I’ll Settle For Arts Education Helping People Recognize Their Creative Capacity

I am in the process of moving so I am shifting in to “throwback” mode for a week or so.

I thought I would look back at a post I made about one of Ian David Moss’ contributions of a blog salon.

In his contribution Moss wrote took the view that arts education put children on the track to careers that the socioeconomic environment couldn’t support. (my emphasis)

Much of the literature that advocates arts education as a strategy for cultivating demand for the arts assumes that students who have invested thousands of hours of their lives in perfecting a craft during their formative years will happily set all of that aside as soon as they turn 18 and 21, become productive members of society with skills that they somehow picked up while practicing piano for four hours a day, and donate all of their expendable income to their local arts organizations. Really? Don’t you think that some of them might be a little bitter about having to leave their dream behind? Don’t you think some of them might continue on and spend their parents’ life savings on three graduate degrees in a quixotic quest for fame and glory that never materializes? Is this the best use of our collective human capital?

In my post at the time, I disagreed with the view writing,

Or rather, I don’t think operating on the assumption that not everyone will become an arts practitioner completely nefarious. No one expects every kid who participates in Little League, Pop Warner Football and various soccer leagues will go on to become a professional athlete after all the time they have invested in practicing. Though certainly a situation where a college athlete isn’t expected to devote themselves to their studies is not something to be emulated.

In a comment on my post, Scott Walters wrote,

Your analogy to Little League sports is a good one. Sure, some of the participants dream of being professional football players, but most simply enjoy playing and the experiences they have with friends. For some reason, artists don’t recognize that this is the case for the arts as well. There are other reasons to do it than going pro — reasons that are just as fulfilling (I’d venture to say, in the current arts climate, oftentimes MORE fulfilling)… what an arts education promotes is a rich life that includes the possibility of creative expression as an end in itself, not a means to an end. This was the message of the “Gifts of the Muse” report, for instance: the INTRINSIC value of the arts. Lets not get lost in arts education as existing solely for the creation of professional artists or the creation of paying audience members. There is a more active and vibrant alternative to those roads.

In the intervening years, as I have begun to really think about the intrinsic value of art vs. the instrumental value, I have grown to appreciate Scott’s comments all the more.  Reading this old post, I feel like this might have been a formative moment when I started thinking about arts education and making people aware of their capacity for creativity.

However, there is a lot of validity in Moss’ argument that universities and conservatories are taking the money of a lot of people with mediocre ability and preparing them for a traditional career path in the arts. This problem has been recognized for quite awhile now.

But also note my intentional use of “traditional career path” because there are an ever broadening array of ways in which creative abilities can be applied. Training programs aren’t doing the best job of preparing students to pursue those options.

I Don’t Know What You Need To Know Because I Know So Much

This summer I have been seeing a lot of California Symphony Executive Director Aubrey Bergauer popping up in places like videos of conference talks she has been giving. It has been over a year and a half since I wrote about her Orchestra X project so I figured it was time to revisit and reacquaint people with the work she has been doing.

Recently she had a blog post following up on the conversations her organization has been having with the communities they serve. She mentions a theme I keep seeing in formal survey results and collected anecdotes — audiences aren’t clamoring for a change in programming as much as they are intimidated and confused by the decision and experience of attending a cultural event.

The bigger issue, she says, is that those of us on the inside forget what it was like being entirely unfamiliar with information or an experience. Even when we are faced with a new-ish experience, our past experiences allow us to make logical leaps that total novices can’t.

What we learned was that a “basic” level of understanding about the symphony or classical music does not exist among newcomers. Some people didn’t even know the names of the instruments in the orchestra, which to me, the person who had played an instrument all growing up and who wanted to manage a symphony since age 16, was pretty much unfathomable (remember hindsight bias?). The good news, we discovered, was that this group of smart people desperately wanted to learn about everything related to classical music though. And through the discussion we learned that the way we layout and present information on our website made it very difficult for them to do that.

[…]

Virtually every person in the room expressed the sentiment of “awe” when describing the art they saw and heard. No one said, “I need a shorter concert,” or “I need to hear more movie music.” They very much wanted to learn about all facets of the repertoire and were emphatic that the art is incomparable.

Bergauer says that now that California Symphony stopped stressing about programming mix and started focusing on retention versus new audience acquisition. Last season, their new attendee retention rate was over 30%.

Take a closer look at the post. She talks a little more about how rich experiences make us unable to anticipate what new attendees really need to know in order to enjoy themselves.

Create, Re-Create, Recreate

I was reading a piece in CityLab about Repair Cafes which strike me as a good complement to MakerSpaces and creative activities that arts and cultural entities may host.   The concept was started in Amsterdam by Martine Postma who was disturbed by how much repairable equipment was sitting at the curb on trash day.  She sells start up kits that allow you to use the Repair Cafe logo and puts you in touch with the other Repair Cafe’s around the world.

But beyond reducing what is sent to the landfill, personal empowerment plays a large role in the Repair Cafe concept:

What she’s discovered was that it wasn’t that people liked throwing away old stuff. “Often when they don’t know how to repair something, they replace it, but they keep the old one in the cupboard—out of guilt,” she said. “Then at a certain moment, the cupboard is full and you decide this has been lying around [long enough].”

[…]

For the time being, communities are doing what they can to encourage people to fix things. Libraries like the one in Howard County, for example, have started renting out tools and creating “makerspaces” where members learn to both repair and create. Elsewhere, cities have hosted MakerLabs, FabLabs—short for fabrication lab—and Innovation Labs for both adults and children. Bike shops and nonprofits alike have fished scrapped vehicles from the landfill to repair and donate to the underserved community.

The social and personalized elements of the Repair Cafes, makerspaces, etc may be part of the value and appeal. After all, you can watch a YouTube how-to video to fix something that breaks. If you don’t have confidence in your ability to effect the repairs, having someone available to teach you the skills to do so in the process of fixing your stuff might motivate you to act. This despite the fact it is more trouble to haul your broken equipment somewhere versus tossing it in the trash.

It is also easier to toss stuff away rather than hauling it to Goodwill or the Salvation Army, but people donate goods to non-profits all the time because they know it is better not to let things go to waste.

Just as recognizing your capacity to be creative is empowering,  learning to fix items can instill a degree of pride and self-satisfaction which is why I feel it is such a close companion effort to creative activities.

Jawnty Approach To Museum Tours

A few months back, I wrote about a new approach, inspired by the National Forestry Service, the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, PA was adapting to combat poor impressions visitors might have upon arrival.

About two weeks ago,  I saw a story about their Barnes Jawn(t)s program where they hand over the tours to unconventional guides.  People can choose to take a tour with seven different guides who will provide their own perspectives on the Barnes’ collection.

(It appears technically, there may be 9 guides. According to the article, the first tour was conducted by “Madhusmita Bora, a classical Indian dancer, and Ashley Vogel, a staff member with the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia.”)

The jawn(t) program is described as:

Join us for evening tours full of make-believe as we play fast and loose with everything you thought you knew about the Barnes. In Philadelphia, jawn is a catch-all word for anything. A Barnes Jawn(t) is an anything-goes tour of the collection with a fascinating Philly personality as your guide. These off-the-cuff, sure-to-run-off-the-rails tours are led by a diverse array of community leaders, artists, and comic-book nerds—all experts in their fields. No two tours will be the same. After taking a Jawn(t), you’ll never look at the Barnes the same way again!

My read on the project is that they are, in part, trying to combat the idea that visiting the Barnes Foundation “isn’t for people like me” by having people with whom you might better identify lead the evening tours.

You may recall a few months back I wrote about Museum Hack which conducts themed tours in various museums around the country, also billing themselves as an unconventional approach.  The Barnes approach seems to be in the same vein, but much more focused on the perspective of the individual guide.

I was wondering if the fact these tours start an hour after closing time was intentionally chosen so attendees’ potentially first visit to the institution would involve a more intimate group rather than interacting with the large number of daily visitors–or just a matter of convenience to accommodate people getting off of work.

Actually, I just noticed all the tours are on Tuesday when the Barnes is closed making me additionally wonder if some portion of experience is being customized and prepared for the tours earlier in the day. (Given the stipulations Albert Barnes made about how the art was to be displayed, I would suspect nothing about the galleries themselves is changed.)

Contributing to the impression that there might be some special customization going on is that they list a local group as the organizer:

Based in Philadelphia, Obvious Agency is an interactive design collaboration between Joseph Ahmed, Arianna Gass, and Daniel Park. The agency works with cultural institutions to explore new ways to engage audiences through custom games and interactive performances. The group also produces the artistic work of its members, including Go to Sleep, a real-life adventure game about insomnia. Commissions include the Diamond Eye Conspiracy through Drexel and Temple Universities.

I was interested to see this partnership/collaboration with an outside group as an indication of possibilities for other arts and cultural organizations.

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