Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Aesthetic Warfare and Fantasia 2089

Walt Disney started work on what became the film Fantasia in the late 1930s - about 75 years ago. Seeing parts of it performed with live orchestra, the Cincinnati Pops - ‘our own’, as Conductor John Morris Russell likes to say - was a revelation.

Listening to the live music, while watching excerpts from the animated film released in 1940, it was impossible not to be wowed by Disney’s audacity and inventiveness with what he described as an “experiment.”

Now, I can’t stop wondering: What will seem as game-changing, exceptional, innovative, and entrepreneurial in the field of arts engagement 75 years from now?

A little research reveals that Disney was doing a bunch of new things with this film, but importantly he was seeking to build audience - to bridge the gap between audiences who had been coming to see his animated Mickey Mouse shorts with those who knew classical music and regularly went to hear
orchestras play live.
..."Fantasia" wasn't intended to appeal to the "highbrow" audience. Disney was a man of limited education and unsophisticated tastes: He hoped "Fantasia" would bridge the gap between the large, general audiences that had flocked to "Snow White" and the limited world of fine music. In one story meeting, he said, "This film is going to open this kind of music to a lot of people like myself who've walked out on this kind of stuff."
"He became excited about classical music and felt that putting his animation to it would make it appeal to an audience that wasn't into this kind of music," says [animator Ollie] Johnston. "And I think it did. It certainly opened up classical music to a lot of the young guys at the studio.

In the program for the world-premiere of the film, Disney wrote:
“In a profession that has been an unending voyage of discovery in the realms of color, sound, and motion, Fantasia represents our most exciting adventure. At last we have found a way to use in our medium the great music of all times and the flood of new ideas which it inspires.”
But, reviews were mixed. This sort of critique, revived in the LA Times article, sounds familiar to anyone who has tried to push the envelope on a traditional fine art form: '". . . To have the Pastoral Symphony interrupted by applause for sugar-sweet centaurettes is painful," said Franz Hoellering in The Nation.’
In Fantasia the paintings on the canvas of Walt Disney's and his staff's imagination did not help but most of the time disturbed my appreciation of the music they tried to make me "see." One of two reasons, or both of them, may be chiefly responsible: either these imaginations did not live up to Bach and Beethoven and Schubert, or the whole idea of adding pictures to music composed to be appreciated best with the eyes closed is fundamentally wrong.

Still, there was plenty of love for the film in the overnight reviews too.

The New York Times film review by Bosley Crowther is marveling, while anticipating the storm to follow.
For the vital report this morning is that Mr. Disney and his troop of little men, together with Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra and a corps of sound engineers, have fashioned with music and colors and animated figures on a screen a creation so thoroughly delightful and exciting in its novelty that one's senses are captivated by it, one's imagination is deliciously inspired. In the same fresh, light-hearted spirit which has marked all their previous cartoons Mr. Disney and the boys have gone aromping in somewhat more esoteric fields; they have taken eight symphonic numbers which are generally reserved for the concert halls, let Mr. Stokowski's band record them on multiple sound tracks, and have then given them visual accompaniments of vast and spellbinding range. In brief, they have merged high-toned music with Disney's fantastic imagery. 
What the music experts and the art critics will think of it we don't know. Olin Downes is making the official observation for his department in an adjoining column. Probably there will be much controversy, and maybe some long hair will be pulled. Artistic innovations never breed content. But for this corner's money—and, we reckon, for the money of any one who takes it in the blithe and wondrous spirit in which it is offered—"Fantasia" is enchanting entertainment. This is one time, we warrant, you won't want to listen to music with your eyes shut.
At the risk of being utterly obvious and just a bit stodgy, perhaps, let us begin by noting that motion-picture history was made at the Broadway Theatre last night with the spectacular world première of Walt Disney's long-awaited "Fantasia." Let us agree, as did almost every one present on the occasion, that the sly and whimsical papa of Mickey Mouse, Snow White, Pinocchio and a host of other cartoon darlings has this time come forth with something which really dumps conventional formulas overboard and boldly reveals the scope of films for imaginative excursion. Let us temperately admit that "Fantasia" is simply terrific—as terrific as anything that has ever happened on a screen. And then let's get on from there.

And there was an insider’s debate, it seems, with the unhappiness mostly on the side of music team purists, while the dance and film crowds cheered Disney and his experiment.

Like this....John Martin, dance critic for the New York Times, writing about the “aesthetic warfare set in motion by Disney’s Fantasia” noted that Disney does not treat the music as “sacrosanct. Disney’s art is that of the cartoonist and in it there is no such thing as homage for sacred cows.”

All hail the experimenters with no credentials in the “fine arts” who create "aesthetic warfare" - wow, I love that.

On the fiftieth anniversary of the film, the LA Times noted: ‘mass audiences have been introduced to the pleasures of classical music through "Fantasia," but they were the children and grandchildren of the viewers Disney hoped to reach in 1940. By the time the film found its audience, it was too late for the man who had conceived it.’

In 2014, the film’s impact is undeniable. The concert filled our enormous Music Hall with people of all ages, as noted by conductor John Morris Russell (JMR) when he asked the “young people” to cheer and welcomed them.

At the Cincinnati Pops, JMR told us that the film
  • introduced stereo sound to filmgoers
  • pushed animation features forward
  • featured music by the Philadelphia Orchestra, conducted by Stokowski, who had been music director of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra until 1912
Disney went all out on this film - creating new technology to make the audience feel as if the orchestra was live, hiring 1000 artists and technicians to move the needle on animation, bringing in ballet dancers so artists could study their movement, insisting on special equipment in theatres, and presenting a limited release that required people to reserve seats for the movies.

Disney’s investment in getting the sound right was unprecedented and included seven weeks of recording the orchestra in their Philadelphia home, the Academy of Music because of it’s extraordinary acoustics. Imagine that - investing in seven weeks of recording with an orchestra of over 100 players!
In the recording sessions, thirty-three microphones were placed around the orchestra that captured the music onto eight optical sound recording machines placed in the hall's basement. Each one represented an audio channel that focused on a different section of instruments: cellos and basses, violins, brass, violas, and woodwinds and tympani. The seventh channel was a combination of the first six while the eighth provided an overall sound of the orchestra at a distance. A ninth was later added to provide a click track function for the animators to time their drawings to the music. In the forty-two days of recording 483,000 feet of film was used.
And he insisted on the creation of new technology from RCA to "create the illusion that the actual symphony orchestra is playing in the theater", new equipment from Hewlett-Packard, and development of the panning technique with a “pan-pot” to create the sense that sound was moving across speakers. In the end, 20 percent of the cost of the film was in getting the sound the way he wanted it. Fantasound - precursor to surround sound - was born with Fantasia.

So now consider....what are we doing today to reach new audiences for classical music (and all the arts) that will be worthy of marveling over in 2089?

Sidenote, if you’ve ever had the joy of hearing music in The Emery Theatre of Cincinnati, you know how extraordinary the sound is there. Stokowski - while conductor of the CSO -  insisted that the developers pursue a space and sound like the Carnegie Hall in NYC, which is why the Emery is one the most extraordinary halls in the nation. (And why we have to save it soon - and the CSO should treat us to a series there every year, IMO.)

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

And Then What Happens? Measuring Arts Impact

"However beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results." - attributed to Winston Churchill

If we want broad support for the arts, we have to be able to answer the question everyone asks, or wants to ask - even if they don’t realize it: “And then what happens?”

Art as entertainment means selling tickets and memberships, or getting funding from donors who care a whole lot about your kind of art.

But, if we want everyone else to care about the music, museums, murals, performers, dance, theatre, and so on -- then we have to make it relevant to them, whether or not they are (or think they are) goers.

And that’s especially true if we want art to be considered a public good - worthy of revenue forgone (a tax credit or deduction) or taxation and fees dedicated to the arts.

How do we do that?

Our research finds that most people believe the arts create surprising ripple effects of benefits: creating vibrant places we all want to live, visit, work, and invest - places where people meet and get to know one another, in ways that other events can’t connect them.

And it turns out that people can see that if the neighborhoods in their community benefit in this way - it’s good for everyone who lives there, even people who don’t go to the arts themselves.


We need to start talking about the arts in ways that bring these benefits to life. Because while people believe the arts create these benefits, it’s not their natural way (their first way) of thinking about the arts. If we want these benefits to be front of mind, we have to frame our communication about the arts to make it so.

And it’s important that it really IS so.

Most of us who work in the arts, if we can get past the ‘art for art’s sake’ view of our world, already believe that the arts create vibrant places and bring people together. We see it happen all the time. Right? But, many personal experiences do not equal fundable data.

Now, how do we measure these social impacts of the arts?

In the past few weeks, I’ve had three experiences with social impacts of free arts events and observed a fourth that seems especially relevant.

Stories of Route 66 -- ID LIVE! Festival

Co-created painted chairs offered as prizes at ID LIVE!

In mid-July, I went to Albuquerque to provide some hands-on-help and observe a special festival event presented by a large collaborative arts initiative, Stories of Route 66.

Stories of Route 66 is located in a very diverse neighborhood of ABQ, the International District. It's had other -- more negative -- names (i.e., The War Zone), and Stories of Route 66 is designed to create change through the arts, to shift the way people view the neighborhood. The ID LIVE! festival celebrated some initiatives of the various partners with three days of events:

  • unveiling of corner gardens with permanent and temporary arts installations like sidewalk painting, transforming corners that are usually empty lots,
  • pop-up parties in empty lots and on closed streets, including one with a pop-up party toolkit in a truck created by the University of New Mexico students, and
  • performance arts and film created by a diverse group of residents who met for six months, making art together every week.

All of these events came together on a very limited budget and with the commitment of a strong group of organizers and volunteers. It was quite an impressive effort by a relatively small group of people who put in a lot of time. Still, this made dedicating energy and human resources to measuring outcomes challenging. (This is familiar, right?)

Pop Up Street Party

We wanted to know whether the special weekend of arts installations in various locations throughout the neighborhood would have any impact on how the residents and visitors perceive the neighborhood and their willingness or capacity to invest in a longer-term, future effort to create permanent art installations.

The team had already decided to use a passport to encourage people to come to the festival and to provide a sort of guide featuring some of the many events. This was especially important because the area is very large and there were great distances between event sites.

The team also planned to use the passport to gather information from attendees - providing  a way to contact them in the future for efforts to place art permanently, and to gauge any changes in perception about the neighborhood.

ID LIVE! Passport

Volunteers distributed some passports as invitational doorknockers in the neighborhood. At each of the passport activities volunteers were asked to offer passports, punch them for the current activity, and encourage people to attend other events.
As an incentive, passports could be turned in at the end of the festival and prizes would be randomly awarded to passport holders who attended at least three events. And if they completed an additional, short survey at that time - passport holders would be eligible for a grand prize of $100 cash.

We spent some time debating how many punches a passport holder had to have to be eligible for a prize. Since we really wanted the data (feedback about perceptions and contact information), we probably set the bar too high by requiring three hole punches.

Stamp Station at the Pop Up Street Party

It was an especially hot weekend and there’s very little shade in the neighborhood, so only the most committed people went to more than one event. The organizers created a terrific map, but it still required time and effort for people to visit more than one location, since no one could see the site of another event from any one location.

Chalk Art Created by Community

In the end, we got limited feedback. Since we didn’t have observers at every site, it’s hard to know exactly what the barriers to returning the passport might have been. The events were understaffed for focusing on the passport and it was no one’s top priority to be sure that attendees got a passport or understood how it could be used. And as noted above, the bar was very high for our goal of gathering information. Finally, passports were a sort of souvenir and some attendees seemed to really like them, objecting to the hole punches which obliterated the images related to the events. Perhaps they didn't return the passports because they wanted to save them. (That would be a good indicator - if we had a way to measure it!)
This experience gives us good information for, and more interest in, a follow-up evaluation design.

Museum Camp

Museum Campers on the steps of the MAH

Immediately after ID LIVE! in ABQ, I traveled to California for Museum Camp -- produced by the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History with Fractured Atlas (aka the incomparable Nina Simon and Ian David Moss). The following description of the planned event is cribbed and edited from the museum website.

The 2014 Museum Camp at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History theme was social impact assessment. The goal was to develop creative ways to evaluate work designed to build and transform our communities. It brought together teams of diverse people from across many disciplines in shared learning and doing around research and social impact. The focus was on social impact in communities, and the organizers encouraged teams to look at complex outcomes–like safety, cohesion, compassion, and identity–that are not commonly covered in our standard evaluative practices.

Participants were assigned to teams of four (by the event organizers to ensure team diversity) and we selected social outcomes of interest that the organizers suggested we would like to measure. Each team had about 48 hours to determine an outcome of interest, identify an indicator of that outcome, develop a creative evaluation tool to measure it, perform the measurement, and analyze the results.

There were 100 creative people from diverse arts, social justice, and community development organizations who wanted to experiment and push their practice through an active, collaborative professional development experience. Registration was based on a competitive application process.

Every team was assigned a location or event to conduct their research. The whole camp played a white-elephant style game for the assignments. My team ended up with a Friday Night Free Beach concert. We struggled mightily to come up with a research question that we could all be passionate about, that also fit the location.

Our location was described this way: “Boardwalk - free Friday night concerts at 6:30 and 8:30, featuring heavy metal band Y&T” and we were told that it would fit well with a hypothesis about “live performance, free events, belonging”. A little research revealed that Y&T is a hair band that had some hits in the eighties.

Team Hair Band (High Five for Santa Cruz)

Nick Stillman-Arts Council of New Orleans
Alice Briggs-Ceredigion Museum
Diana Kapsner-Santa Cruz MAH
We were interested in whether a free concert increases a feeling of affinity, pride, or belonging to a place - and in particular, whether people who happen-upon the concert feel identity more strongly than people who come with intention. Does serendipitous art have a special social impact?

Our method for assessing was to invite people with a questioning “high five for Santa Cruz?” and we developed indicators to suggest people who came with intention, happened-upon the concert, or were completely unaware of the concert.

High Five for Santa Cruz?
We were tripped up by the private boardwalk security who didn’t want us on the boardwalk. So, dressed in our huge sandwich boards and divided into two teams of two people each, we took up spots on the beach in the midst of the concert footprint and on the other side of the arcade where visitors could not see or hear the concert.

We quickly realized that the spot on the beach was almost exclusively populated by people coming with intention. (There were WAY more people wearing Y&T t-shirts than we anticipated!)

And we realized two other things:

  • People LOVE the free concert series and they were REALLY happy to be there.
  • There’s a social expectation related to “high-fiving” ~ nearly everyone responded to our prompt to high five for Santa Cruz.

So we made an adjustment about a half hour into the experiment and started noting enthusiastic high fives as a separate category of response.

And for the last half hour, the beach team scouted the edges of the beach seating area for people who might happen upon the concert, since those descending the steps from the boardwalk were nearly all coming with intention.
Searching for Serendipity
Our findings? Looking at the numbers, our hypothesis was proven by the results. But the number of happen-upon responses was so small it’s hard to rely on the results. And we determined that it was difficult to pull apart the reasons participants would respond positively to our request to high-five for Santa Cruz.

Anecdotally, we noted the numerous people who verbally expressed a deep love for Santa Cruz and a feeling of pride in and identity with the city. Even non-residents and former residents took time (without prompting) to explain their connection to the place and their love for this long-standing concert series.

Museum Camp made me want to play ~~ that is, experiment ~~ much more with measuring social impact of the arts. Just get out there and try stuff.


My third experience is not quantitative at all. We weren't trying to measure the impact of the art at this event.

The morning after my late night return to Cincinnati (from ID-Live and Museum Camp), my non-profit arts group, Art on the Streets, produced its third ArtWalk  - a co-created mural in a crosswalk.

For ArtWalks, we seek community input as inspiration for artists who create the designs -- and then we chalk the crosswalk design and invite the public to paint the street.

The ArtWalk at Orchard and Main was painted at a community festival called Second Sunday on Main. Most people who painted found the art-making serendipitously.

Painting the Orchard Street ArtWalk

One father, watching his two children paint, said to them, “Do you know how lucky you are? Cincinnati is so amazing! You are so lucky to grow up here.”

As I told him, this is exactly the impact we hope to discover from art in public places. We dream, we fundraise, we create - we present the art or we make it together. And then what happens?

We’ll just have to keep trying to figure out how to measure our success.



LumenoCity photo by cincinnatirefined
The fourth event is one I observed purely through the lens of social media. LumenoCity happened in my home town of Cincinnati, but I was at Museum Camp at the time. It's a free illuminated concert, produced and performed by the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra in an outdoor venue with the light show playing on our iconic and historic Music Hall.

The first year of LumenoCity in 2013 proved wildly popular and generated world-wide recognition for an engagement event produced by a classical music organization when 35,000 people attended two nights of concerts. The event transformed the neighborhood and brought thousands of people into an area many hadn't visited in decades, a place still full of empty and abandoned buildings, still considered dangerous by many area residents. Just after the 2013 event, there was a sort of LumenoCity effect, with real estate prospectors trolling the area with clipboards.
photo via cincinnati.com
In 2014, the producers decided to ticket the event - even though admission was still free. They explained that this was being done for safety reasons; they had concerns the previous year when so many people crowded into a small area. 

There were some major hiccups with the ticketing, and the media stories (across all channels) tended to reinforce existing default perceptions of the symphony as elitist. Many people who wanted to attend could not get tickets inside the gated public park venue, while the symphony season ticket holders and donors were given access to tickets in advance.

Nevertheless, on the weekend of the event the social media reaction in my stream (again, on multiple channels) was extremely interesting. 

 Many of the posts expressed love for and pride in Cincinnati, suggesting that, despite the difficult ticketing issues - and possible negative impact on perception of the arts for some people, those who attended, or saw photos and videos, were left with a new and strong sense of pride and affinity for place.

Now, if we could just figure out how to measure WHETHER THIS HAPPENED!

See what I mean? A simple search for #lumenocity Cincinnati produces this, and more.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

It's Just Music


It’s just music, says the music director of the orchestra in Cincinnati, the adorable, dancing-while-he-conducts, Louis Langree. At the same time, he says: Forget the rules.

This is not classical, not rock.

This is what’s happening here. The orchestra and the indie-rock music festival, Music Now, are collaborating. And the result is electric.

The artistic director of MusicNow Festival is Bryce Dressner. Also cute. He’s from Cincinnati and with his twin brother, Aaron, he’s part of a band you might know, The National. Bryce brought the new music festival to his hometown in 2006. He says the festival likes to play with artists who like to say “yes.” This year, the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra said yes. And….wow.

Some of the stuff they’re doing, sort of in the order that we noticed.

Paying for art about the festival and wheat pasting it on buildings all over town. Not so surprising for a rock music festival - but pretty awesome for any orchestra.

poster windows.jpeg
Creating a second beautiful, eye-catching poster for store windows and such.

Inviting musicians to play in the lobby before the shows on both festival nights - it’s a party, not a stuffy see-and-be-seen.

Encouraging the audience to bring drinks into orchestra hall - #newrules.
drinks in the hall 2.jpg
CSO Photo

Telling the players in the orchestra to dress caj: all black, no jackets, no tails.

Commissioning new music from stars like Nico Muhly -- another super-charming, super-talented, kid musician.

Playing the new music for orchestra and chamber ensemble of rock artists like Bryce Dressner of The National and Jonny Greenwood of Radiohead.

Putting the Dressner brothers on stage with orchestra and electric guitars.

Photo: Ashley Berger

Turning a pre-concert talk into a brilliant, not-boring-at-all, mini-recital including a hilarious to watch, four-hands on one piano piece by Lisa Kaplan of eighth blackbird -- the players (Nico Muhly with Lisa) were laughing!

Sending the artists out on stage to chat with the audience -- it was not scripted; it was sweet, personal, riveting.

Adding a surprise intermission mini-concert with ⅗ of The National, the Dressner brothers and their drummer, Bryan Devendorf.

Despite moving Music Now from a 600 seat venue to the largest orchestra hall in the nation this year, that 1870s red-velvet, gold leaf, marble and chandelier-treated cultural icon was filled with people of all ages both nights.
One other moment of magic to mention: Louis Langree walked onto the stage on the second night of the festival carrying huge sheets of the score. He held them up so the audience could see that the score was…complicated! Looks like an EKG, he said. Then he started handing the copies to people in the front row, asking them to take a look and pass them on. 

After the concert, we learned this was NOT a PRish idea of the CSO communications staff. (Admittedly, that's what we thought - even as we were admiring how well it worked.) Nope. Ten minutes before he was set to walk onstage, Louis approached the orchestra’s librarian and said: I have an idea. She said she crossed her fingers so that the copier would warm up fast. It was close. We LOVE this!
passing back the score.jpg
CSO Photo

David Lang - the prize-winning new music composer with a world premiere commissioned piece performed on the second night of the festival - said what we were thinking:
You all are so lucky to have an orchestra like this, playing music like this.

The CSO has commissioned work before - notably Fanfare for the Common Man by the American composer Aaron Copland over 70 years ago. Lang said, this orchestra shaped contemporary american music with these commissions and its sound.

Today, whatever might be happening with orchestras in other places, Cincinnati’s music peeps are doing something that someone is likely to be talking about seventy years from now. In the near term, expect to see more visitors in town for this classical team.

The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra is a one hot band.