Last month I attended the inaugural TEDxMet event at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. As regular readers know, I think it is crucial for museums to experiment with new ways of connecting to modern audiences if they are to stay relevant. With this in mind, I applaud the Met for seizing the lead on joining the TED sensibility to the cultural sector.
For those who don’t know, TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) conferences take place annually and foster an “immersive environment [that] allows attendees and speakers from vastly different fields to cross-fertilize and draw inspiration from unlikely places.” Many of these talks are available online; author Elizabeth Gilbert’s talk on genius remains one of my favorites.
TEDx conferences follow the same format, but are independently organized and can happen at any time. These licensed conferences are an interesting idea but, as with any brand extension, run the risk of eroding the core value (“ideas worth spreading”) and diluting the brand overall. They already have a reputation for being hit or miss, but I decided to go TEDxMet to show support and, also, it’s the Met: pretty good odds that this sold-out event would be interesting.
And it was interesting. But it can and should be so much more. While I wouldn’t call this first TEDxMet an “insufferable spectacle” as Jason Farago did in the New Republic, I do agree with his assertion that the “curators’ interventions were not especially insightful; in everything but production design they were a lot like standard weekday lectures.”And that the curators “[who] have clearly grown gifted at these soft-core lectures after years of seducing donors, performed stump-speech recitations.” These quotes speak to what I believe are the primary action items for TEDxMet 2.0:
1. Eliminate the speaker/content silos. Encourage next year’s speakers to think bigger and broader; to draw connections beyond their personal expertise.
2. Assume that the audience is intelligent. Encourage next year’s speakers to envision an audience of peers when planning their talks.
Eliminate the speaker/content silos.
The theme of the day was Icons, a topic loaded with possibility. So I was disappointed to hear art history lectures about architecture, photography, medieval art and French ceramics, discussion of which extended only to what these objects meant to people in the time they were made. I also saw dance performances and listened to musical works that are considered iconic. Here are some topics that would have made the day more thought-provoking:
- How does an iconic institution like the Met stay relevant? Can iconic institutions change, take on new meanings, deliver new experiences, and retain icon status? Or is because of an institution’s ability to change that it is an icon?
How does the idea of an icon change over time? What is the modern-day equivalent of a Sèvres vase? Was the belief that art contains meaningful power in and of itself restricted to the Middle Ages or can this belief be traced over time? What has replaced it?
How can an iconic online experience with art be created? One that reflects and evolves the way people interact with everything else in their worlds already. The Met just hired a Chief Digital Officer, Sree Sreenivasan, for the first time in its history. Why wasn’t the CDO onstage, exploring the role technology can play in telling a story about art? This was a missed opportunity for the Met, and speaks to the museum’s reluctance to acknowledge that its digital presence is just as important as its physical presence when it comes to the visitor experience.
What inspired the performances? There were a number across the day, and yet we never heard from the actual artist who conceived the work in the first place. The filmmaker James Nares was in the audience, but instead we sat watching his 18 minute film “Street.” 18 minutes (the max time for any speaker/performance) is a long time. If I hadn’t been sitting in front of the projector, I would have left.
“Street” was on display in the Met’s photography galleries back in the spring. Which is fine, but that plus the perfunctory delivery of the other talks made me question if any original content was created for the day. For example, Andrew Solomon, whose work I greatly admire, spoke eloquently on the “iconic” state of depression. But this was basically the (excellent) “Noonday Demon” talk, which I originally heard him deliver on that book’s publication in 2002. Speakers are not allowed to receive compensation for TED/TEDx talks which puts these events at a disadvantage from the start. I think if this rule were changed, we would quickly see quality prevail over quantity.
Assume that the audience is intelligent.
This is important. Intentional or not, many of the talks seemed to strive for the obvious. The most striking example was a talk delivered by Luke Syson, the Met’s Curator of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts. Syson has an ease on stage that makes me believe he can deliver some really engaging and insightful talks. But on this day he was focused on playing for laughs. The bulk of his allotted time was devoted to trashing the aforementioned Sèvres vase as ridiculous, vulgar, and elitist. He used slides of Disney’s dancing Fantasia elephants to mock the elephant handles of the vase. On and on he went. This was the second point during the day that I almost walked out. If a curator evinces no respect for the works in his collection, why should I listen?
Eventually, belatedly, he came around the conclusion that, in fact, with the rise of modernity and triumph of bourgeois values, something has been lost to us artistically and culturally. Now, that is interesting. The vase was iconic of a particular moment in history, from the craftsmanship involved to the messaging in the ornament, which would have been easily understood at the time by the aristocracy for whom it was produced. That should have been the focus of his entire talk along with, perhaps, some speculation about modern and future equivalents. Or he could have riffed on how modern audiences interpret materials in place of ornament. So many possibilities that don’t involve Fantasia.
Finally, a thought on social media: Tom Campbell started the day by inviting the audience to tweet the event, only to then turn around and say phones were not allowed. If phones are truly going to be forbidden (making real-time tweeting impossible) then the venue should provide ambient lighting for note-taking (to be tweeted later) and reading of the program before performances. This was impossible in blackness of the auditorium.
Just by experimenting with the TED concept, the Met has my support. If they stick with it, and I think they should, TEDxMet 2.0 should venture further. Must it be exclusively about the Met’s collection? Must the curators on stage be exclusively Met curators? Does it have to even be an official TEDx event? I’m looking forward to seeing how it evolves.