What’s It Say When Washington Post Critic Say Arts Need To Work Harder At Relevance?

Washington Post music critic Anne Midgette wrote a piece this week about the difficulties classical music outreach efforts face. (h/t Artsjournal)

My first reaction was one of mild intrigue since I don’t think I have ever seen a critic from a major newspaper address these difficulties which arts bloggers have been discussing for years. I took it as a sign of the way things were shifting that there was such a public acknowledgement.

Midgette was watching National Symphony Orchestra (NSO) music director Gianandrea Noseda participating in an NSO outreach to a high school. She noted that as good a communicator as Noseda is, there are some factors conspiring against his efforts.

Noseda himself, an Italian who lives largely in hotels, can’t be expected to gauge the context in which these kids live. He assumes they’ve seen “Mozart in the Jungle,” because he’s heard it’s a TV show; he assumes they’ve watched the Golden Globe Awards. A-plus for the effort to establish cultural relevancy, but as well-meaning and informative as his comments are, he isn’t telling these students why they should care about the roster of unfamiliar European male composers being thrown at them.

She cites the example from 2007 when violinist Joshua Bell played in the Washington, DC metro and no one stopped. (Long time readers may recall I was not impressed with that stunt)

Midgette goes on to say,

In the wake of that controversial performance, one busker said something that stuck with me: Musicians who regularly play on the street, from violinists to singers to trash-can drummers, learn how to connect with passersby in such a way that this doesn’t happen. Classical musicians aren’t usually trained to establish this kind of rapport, and even a born communicator like Noseda can’t do it single-handedly.

Toward the end of the article, she makes the following observation,

Outreach risks taking on a missionary, self-satisfied glow, getting caught up in the innate value of sharing such great music with those who have not been privileged to have been exposed to it. Lurking within this well-meaning construct is the toxic view of music as a kind of largesse: the idea that this music is better than the music you already like. The school concert, with all the best intentions, to some degree demonstrated that if classical music is offered in its own bubble, without context, it has little chance of really connecting with new audiences — though, as some observed before the school show, if even one student leaves with new ideas in her head, the attempt will have been worth it.

I have long supported the notion that arts training programs should include courses and opportunities for artists to develop that rapport. At my last job I started a visual arts fair whose primary motivation was to give students and community artists the experience of speaking to the general public about their art in a relatively low stakes environment.

The classroom environment is pretty safe and everyone around you speaks with the same vocabulary. That can get in the way of relating to audiences when it comes to performing professionally. Students don’t necessarily need to be forced to busk on a street corner five hours a week for a semester, though that might be effective. With a little effort, creativity and a commitment to helping students pick up relational skills they need in their careers, they could be better prepared.

Let’s also acknowledge this isn’t a problem borne solely by artists. Arts organizations in general are struggling to find the language and rapport to position themselves as relevant to audiences.

Distilling The Arts Into A Healing Elixir

C4 Atlanta’s tweet of an Arts Professional UK story today made me growl in dissatisfaction.   (I got no beef with C4 Atlanta,that is just a long way of giving them a hat tip for the link)

The reason I growled was the outright instrumental positioning of the arts for medical outcomes. Author Christy Romer talks about the Arts Council of England’s (ACE) review of arts interventions where ACE regrets that arts organizations lack the funds to run randomised controlled trials and is therefore unable to justify the power of the arts to cure every mental and physical ailment under the sun.

Repeating Carter Gilles mantra — just because you have  method that measure something doesn’t mean the results you get have any relevance or relation to what you are measuring.

Yes, the article says,

It says there is a “growing recognition” among researchers that quantitative approaches like these “often fail to capture” the nuances of arts interventions, which become “lost in an overly narrow focus on data and measurements”.

Broadening the focus to include more qualitative and mixed method techniques could make it easier to improve practice and integrate arts interventions more deeply into the healthcare and justice systems, it suggests.

“The outcome that’s the easiest to measure is not necessarily the best thing to measure,” the report notes. “Is a different type of ‘gold standard’ possible?”

While it is good that there is a recognition that quantitative approach is too narrow and that the easiest measure is not the best, the fact is it appears they are still trying to figure out how to use the arts to fix things.

It is important that researchers be able to discover that people with dementia may be helped by singing because it employs important neural pathways. But that isn’t so much a value of art as the fact that singing requires you to use specific facilities in the same way movement helps circulation. Yes, singing a song from their youth helps people with dementia to solidify their memories. But that is more an argument that our lives should be filled with creative experiences as much as possible when we are young.

The same with the use of artistic expression to reduce recidivism among parolees. The article says “but says that because of the many factors involved, the “the challenge of demonstrating that a cultural intervention has had a measurable impact…remains daunting”.  The thing is, if prisoners/parolees aren’t committing crimes after participating in arts related activities, it can be as much the fact they had an opportunity to socialize and were provided the tools to express themselves.

There also may be other factors at work as well as they suggest, but if you think socialization and self expression are important elements in there, that is just more of an argument for people having the opportunity for creative expression when they are young. If you can’t clearly prove that opportunities for creative expression are reducing recidivism in a controlled trial study, are you going to take away their books and sketch pads?

The value of arts is difficult to measure and define in a qualitative way. Creative expression is nuanced and not every mode of expression has relevance for every individual which means the it is impossible to arrive at a uniform application of arts as a cure.

If people stop exhibiting violent tendencies after participating in a play, by all means try to figure out what elements of that experience may have contributed to it and try to provide those elements to others. Just realize you will never discover that 30 minutes of music every day will placate everybody’s anger. And you will never be able to identify every element that contributed to the decrease in anti-social behavior. For some it is the socialization, for others it is the opportunity to express, for others it is the kind word that someone said on the walk home that you never observed.

There is a lot in this story that does well in recognizing that the current methods of measure aren’t capturing all the important nuances in creative interactions. However, by trying to find a new gold standard to measure the value of the arts, it still sounds like they are trying to distill something out of the arts into an easily applied elixir.

Who Knows The Problem Best, Makes The Decision

Recently over at Nonprofit AF, Vu Le talked about the problem of decision fatigue experienced by executives and other leaders. He mentions that his organization has been using an alternative decision making process called Advice Process though he doesn’t like that name and suggests,

Feedback-Informed Networked-Autonomous Lateral (FINAL)


In the FINAL decision-making process, whoever is closest to the issue area is the person who makes the decision, provided they do two things: Check in with people who will be affected by their decision, and check in with people who may have information and advice that might help them make the best decision.

The web page Vu links to explaining the Advice Process makes it clear this is not consensus building.

It is a misunderstanding that self-management decisions are made by getting everyone to agree, or even involving everyone in the decision. The advice seeker must take all relevant advice into consideration, but can still make the decision.

Consensus may sound appealing, but it’s not always most effective to give everybody veto power. In the advice process, power and responsibility rest with the decision-maker. Ergo, there is no power to block.

Vu lists a number of benefits to this approach including cultivating an environment where there is better decision making, critical thinking and relationship building. He also says employees feel more empowered and supervisors’ role in the relationship is more focused on coaching and support.

He also admits there is definitely a learning curve that requires trust, restraint, tolerance, and permission to fail as a result of poor decision making. He mentions it can occasionally be difficult to discern with whom decision making should reside and there are some decisions just too big to be made by one person.

There is also the issue that some people and organizational cultures may not be in a place to adapt to this approach. Shifting from a familiar dynamic is not always easy and people want to maintain known roles.

One of the commenters, A Nia Austin-Edwards, shared an anecdote about an organization whose executive director ceded decision making in a similar manner. The staff wasn’t educated and prepared in the process and consistent coaching wasn’t provided to guide the staff. This was exacerbated by some traumatic organizational history.

But overall this may be something your organization might want to consider adopting. Some of the burn out staff may experience may be attributable to a feeling a lack of control and authority within the organization–that they are subject to the whims of others whose motivations they don’t understand. A structure that allows people to become more involved in decision making may help alleviate some of that.

Philadelphia Museums Seem To Be Gathering A Trove Of Interesting Voices

There seems to be a trend among museums in the Philadelphia area which sees value in the perspectives of non-traditional guides and voices. I have written about the Jawnty tours provided at the Barnes Foundation and University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology using Iraqi and Syrian refugees as guides to the Middle East galleries.

Today on Hyperallergic there was a story about how people have been looking to a security guard at University of Pennsylvania’s Institute of Contemporary Art for her perspective.

The guard, Linda Harris, has been working at the museum since 2002. When she first started working there, she was apprehensive about whether she belonged there. Now she serves as a friendly face that facilitates discussions about a style of art some people can have difficulty relating to.

[Artist Alex Da Corte,] … notes that Harris’s dual roles, as an authority figure and as a non-traditional educator, allow her to help the museum stay true to its “Free for All” mission statement. Beyond free admission, the museum seeks to be a space where anyone from any community can come and have an experience with contemporary art. Harris represents the position that you don’t need to know everything about a work of art to comment on what it’s doing or how it makes you feel.

The article says Harris also embodies the role of educator and authority figure by providing permission and encouragement to visitors who encounter the interactive exhibitions. This has been especially valuable in cases where the permission to touch wasn’t explicit and required active encouragement.

However, people haven’t always welcomed the insights of a security guard. Over the years, it appears there may have been a shift in visitor expectations about the experience as well as Harris’ ability to discuss works with them.

Robert Chaney…remembers early visitors complaining: “We wanted it to be a quiet visit and a security officer kept talking to us.” Now, he says, people come in specifically “to talk to Linda, and to see what she has to say within the context of an exhibition.”

Chaney recognizes the value of Harris’s presence: “A contemporary art space can be intimidating for people. It’s often not work that’s easily defined or easily understood. […] And so Harris attends our training sessions for docents. And she talks to the artists often. I think she’s able to be, if not an authority, a welcome, informed voice for people coming in.”

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