WolfBrown: On Our Minds

It seems that almost every live performance I attend ends with a standing ovation. My British friends, with a tinge of cultural imperialism, are quick to point out that this is a uniquely American phenomenon (another hypothesis to refute). I propose to mount video cameras in theatres and concert halls over the course of a year, and capture on video (for slow-motion time-lapse analysis) exactly what happens starting from the moment the program ends. A cross-disciplinary, stratified sampling approach would allow for comparisons across opera, musical theatre, dance and classical music audiences in the US and UK. This would allow for careful analysis of who stands up first (including their precise seat number), and then follow the patterns of who rises next, and next, and so forth. Is it random, or do they fall like dominos? Do balcony people, who paid less, stand up at the same rate as big-spending main floor people? Can one discern patterns of social influence (i.e., those who stand up because the people around them have already stood up)? Is the “snowball effect” (i.e., when audiences rise in a cascading pattern from front to back) a spontaneous outpouring of admiration or a collective act of frustration over obstructed views? How many patrons remain seated, against all odds, in what surely must be one of the bravest acts of defiance known to man? Follow-up interviews with both standers and non-standers would shed light on whether the standers are applauding the artists or actually applauding themselves for spending so much money on tickets. At the bottom of the barrel is a somewhat dark hypothesis that more and more people can’t tell the difference between a good performance and a great performance, and therefore choose to stand regardless so as not to appear uncultured. We should all know better than to ask questions we really don’t want the answers to. Then again, the “urge to know” can be overpowering.

If a genie rose in a stream of twisted blue smoke and offered me, free of charge, an all expenses paid research study of my dreams, I would know immediately what to say. It would be a longitudinal study of three groups of young people in ordinary neighborhoods: those who become engaged with the arts, those who engage with science and technology, and others who are not particularly engaged. My army of co-researchers and I would track how these activities affect every aspect of these individuals’ lives. We would harness the growing powers of social media, asking young people to text us whenever they were engaged in their art form. A programmer of stunning insight and ability would work side by side with a gifted graphic designer to produce displays that showed a day, a month, or year in their lives. We would have the equivalent of topographical maps of what their artistic projects connected them to: real places, people, websites, books, movies, and performances. We would have the equivalent of MRIs of their imaginations. After early adulthood, we would visit them at regular intervals (like Michael Apted’s documentary Seven Up). We could look at their work, leisure, civic engagement, volunteering, and what they passed on to children or the people they mentored. In the end, we would have one way to answer, for one time and place, to two questions that preoccupy me: “What differences does living an engaged imaginative life make?” and “What differences does engagement in the arts make to the way we live our lives?”

Dance, Dance Revolution

December 21st, 2011

I’m not afraid to admit it – I’m a fan of TV dance shows, especially So You Think You Can Dance! So, at the top of my holiday research wish list is the opportunity to work with SYTYCD to develop a segmentation model of their audience- not based on demographics, but based on viewers’ motivations for watching the show, what they get out of it, and whether they attend live dance or if they dance themselves.

Drawing from WolfBrown’s research for the National Endowment for the Arts published earlier this year 36% of people who say they are involved in dance do so only through recordings or broadcasts. This is a big bucket of activity that encompasses the dance competition shows (and which I hypothesize may be largely driven by them) that we know very little about. The challenge lies in finding the people who are only involved in dance through recordings or broadcasts. Data on SYTYCD audiences would give me access to this exact population (as well as to those who watch on TV in addition to attending live dance or dancing themselves).

SYTYCD appeals to me as a former dancer, because in a way it lets me relive some of the highs and lows of when I danced myself, but the day my husband (whose TV viewing is otherwise dominated by sci-fi) rewound the DVR to re-watch a performance on SYTYCD (because it “moved him”), I had some tangible evidence that these shows might be opening more people to the power of dance as a form of artistic expression.

I think a segmentation model for dance that incorporates the motivations and values of the dance-on-TV-only crowd, as well as those who attend live performance and dance themselves, would be an important tool for the dance field as a whole.

Happy Holidays!

Dear Fairy Godmother…

December 21st, 2011

With all of the recent interactive, community-based creative endeavors (e.g., Popup Magazine, Aaron Koblin‘s distributed works), and the allure of the all-night project (e.g., 24 Hour Plays), the research project I wish for is to engage a larger community in exploring designs for a next-generation arts space through an all-night hands-on event. Let’s get a mix of skills and knowledge levels into a room and see what happens!

This all-night design workshop would gather a group of community members (i.e., laypeople), arts administrators, and a few “experts” (e.g., urban planners, architects). The event would take place in an open and mutable space, such as a warehouse or an old airplane hanger. Participants would break into different teams associated with particular artistic disciplines. Through conversation, drawing, and building (materials to be determined), the teams would examine the design issues around their selected building typology. One team would look at museums, another would focus on concert halls, etc. The event would culminate in a presentation of design ideas by each team and perhaps even a voting on “best design.”

Though “Design the Next Generation Arts Space Sleepover” would not end up producing a finalized facility plan, the highly interactive and cooperative nature of the process could generate unforeseen and unique design ideas, as well as community buy-in and support for new building projects.

Thank you for considering my request.



Insane Artistic Greatness

December 2nd, 2011

Although I don’t have an iPhone or Mac, my wife and children all do, which has helped me to understand the outpouring of consumer grief at the recent death of Apple CEO Steve Jobs. I’ve been struck in reading the tributes to someone so many consider “Insanely Great,” at the accolades for his leadership attributes as both a brilliant and compulsive perfectionist, who was also unwavering in his focus on providing customers with beautifully elegant, yet useful products and services.

Jobs’ reputation for being, paradoxically, customer-service oriented and a domineering control freak has prompted me to wonder how he would have dealt with the chronic pressure within arts groups to balance artistic and marketing objectives. I suspect that Jobs would have rejected the premise that there is a necessary choice between programs and exhibitions of high artistic quality (but no interest to visitors and audiences) and those that are tremendously popular (but fail to meet objective standards of artistic excellence). There is also an often-ignored third option, which is to take into account the aesthetic sensibilities and cultural engagement preferences of your audiences in the creation of artistically vibrant programs.

Steve Jobs seems to have mastered the ability to give customers not just want they wanted, but what they needed, before they even knew they needed it . He was a genius at knowing how to create demand for something of impeccable quality that customers will covet, without pandering to the latest trends. While translating those concepts to an arts group’s programming is easier said than done, setting it as an institutional objective is a good place to start. It might also be useful to follow the advice Steve Jobs gave during a Stanford commencement speech: “Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition.”

An exchange of articles got me wondering whether the lens of creative economy that is applied to highlight the benefits of increased focus on creativity, arts, and culture gets us off on the wrong foot. Creative economy (a term popularized by Richard Florida) refers to a broad and disparate agglomeration of industry sectors that employ workers in creative jobs. An amorphous concept as you can imagine, it’s defined variously in different communities. The creative class is composed partly of the traditional fine and performing arts crowd-actors, painters, dancers, and writers-but depending on the definition, can also include architects, software designers, chefs, and many, many others.

In a recent Salon.com article called “The Creative Class is a Lie,” Scott Timberg argues that the economic downturn has taken a significant toll on creative workers. He says that while some creatives are flying high, “…for those who deal with ideas, culture and creativity at street level – the working- or middle-classes within the creative class – things are less cheery…. The creative class is melting, and the story is largely untold.” In effect, the collapse of print media and the transformation of the music industry, among other upheavals, suggest to him that the “creative class” is no longer an engine of economic revitalization (if it ever was).

For those who have been focused on the creative economy as a strategy for revitalizing our cities and may be distraught to hear Timberg’s analysis, Richard Florida has offered a response: “The Creative Class is Alive” (on the very interesting theAtlanticCities.com). He points out that despite the distress Timberg describes, the creative sector has statistically fared better than many other parts of the economy.

It seems to me this tempest in a (hand-crafted?) tea pot obscures the point. The term “creative class” isn’t a lie, even though its use as a tool of advocacy may occasionally overstate its impact. But we arts advocates do ourselves and the cultural sector a disservice by focusing solely on economics-unquestionably important, but its attention should not be to the virtual exclusion of all the other areas in which creativity is important: teaching 21st Century skills to our youth, building more cohesive neighborhoods, or bridging the differences between people of different ethnic, racial, or class backgrounds. We need to broaden our focus so that we acknowledge all the benefits that attention to our creative and expressive lives can provide. Some of these benefits are intrinsic to experiencing art, and those are perhaps harder to measure but no less important. A good place to start is IntrinsicImpact.org, which offers a rationale for exploring the impact of the arts experience beyond the economic dimension.

I was recently speaking with someone about performing an evaluation of a music education program for young children. Given the relatively small number of children enrolled in the program (approximately 100), we discussed the possibility of collaborating with other similar programs and combining samples across sites. This would of course afford us a much larger sample, conferring all the benefits associated with increased statistical power.

This conversation prompted me to think about the promises and perils of conducting research online. It would be fairly straightforward to ask a parent to fill out a simple demographic questionnaire using an internet survey tool. But what about a measure of a child’s behavior, one that was meant to present stimuli (e.g., images) in a predetermined order for a specific amount of time, and then record the child’s responses? Even if a sufficient degree of control could be exerted over the presentation of stimuli, the measure could not administer itself. Someone would have to introduce the measure to the child, and ensure that they understood the instructions regarding how to complete it. Moreover, the way in which this was done would have to be consistent across study sites.

Clearly, using online tools to administer measures cannot be done haphazardly, even if the technical challenges involved can be reduced to the point of triviality. However, the promise offered by such an approach-enhanced precision and the opportunity to observe increasingly subtle effects- certainly seems worth the added effort.

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