — thinking about the arts at the level of the university rather than the level of individual organizations or programs — is being felt widely these days. 

MIT just announced its new Center for Art, Science, and Technology (CAST) with a founding gift of $1.5 million from the Mellon Foundation and a vision of better integrating the arts into the rest of the curriculum. (That’s something Mellon has been interested in, and funding generously, for almost twenty years, with a particular focus on university art museums and their connections to other academic departments and disciplines.)

And new arts initiatives are underway at Stanford, the University of Chicago (including an interesting new center), Harvard, and many other universities, all promulgating the basic idea that the arts (doing them as well as seeing them) are good ways of learning about much more than the arts. Harvard describes the trend succinctly right on the cover of its 2008 “Report of the Task Force on the Arts” [summary here, full pdf here]: the arts must become

an integral part of the cognitive life of the university: for along with the sciences and the humanities, the arts—as they are both experienced and practiced—are irreplaceable instruments of knowledge.

Behind all this attention is a major shift in thinking about what the arts are and what they’re for. The language of these university arts plans visions puts notions like ‘creativity,’ ‘imagination,’ and ‘innovation’ front and center. It’s not about learning the arts, which was the dominant paradigm for several decades. In a sense, it’s not about music or dance or theater or painting and sculpture at all. It’s about cultivating the kind of capacities that we (nowadays) associate with artistic creativity and performance: the ability to start with a blank page and see what belongs there; to improvise; to make intuitive connections; to bring people and groups together; to bridge ideas and feelings in a spirit of playful challenge. ...

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Categories: Arts participation, Higher ed, Improvisation, Innovation, Performing arts, State of the arts, Visual art, Young audiences
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December 05, 2011

Flash-mob opera: The devil is in the attitude

So these four opera singers walk into a food court... It worked beautifully in Philadelphia’s Reading Market last winter, as I blogged at the time. But a week’s worth of Chicago Opera Theater singers doing the same thing in Chicago suggests that it’s not easy to make this kind of public arts-grenade infectious rather than merely interesting.

The setting and the surprise are the same: a busy downtown food market at lunchtime, with diners eating, reading, and talking. Some music begins—in this case a pianist at an electronic keyboard—and one of the people waiting on line for coffee turns around and begins to sing an operatic chestnut in a big, gorgeous voice.

Video and photos below: Marcus Leshock/WGNTV)

The folks at Chicago Opera Theater are clearly taking a page from their colleagues at the Opera Company of Philadelphia, who have done several of these stealth interventions under the Knight Foundation’s wonderful “Random Acts of Culture” program.

But compare the videos (Chicago and Philadelphia) and photos and you can sense a subtle but decisive difference. The bystanders—bysitters?—in Chicago don’t really get into it. They seem intrigued but not enlivened. Their faces have a slightly closed-off look, the look you get when someone's trying to sell you something. For the most part, they go on with what they were doing.

Whereas the faces in Philadelphia are smiling, energized, made happier. They pull out their smartphones to shoot video. Strangers talk and gesture to each other. A crowd gathers.

What’s the difference? Not artistic quality, at least in the usual sense. It’s something in the faces and body language of the performers. The OCP singers are clearly having fun, relishing the stunt and the connections it lets them make with people. This is classical music as a social practice.

The COT singers pull the same stunt gamely, but gamely isn’t the same thing as wholeheartedly or comfortably. Their smiles seem a little more stagey. Their eyes aren’t twinkling with the giddiness of the enterprise, the energy that turns a performance into a party. They're putting themselves out there, but they're not making a scene.

Predictably, they get back what they give. ...

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Categories: Chicago, Classical music, Improvisation, Innovation, Institutional personality, New audiences, Performing arts, Venues
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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 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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