This is a short version of my full addition to the Arts Policy Library.
With “How Art Works: The National Endowment for the Arts’ Five-Year Research Agenda,” the National Endowment for the Arts is getting proactive. Acknowledging that the NEA’s research efforts have been mostly descriptive in the past, “How Art Works” is intended to usher in a new era of strategic inquiry for the agency and the sector alike.
The practical goal of “How Art Works” is actually broader than this: beyond a research agenda for the NEA itself, it “proposes a way for the nation’s cultural researchers, arts practitioners, policy-makers, and the general public to view, analyze, and discuss the arts as a dynamic, complex system.” The strategy involves stating “feasible, testable” hypotheses about all manner of arts-related impacts on individuals and society in the form of a system map. The map in turn is intended to provide a theory of change to guide arts research and to facilitate field-wide investigation and discussion.
The map’s starting point – the Big Bang for the entire arts ecosystem as we know it – is the “human impulse to create and express.” This impulse is the motivation to experience or participate in artistic creation. The rest of the nodes on the map spring from this drive and fit into four broad categories: Inputs, Art itself, Quality-of-Life Outcomes, and Broader Societal Impacts. In order to clearly define each node on the map, “How Art Works” includes a graphic representation of what the authors call a “Multi-Level Measurement Structure” for each component or variable within the main nodes, which will inform the measurement model for future research involving each part of the system.
In the final section of “How Art Works,” the authors assess to what extent the NEA’s current research priorities square with the hypotheses represented in the map. These pages feature a list of priority projects initiated or planned by the NEA’s Office of Research and Analysis over five years beginning in 2012, with each project keyed to an element of the map.
“How Art Works” does a good job of defining a reasonable and comprehensive model of the arts’ impact against which to consider the NEA’s own research efforts. However, the report is a bit like an impressionist painting: from far away it looks complete, but when you get close, individual features are hard to make out. There are a few contributing factors to this problem:
- There are times when the system map is lacking specificity and detail in previously well-researched areas of the arts sector, arts education being one example.
- The report fails to take full advantage of prior attempts to map the impacts of the arts. As a result, the report isn’t entirely duplicative, but it isn’t 100% additive either.
- Negative ramifications of the arts are arguably understated. If the system map presented is meant to be realistic – a picture of how art really does work, and not a romantic representation of how we would like it to work – the possible negative effects of self-expression should be acknowledged more explicitly.
By the time this research agenda was released, the NEA had already made an inaugural round of fourteen research grants. The research is compelling, and the best examples will hopefully lead us forward as a field. Happily, the quality of that work will not be diminished by a grand vision that is, arguably, still under construction.