"Reflection" by Flickr user Skip

“Reflection” by Flickr user Skip

There’s nothing quite like the experience of reading 160+ pages of someone else’s writing and research about an organization you founded. On the first pass, everything is personal: an inconsequential inaccuracy will feel like the gravest of insults, every validation of one’s original thinking is the ultimate ego boost, and the whole thing is a bit like the classic nightmare of performing on stage in your underwear. The second read, once the fight or flight instinct has subsided, is far more revealing. It uncovers what lies at the intersection between your own lived experience and someone else’s dispassionate analysis of how that experience has played out for other people. It shows which of your originating assumptions have connected deeply with your colleagues and your audience, which of them failed to translate, and which have given way to new understandings entirely.

Amazingly, I had two of these experiences in 2016. Reading Julian Bryson’s doctoral dissertation on the history and unique structure of C4: The Choral Composer/Conductor Collective, a vocal ensemble I founded back in 2005, was just one. The other, of course, was the final report from Createquity’s organizational planning process, funded generously by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation last fall. That report, completed by Pennsylvania-based InfoCommerce Group, has proved to be a pivotal step for us as we continue Createquity’s journey toward identifying the most important issues in the arts and what we can do about them.

Last year, I wrote that “the pace of our research process is substantially slower than we’d like it to be….Whether the answer is increased capacity, a smarter workflow, better project management, or some combination of the above, we’re committed to increasing output in 2016.” As it turned out, we were able to make some real progress this year. Our flagship large-scale research investigations resulted in a total of eight in-depth articles, a fourfold increase from last year, covering topics as diverse as the effect of TV watching on wellbeing, the history of the development of the nonprofit arts sector in the United States, the multifaceted definitions of and visions of success for cultural equity, whether lower-income and less-educated artists face disadvantages making a living at their craft, and the state of the research literature demonstrating various benefits of the arts.

All of that hasn’t changed the fact, however, that these research investigations are incredibly difficult for us to take on as a grassroots, bootstrapped organization. I have to admit that I chafe a bit these days when I hear Createquity described as a “blog,” as if sole-author opinion pieces were still our primary product. Back in Createquity’s heyday as a blog, a typical post might have taken us anywhere from three to 15 hours to put together. By contrast, each of the features I linked to above represents hundreds of hours of work, contributed by a networked team of researchers, a lead author, an editor, a designer, and people helping to get the word out. Our virtual, distributed team may number in the double digits, but when you add up all their hours it’s still just the equivalent of one and a half full-time employees. With that kind of capacity, we can only churn out so many of those big features a year, no matter how good our processes are.

That’s a problem, because we still have a lot of research to do before we can make any kind of confident claim about what the most important opportunities to make a difference in the arts might be. For all the ground we’ve covered, we’ve uncovered just a fraction of what we want to know. How do we think about the role of the arts in fostering understanding across political divides? In driving forward social change? Are there disparities of access to the benefits of the arts for people in poor health? What about in rural areas? How about in the developing world? How does the opportunity for and experience of participating in the arts differ between audiences and practicing artists? Across demographics? There’s no good way for us to prioritize among potential interventions (and encourage the field to prioritize along with us) when there’s so much out there that we haven’t yet explored.

Fortunately, our friends at InfoCommerce came up with an innovative way to increase output without sacrificing Createquity’s nimble and flexible organizational structure. The idea involves outsourcing the research investigations we’ve been doing to teams of external contractors, with our editorial team serving a centralized coordinating role. We’ve identified a set of twenty research investigations that we’d like to pursue over the next two years under this model. We’re calling it the Synthesis Project, and we’re really excited about the possibilities. Making it happen, though, will require a dramatic (albeit temporary) increase in our budget, and the planning and fundraising required is easily as consuming for our team as a research investigation. Accordingly, we’ve decided to put new research investigations on hold until we can conduct them under this new structure.

In the meantime, we will maintain an active publishing schedule in the spring, with monthly Newsroom roundups of the top stories in the arts, commentary on current events in the field and their implications, and reviews of the latest and greatest arts research. We are systematizing our process for keeping up with arts research publications, and aim to publish many more research spotlight articles and capsule reviews in 2017. And we have some other cool things up our sleeves that we can’t talk about quite yet, but we promise they’re awesome!

As noted above, we do all of this on a budget that is beyond shoestring. We have people on our team who command hourly consulting fees in the triple digits in their day jobs, but are willing to work with us for barely above minimum wage. We also have (lots of) people who have to turn us down because barely above minimum wage is all we can afford to pay them. We’d love to be able to work with more of the second kind of people, and your donations have a direct impact on that being able to happen.

Despite running almost entirely on contributed income, we don’t believe in pestering our readers with endless funding drives and gimmicky campaigns. We only make one ask a year, and this is it. One of the most alarming developments of 2016 is the extent to which incentives for telling the truth in public have become distorted. Journalism and research are both truth-telling professions, and like artists themselves, it is Createquity’s mission to speak truth to power. In that respect, there’s a strong case to be made that Createquity is one of the most cost-effective investments you can make to support the arts. We are able to get a lot of high-value content that you won’t see elsewhere in front of an influential audience for a tiny amount of money. But in order to do it, we need allies who believe in the power of truth. If you’ve found our work at all valuable or interesting this past year, please consider making a donation to help ensure there will be more of it in the future.

Thank you, and here’s to 2017!