Hashtags: What if an Arts Organization was a MOOC?

Arts organizations in 2013 strive for more than visitors and ticket buyers. Take a look at just about any arts nonprofit’s mission statement and you’re likely to see community building, engagement, and education listed as top priorities. Public lectures and digital content production top the list of methods, but every once and a while an organization tries something more unique; here in Los Angeles, for instance, LA><ART has started holding office hours with local artists. ‘s suggestion yesterday on his Diacritical blog that arts organizations adopt the MOOC model was so unusual, we thought it bore repeating.

What if an arts organization was a MOOC?

That’s “Massive Open Online Course” and they’re everywhere right now. Some of the most prestigious universities are creating courses online and attracting tens of thousands of students. Among them is Curtis, the music school in Philadelphia, which became the first big music conservatory to sign up with Coursera.

We live in a time in which we’re overwhelmed with information, with choices. People lament the shortening of attention spans and we’re bombarded with ever-shorter messages and snippets of information. But an interesting thing has begun to happen. Perhaps because the short message has become so ubiquitous, so disposable, we’re seeing a rebirth in interest in long-form publications and endeavors that take an investment of time.

Now that we can access “everything” and everything is clamoring for our attention, we have become more discerning, and if we choose to invest our attention in something, we want it to pay off, to be able to dive into it. Increasingly, that seems not to be the quick hit; it’s those things that ask something of us, that require us to put something into them to get the payoff.

There’s probably no such thing as a casual Yankee fan. Yankee fans pride themselves on what they know, what they think, and how they express it. There is nothing like – and I say this in an admiring way – a Yankee fan snob. Express an uninformed opinion at your own peril.

Screenshot, MOMA website, 2013

So people want to have deeper relationships with things they care about. That’s my theory, at least. Those of you who know my work know that in addition to running AJ [Artsjournal] and teaching at USC, I do some work for Spring For Music, an annual orchestra festival in Carnegie Hall every May. The festival is six nights, this year with five orchestras. Participating orchestras are chosen from dozens that apply, and their inclusion is based on the innovative programs they submit, not how “famous” they are (though some of them are). This year, the orchestras are Detroit, Baltimore, Albany, Buffalo and the National.

Spring For Music has been my playground for the past few years, a place to try out audience engagement ideas. We did a “Fantasy Orchestra Program” contest. We did an arts blogger competition à la March Madness last year. This year, I talked them in to doing a MOOC.

Consider: there are thousands of book groups. Hundreds of thousands go to maker fairs, huge online communities form around common interests and people put hours and hours into the things that interest them. In the process of participating, they become more and more invested in those communities. And they get more out of them.

So what if we did that with an arts organization? Asked people to invest in learning about it, connected those who were interested so they could learn from one another, form a community around it?

Unlike a typical educational MOOC, there’s also a live community payoff for this. Because it’s built around a series of concerts in Carnegie, those who take the course can come to the concerts  and put to use what they’ve learned. (but even those who can’t will get something out of it – the classes are not specifically about S4M – they’re about ideas.)

Office Hours at LA><ART, 2013

For the past month I’ve been traveling, recording video interviews with conductors, composers, critics and orchestra insiders (a pretty fun job I have to admit). The course raises the questions: What makes a great orchestra? What makes a great program? What makes one piece of music popular while another falls into obscurity? What’s a strategy for learning to listen? The course isn’t designed to tell you how to listen, but to point out some ways of thinking about the concert experience that ought to make it interesting.

The course is four weeks long and launches next Monday April 1. Since we announced it a week or so ago, 700 people have signed up. I suspect that many who have signed up already know a lot about orchestras. My hope is that they’ll add their expertise to this. One of the cool things about a MOOC is that the prepared course content is really just a starting point, and those participating discuss and add their expertise to the discussion. This MOOC has videos but also music examples and quizzes to test your ears.

As arts organizations work on trying to deepen engagement of their community, this seems like a great experiment worth trying. What do you think?

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.