The art-science conversation: two resources for deep reflection

What do we mean when we say “art-science?”

Should we encourage more of it? Can the practice of art-science, or “STEAM,” improve our schools? Since art and science have different goals and different approaches, how should we evaluate art-science? How can we level the playing field between art and science, giving each equal respect and opportunities for support? Why don’t the contributions of art to science mirror the contributions of science to art? Can we change that? Should we?

There is a growing recognition that artists and scientists alike seek truths in the world, explore new territory, build on past work, observe with the senses, generate new tools and techniques, solve problems, often collaborate, and use creativity. In recent years, many new initiatives have emerged to re-integrate art with science. However, there are probably as many ways to define art-science as there are practitioners of it. So how do we talk to each other about what we’re doing?

Two recent symposia, both available online, offer opportunities for deep engagement in this conversation. Below are links to the recorded discussions. There’s a lot of rich material worth exploring, and I hope you reflect on them and leave your comments here.

I will close with a challenge:  Note that a lot of us elephants in the room are white… what are we going to do about that?

Strange Attractors: Art, Science, and the Question of Convergence


Art & Science: The Two Cultures Converging 

Why does art-science matter? Tell funders.

Over the past few years I’ve been doing some grant searches for funding opportunities that bring the arts and sciences together in some way. Grant programs focused on art-science are fairly sporadic. For well-established projects, the National Science Foundation’s Advancing Informal Science Learning (AISL) can be a fit, but NSF grants are notoriously competitive, awarding about 10% of applicants. Alfred P. Sloan Foundation funds a few projects through its Public Understanding of Science. The Wellcome Trust has a great track record of funding arts projects that deal with biomedical topics, for artists who live and work in the UK or Republic of Ireland.

Doing a grant search on the Foundation Center Online, using the controlled-vocabulary search terms, there is no entry for art-science. Writing in “art-science” as a keyword turns up a modest number of grants nationwide, many of which are “state of the art” science technology, or general education grants for “arts and sciences.” “STEAM” yields even fewer results, often for things like “restoration of steam engine,” etc. Once you further narrow the searches geographically (to make them most useful for actual grant writing) the field is pretty limited.

from little acorns...

from little acorns…

Philanthropists want to make a difference. Funders want their giving to have the biggest impact it possibly can, effecting change in the areas they care about. What can we do to convince funders that art-science matters? How can we change the funding landscape and increase art-science opportunities?

Here are three ways to start making change in the philanthropy environment.  Please add your own and share!

One. Reflect: As practitioners of art-science – whether it’s using science materials and methods to make cutting-edge art, using arts to communicate science narratives, blending both art and science to explore in an open-ended manner, using art to teach science in or out of school, or whatever you do that brings art and science together – ask yourself, why does art-science matter?

Two. Communicate: Each time we convene in a think tank, seminar, symposium, workshop, etc. let’s invite funders as well. We know art-science makes interesting work. We know that our culture’s habit of thinking of art and science as separate  has not served us well over the past few centuries, and that reuniting them is important. We know that art-science is nearing a tipping point, with myriad projects germinating in every discipline, in many regions of the country and internationally, in formal education and outside of it. How can we communicate that excitement to funders? With education in crisis, how can we help funders recognize that interdisciplinary art-science is an effective way to re-ignite curiosity, to help learners think of themselves as investigators, as makers, as fully human, with voices worth hearing?  At every art-science event, small and large, let’s invite funders to the table. Ask for their input, give them a role in this movement.

Three. Measure: With every art-science project, keep track of its outcomes. It’s a pain, but it can help you think about what you are aiming to do, then track how well you did it. If you go for funding, tuck a little bit into each budget for evaluating outcomes, even if you don’t have to. It shows you mean business, and it will help us as a movement to make a better argument for increased funding.

In talking to neighbors, friends, and coworkers about what I do in art-science, I’ve been so surprised lately at the rapid growth of this movement. A decade ago, mentions of my art-science collaborations were met with cocked head, furrowed brow, and queries of “How would you bring those two together? They seem so diametrically opposed!” Now, when I talk about art-science, it’s more often met with “Oh, yeah, I went to this cool poetry reading about physics last week” or “Do you know about _____ (insert name of art-science person I’ve never heard of, whom I then tweet next day on my #artscience du jour).” The fact that art-science is becoming not only well understood but even familiar to the general public is a sure sign that we are building a movement.

Getting on board with funders takes more time. The philanthropic landscape changes slowly; Philanthropy by its very nature is a rather conservative sector. But it does change, and it takes our effort and intention to help it change.  There are new search terms listed in Foundation Center online: Environmental justice. Climate change. Agrodiversity. Circus Arts. Those are subjects now listed by funders as areas of focus for funding, that weren’t there a few years ago. Let’s put “Art-science” on the list. – brain candy, eye candy

I’ve been enjoying the delightfully cerebral articles I find in the science journal, “Nautilus.” This sample article on the topic of Why Nature Prefers Hexagons is exemplary of this journal’s artful appeal to the senses and cultural relevance, and with firm roots in science.

Venus' Flower Basket, Dmitri Grigoriev, Shutterstock

Venus’ Flower Basket, porous skeleton of a sponge.  Photo: Dmitri Grigoriev, Shutterstock, the website of this sumptuous art-sci magazine, was originally funded by a grant from the John Templeton Foundation. The website offers its articles online for free (seven free articles per month), but for full access, also offers subscriptions for both hard copy and online versions. There is also a store for its delightful science-inspired visual art offerings.

To explore a bit of background on science journalism over the past few decades, check out this NYT article. Nautilus quarterly issues are organized around particular topics, such as “Boundaries,” “Adaptation,” “Attraction,” “Space,” “Stress,” “Identity,” “Scaling”…

Some sample article titles, for further enticement:

Why It’s Hard for Black Holes to Get Together

Why We Swim in Quarries

Describing People as Particles Isn’t Always a Bad Idea

Dive in, enjoy, and tell me what you think.