Elizabeth Merritt, keynote speaker at the 2013 League of American Orchestras National Conference

The Future Is Now

Are innovation and experimentation becoming the norm for orchestras, rather than the exception? This is the provocative topic to be covered by Elizabeth Merritt during her keynote address launching this year’s League of American Orchestras National Conference in St. Louis on June 18. The session, “Imagining 2023,” is the first of two sessions featuring Merritt, founding director of the Center for the Future of Museums, a think tank that generates ideas, proposals, reports, and dreams about what museums might be. In the Conference’s closing session on June 20, “Taking It Home,” Merritt will participate in an interactive panel discussion during which orchestras will reflect on what their organizations might look like in 2023.

Those who attended last year’s League of American Orchestras National Conference in Dallas will doubtless remember Merritt’s riveting talk with Gigi Antoni, president and CEO of Big Thought, a Dallas-based nonprofit. Merritt and Antoni examined the notion that, while orchestras deliver programs that make a real difference to their audiences, ultimately having a true, lasting impact on the wider community often requires systemic change. Among the questions they addressed: why is it so important for arts organizations to think far in the future when planning ahead? How can they attract new audiences without alienating traditional symphony-goers? Why is it imperative for arts groups to ask themselves how their communities will be different and better because they exist?

For a taste of what makes Merritt such an important idea generator for the arts community—and why her keynote address is a must-see at this year’s Conference—read Merritt’s April 2012 SymphonyNOW interview with editor Robert Sandla, reprinted below.

Robert Sandla: You are the founding director of the Center for the Future of Museums. Can you tell us a little about the Center—why it was founded, what it currently does, what its goals are?

Elizabeth Merritt: In 2006 the American Association of Museums celebrated its centennial. To mark the occasion, our board of trustees asked the staff to brainstorm ideas on how the association could help museums through the next 100 years. The staff went off and noodled on that a bit, and came back and said, “We don’t know, because we don’t know what the next century will be like.” That was the beginning of the idea for CFM. Our mandate is to help museums understand the cultural, political, economic, environmental, and technological trends shaping our world, and envision how they can help their communities thrive in coming decades. Any museum will tell you they want to preserve their collections for hundreds of years—but they usually have a five-year institutional plan, at best. Isn’t that a bit of a disconnect?

We try to teach everyone to be a little bit of a futurist, if they want to learn. But we know museum professionals already have overwhelming jobs, so we do the heavy lifting of forecasting for them: we scan the news for hints of change, we analyze and synthesize that information, generate stories of potential futures to spur people’s thinking, suggest ways museums might want to adapt to the changing world, and encourage museums to innovate and find their own new ways of operating. Our goal is that, in the future, every museum’s “long-term” plan covering the next three or five or ten years, will be developed with an awareness of what will or may happen in the next 25, 50, or even 100 years.

“The ubiquity of digital recordings and digital access makes it possible for people to experience music literally anywhere—even when they are swimming laps in the pool. Orchestras have to focus on what makes the real, physical experience they offer so compelling that people are willing to take a chunk of time out of their lives to travel to the orchestra’s venue to experience music.”

Sandla: In some ways, orchestras are not unlike museums in their roles as curators, collectors, and presenters of artworks. What’s your view of orchestras today? What do think might need to be changed? What should remain the same?

Merritt: William Gibson [the novelist and futurist] said, “The future is already here, it’s just unequally distributed.” I think in some ways orchestras are experiencing the future ahead of their colleagues in museums. The ubiquity of digital recordings and digital access makes it possible for people to experience music literally anywhere—even when they are swimming laps in the pool. While museums are also digitizing their content, no one—yet—is hanging digital Picassos in their living room. So I think orchestras have to focus on what makes the real, physical experience they offer so compelling that people are willing to take a chunk of time out of their lives to travel to the orchestra’s venue to experience music. Or they have to figure out how to create distributed physical experiences, as the Metropolitan Opera has done with its broadcast series to movie theaters.

Orchestras, like museums, face the challenge that current generations expect to consume culture in a comfortable, social environment. I was at the Sterling Memorial Library at Yale last week, and I noticed that the “no food or drink” sign in the main reading room had been swapped out for one showing “allowable containers.” You can’t expect students to use the reading room without their cup of joe! They have too many alternatives, especially as many of the resources they need are available online. Museums, and orchestras, have to adapt to these expectations. People want comfortable places to sit, they want access to food and drink and Wi-Fi, and they may want to share the experience (via their smartphone) with friends who are not there. This sets us up for conflict, of course, because some people value precisely the formal, constrained environment that squashed such behavior in the past. So how do you make a non-traditional museum/symphony-goer comfortable without alienating your existing audience? It’s a difficult balance.

Sandla: Your 2012 Conference session focused, in part, on organizations having “a true, lasting impact on the wider community.” What does that mean for orchestras? Do you think that an orchestra or classical music can help a community? If so, in what ways?

Merritt: When people ask me how to start or fund a museum, I always ask, “How will the world be different because your museum exists?” And that’s their answer: if enough people believe in that vision of the world, you’ve got your support, one way or another. If you don’t make any difference—who cares? So I think an orchestra has to ask itself, how will its community, or the world, be different and better because it exists?

Maybe the answer is that kids have access to the arts programming that has been cut out of their schools. Maybe teens are mentored in careers in music—whether as musicians, producers, or administrators. Maybe a lot of people in the community remember the orchestra as the place they went on a wonderful date, or met the person they married. Every orchestra has to look out into its own community, see what that community has, what it needs and what it lacks, and find that answer for itself.

For me, growing up in Cleveland, the orchestra was part of my world because many of the musicians used to come and hang out at my house, and some of them played in a chamber quartet my mother hosted. When I got older, I sang in the youth choir for the opera. It made me feel like I was part of a secret world. Not every kid is going to have that experience, of course, but it was really special for me. How can you give more people that “secret” experience, make them feel they are part of something special?

“If you have a museum exhibit that represents the pinnacle of scholarship—complete with erudite labels specifying the accession number, media, date, name of the artists, and a few pithy lines of commentary—what good does it do if no one comes? If you are a serving a community that doesn’t yet have much expertise or interest in art, your primary objective is to get people to care. Excellence is wasted on an empty room.”

Sandla: Does community impact come at the expense of the excellence toward which orchestras have long aspired?

Merritt: Ah, that’s the question at the heart of our resistance to change, isn’t it?! People who work in museums struggle with the same issue. One of the trends shaping our world is a change in attitude toward traditional sources of authority, and an increased desire on the part of audiences to “do” as well as “view”—or listen, I guess, in the case of music. Museums are experimenting with “crowdsourced” exhibits that invite community members to contribute content and interpretation, in some cases to decide what the museum will address at all. This drives many curators nuts, for the reason embedded in your question. What about excellence? Doesn’t someone who has studied Renaissance art for 40 years have more, and deeper, things to say about a painting than a person who walks in off the street?

But for museums, it comes back to this question of “who cares?” If you have an exhibit that represents the pinnacle of scholarship—complete with erudite labels specifying the accession number, media, date, name of the artists, and a few pithy lines of commentary—what good does it do if no one comes? Or peeks in the gallery for three minutes and leaves? If you invite visitors to write their reactions to a painting on a sticky note and put it up on the wall, and that gets them looking, really looking, at the art, and reading other people’s comments and responding, haven’t you “taught” them more about the painting than by throwing all that scholarship at them? If you’re a museum in a big city with a sophisticated audience that appreciates the traditional curatorial style, maybe you can stick with that format. If you are a museum serving a community that doesn’t yet have much expertise or interest in art, your primary objective is to get people to care. Excellence is wasted on an empty room.

So when the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra invited amateur musicians to perform with the professionals a couple years ago as part of its “Rusty Musicians” program, I thought it was brilliant. They had something like 400 people sign up for that event. “Make More Bad Art”—that’s my motto. I’d think it’s vitally important to have people mess about and get involved and learn, in the process, to care about the good stuff. [Read first-person blog entries from participants in the Minnesota Orchestra Fantasy Camp, a project similar to the Baltimore Symphony’s Rusty Musicians program, here on SymphonyNOW.]

Sandla: What are some good strategies for change?

Merritt: First, document all the ways your organization kills innovative ideas before they can take their first breath. Then, start doing things that make your operating environment just a little less hostile to these neonates. That may mean holding brainstorming meetings with “and,” not “but” rules—people can build on any idea that is presented, but they can’t criticize it, yet. Plenty of time for that later! First let it develop enough that you can see what it might grow into. It may mean mentoring individual staff members who tend to be idea-killers in new ways of reacting, or, frankly, keep them out of the room if they can’t or won’t change. It may mean setting aside some R&D money—or “money to fund crazy ideas,” as I prefer to call it. That may seem impossible in a tight fiscal environment, but, as with industry, nonprofits that don’t invest in research and development are going to stagnate and die.

Usually people kill new ideas because they fear change, loss of power or authority, or just are really comfortable with the way things are now. So you have to address those fears (which might be entirely reasonable) and, at the same time, make people less comfortable with the status quo. That is the upside of a financial crisis—it makes people realize that something has to change, and once they get moving you can try to shepherd them in a good direction. One of the great things about futures studies is that it helps with both fear and motivation: by helping people envision what the future might look like, if things go on as they are now, it motivates them to explore other potential futures. The potential dark futures that are out there scare the pants off them, and get them thinking about how to move things in a different direction. Imagining potential bright futures enables people to back-calculate to what they might do now to make that preferred future a reality.

 

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