Way back when I was a fresh-faced intern with the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation’s Performing Arts Program almost five years ago now, I made a startling discovery. In the course of researching various conceptions and definitions of cultural asset mapping in preparation for what would eventually become my work here at Fractured Atlas, I came to realize that a significant body of literature existed on the arts and economic/community development with which I had been entirely unfamiliar. That wouldn’t have been so notable except that I had previously taken an interest of my own in the topic; I considered myself pretty knowledgeable, certainly relative to my former coworkers and business school colleagues. And yet here I was coming across hundreds of pages of stuff, great stuff, really fascinating, ground-breaking stuff, and hardly anyone in my professional circles seemed to know it existed. That summer, for the first time, I got to know the work of Stern and Seifert, Sheppard, Markusen, Brown, and so many other giants of cultural research who have provided the intellectual underpinnings for much of our current and future arts policies. More than anything else, it was the inspiration I derived from that experience that set me on my current professional path.
Ever since then, I’ve been something of a crusader for developing channels for information-sharing within and around the cultural research space. I simply couldn’t believe that such important work wasn’t more visible within the sector. As my interest grew in building bridges between researchers and practitioners through initiatives such as the Arts Policy Library series on Createquity, I also began to see the value of facilitating greater connections among arts researchers themselves. While researchers tend to be more plugged in to what their colleagues are doing than your typical practitioner, there are still significant information gaps that too often hold back collective progress. That’s why, after I started work at Fractured Atlas on implementing the Hewlett Foundation’s Bay Area Cultural Asset Map project, I created a Google Group called the “Cultural Mapping Community of Practice” and recruited many of my heroes from the summer of 2008–as well as some new ones I’d picked up along the way–to join.
There was just one problem: other than an initial burst of activity in which participants eagerly shared details of projects that they were working on or had recently completed, not many people made use of the Cultural Mapping Community of Practice. After the pilot phase of the Bay Area Cultural Asset Map was complete, the group essentially fell dormant. I gradually realized that this was probably because participants, despite the name, viewed the Cultural Mapping Community of Practice as the project of a single person–me. Every time I would post something, there would be some responses, but after that conversation would die out and no one would start a new thread. It’s almost like people were waiting for permission to participate.
That’s not what I wanted at all! My vision was for a commons, a shared resource that we all could benefit from and own. But that wasn’t going to be the reality so long as I was the only person behind the curtain. So I started recruiting some trusted colleagues to join me on a steering committee for the group, starting with Kiley Arroyo, and continuing with Jean Cook, Anne Gadwa Nicodemus, and Andrew Taylor. For the past several months, the five of us have been meeting and speaking regularly, developing background materials, inviting participants from our professional networks, and committing to regularly seed discussion with new and relevant content. Along the way, we changed the name to the less tongue-twisting Cultural Research Network and attracted some notice from the official NEA Art Works blog. And before long, we’ll be opening up membership on the steering committee to nominations from any participant in the group.
I’m proud to share that the Cultural Research Network officially launched this afternoon under its new name and configuration. Here’s an excerpt from the opening message:
How (and How Not!) to Participate in the Cultural Research Network
We hope that you will take advantage of the CRN in the ways that ensure its value and relevance to your work. For example, here are some ideas for how you can participate.
- Offer or solicit practical advice and perspectives on methodological challenges. Are you working on a thorny problem outside your area of expertise and aren’t sure how to solve it? Are you considering use of a particular data set and would like perspectives from others who have employed it in the past? Ask away.
- Share background information and technical documents developed as part of larger projects. Some of the most valuable elements of a research process—environmental scans, literature reviews, lists of possible data sources, etc.—don’t always make it into a final report. This forum is a great place to share those kinds of materials with your fellow researchers so that we can all learn from them.
- Discuss field-wide issues and/or work collaboratively to develop shared infrastructure. What does the field’s sudden interest in Big Data mean for arts research? What are the potentials and barriers to developing common taxonomies for arts-specific data? The CRN provides an ideal venue for conversations about common resources and challenges in the arts research space.
We believe that the CRN will reach its full potential if everyone keeps in mind the following values:
- Openness: Participants recognize that no one is an expert in everything, including (especially) themselves. Questions are welcome regardless of the identity of the asker.
- Transparency: Participants assume by default that there is more to be gained than lost by sharing information. Dialogue is straightforward, candid, and informed by full context.
- Generosity: Empowering people to help one another is a core purpose of the Network. Participants do not hesitate to give freely of their time and expertise to move the field forward.