What Outcome Had The US Have Sustained Its Version Of The BBC?

Back in December, Joseph Horowitz had a lengthy piece in The American Scholar about the impact of the pandemic on the arts in America. I may revisit the article in future posts, but there was one section that caught my attention because it seemed a testament to both the influence of a shared cultural ideal and the power of leaders who advance an agenda.

Horowitz writes that while there was resistance to government run media a la the BBC, there seemed to be enough will and interest post-Works Progress Administration to support programming featuring public intellectuals and artists.

A little-known footnote to this 1930s saga of the artist and the state was an unsuccessful campaign to implement an “American BBC,” … An alliance of university and radio leaders argued that a public radio system would ghettoize education. “Controlled radio” was also denounced as a “threat to democracy.” Crucially, David Sarnoff and William Paley, leading NBC and CBS respectively, were visionaries for whom an educational mission incorporating culture was a genuine priority, whatever its commercial liabilities…

Later, when TV entered the picture, CBS initiated Leonard Bernstein’s Omnibus specials and Young People’s Concerts, and Sarnoff created an NBC Opera offering innovative productions of opera in English. But Paley retired as president in 1959, Sarnoff in 1970; their successors gradually abandoned the high mission at hand. PBS and NPR, ironically, have offered nothing remotely as ambitious as the arts programming CBS and NBC once championed. If American arts audiences today compare unfavorably with audiences elsewhere, the minimal role of the state—the cumulative absence of an “American BBC”—is far from irrelevant.

I frequently hear people extolling Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts and wonder why no one tries to replicate them since they were so well-received, but Horowitz’s piece recounts how the lack of investment, both in terms of general policy and economics, allowed both opportunity and popular will and interest in these experiences to wane.

Even though the Western canon of arts and literature were lionized to the exclusion of others during this era, a different infrastructure would exist today to amplify a shift telling a broader range of stories had focus and investment been sustained.

Horowitz’s conclusion near the close of the article is that the upheaval cause by the pandemic has provided another set of opportunities to effect enduring change if we are ready to take it.

Be Sure Your Data Doesn’t Just Mean You Are Good At Posting Memes

If you have been reading my writing for the last few years, you know that in addition to employing the preceding phrase fairly often, I argue that not everything that can be measured about an arts organization’s activity is a valid measure of the value of the organization and the work it does.

What should also be acknowledged as a corollary to that is that not all data is created equal or equally valuable. Since there is a growing push for arts organizations to do a better job of embracing data-driven decision making .

Over at Arts Hacker, I recently summarized a post by Colleen Dilenschneider distinguishing between key performance indicators (KPIs), diagnostic metrics and vanity metrics.

Briefly, KPIs measure progress toward your mission/goals, diagnostic metrics inform KPIs and vanity metrics sound impressive, but aren’t an indication of any sort of progress. (i.e. Your social media engagement increased 1000% in a week because you posted a kitten meme.)

The problem, Dillenschneider says, is that valuing vanity metrics can result in allocating resources away from mission focused activities and evaluation. For example, the executive director may suddenly gain national prominence and invitations to speak at conferences, etc. which may raise the profile of the organization and make many stakeholders extremely proud of their association.

But if this isn’t contributing to a recognition of problems with the quality of the work being done and the poor community interactions that are occurring, then there is no value to having a year over year increase in the number of speaking invitations.

If you are trying to use data to inform your decisions, take a look at the post. The line between KPIs and diagnostic metrics can be confusing and it can be easy to categorize the latter as part of the former without a reminder of the dividing line.


Yes, Data Driven Decision Making. But What Data Is Important?

An Eye For Justice And Opera

I knew Ruth Bader Ginsburg loved opera. There are stories about her and Justice Scalia’s friendship and shared love of opera. A few weeks ago, I had written about the artistic director of the Tulsa Opera’s comments in a documentary film about being married by Justice Ginsburg who had admired the director’s work as a composer.

I have to say I appreciated that Chief Justice Robert’s eulogy today used her love of the performing arts as a significant theme, referencing opera multiple times, her rock star reputation and speaking of the court as her stage.  I wish more eulogies were that way. It makes the deceased seem like they lived a more well rounded life versus simply talking about their professional accomplishments.

So I was annoyed that some news sources edited the performing arts content out of videos of Robert’s speech.

There were a couple article this weekend about Ginsburg’s passion for the arts, but the one I like best was written by the Washington Post’s Peter Marks.

Not only was she a passionate spectator, she made cameo appearances in some productions and appears to have married a whole lot of creatives along the Eastern Seaboard of the United States.

It was interesting to note that the very first commenter on the Washington Post article says he asked for a refund as soon as he saw Ginsburg was performing that night because he paid good money to see professionals, not amateurs perform.

That, of course, is a whole other discussion.

Music Doesn’t Make You Smarter, You Were Smart Already

Not long ago I saw a link on Artsjournal.com to a short news piece saying a study found music won’t make people smarter. I sought out the study in on the Memory & Cognition journal website to learn a bit more about this metareview of previous studies on the subject.

The study authors state the following:

We can thus conclude that these findings convincingly refute all the theories claiming that music training causes improvements in any domain-general cognitive skill or academic achievement (e.g., Moreno et al., 2011; Patel, 2011; Saarikivi et al., 2019; Tierney & Kraus, 2013). In fact, there is no need to postulate any explanatory mechanism in the absence of any genuine effect or between-study variability. In other words, since there is no phenomenon, there is nothing to explain

Later they discuss that musical ability and intelligence are connected, but it is innate, rather trained, musical skill that is associated with intelligence. For awhile it appeared their findings might support that there is value in music education because it helps to strengthen those entwined roots at the base of natural musical aptitude and intelligence, basically activating a natural capacity which may have otherwise been dormant. However, the following statement seemed to eliminate that possibility.

These findings corroborate the hypothesis according to which the observed correlation between music training and particular domain-general cognitive/academic skills is a byproduct of previous abilities…Therefore, there is no reason to support the hypothesis that music training boosts cognition or academic skills. Rather, all the evidence points toward the opposite conclusion, that is, that the impact of music training on cognitive and academic skills is null

They do say it might be worth studying whether music training is beneficial for things like prosocial behavior and self-esteem. They say this is an understudied area along with exploring whether some “elements of music instruction (e.g., arithmetical music notation) could be used to facilitate learning in other disciplines such as arithmetic.”

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