At Createquity, respect for and understanding of research are embedded into our DNA. Every year, governments, foundations, universities, and scientists invest thousands of hours and millions of dollars generating research about arts and culture. Yet without a shared understanding of how to interpret that research and a framework for how the findings can be used, much of that effort goes to waste. Our role is to vet and synthesize this literature in a way that policy-makers, funders, thought leaders, arts administrators, and the general public will find useful and compelling. We want to help people apply all of this great knowledge to actual, real-life decisions, which we hope will ultimately result in the arts ecosystem working better for artists and audiences.
Our research activities fall into three categories. The most prominent and resource-intensive of these is our core research process, which is a long-term directed literature review aimed at making sense of the barriers to a healthy arts ecosystem and what can be done to overcome them. Our core research process provides the material for many of the feature articles we publish on Createquity, and will culminate in one or more cases for change that will present actionable solutions for our field’s most pressing problems and opportunities. Other research activities at Createquity include our Research Spotlight series, which provides brief reviews of new and notable studies and reports, and ad hoc investigations into more esoteric or experimental topics that are grouped under the banner of Createquity Labs.
Core Research Process
What does a healthy arts ecosystem look like? How is that different from the status quo? What would it take to make it work better for artists and audiences? And what can we, individually and collectively, do to make a difference? These questions drive all of our work at Createquity at some level, and directly frame the structure of our core research process.
To answer the first question, our editorial team hunkered down during the summer of 2014 to come up with a definition of a healthy arts ecosystem. We continue to refine and enhance this definition as we go, but for the most part it is a stable representation of our guiding principles. The core research process is primarily concerned with the next three questions, and particularly the middle two.
What are, in fact, the most important issues in the arts? To answer that question, we need to find where the biggest gaps exist between our definition of a healthy arts ecosystem and the day-to-day reality faced by artists and audiences. We’ve used a combination of our existing expertise in the sector, intuition, and lived experience to select a handful of “likely suspects” to investigate first. These issues are grouped under the heading of our editorial content themes: disparities of access and the capacity of our field to make change. Within each of those content themes, we’ve identified several sub-areas that will each in turn serve as a focal point for a research investigation.
Each of these research investigations follows a set pattern that unfolds in phases. First, we define hypotheses that will guide the investigation. Then, we conduct an initial scoping review to get a broad sense of what literature exists that is relevant to the hypotheses. The next step is to prioritize the studies that appear to be most interesting and conduct preliminary reviews of each of them. Finally, we hone in on the most promising of this set of studies and subject them to more thorough analysis. We’ll run through each of these steps in more detail below.
At this stage of the game, we’re trying to understand how reality falls short of our definition of a healthy arts ecosystem. Formulating specific hypotheses to that effect helps to clarify where we think those gaps might be. For example, within the research area of “Economic Disadvantage/Insecurity and Opportunities to Participate in the Arts,” our hypotheses are as follows:
- Poor and economically insecure adults are significantly less likely to have access to “common” opportunities to participate in the arts as producers or consumers for a variety of reasons including inability to afford the cost of participating (e.g., tickets, materials, rehearsal space), inability to afford indirect costs (e.g., transportation, child care), lack of time (due to the need to earn a living), and lack of awareness of opportunities (including awareness of opportunities designed for the poor).
- Poor and economically insecure adults are significantly less likely to have access to “scarce” opportunities to participate in the arts as producers for a variety of reasons including inability to afford the cost of participating (e.g., materials, rehearsal space, training), inability to afford indirect costs (e.g., transportation, child care), lack of time (due to the need to earn a living), lack of awareness of opportunities (including awareness of opportunities designed for the poor), and lack of ability to take the financial or social risks often necessary to pursue many “scarce” opportunities (e.g. debt from MFA or BFA programs, moving to an urban area, need to care for children or other family members with few resources), particularly in the absence of a strong social safety net.
- Many people who would benefit from common or scarce opportunities to participate in the arts do not take advantage of them due to pressure from social and/or professional environments that treat participation in the arts as an unwelcome distraction from economically productive activities.
Note how each of these statements are framed to illuminate conditions in our description of a healthy arts ecosystem that we suspect are not being met. This approach may not make for the most concise prose, but it does yield a wealth of testable assertions that we can seek to verify (or not) through the research literature.
Having developed hypotheses for an issue area, the next step is to conduct a “scoping review” to gain an initial impression of the amount of literature that is available on each topic and whether it warrants (and can support) a more thorough investigation. Our approach to reviewing literature bears resemblance to the concepts of “evidence reviews” or “evidence assessment.” That is, we’re trying to aggregate the findings from multiple studies in a systematic, though not necessarily quantitative, way. Using this method enables us to draw more confident conclusions than would have been possible on the basis of any individual study in the review.
Initial scoping reviews typically take between 6 and 15 hours of desk, web, and library research on a topic, which results in a bibliography that provides a good starting point for deeper investigations. Sources for titles include academic databases (primarily JSTOR and EBSCO), Google Scholar, combing through the bibliographies of key texts, and reviewing the tables of contents of relevant academic journals.
This bibliography is designed to be inclusive of everything that we want to “keep on our radar.” The basic selection criteria at this stage are:
- Is the work relevant to the issue area?
- Was the work written to increase the existing knowledge base? (as opposed to, for example, expressing a personal opinion)
While quantitative studies, particularly those designed to demonstrate a causal connection between variables, are of particular value to our approach, we are open to a wide variety of forms of evidence, including qualitative methods, case studies, and theoretical contributions.
We use the free citation platform Zotero to keep track of the literature that we’ve identified as relevant to one of our issue areas. Our Zotero library is accessible to the public, and anyone who is interested can see what literature we’ve discovered and our notes on any given work if it’s one we’ve already reviewed. Further rounds of literature sourcing will likely occur as we become more familiar with the research literature on a topic and in response to suggestions from our reader community, so if you notice that a particular study is missing in our library and want to call it to our attention, just shoot us an email or comment on one of the periodic updates on our core research process that we post to Createquity Insider. We can’t promise that we’ll add it to our library, but we’ll certainly take a look.
Preliminary reviews of individual studies
At the conclusion of a scoping review, we prioritize the studies we’ve found according to how likely it seems that they’ll be able to shed light on our hypotheses. This determination is made on the basis of each work’s relevance to the inquiry and methods as suggested by its abstract, executive summary, and/or a quick skim. The highest-priority publications will then receive a preliminary review of the full text.
To do this, we employ a structured note-taking format that we call a capsule review. The primary purpose of a capsule review is to provide readers with a good understanding of the major claims made by the research and its contributions to a body of knowledge about the arts. The format provides a standard template that allows us not only to summarize a particular piece of research, but analyze its strengths and weaknesses and connect it back to our hypotheses. The heart of each capsule review consists of three open-text prompts as follows:
- What it says, a brief abstract of the publication’s chief claims
- What I think about it, a critical analysis of the strength of the evidence provided by the publication
- What it all means, an assessment of the publication’s contribution to the state of knowledge on its topic, if any
At this stage, since we are simply trying to get a quick assessment of which texts have the most to teach us about our hypotheses, we rely on a technique called power browsing. Power browsing is a way of strategically scanning nonfiction texts that vastly cuts down on the time necessary to access and understand the key points. We’ve spent a significant amount of time developing and testing this strategy internally, finding that in most cases there is remarkable consistency in the features that different reviewers highlight as particularly important or concerning about the study, and that these major highlights and concerns can often be extracted in as short as 30 minutes with proper training.
Each preliminary review concludes with a recommendation from the reviewer as to how to proceed with that particular work. If the initial inspection of the work suggests that it’s not sufficiently relevant to our hypotheses or is undermined by methodological shortcomings, that will be noted and we won’t spend further time with it. If the work is deemed valuable but the reviewer is confident that she got the main points in her first pass, we will make use of the material, but won’t necessarily give the underlying text a second read. Sometimes, however, the outcome of the initial review will be to recommend a second pass, in which case the work is set aside for a more detailed inspection or a “deeper dive.”
A deeper dive retains the capsule review format and target length, but devotes more time to understanding the details and full ramifications of the text. Depending on the length and complexity of the text and its centrality to our emerging conclusions, we may be satisfied with setting a longer time limit for the review or go so far as to have multiple people read the entire text and compare notes. In general, the more a publication’s conclusions promise to influence our own conclusions, the more safeguards we want to put into place to ensure we are not misinterpreting the study or missing an important detail that would change our view.
Feature articles and cases for change
Our core research process provides the raw material for all of the major feature articles we publish at Createquity. Periodically, we take a step back from the research process to assess what we’ve learned so far and, if warranted, synthesize that learning for our general readership.
One of the benefits of combining an online publication with a virtual think tank, as Createquity does, is that the outputs of our research are not boring 100-page PDFs that nobody reads. We strive to make the research, or more to the point the lessons we learn from the research, come alive in the form of compelling and highly shareable narratives. Furthermore, our feature articles are cumulative by design: each one builds upon the last. For example, one feature in a series might examine the question of whether a problem that we’ve identified actually exists. Another might hone in on the aspects of the problem for which there is evidence and ask how people, either in the arts or in adjacent fields, have tried to address that problem in the past.
For any given investigation, our core research process ideally culminates in a case for change. A case for change is a special type of advocacy-oriented feature article that presents actionable next steps for readers and for the field in general. It takes all of the learning we’ve done to date and translates it into concrete recommendations. We plan to put lots of energy into not only creating our cases for change but building infrastructure to facilitate their adoption by key influencers and stakeholders within the cultural sector. This is the principal way in which Createquity delivers on its mission: by placing high-value information and analysis in the hands of people who could conceivably make a difference.
Other Research Activities
While the core research process is the backbone of our work at Createquity, the journey from scoping review to case for change is a lengthy one. To keep readers engaged in the meantime, our Research Spotlight series provides quick reviews and discussions of current and/or notable research that may or may not fit directly into our editorial themes. We try to focus attention on studies and reports that deserve a wider reception than they’re currently getting, although we also sometimes shine a light on high-profile research that is already being used to drive decisions and strategy at a policy level. We always complete a capsule review of the work being discussed in each Research Spotlight article, and this capsule review is likewise published on Createquity Insider.
Finally, we occasionally see fit to undertake investigations that live outside of our core research process but have relevance to the work we do at Createquity. These ad hoc investigations are grouped under the heading of Createquity Labs. For example, in fleshing out our definition of a healthy arts ecosystem, we realized that we didn’t have as specific an idea as we’d like of what “improving people’s lives in concrete and meaningful ways” meant in practice. However, we felt it would be valuable to connect this idea of life improvement to existing research and theoretical work on quality of life and wellbeing, including such efforts as the United Nations Human Development Index and similar projects. That investigation is currently underway and will lend additional richness to our definition of a healthy arts ecosystem.
Where You Come In
There are many ways to follow along with Createquity’s research activities and even to participate in them directly. Of course, the simplest route is simply to subscribe to our feed via RSS or email so that you never miss a feature or Research Spotlight article. We also update our Issue pages on a semi-regular basis with what we’ve learned to date from our core research process. If you’d like to be even more involved, you can sign up to follow our Createquity Insider transparency initiative, where you’ll see regular research progress updates, capsule reviews, discussion questions, and more. This is the ideal venue for getting into the weeds with us on specific studies that we might have overlooked or how best to interpret what the research says.
Regardless of what form of participation is best for you, we hope you’ll join us in this collaborative effort to make the arts ecosystem work better for artists and audiences.