Music Matters. Materiality, Knowings and Practices in Performing Arts


Perspectives from Cultural Institutions Studies (CIS)

Dagmar Abfalter

Cultural Institutions Studies (CIS) focuses on arts and cultural institutions as the historically grounded societal organization of the conception, production, distribution, mediation, reception, conservation and preservation of specific cultural goods and related phenomena of the formation of cultural goods, discourses, practices, politics, and many more (Zembylas, 2004, p. 13). Central to CIS is the inter- and transdisciplinary consideration of the ‘cultural institution’, or its German homonym Kulturbetrieb, which describe(s) both a field of practice on the macro level (such as the music business, cultural industries or copyright) and the institutional framework within which cultural practices and discourses develop on the micro level (individual organizations such as music ensembles, theatres or concert halls). To this end, CIS synthesizes “a cultural, sociological, and economic approach to cultural goods and services” (Hasitschka, Tschmuck, & Zembylas, 2005, p. 147). Consequently, a wide range of disciplines such as Arts and Cultural Management Studies, Cultural Economics, Cultural Politics, Music Business Research and other disciplines are closely related to Cultural Institutions Studies.

The topic Music Matters inspires a genuine interest in broadening horizons and discussing how different perspectives on materiality, knowledge/knowings or practices can open up new possibilities for a trans- and interdisciplinary investigation of complex aesthetic and (more general) cultural phenomena that goes beyond mainstream contemporary analyses. How can new perspectives and empirical insights in contemporary social relations, changing modes of subjectivity and self-relations contribute to a critical discourse and a reordering of the predominant research and interpretation structures regarding performing arts? How can we expand our methodological instruments with innovative methods (arts-based, (auto)ethnographic, etc.) that consider the complexity and specific characteristics of performing arts-related research topics (music, theater, film)?

Materiality. In Critical Management Studies, which offers theoretically informed critical perspectives on mainstream management theory, materiality “concerns the relationships, the interactions, and the co-creation of subjects and objects and their contexts. This understanding includes notions of human subjects’ relations with other human subjects but also interactions with non-human subjects, with material objects, and with human beings, perceived as objects.” (Borgerson, 2011, p. 164) Attention has thus turned to reconfigurations of working processes, infrastructures, relationships and production conditions and (re-)created awareness of aspects of materiality such as technology, material agency or embodiment, but also aspects of material and immaterial culture such as artefacts, digital/virtual artworks or brands. On a micro level, Strati describes the (aesthetic) materiality of and in organizations as constituted of artefacts and knowledge and points to the performative nature of everyday management in the interaction between human and non-human agents, between the corporeality of people and the materiality of artefacts, with more general references to social phenomena (Strati, 2010). 

On both micro and macro levels of industries and fields of practice, digitization has disrupted existing modes of the production, mediation/distribution and consumption of music, shifting from ownership (record or CD purchases) to access models (streaming subscriptions) (e.g.Tschmuck, 2016) and bridging the producer/consumer divide.

Different theoretical frameworks used to approach materiality and materialism (see e.g. Hicks & Beaudry, 2010) need to be considered and should be made explicit as they “lead to diverse understandings of processes, such as subject formation, co-creation and intersubjectivity that guide studies of materiality” (Borgerson, 2005). This may substantially aid researchers in mapping agency in theories of the conception, production, distribution, mediation, reception, conservation, and preservation of cultural goods. For example, what precisely do researchers mean when consumers, employees or network partners are “transformed” or “emancipated” in relation to objects and contexts? How can we bridge the divide between discursive or broadly social constructivist frameworks and materiality?

Exemplary research areas within a music and performing arts context:    

  • The effects of digitalization, virtual and augmented reality, big and open data on the production, distribution/mediation and consumption/experience of music and performing arts.
  • The characteristics and effects of socio-material agency in cultural institutions, related to human bodies, buildings, virtual spaces, technologies, instruments and further artefacts.
  • Constitutive entanglements (e.g. networks, associations, configurations, etc.) of humans and technologies and their socio-economic contexts as well as their effects on the development of the arts (e.g. augmented reality or blockchain technology).

Practice(s). A research turn to practices and practice theory shifts the focus from a concentration on structures and processes to how people act, to understanding the relationships between the actions people take and the structures of organizational life, and to the constitutive role of practices in producing social reality (Feldman & Orlikowski, 2011; Jonas, Littig, & Wroblewski, 2017; Schatzki, 2008). However, there are potential shortfalls when examining practices in isolation (Jarzabkowski, Kaplan, Seidl, & Whittington, 2016). CIS specifically advocates for an integrated model of institutionalism and practice theory to avoid a naïve theory of action (Zembylas, 2006). Considering human actors, contexts and materialities can be used to reinterpret many organizational, cultural and social phenomena. This applies to aesthetic practices as well as practices of organizing, strategizing, producing or evaluating music, theater or film. Particular emphasis can be placed on practices of value creation of cultural goods, or the interaction and interrelations between cultural and economic values.          

Exemplary research areas within a music and performing arts context:    

  • Critical reflection of identity construction practices between actors and institutions (micro and macro).
  • New mediating practices between actors in music and performing arts institutions transgressing the production/consumption divide or organizational boundaries.
  • Processes of reinforcement or transformation of inclusion and exclusion practices in the art worlds, where a specific focus on the interdependencies of gender, racial ascriptions and class within a globalized, post-colonial context could be an important enhancement of existing CIS research.

Knowledge/Knowings. Practice theories are also linked to a search for a view of knowledge as non-rational/cognitive and situated in social, historical and structural contexts. In the knowledge-based theory of organizations, individual knowledge is considered a vital – if not the most important – resource within an organization. I would like to draw on the epistemological significance of cultural practices that often remain tacit and invisible: musical experience and expertise as well as organizational expertise rely on the tacit and bodily dimensions of knowledge as a prerequisite of professional practice. On an organizational level, dynamic capabilities such as the intensity of organizational/institutional learning, can be considered prerequisites for an institution’s ability to innovate, create change and adapt to changing environments (agility). Essentially because they build, integrate or reconfigure other resources and capabilities (Teece, Peteraf, & Leih, 2016).  Arts and cultural organizations displaying aspects of temporality, seasonality and the ephemerality of cultural products provide an especially challenging environment for knowledge practices. A perspective of “knowing in practice (…) suggests that knowing is not a static embedded capability, or stable disposition of actors, but rather an ongoing social accomplishment, constituted and reconstituted as actors engage the world in practice” (Orlikowski, 2002, p. 249). Against this background, an important topic is how knowledge is generated and passed on in different artistic fields and what significance the combination of heterogeneous knowledge (e.g. of musicians and scholars) plays for the production of new forms of knowledge (Bresler, 2013; Scott, 2010).

Exemplary research areas within a music and performing arts context:    

  • Strategies or technologies to make tacit knowledge and implicit rules available to the institution/organization, but also across organizations and networks.
  • Collaborations between artists, scholars and other social actors engaged in the development of new forms of knowledge.
  • Forms and cultures of knowledge creation, sharing or transfer at art/music universities.
  • Dynamic capabilities of small independent and/or networked arts/music institutions in times of industry disruption(s).
  • Critical investigations of the relationship between knowledge and power in the context of music and the performing arts.



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Jonas, M., Littig, B., & Wroblewski, A. (Eds.). (2017). Methodological Reflections on Practice Oriented Theories. Dordrecht: Springer.

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Tschmuck, P. (2016). From record selling to cultural entrepreneurship: the music economy in the digital paradigm shift. In P. Wikström & R. DeFillippi (Eds.), Business Innovation and Disruption in the Music Industry (pp. 13-32). New York: Routledge.

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