A graphic from the Cultural Data Project report, “New Data Directions for the Cultural Landscape.”

As any internet geek or high-priced consultant will be happy to tell you, we find ourselves today in the age of Big Data. You know, the era when science and numbers are supposed to solve all our problems forever? That one. And yet in the cultural sector, according to a report published earlier this year, we don’t have the data we need; we don’t know what to do with the data we have; and even if we did, we still wouldn’t use it to make decisions. (Okay, that may be oversimplifying things a bit…but not by much.)

So what are we supposed to do? That’s what the Cultural Data Project (CDP), which commissioned the report, wanted to find out. Many readers know the CDP as the folks behind those forms you have to fill out when you’re applying for grants. Its spinoff last year from a foundation-sponsored initiative housed within the Pew Charitable Trusts to an independent nonprofit prompted some organizational rethinking, and “New Data Directions for the Cultural Landscape,” by Slover Linett consultants Sarah Lee and Peter Linett, was one result. “New Data Directions” seeks to situate the CDP’s efforts within the larger context of data collection throughout the United States cultural sector.

The study synthesizes comments from an online forum that CDP hosted in late 2013 with a small group of cultural data experts drawn from academia and the consulting world. (Disclosure: Createquity’s Ian David Moss was one of the participants in this forum and is quoted a handful of times in the report.) It additionally draws from CDP’s internal strategic planning survey, a paper by Margaret Wyszomirski (not available online) that sought “to frame and inventory the cultural data landscape,” and the authors’ own interpretations and experiences.

After citing the benefits that data-informed decision making has provided in other fields, “New Data Directions” identifies a number of factors that it says are preventing us from reaping those benefits, namely:

  • Poor accessibility, quality, and comparability of cultural data
  • Norms about data collection and use, including low priority/importance assigned to the task of data collection in general
  • Lack of coordination and standardization among existing data collection efforts
  • Skill and resource capacity constraints among cultural nonprofits
  • Organizations’ perceptions of the public and their audiences that inhibit the effective use of data in decision-making
  • A paucity of vision and lack of role models regarding the successful use of data to drive decisions

To address these challenges, the report recommends some straightforward steps, including coordinating leadership on cultural data, engaging program and artistic staff in conversations about data, shifting the frame of data use from accountability to decision-making, developing a field-wide research and data collection agenda, developing data-related skills among organization staff, and improving the cultural data infrastructure.

Piece of cake, right? Though the report’s heavy reliance on the comments of a group of data experts might suggest that we’re off to a bad start in terms of “engaging program and artistic staff in the conversation about data,” Lee and Linett nevertheless surface several important and underaddressed issues facing the cultural data landscape. Perhaps the most crucial of these is a recognition that leading with data as the solution before carefully considering the problem it’s supposed to solve runs the risk of creating data that lacks a purpose. In many cases, arts organizations’ collection of data has been driven by the need to comply with funders’ reporting requirements rather than by a desire to collect information that could improve their future decision making. While the databases that have been generated through this process provide rich sources of information, it is not always clear what that information is good for, or how individual organizations can benefit from it. “New Data Directions” deftly calls attention to this “data first, questions second” mindset that appears to be so pervasive across the sector.

And yet to some extent, the report is itself a testament to the difficulty of escaping this mindset. By framing its entire exploration around data, “New Data Directions” inadvertently obscures the role that other forms of information and analysis, such as literature review, strategic goal setting, and probability assessment, can play in promoting better decisions. More to the point, if better decisions for better outcomes are what we’re really interested in, how much is suboptimal use of data really sabotaging that goal? The report seems simply to take it on faith that it is, without providing much evidence for that view or weighing how much other obstacles (e.g., management incentives) may be contributing to the problem. In part because of this focus on the activity rather than the goal, “New Data Directions” does a much better job of describing where we are and suggesting a path forward than imagining what we might find on the other side.

So it seems that last task is left to the rest of us. Without ever quite coming out and saying it, “New Data Directions” challenges all arts administrators to think purposefully about our role in addressing the situation mentioned at the top of this article. Are we ready to declare a crisis around data collection and use in the field? Do the observations and subjective impressions offered in the report resonate with your own experience? What would consistently effective use of data for decision making at the organizational and system-wide level look like in practice? What good would it do for the sector? And what would it take to make change in this particular way?

Your turn.

Cover image: “Data Represented in an Interactive 3-D Form,” courtesy of the Idaho National Laboratory via Flickr Creative Commons license.

  • Devra Thomas

    As someone who came into leading a small theater that had NO significant data collection practices in place, I would LOVE to have data. I agree that we need to think cautiously and strategically about what we DO with data once we have it, but an organization needs to HAVE data in the first place. For small organizations like mine (or the numerous vagabond companies that must change practices depending on their venue), it would be nice to have easy and low cost ways to collect data consistently.

    • Arin Sullivan

      Hi Devra, the CDP offers a robust online management and data collection platform for arts and cultural organizations. I’d invite you to explore CDP – and maybe even start entering your own organization’s data – at http://www.culturaldata.org.
      We’ve also been thinking quite a bit about how we can help the field better take advantage of data. Over the course of the next 12 months we’ll be developing the framework for what we’ve been calling a “data fluency” education curriculum​ designed to help cultural managers build the knowledge and skills they need. This work is being supported by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, will be undertaken with the good advice of a number of national service organizations, and will be informed by the leaders of arts organizations of all sizes. If you’d like to learn more or take part in our effort, please feel free to reach out to me directly – we’d love to have your insight. You can reach me at asullivan@culturaldata.org.

  • Thanks for this post on the CDP report. The Strategic National Arts Alumni Project (SNAAP) is a big data project, collecting and analyzing information about the educational experiences and careers of (so far) over 100,000 arts graduates in North America. Our purpose is to provide participating institutions – arts schools – with actionable data to improve their curricula and programs, both for current students as well as alumni. We take this charge seriously, providing detailed reports, a full dataset and training to participating schools. I’ve observed that many schools use their SNAAP data to reinforce their own anecdotal information, saying “We now have the findings we need to move forward.” We came into being, thanks to the Surdna Foundation and other funders, precisely because arts schools did not have any meaningful data about the educational experiences or careers of their arts alumni. To improve our own services, we conducted a market study earlier this year and in 2015 will introduce a revised questionnaire, new topical modules, and some very cool new data visualizations for schools to use.

  • Beth Tuttle

    Thanks for calling attention to our report. As Createquity notes, one of the driving objectives behind the Cultural Data Project’s new strategic direction is helping the cultural sector move beyond “data for data’s sake” by putting arts and cultural organizations at the center of its practice. The New Data Directions report was an important first step in defining some opportunities and challenges, but we recognize that it was just that: a preliminary assessment that represented only a certain set of perspectives. For this reason, the CDP has continued to work with the report’s authors at Slover Linett Audience Research to take this inquiry to the next stage.

    Over the last twelve months, we have convened a series of five town hall meetings in Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Philadelphia and San Francisco, to bring together arts and cultural leaders, local arts funders, educators, and advocates to develop a deeper field perspective on the topic. What we’ve heard, above all, is that lack of capacity—in the form of knowledge and skills to understand and effectively analyze the available data and too little human resources and time to devote to the effort—is the biggest challenge cited by arts managers. The CDP will release a follow-up white paper in early 2015 sharing what we heard along with some of the recommendations for action.

    We look forward to continuing this important conversation.

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