Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Culture Kettle, my new R&D organization — What’s in it for museums?



This week’s guest blogger is Peter Linett, Partner in Slover Linett Strategies, Inc., and member of the CFM Council.

Elizabeth Merritt was kind enough to give Culture Kettle a shout-out in this blog when I announced its founding back in October. She and I share an interest in all things innovative in the museum field, and she’s been an ideal provocateur and connector as I’ve developed this startup.

What is Culture Kettle? You can read more about it in my own blog post last week, although as you’ll see the concept is still coalescing. In a nutshell, it’s a new organization dedicated to R&D in the cultural sector. The “R” will be exploratory research studies that ask new questions about how arts and culture experiences work — and more importantly, could work — and for whom. The “D” will be the development and testing of new approaches, sometimes radical ones, with real audiences on an experimental basis. Those audiences will be conscious participants in the experiment, partners in the exploration and evaluation of new possibilities. Not all of those possibilities will work, of course; R&D runs on failure as well as on success. The idea is to close the circuit between research and innovation so we create an engine of new knowledge about people want to engage with cultural content.

By “culture” I mean more than museums. Later this month we’ll announce Culture Kettle’s first Innovator in Residence, someone who’s a visionary voice in the classical music world. We’ll also work with innovators in the museum field, of course, and have already benefitted from the wisdom of several great thinkers and do-ers. As some of them have pointed out, there’s already a good deal of innovation going on around the museum community, some of it in well-established institutions and some in “indie” venues and ventures led (mostly) by a younger generation of museum practitioners. One function of Culture Kettle could be to help document and evaluate those experiments — using new methods and asking new questions that fit the spirit and intentions of those experiments better than traditional evaluation approaches do — then aggregate and extrapolate from those findings and share the evolving picture with the field.

But there are also questions I’d like to investigate that aren’t currently being tackled by others. So we’ll develop some projects from scratch within the Kettle. That doesn’t preclude us working with creative museum people and risk-tolerant museums, although in some cases we’ll want to install an exhibit in a rented space rather than an existing museum — a storefront, an empty factory, a black-box theater. Working on neutral ground may have advantages in terms of both the preconceptions that audiences bring to the experience and the freedom that museum professionals bring to dreaming it up.

The conceptual freedom of museum people and institutions is on my mind a great deal these days. This is not a question about creativity, by the way. You can have all the ideas in the world but operate in an environment that licenses only certain directions and degrees of exploration, and tolerates only certain kinds of risks. There’s a reason that Peter Greenaway’s “Last Supper” vision, a multi-media, immersive, and theatrical installation currently at the Park Avenue Armory in New York, isn’t at the Met or MoMA. It breaks most of the unwritten rules of museum display, such as the one that says art museums offer direct, unmediated encounters with authentic works of art, the “real thing.” (There is no authentic object in Greenaway’s installation, at least not in the usual sense; Leonardo’s masterpiece is an obvious digital replica.) And the rule that says it’s the museum’s job to get out of the way of the artworks, interpreting them as unobtrusively and objectively as possible so that it’s the artist’s vision the visitors see, not the vision of the installation’s creators.

What if we took this Last Supper not just as a provocation about Leonardo’s masterwork but as a provocation about art museums? For years I’ve been wondering why museum curators, who often allow artists to come in and transform the gallery experience completely, rarely give themselves the same license to work intuitively, creatively, subjectively — the freedom to make it strange and therefore seen and felt afresh. In Culture Kettle, we can find out what happens when curators, exhibition designers, and other museum professionals work like artists, or rather play like artists.

That’s just one of many questions I’d like to stir around in the Kettle. I’d love to work in the science and history domains as well as art (although art may play a role in those projects, too). I’d love to tackle issues of participation, spirituality, politics, anger, humor, sex, and irony (something rare in museum exhibitions but essential to other forms in our culture). I’d like to play with exhibits that fall under no museum’s mission purview, because there’s more to life than what’s covered by the traditional museum categories of art, history, science, natural history, living collections, and so on, and exhibits could be a powerful expressive medium in other realms. (Experiment: open your favorite general-interest magazine, say, the New Yorker, and imagine each article as an exhibit.)

If any of this strikes you as exciting, please consider this a call for cronies and collaborators. I’d love to hear your ideas and suggestions: post a comment below or drop me a line.

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