Kids Making Modern Art Less Intimidating For Adults

I came across a link to a post on the Alliance of American Art Museums website about the Clyfford Still Museum’s efforts to make their facility a welcoming option for bringing kids as young as toddler age.  (I think credit goes to Ruth Hartt for liking a Linkedin post) The post was written by the museum’s Director of Education and an associate curator who recount how they have approached making a modern art museum approachable for young children.

When I wrote my post on Monday about organizations focused on community engagement entering dialogue with their constituents and making changes based on the feedback they received, I wasn’t envisioning using toddlers as focus groups. But that is pretty much the approach the museum employed based on research data about children’s art preferences.

We met with our infant co-curators over Zoom and observed their teachers presenting them with two reproductions of Still’s paintings that prominently featured black, white, and red. Our pre-verbal co-curators showed us their preferences through pointing, vocalizing, grabbing, and extended looking. We tracked and tallied each of these expressions of preference, and the most popular works of art overall went on the checklist. For another gallery about pattern, we watched how three- to five-year-olds interacted with predetermined provocations (materials to spark open-ended exploration) to design an interactive experience. For that same gallery, five- and six-year-olds from a different school virtually “placed” drawings selected by three- and four-year-olds into a pattern arrangement on the gallery wall using our virtual planning software.

I actually thought it was pretty ingenious to leverage the bold colors and swaths of color often found in modern art, (and in Still’s work in particular), in a way that aligned with what appeals most strongly to infants. It sort of recognizes that when people make the dismissive statement that their kids could “draw that,” they are acknowledging that there are elements present in the work that are appealing to kids. In some respects, the kids may find the work more accessible than their parents who are seeking to discern some sort of meaning in the work.

In fact, the museum saw an opportunity to change adult perceptions about who has the ability/authority to understand modern art, by letting them experience it through the eyes of their kids:

We wanted to challenge the idea that you need specialized expertise to meaningfully engage with abstraction and expand adults’ appreciation for what young children teach us. To do this, we integrated photos and videos of our young curators from the exhibition development process in the gallery design to show their contributions and palpable interest in our collection..

…This helped children (literally) see themselves in the museum and modeled their intuitive understanding of Still’s work to adults who feel uncomfortable engaging with abstract art (If comments about megalodons and hungry scary monsters are ok, then so are my perspectives!).

The museum shared some lessons learned about making the museum more welcoming to families with infants. When your Arts Crawl literally involves crawling, some of the traditional rules about touching; the role, appearance, and demeanor of gallery attendants/security need to be changed, along with other elements of the experience and environment.

You And Your Audience Don’t Agree On What It Means To Be Entertaining

Okay, to start 2024 off with something to ponder for the whole year, I want to direct you to a piece I wrote on ArtsHacker a couple weeks ago about how your definition of entertaining as an arts professional may not match your audience and community’s definition.

All credit to Colleen Dilenschneider and her colleagues at IMPACTS Experience whose research showed (subscription required) that the most entertaining exhibit based entities in the world are Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial followed by the Gettysburg National Military Park and then The Louvre.

You may be thinking, “yeah this doesn’t surprise me, I have seen those pictures of people taking flirty selfies at concentration camps, this just reinforces that people have no sense of decorum and are just centering themselves.”

But that isn’t what the IMPACTS research is indicating at all. While some arts organizations and professionals may see the term entertaining as roughly synonymous with Superficial, Trivial, and Frivolous experiences, the top adjectives people use to describe places like Normandy and Gettysburg in open ended questions are Inspiring, Beautiful, Meaningful, Powerful, and Moving. As Dilenschneider writes, people associate entertainment with meaningful experiences, not meaningless ones.

Often, the context and setting contribute to the sense that an experience is entertaining. So the solemnity and scope of cemeteries and battlefields tend to create meaning for an experience. Similarly, arts districts and famous neighborhoods lends a heightened sense to experiences.

From Dilenschneider’s piece:

People believe the Sydney Opera House to be the most entertaining performance-based organization in the world, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that every single performance presented within its walls is reliably and equally entertaining. Instead, this location may be most strongly cited because the art, architecture, and iconic nature of this space extends beyond individual performances. Similarly, seeing a performance “on Broadway” contributes to higher entertainment scores

Now not everybody operates in an iconic venue or district and that is fine. As I wrote in my ArtsHacker piece:

….when asked what entertaining mean in the context of cultural organizations, “something you want to share” and “unique” followed terms like “inspiring, engaging, meaningful, relevant, and fun”. It is absolutely possible to create experiences which are meaningful, relevant, unique and something people want to share within the context of a smaller organization in a manner that larger organizations are entirely unable.

Take a look at the ArtsHacker piece for more info and consider subscribing to Dilenschneider’s page. She and the IMPACTS team have consistently provided some great data interpretation, particularly during the Covid pandemic. I barely touched on all the content and commentary they provided on this subject.


War Cemeteries Are The Most Entertaining Places In The World, Just Not In The Way You Define It

Somethings Are Down, But Overall Broadway Is Looking Up

Broadway Producer Ken Davenport posted last week about The Broadway League’s attendance report for the 2022-2023 season.  The 2022-2023 season was the first period in which a full season of shows was able to run so being able to compare it against the 2018-2019 benchmark season is valuable. Overall, the numbers are pretty good. Compared with the record breaking 2018-2019 season, however, things are still down.

There were  12.3 million admissions in 2022-2023 compared with 14.8 million in 2018-2019. Attendance by NYC audiences is up percentage-wise, but there is a corresponding decrease in attendance by people living in the surrounding suburbs. Similarly, international attendance is down, though attendance by Canadian and European visitors was up.

On the positive side, the average age of attendees dropped to 40.4 years, the lowest it has been in about twenty years. Though the report acknowledges that this is partially attributable to the fact that attendance by those 65+ dropped significantly.

One area where things are up without a drop in a corresponding demographic was audience diversity. Broadway League President Charlotte Martin attributed that to outreach efforts, but largely to the increase in productions written/created and performed by casts that were diverse in terms of race and gender identity. Essentially, people are seeing themselves and their stories on stage.

One stat of interest to readers may be that the ticket purchase window has decreased from 47 days in 2018-2019 to 34 days. While this may be a concern to many theater operators who bite their nails as performance dates approach and tickets haven’t sold to the level of expectation, Davenport says this situation is great for those who use variable pricing because it means per ticket revenue will be higher due to people waiting (my emphasis):

Not good, but not surprising.  After every major “event” – from 9/11 to the 2008 financial crisis – the buying window shortens.  People don’t want to take the risk, because they wonder if it’ll happen.  Also, just about every show has tickets (especially since variable pricing was incorporated – shows don’t WANT to sell out too far in advance anymore for fear of leaving money on the table!)  What we need is a megahit and everyone’s windows will lengthen again.

Music Preference And Morals – Do Evil Geniuses Really Love Classical Music?

When I saw a link on to a research study on PLOS One exploring the link between music and morality, I was half expecting to discover that evil people do prefer classical music, bolstering the stereotype of movie villains who apparently love playing that music to accompany their nefarious scheming.

Alas, the researchers didn’t specifically address that highly relevant question. I did learn that there has been a lot more research into the connections between music preference and personality types than I imagined. The literature/previous research review at the start of the research findings discuss those findings if that sounds interesting.

Rather than plotting on a good/evil axis which would require judgment calls, the researchers categorized different ends of the moral spectrum as:

Individualising (Care and Fairness), indicative of a more liberal perspective, and Binding (Purity, Authority and Loyalty), indicative of a more conservative outlook.”

Looking at everything from lyrics, timbre, and audio elements. In the results section of the study they note the following correlations:

From the perspective of the lyrics’ linguistic cues, we saw that people who value more foundations related to Care and Fairness (Individualising values) prefer artists whose songs’ textual content is about care and joy. Those concerned more about Loyalty, Authority and Purity (Binding or ingroup) foundations tend to choose artists whose songs’ lyrics talk about fairness, sanctity, and love.

Also, individuals with strong ingroup values tend to prefer artists whose lyrics have positive sentiments and talk about dominance. This is intelligible as individuals who value Binding and their social groups tend to engage in group activities such as sports, religious events, and political gatherings, which often make use of music to promote messages of power, unity, and victory (e.g. sports chants, church choirs, etc.). On the other hand, participants with high Binding scores tend to dislike songs with negative valence, violent narratives and songs that resonate with sadness, fear, and disgust.

From an audio perspective, we saw that participants with Binding values preferred more artists whose songs are danceable, loud and with more positive sounds. In contrast, participants with Individualising values chose more artists whose songs are smooth, acoustic and have less dynamic sounds

In terms of timbre, people oriented to Care and Fairness preferred smoother to louder. Binding oriented people preferred the loud, but only conventional rhythmic songs. Binding oriented individuals disliked loud, distorted, rebellious songs that aligned with timbres common in “hard rock, metal indie, pop, and electronic music.”

Like me, you may be wondering where people who enjoy loud, hard music with lyrics about struggle or darker themes. Reading through the study, it wasn’t really clear to me what sort of moral alignment those folks might have. I will confess that I didn’t quite understand some of the technical references to to things like BERT (Bidirectional Encoder Representations from Transformers) and what fell into those classifications.

One thing that amused me was the lengthy discussion of how preferred lyrics reflected moral value. As we all know, a lot of times people aren’t paying close attention to the lyrics and if they are, they may be getting some of them hilariously wrong. It may be that on the whole, lyrics and morals do track closely, but there have been a number of instances in the last few years where people loudly proclaim that an artist has betrayed the moral values they when they were popular 10-20 years ago and the general public cackles, “Were you paying attention to the lyrics?”

There is specific mention in the article about the choice of music at political rallies in the U.S. and how that often aligns with the general moral outlook of each group.