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

February 27, 2012

As the arts conversation shifts to 'creative placemaking,' will large institutions still count?

The NEA has been funding creative placemaking for a year or so, but it was only recently that I heard cultural economist Ann Markusen and her colleague Anne Gadwa — co-authors of a terrific 2010 whitepaper by that name — present their research for the University of Chicago’s Cultural Policy Center. It’s an exciting story about thriving, innovative arts activity from which the leading, mainstream cultural institutions are almost entirely absent.

In case the phrase is new to you, Markusen and Gadwa define creative placemaking as a process in which “partners from public, private, non-profit, and community sectors strategically shape the physical and social character of a neighborhood, town, city, or region around arts and cultural activities.”

As their case studies show, those activities only sometimes involve people showing up at an existing nonprofit arts venue. Most of the time, the action is out in the neighborhoods, in and around alternative venues: repurposed industrial sites, independent commercial entertainment venues, public outdoor spaces, etc. As Markusen and Gadwa write,

Instead of a single arts center or a cluster of large arts and cultural institutions, contemporary creative placemaking envisions a more decentralized portfolio of spaces acting as creative crucibles. In each, arts and culture exist cheek-by jowl with private sector export and retail businesses and mixed-income housing, often occupying buildings and lots that had been vacant and under-used.

Why? In part (and this is my take, not theirs) because these efforts aren’t really driven by the organizations we usually think of when we think of “the arts,” nor by the people we think of as “arts leaders” in the city in question. They’re driven by other community, civic, or business entities, and sometimes by artists or small, grassroots arts organizations. If we think of most major arts initiatives as top-down affairs, decided on and funded by the arts establishment, the placemaking projects that Markusen and Gadwa write about are bottom-up, or perhaps side-in.

Where are the major arts organizations in this new landscape? Slowly getting on the bandwagon, the authors imply. “Large cultural institutions, often inspired by their smaller counterparts, are increasingly engaging in active placemaking,” they write in their executive summary. But there are precious few examples in the rest of their report. ...

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Categories: Chicago, Innovation, Museums, Performing arts, State of the arts, Strategy and strategic planning, Visual art
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January 06, 2012

At the Colorado Symphony, half-steps toward a “consumer-first business model”

The orchestra’s new business plan, “Creating a 21st Century Orchestra,” is being positoned as a radical step toward relevance and away from the pieties of the past. But compared to some of what’s going on in the arts these days, it doesn’t push very far. Where are the consumers in this new model? Largely in their seats, where they belong.

Reading the plan, I was reminded of what a friend said after returning from the League of American Orchestras conference a year or two ago. “It’s a dinosaur convention,” he reported. “They all know the comet has struck, but they have no clue what to do about it.”

In the Colorado document, there’s much talk of new realities and the need for “redirection.” “The program content and existing format of the orchestra is no longer appropriate to adapt to a viable 21 century model,” the plan declares. But that big diagnosis is followed by a small, familiar prescription: the orchestra will “expand its performances through full orchestra, chamber orchestra, and small ensembles to venues around the entire area.” 

The logic, presumably, is that what’s no longer relevant Coloradans when presented in Boettcher Hall will be relevant when presented in venues in their own communities. That makes a little sense, but only a little. Venues make a difference when they create alternative frames for the arts experience: new conventions, behaviors, participation, interaction, vibe. (Arts researcher Alan Brown has a terrific forthcoming paper about the role of venues, which I'll link to.)

Jeffrey Kahane leads the Colorado Symphony Orchestra. Photo Karl Gehring, The Denver Post

There’s no mention of any of that in the Colorado plan. Instead, it reaffirms the traditional, presentational model of classical music (“uncompromising artistic quality presenting music that is timeless and fostering new music”) as well as a taste-making function that sounds painfully self-justifying in this context (“our artistic responsibility to be a curator of the great music, traditional and contemporary, as a service to our community”). Nobody seems to have noticed that values like those are what led orchestras to the relevance and support challenges they currently face, and which the new plan is supposed to address.

In other words, everything’s being questioned except the underlying assumptions. 

I guess that’s a formula for incremental change, at least, and for the institutional stability that makes change possible. But it may also make institutions themselves—established, sizable, and reasonably well-funded arts organizations like the Colorado Symphony—vulnerable to competition from upstarts offering consumers more dramatic departures from tradition and more involving forms of relevance.  

I’ve blogged about some of those upstarts before, and in my next post I’ll look at a few more who are getting consumers out of their seats and into the business (and artistic) model.

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Categories: Business models, Classical music, Innovation, Institutional personality, New audiences, Performing arts, Strategy and strategic planning
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October 12, 2010

Innovation, insecurity, and the real reason we need new business models

A young friend of mine who works at a major American arts institution tells a chilling story about the departmental brainstorming meetings he and his colleagues are asked to attend every few months. 'We need new ideas,' they’re told — and they come up with them. They put their heads and hearts into it. They get excited. You can feel the energy in the room. And then…

And then the department head, a veteran with a powerful reputation in the organization, wraps up the meeting with a blanket dismissal: Those kinds of things, she tells her staff as the smiles fade, just aren’t the way we do things at this organization.

In answer to your question, yes, my friend is looking for another job.

But wherever he lands next on the arts and culture landscape, it's likely to be at an institution that has trouble with change and risk. In fact, in my decade or so of working with nonprofits organizations, I’ve begun to wonder if that phrase, "an institution that has trouble with change and risk," isn’t a redundancy. Could it be that part of what that defines institutions as we know them is a systemic, structured-in aversion to risk?

If so, there’s a lot at stake. Without risk we can’t have innovation, and without innovation we’re doomed to stasis which, in a changing culture, sooner or later means irrelevance.

My friend’s tale notwithstanding, the problem isn’t usually people. Or rather, it's not the people as individuals. Over and over, I’ve seen creative, thoughtful museum and arts professionals, people with energy and passion and a wide sphere of reference, get excited about a new idea or way of doing things…and I‘ve watched as that idea works its way through the organization’s process, becoming less interesting, risky, innovative, and appealing at every step.

Sometimes the idea makes it all the way to implementation, but in barely recognizable form. Sometimes it's abandoned along the way, victim of senior-level dismissal or, more commonly, vague resistance and a failure to "gain traction."

What’s going on? Why do those institutional processes (call them 'planning' or 'development' or anything else) so reliably have those effects? . . .

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Categories: Business models, General, Innovation, Institutional personality, Museums, Other nonprofits, Performing arts, Strategy and strategic planning
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June 28, 2010

Participatory art vs. the other kind: Are curators at a fork in the road?

Artists are allowed to make a museum experience anything they want, and many of them are giving visitors an active role. Which leaves me wondering why curators don’t grant themselves the same license to play with visitors and art, and what’s going to happen to the traditional kind of installation, in which audiences are supposed to just…look.

The art museum world is still buzzing about Robin Pogrebin’s piece in the Times criticizing “populist” exhibitions at the Brooklyn Museum, about which I hope to have a guest post later this week.

But the article that caught my eye this weekend was a review of the Rivane Neuenschwander retrospective at the New Museum. I haven’t seen the show, but from the review it sounds like the works could be divided into two categories: one in which visitors are asked to look (and maybe think, feel, chuckle, frown, whatever), and one in which they’re asked to do something — to become part of the artwork and complete it, or at least further it, by their actions.

At the Neuenschwander show, that can mean sitting down with a police sketch artist to try to recreate the face of your first love, or writing a wish on a slip of paper and exchanging it with someone else’s wish printed on a ribbon and hanging on a wall (photo).

Of course, Neuenschwander is hardly the first artist to give the audience these kinds of roles (although it’s fun to realize that her German last name means someone who farms or occupies newly cleared land). The recently-concluded Marina Abramović exhibition at MoMA, which got such attention in part because of the nudity in some of the works, included a performance in which visitors waited in line, sometimes for hours, for a chance to sit in a chair across from Abramović (who was clothed, by the way, in white robes) and gaze at, and be gazed at by, the artist. For a glimpse of how intense this experience was for many participants, check out the remarkable website Marina Abramović Made Me Cry. (Photo left. The site, a reposting from MoMA's Flickr page, is itself a demonstration of how social and interactive the whole experience was.)

And the Indianapolis Museum of Art just opened the 100-acre Virginia B. Fairbanks Art & Nature Park in which the eight commissioned installations that inaugurate the park all sound (according to yet another NY Times piece) either casually or profoundly participatory (photos below).


We’re dealing with a deep distinction here. The works that I’m calling participatory require an audience in a different way than traditional “behold me” art does. They’re simply incomplete without the visitor. Think of an empty chair across from Marina Abramović, or Neuenschwander’s array of wish-imprinted ribbons hanging on a wall to be looked at and read. ...

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Categories: Arts participation, Museums, Participatory engagement and co-creation, Strategy and strategic planning, Visual art
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June 11, 2010

Strategy for winning young audiences: pipeline vs. parallel?

I was in Seattle last week for meetings with a few of our arts clients and attended a terrific brainstorming session about developing teen and young-adult audiences. I came in — and left — with a big question about the limits of marketing to meet the challenge.

The session was set up for us to generate ideas about how to attract more young people to the organization’s performances. At the outset, those performances were treated as a given; the question was how to enhance the desire to have those arts experiences among the target age groups.

But, tellingly, the ideas that began zinging around the room were about changing the nature of those experiences — about new approaches to programming and the artistic “product” onstage, but also about venue, format, before-and-after events, audience behavior, overall vibe, and many other aspects outside the control of the organization’s marketing department.

A few people in the room made the point explicit: No matter how clever your marketing communications are, no matter how technologically and socially networked your message is, if the experience you’re offering isn’t perceived as enjoyable by young people, they won’t come...or won’t come back. Marketing alone can’t do the trick. It’s the programming, stupid.

To quote my newfound Seattle colleague Holly Arsenault, who runs Seattle Center Teen Tix and wrote me an email after the brainstorming session:

If you were to look at our show-by-show numbers, you’d see that there’s no amount of packaging I can do that’s as impactful on our ticket sales as a show simply being compelling to teenagers. Of course, I see a difference in our numbers when I’ve done a good job of illuminating for our [teen] members why a particular show is relevant to them in a way that might not have been apparent . . . but I can’t make something that’s clearly irrelevant seem like it is — nor would I want to. ...

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Categories: Arts marketing, Arts participation, Institutional personality, Museums, Performing arts, Social media, Strategy and strategic planning, Visual art, Young audiences
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January 28, 2010

Would you like any local flavor with that?

Starbucks is “eschewing its cookie-cutter ways” and letting variation and independence bloom. If they can do it, how about museums and symphonies?

You may have heard that Starbucks, a brand almost synonymous with product consistency, has begun opening coffee shops that look and feel like independent, neighborhood coffeehouses. No Starbucks logo, and barely the Starbucks name. Instead, they’re called things like 15th Avenue Coffee and Tea, just like the local options. They buy small-batch beans and brew carefully to order, like the artisanal coffeehouses do. The design of each location is a one-off rather than a knock-off, expressive of the local scene.

Sure, this is an attempt to co-opt the entrepreneurial and anti-corporate energies that have fueled (along with all that caffeine) the resurgence of the local coffeehouse in the last decade or two. As a consumer I’m not sure I like the idea, and clearly I’m not alone.

But as a consultant who studies how people make choices that confirm their sense of themselves, their desired identity (like museum visiting and concertgoing) – well, I have to admire the insight of the Starbucks folks into a certain kind of twenty-first century mindset.

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Categories: Classical music, Institutional personality, Museums, Performing arts, State of the arts, Strategy and strategic planning
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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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January 21, 2010

The truth doesn't have to hurt

An Onion headline caught my eye because it jokes about something close to home: the self-interest at the heart of many institutions’ audience research efforts.

I do empathize with the joke at the core of the article, from back in September, “University Of Illinois Researchers Find Link Between Attending University Of Illinois, Receiving Solid Education At Great Price.” Isn’t that the dream that everyone has for the audience research projects they fund or lead? How could an organization go into audience research not hoping that it emerges with a report validating its worth and proving its indispensability in stark black and white (or better yet, colorful graphs and charts)? 

(On a related note, check out a post that my colleague Cheryl wrote on advocacy vs. empiricism. She could have used the same Onion headline.)

For the people within institutions who are responsible for research, hesitation and nervous anticipation about what the study will uncover are natural. What if the report highlights the areas in which we’re most vulnerable as an organization? Areas where we fall short? Or initiatives that have cost a lot of money but haven’t yet had a measurable impact on my audience or mission? Am I supposed to feel proud to share findings like those? How will I get funders and board members to trust my decisions and open up their wallets to me after research findings like that?

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Categories: Performing arts, Research findings, Research issues, Strategy and strategic planning
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December 16, 2009

“The two cultures” in classical music

Lately it feels like every book and article I read mentions the “two cultures” dichotomy that physicist and novelist CP Snow diagnosed in his 1956 essay of that title. Snow was complaining about the gulf he saw arising between the sciences and the humanities, whose mutually uncomprehending practitioners showed little interest in each other’s worldviews. (Being a scientist, he naturally blamed the literary types more than his own camp.) But the phrase itself is one of those neat little dualisms that’s fun to borrow on behalf of entirely unrelated points. It offers a convenient name for something I’ve been trying to put my finger on for several years in the arts and culture sector. Today I’ll test it out on classical music, and in a future blog post I’ll see if the shoe fits museums, too.

If someone asks you why the classical music scene—think of your local world-class symphony orchestra, but also its audiences, supporters, trustees, leadership, program notes, along with your classical radio station (if you still have one), newspaper critics, the whole lot—looks and acts the way it does, you might answer by referring to those appearances and actions as manifestations of a particular set of values: the values or culture of classical music.

These might include, for example, a reverence for certain masterpieces and composers; a high value on musicianship and performance quality, and by extension on the rigor and discipline required to produce them; a deep respect for the intentions of the composer; an enjoyment of virtuosity as well as subtlety; a belief in the importance of human hands (and ears) in the production of each note; and so on.

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Categories: Classical music, Institutional personality, Performing arts, 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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