Friday, April 4, 2008

Obama on Arts Education

It's exciting to see a politician actually bringing this issue into their work. When was the last time a politician really took this up as a cause? Wish it happened more...

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Response to "a Serious Problem"

This entry is in response to a great thought-provoking post entitled "A Serious Problem" by blogger Greg Sandow and it nicely gets to the heart of a lot of issues that I've been trying to work with...

Greg, I too think this post is very important and I appreciate your detailed thoughts on the subject and the seriousness of your tone. I’ll try to be brief and I hope that my thoughts don’t get too discombobulated because I’ve been working on some of these ideas for years…

Education, in general, has traditionally been, and almost exclusively continues to be, a top-down information exchange. Adults lead classrooms as experts disseminating information. Adults create these “cover the history of the world in 300 pages with illustrations” types of textbooks that are often the only resource used in classrooms. Adults set up standards of achievement for certain grade levels and then take away resources when these standards are not met. Children are powerless in this educational exchange. They are merely objects in the process and it’s been that way for a very long time, but I don’t think that it can stay this way for much longer.

I don’t think see it as much about classical music culture vs. popular culture, but at a larger level, it’s more about an increasing disconnection with the actual experience of growing up in America today. It is an increasingly media-centric world where 6.5 hours of actual media consumption (8.5 if simultaneous media use is separated) is the average for young people! (Stats are from the ubiquitous Generation M report.) Young people have much more access and exposure to information from an increasingly wide variety of sources than in the past. Tastes and sensibilities are increasingly under the influence of peer groups and what is found in the general media than by what adult/authoritative figures say are important.

So, basically, what I’m trying to say is that the balance of power has shifted. In-person consumption of the arts (performances or attendance at exhibitions of visual arts) is not a given for people who have so many ways to spend their time. In order to maintain relevance to our current, and hopefully future, audiences, arts organizations must better define what it is what makes their art form compelling, but most of all, inculcate a sense of curiosity—a sense of why the art form is worthy of further exploration.

I agree, it’s not just about one authoritative person explaining how wonderful a Puccini aria is. But my personal approach would perhaps be to engage in an actual discussion of why it might be wonderful. Through skilled facilitation of this discussion (without the often divisive use of terminology that would separate those with more classical musical experience from those with little), I think that, without switching the choice of repertoire, one could bring about the complexity and the layers that seem to be desired.

Once again, I don’t quite think it’s about classical music culture vs. popular culture, but I think it’s more about building educational programs that actually engage an audience in the taste- and meaning-making process. I think we often sell audiences short: we provide them with a product and then they go home and often forget about it before they hit their driveway. But I do think they want more out of the experience and depth of understanding is one way of addressing this and it’s a gift that keeps giving. It’s not about disseminating information, but about allowing an audience to develop it’s own conclusions. Development of a deeply engaged audience member is the ideal method to increase the arts audience—they will not only attend more events, but an inspired audience member can also serve as the most effective advocate for the art form.

Monday, February 11, 2008

How Can We Create an Imagine Nation?

How about a little stream-of-consciousness blogging? Let's start with this:
  1. Implement innovative teaching styles and instruction to build capacities of the imagination.
  2. Build capacities of the imagination by supporting time and resources for an education in and through the arts.
  3. Support integrated and interdisciplinary processes and approaches. Save money and time by organizing discrete subjects around a thematic interdisciplinary process.
  4. Relate to learner lifestyles. Know your learner audiences and adjust to contemporary methods.
  5. Teach beyond assessment. Move beyond average and scoring that focuses on the minimum, which ultimately stifles students and educators alike.

These are the five recommendations for educators and policy-makers made in the executive summary of The Imagine Nation report. They seem to make sense for me on a very general level but, at the same time, they seem to ring hollow. Perhaps it wasn't the purpose of the report to provide specific recommendations, but the language is so vague that it undercuts the overall message. What is an "innovative teaching style" and what are "contemporary methods"? How do we "teach beyond assessment"?

Moving beyond the vague language, it seems like these suggestions aren't revolutionary. Innovative education styles, arts education, interdisciplinary learning, addressing different learning styles, and teaching beyond assessment are all ideas that have been around for years and ones that are widely accepted as good educational practice (well, except maybe for arts education!). But, for some reason, we don't do these things in our educational system. It reminds me of Paulo Freire when he states, "An educational practice in which there is no coherent relationship between what educators say and what they do is a disaster."

Hmm... Well, where does this disconnect come from? I'd assume (and maybe that's a bad assumption!) that the vast majority of teachers learn this stuff (well, once again, maybe not arts education!), but the report seems to indicate that teachers don't already practice this otherwise they wouldn't report it. Why doesn't this happen? Is it about the need to demonstrate a learning process in this standards-based environment? (Isn't being able to demonstrate knowledge the goal of the teaching/learning process?) Is it about the system? Is it about teachers and the lack of training in "building the capacities of imagination" of our students? How can we expect imagination in our classrooms when the way we train teachers seldom--if ever at all!!--does not foster imagination?

You know, I find myself even more confused than usual at the moment. We talk about imagination in class and even a class of 40 people who are supposed to value "imagination" can't define what it is or how it can be carried out in the classroom. We may have some ideas, but how do we build these activities to scale and create the change that The Imagine Nation advocates for? Is that even possible? I'd like to "Implement innovative teaching styles and instruction to build capacities of the imagination" or follow through with any of the other vague goals of The Imagine Nation, but I'm having a very difficult time--and perhaps I'm showing my impatience--but I'm anxious to move away from the theoretical and experimental and start to get to the somewhat more concrete.

In the arts, we often locate ourselves in the process; we often savor the experimentation phase and I think that is a big strength of the arts. But sometimes, I also think we get stuck there and that can be our downfall. For a federal, state, or even a local policy-maker, I doubt that the findings of The Imagine Nation report would create much action. I'm certainly not an expert on surveys but I found the phrasing of their questions to be somewhat manipulative. How can you disagree with the following statements? "Using imagination is important to innovation and one's success in a global, knowledge-based economy." "Imagination is essential to success in the 21st century." It's not surprising that nearly 90% said yes given the choice between yes and no. But it's when you weigh imagination vs. other curricular goals (that may be more demonstratable) like minimal competency for all students, equality of educational opportunity, math skills, and knowledge of history that imagination falls by the wayside. How do we ensure that it doesn't? Or how do we create educational opportunities that suggest that all of this and more can be done with our students and our society?

It's not that I hate "process" or don't find the work enjoyable or valuable, but I have a fear that I will find myself stuck in the experimental and questioning stage. In essence, I don't want to be so immersed in the theoretical that I neglect the practical. If we aren't satisfied with the educational practice, how do make it better match what we say it should be? What have people done with imagination that have worked? What was successful about them? Is that transferable and/or scalable?

S-301 is dedicated to the research, policy and practice. I'm not under any sort of illusion that anything will be solved by studying these aspects of arts in education, but I am excited to see what happens as we shift our focus. Onwards and upwards!

Thursday, November 22, 2007

The Rise of Arts Culture

You know, in case we forget, we're actually not doing too bad in terms of building arts culture. Douglas McLennan's recent post "The Rise of Arts Culture" reminds us of where America was in the 1950s and how much progress we have made. I haven't checked the facts and figures, but I always have to remind myself that, if you look at the number of undergrad majors in the arts, at no other time in human history are have we produced this many artists. The challenge as we move forward is to make sure there are outlets for all of these artists and that they speak effectively to those who are not artists. We've done a lot since the 1950s, and there's lots of work to still be done, but it's always nice to take stock and remind ourselves of our progress.

Monday, November 19, 2007

A Reading on the Arts Climate and a Tangent on Arts Education in Arts Organizations

Along a similar line as the previous post, a speech from September by Ben Cameron, Program Director for the Arts at the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation was recently posted by the Southern Arts Federation (mp3 or pdf). You can also see it with introduction by Andrew Taylor.

Cameron's speech is engaging for the depth and breath that he covers in such a short amount of time and I quite enjoyed it. He touches upon the dysfunctionality of the 501(c)3 model, the generational gap in arts leadership, the erosion of audiences, and other issues that I too have been thinking through as an arts administrator and arts educator. But the majority of his speech deals with the arts and technology. It feels strange to parse his comments out like this, and so much of it is great but I've taken a pretty long excerpt from his transcript. There's some differences between the speech and the transcript, but the differences are not significant in terms of messaging, so instead of transcribing, I'm cutting and pasting from the transcript:

... Perhaps most significantly, we heard the struggle to understand more fully the impact of technology on the performing arts—the area that especially for an over-50, cranky Luddite like me can be the most perplexing, the most astounding of all.

The potential of technology as a marketing device is, if anything, too effective: in trying to attract the attention of potential ticket buyers, we now compete with the at least 3,000 different marketing messages a typical American sees every day, according to Peter Whybrow in his book AMERICAN MANIA: WHEN MORE IS NOT ENOUGH. In fact, technology has emerged as our biggest competitor for leisure time: Gen X-ers spend 20.7 hours every week on television and online combined. Gen Y-ers spend even more—22.8 hours—with the majority on line and growing, and last year, computer gaming outsold the combined sales of movie and music recordings. According to Google CEO Eric Schmidt, a new blog is being created every second of every day. Moreover, technology is altering the basic assumptions of consumption: thanks to the web, we believe we can get whatever we want, whenever we want it, customized to fit our personal needs. We can shop at 8 at night, 3 in the morning, expectations of customization and personalization that performing arts organizations, at least, cannot meet. Young people especially can get their culture on demand through You Tube and iTunes any time they want it and at little or no apparent cost--and what will it mean in the future when we ask someone to pay $100 for a theatre ticket when that customer has become accustomed to downloading on the internet for free or at most for a mere 99 cents a song?

In response, we’ve launched websites, expanded our box offices to embrace on-line ticketing, moved from hard tickets to print your own, changed newsletters to email blasts, replaced hard mail subscription brochures with on-line graphics. With late dawning awareness, we have come to recognize the internet—not as a broadcast and marketing space, but as a social space—it’s true purpose—and we have moved from communicating only through our own website but to My Space to Craig’s List to Second Life—yet nothing we do seems to be quite enough, quite fast enough and or quite adequately resourced.
Regardless of the stress of the present, regardless of the uncertainties, how can we—individually and as a community—shift from the reactive to the proactive?
We must recognize that the market for culture has shifted—a seismic, tectonic shift—and is shifting—a shift I heard provocatively described by futurist Andrew Zolli, using the lens of the coffee industry. In the early days of coffee, power lay in the hands of the farmer: if you grew the coffee bean, you owned the market and controlled the flow of the bean in a what we would now term a commodity market. But with time, the economy changed and we went from being a commodity market to being a product market: the power shifted away from the farmer to Maxwell House and their colleagues, those who processed and ground the coffee that you could buy and bring home, etc., etc. This too was of finite duration: soon, the big player in coffee was no longer Maxwell House but was Dunkin’ Donuts where you could buy a cup of coffee already made for you for 25 cents or 50 cents—a transition from product to service. And then the economy shifted yet again, and we went to an “experience” economy, one where we suddenly became willing to part with $1.75 for a miniscule cup that somehow we’ve been convinced is a “tall”—how did they do that?—as part of a larger Starbucks experience: indeed Starbucks, as you may know, has a position called the CEO, which stands for the chief entertainment officer.

Many of us in the arts community are only beginning to appreciate that we have seen ourselves in service industry terms in a time of experience economies. Smart performing arts groups are expanding social lobby spaces, adding coffee bars, challenging themselves to extend the production into the lobby, engaging in re-branding and more—all a recognition that we traffic not merely in artistic production but in a total experience that beings with seeing the first ad, continues through the first call to the box office and doesn’t end until long after the audience member is home in bed.
But just when we think we are beginning to catch up, the economy has shifted again. Those who wish to survive must think, not merely of experience, but of participation—an economy where value will no longer be consumed but where value will be co-created. Let me say that again: in the future, value will no longer be consumed. Value will be co-created.

We already see the power of consumer participation in other industries. The monolithic power of the restaurant critic has been shattered by Zagat where the collective consumer passes judgment and defines a restaurant value. "Dancing with the Start [Stars]," "So You Think You Can Dance," "American Idol"—all are predicated on the active involvement of the consumer.
We are clearly witnessing a veritable tsunami of creative energy unleashed through technology. We are seeing the emergence of a class of amateurs doing work at a professional level—a group dubbed elsewhere as Pro Ams—a group whose work populated You Tube, independent film festivals, dance competitions and more.
This sense of co-creation is an invitation—an invitation to dismantle irrelevant distinctions between professional and amateur, a status once exalted as more precious than professionalism, capturing as it does in its etymological roots the love of practice. This is an invitation to dismantle arts education programs and replace them with community engagement programs. This is an invitation to seeing our mission, not in creating products to be consumed, but in offering experiences that will serve as springboards to our audience's own creativity—to nurture what Henry Jenkins calls a Convergence Culture, utilizing multi-platform narrative and marketing, inviting everyday people to reassert their right to actively contribute to their culture, channeling creative energies to come together. This is a call to a field to see ourselves, not as presenters, perhaps, but as activators, engagers, animators of creative energy.

I actually agree with the vast majority of Cameron's speech and his evaluation of the current atmosphere surrounding the arts industry and the importance of technology. So instead of highlighting what he's already stated so eloquently, I'd like to take the discussion elsewhere.

I take issue with his separation of arts education from community engagement; they are not diametrically opposed. Instead, I argue that education should be central to a successful community engagement campaign. If we are to push for the experience of attending live performance, then we must demystify the arts for audiences. If we are selling the experience of attending a live performance at the Metropolitan Opera, we must value the art itself and help others to appreciate not only social lobby space and the high quality coffee, but they must also appreciate the operatic experience. They must engage with the opera performance in some significant way and come out of it with a sense of curiosity and an enthusiasm to attend more performances for this is why one would travel to the Metropolitan Opera House instead of the local Starbucks (where they can get the "lobby" space and the coffee at a slightly less, though still exorbitant fee!).

But, in its essence, this is one of the main goals of the field of arts education: we study how an audience engages with art and we try to make the act of engagement significant. Who else is doing this work? Arts marketers perhaps, but I'd argue that they would focus on the selling of the brand instead of the art itself. I maintain that arts education is the best way to foster a deep and lasting audience for the arts. Swanky lobbies and coffee bars are en vogue now, but a curiosity about the arts will accompany somebody for a lifetime.

And it's not as if I think Cameron's really saying that arts education programs are worthless, but I do think it underscores the idea that the scope of many arts education programs run by performing arts organizations are too narrow. There's a great breath of activities for arts education departments in different organizations, but they typically operate on a basic level: they run a set of classes, a lecture series, a guided tour, and perhaps a competition. They are often seen as subsidiary activities to the main attraction of presenting professional artists. (Part of this, I think, is because of the 501(c)3 funding structure and the rise of restricted giving, but that's another argument for another day!) I argue that arts education should be seen as central to an organization's mission and, instead of a separate department of the organization, they should be fully integrated into the artistic programming process and the educational activities should coincide with what is happening with the organization as a whole. By valuing arts education and its contribution to building better and more engaged audiences, an organization can also use the expertise of arts educators to better promote the distinctive qualities of the arts and indeed each evening's artistic offerings--that is, organizations can use the expertise of arts education to better sell the experience and this should work for novices as well as the aficionados. By tearing down these artificial distinctions and creating a more unified organization, this is how one can start building a brand and a distinctive experience for a potential audience member.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Sesame Street: Relevancy and a Model for Arts and Technology

Norah Jones. Not only do I think that she's one of the most grounded of household-name musicians, but I think she's hilarious--in her own subdued sort of way!--in this clip from Sesame Street.

Over the course of the last week, we've had the opportunity to interact with Gary Knell, President and CEO of Sesame Workshop, which has got to be one of the classiest, fun-loving, and continually innovative educational organizations around. For over thirty years, through Sesame Street, they have been creating high-quality research-informed education to toddlers and... well... those who are a little older! Not only is it's impact felt by virtually every American born since the 1970s, but it thoroughly integrates the arts in the learning process. Who can count from 1-12 without doing it in the rhythm of the Pointer Sisters? What young child has never danced by Doing the Pigeon? And who does parodies of popular songs better using songs of The Beatles, Isaac Hayes, and others?

But while a great deal of recent news has been about Sesame Workshop's work as an international human rights organization, its work in exploring technology is actually of more interest to me. It has explored the idea of viral video quite successfully with Elmo and Chris Brown, with a video viewed well over 2.5 million times with no advertising:

Secondly, it has created weekly podcasts using Sesame Street characters that sell very well on iTunes. And, most of all, as Mr. Knell indicated, there are plans to launch an on-demand video archive of Sesame Street segments that would includes tags based on content. My impression is that it would be searchable like YouTube, but the tags would be curated and labeled by Sesame Workshop staff members so the quality of cataloging work is ensured.

But in general, the biggest thing I got out of Mr. Knell's time was his emphasis that Sesame Workshop needs to compete in these fields to be viable and relevant in the future. Even with its immense longstanding reputation as a producer of high quality content, it cannot and does not rest on its laurels and, despite its vastly inferior financial resources, Sesame Workshop still needs to compete for the attention of children against media giants like Nickelodeon, Disney, and Pixar. Does this need to compete correlate to the arts? I'm not sure I see it in most arts organizations, but I think it should! be evident in all of them!

While many performing arts organizations maintain an outstanding reputation as high quality arts providers, their competition is not each other, but rather against all the other things that battle for the time and attention of of would-be live arts consumers: iPods, internet, TV, movies, etc. So, not to get into the how quite yet, I'm advocating for arts organizations to fight the good fight. If live performance is important to us, we need to dedicate our work to reaching our consumers in the way that they naturally consume media, using the technologies they use whether they're podcasts, viral videos, or something else (MySpace, Friendster, or something not even built yet!), and by then connecting that to the more intimate and impactful experience of live performance. These new ventures in media should be thought of as integral to the survival of performing arts organizations, instead of superfluous "oh, I guess we should do this thing" tasks relegated to an inexperienced intern. We are now in the midst of a constantly changing media climate and in order for performing arts organizations to survive and prosper in the future, we need to toss away the initial hesitation to change and figure out how this technology thing can help us!

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Emerging Leaders in the Arts

October was National Arts & Humanities Month and, in honor of that, an organization called Americans for the Arts sponsors "Creative Conversations" across the country. These Creative Conversations are: "local gatherings of emerging leaders in communities across the country and are part of a grassroots movement to elevate the profile of arts in America during National Arts & Humanities Month." I attended a small meeting last year, but there wasn't a Boston area meeting this year.

But here's a video published in Oct 2007 from an network of "Emerging Leaders" that grew out of one of these Creative Conversations outside of Seattle. It's 23 minutes, but well worth the time!

This makes me think more and more about the next generation of leaders in the arts, a theme that constantly came up in my personal statement for the Arts in Education program here at Harvard Graduate School of Education. During my six years in New York City, there certainly were a ton of arts organizations there, but I still felt a certain disconnect with the scene and a distinct longing to connect with other leaders involved in the promotion of the arts. This was echoed in the video above by Jordan Howland: "Working in the nonprofit sector, we're often isolated a bit by our workload, or our locale and it's sometimes hard to get a big picture view of what's happening in the arts and in our community." I take comfort in knowing that I wasn't alone in my experience and this longing to be surrounded by like-minded individuals is one of the main reasons why I'm here at the AIE program at HGSE. This AIE community is wonderful and amazing and I can't say enough about it, but I can't help but wonder about what happens after graduate school. What happens when I lose my built-in support system?

Well, I guess there's something I can do about this... because of a class cancellation, I had the luxury of a big brainstorming morning on Friday and an idea is slowly forming in my mind. Why can't there be a network of like-minded folks in the Boston area? Of course, I'm still new to the area and the scene and so there may already be a network of emerging leaders in the arts that I don't know about, but if there isn't, why couldn't I create one? Really, why can't I just make this happen?

And so here I am, about to embark upon a new possible venture... I'm really interested in the possibilities of gathering emerging leaders in the art organizations to meet one another in informal and formal environments to promote conversations between arts organizations and arts disciplines. What I'd like to do is to explore the creation an organized and cohesive network of emerging leaders in the arts for the Boston area.

I'm still fleshing out a plan of action and not really sure how this'll all work, but let's see where this takes me! Wish me luck and I'll keep you posted.