Artists and Gentrification: Sticky Myths, Slippery Realities

(Anne Gadwa Nicodemus is one of the smartest people I know and a nationally-recognized expert on creative placemaking and artist spaces. Currently principal of Metris Arts Consulting, she is a choreographer/arts administrator turned urban planner, researcher, writer, speaker, and advocate on the intersection of arts and community development. Please enjoy her guest post tackling one of the most controversial topics in our field – artists’ role in gentrification. -IDM)



“Artists as the ‘shock troops of gentrification’.”

That’s a quote by art historian/critic Rosalyn Deutsche included by Creative Time in a recent email invitation to its upcoming summit on the “contributions and complicity of culture in the development of 21st century urban space.”

And here’s an excerpt from Project for Public Spaces’ article, “All Placemaking is Creative” published last month (emphasis mine):

Placemaking…is a vital part of economic development. And yet, there has long been criticism that calls into question whether or not this process is actually helping communities to develop their local economies, or merely accelerating the process of gentrification in formerly-maligned urban core neighborhoods. We believe that this is largely due to confusion over what Placemaking is, and who “gets” to be involved. If placemaking is project-led, development-led, design-led or artist-led, then it does likely lead to gentrification and a more limited set of community outcomes.

Project for Public Spaces is a NYC-based nonprofit that advances placemaking (without the creative modifier). Its article makes a few good points, most importantly that placemaking should be an inclusive process and that there is not a singular “community,” but rather, pluralistic communities. But I winced when I read its damaging mischaracterizations of artists’ roles in placemaking, which ironically undermine its call for inclusivity. It implies that artists’ place at the community development table comes at the expense of other voices being heard. I got the sense that it dismissed artists as privileged others, as opposed to the “regular people” who should be shaping placemaking processes. It seemed to lump artists with developers and planners in terms of power and clout. All are harmful mischaracterizations.

The PPS article and shock troop quote propelled me to coalesce some of the thoughts that have been swirling around my head about why we perceive artists as gentrifiers, where those bleed into misperceptions, and how to learn from both.


The Bigger Picture

It’s a new phenomenon for artists to have a place at the table of community development. The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) and ArtPlace have, collectively, invested $41.6 million in creative placemaking projects in just two years. This is an impressive amount of resources and the momentum is exciting. However, it’s still a drop in the bucket when one considers all of the dollars for community and economic development in this country. By way of comparison, in 2010 and 2011 the federal government invested $240 million in just one grant program (HUD Sustainable Communities). Happily, in 2011 HUD took the unprecedented step of including arts and culture in Sustainable Communities grants, one result of the creative placemaking frame. But consistently considering arts and culture within community development efforts is still far from common practice.

The scars of redlining, blockbusting and urban renewal still shape what neighborhoods look like, who lives where, residents’ access to good education and employment, and what homes are worth. The fates of swaths of neighborhoods are out of residents’ hands; banks have foreclosed on large percentages of properties. Sketchy lending and a demand for mortgage backed securities means ownership is not vested with the people living there, but rather with countless remote and untraceable investors who own “toxic assets.” Cozy sweetheart deals between politicians and developers, forged in the name of economic development, are still common. When land-use decisions do include public participation, middle-class homeowners and whites are more apt to show up and speak up at meetings than low-income renters and people of color. Non-English speakers are often forced to rely on impromptu translators or aren’t even in the room because the announcement flyer wasn’t in their native tongue. These are the kinds of placemaking inequities we should challenge and change, instead of turning artists into scapegoats.

When we talk about issues of power, social inequities, or “the politics of belonging and (dis)belonging,” as Roberto Bedoya so eloquently frames, I want us to remember that artists, on average, have low incomes, and that they are not all white. The NEA’s Artists and Arts Workers in the United States (2011) reveals that musicians, dancers and choreographers, photographers, and other entertainers’ median salary is under $28,000. Despite artists’ high levels of educational attainment, the average salary for all artist occupations (including architects) is just over $43,000. Over twenty percent of artists are racial/ethnic minorities. And these statistics are only for people for whom being an artist is their “primary” job.

We have an unfortunate tendency in the U.S. to view artists as special/different/other. Larry Gross likens it to artists being on a reservation or special island in his On the Margins of Art Worlds. As early as elementary school, teachers single out a few students with god-given talent from the apparently uncreative masses. This is a cultural construct. In Native American cultures, art is an integral part of life, not a separate vocation/occupation. In their Native Artists: Livelihoods, Resources, Space, Gifts (2009), Markusen and Rendon point out that there is no word for art in Ojibwe or in many tribal languages.

One wonderful role that artists play in dominant U.S. culture is that of the provocateur, and for that, yes, they do need a bit of distance to see things and make critical commentary. But that certainly does not mean they are by default elitist, snobs or more creative than thou. They are of the community. They are some of the regular people that proponents of inclusive placemaking, like PPS, should wish to involve. They happen to have unique skill sets and when they’re game to apply them for the common good via placemaking, we should embrace and nurture their efforts.


The Antitheticals

Hennepin Avenue Re: Model

Hennepin Avenue Re: Model led by visual artist Ta-coumba Aiken as part of Plan-It Hennepin’s Creating Urban Visions workshop. Photo by Mark Vancleave, 2012.

Recently in Minneapolis, I witnessed how a team of artists from Tom Borrup’s Creative Community Builders used movement, song, writing exercises, and sculpting to draw out participants’ visions for Hennepin Avenue. The “regular” people at the meeting both seemed to have more fun and contribute richer and more nuanced ideas than I have witnessed in typical community planning meetings. The planning process for the cultural district also harnessed teenagers’ creativity. It empowered them to canvas the avenue to suss out public space (and its absence), interview people, and document through video.

As executive director of the Tucson Pima Arts Council, Roberto Bedoya puts his money where his mouth is—supporting projects consistent with his public call for more emphasis on issues of social inequities within the creative placemaking policy rhetoric. In the Finding Voice program, for example, refugee youth generate stories and images through print publications and art projects at the mall and bus stops. These forms of expression help make their lives visible and affirm their place in Tucson’s civic fabric. In another example, artist/architect Bill Mackey worked with dozens of collaborators on Worker Transit Authority. In an exhibition of mock planning projects created by a mock planning authority, Tucson residents engaged in three weeks of dialogue on issues of land use, infrastructure, and transportation.

In the Dorchester neighborhood of Chicago’s South Side and increasingly in cities across the country, Theaster Gates asks impertinent questions about the way things are and invents alternatives—he calls it art, and gatekeeper establishments like MOCA (Los Angeles), the Whitney Biennial, and Armory Show (New York) agree. He turned an abandoned two-story house into a library, in part to thumb his nose at city officials who claimed there weren’t enough resources to expand that level of services into the neighborhood. He looks for and exploits all the tie-ins and synergies he can find. Black Cinema House, for instance, converts a small abandoned Dorchester home into a neighborhood space for screenings and conversation. Master builders and educators employed local residents in the deconstruction of the old space, providing job skills. Black Cinema House will also ultimately provide live/work space for film-and media-based artists of color.

The artists involved in these kinds of initiatives are deeply motivated by concerns for social justice and equity. They often come from the neighborhood they seek to benefit or other strong ties may fuel their commitment.

Dorchester Projects Library

Dorchester Projects Library by artist Theaster Gates. Photo by Anne Gadwa Nicodemus, 2012.


The Agnostics

Other artists have no interest in placemaking at all, and that’s also a completely valid choice. They may be traditional object makers or present works of theater, dance, or music in conventional venues. Those works of art also bring society joy and beauty; they inspire us or make us question f***ed up stuff.

Some artists might rehab a building as a studio or residence, because they just need an affordable place to live and work. They spruce it up and add value. They may be good neighbors, but have no interest in opening up their homes and workspace for frequent community events.


Untangling Culpability

But the role of artists as gentrifiers is, unfortunately, deeply entrenched in our collective popular imagination. People intuitively feel artists are attracted to down and out neighborhoods and can invest sweat equity, money, and artist juju into properties. They’ve heard about the SoHo effect and how artists are often victims of processes they set into motion; they get priced out of the very neighborhoods they helped to turn around.

Through my work, I’ve learned that it’s not so simple. Since the 1970s, thousands of American and European urban neighborhoods have been gentrified without artists involved, often by developers, often with public funding, chiefly to young professionals and to suburban retirees wishing to live in the city. Ann Markusen points out that gentrification is a function of generalized pressure on urban land markets—i.e. in NYC, every rich person in the world has to have an apartment—and that it does not occur in most small towns and in urban neighborhoods in vast portions of many cites.

Here are some of the ways the story varies in cities with weak real estate markets. In Lowertown, St. Paul, I documented artist space initiatives that spanned a fifteen-year period and were part of an overarching affordable housing strategy. I found few red flags for gentrification-led displacement beyond dislocating vagrants that sheltered in the abandoned buildings themselves. The neighborhood is more racially and ethnically diverse than before the artist spaces, and, for better or worse, still has quite high poverty levels. In Philadelphia, Mark Stern and Susan Seifert have documented fascinating community benefits that occur from “cultural clusters” (or concentrations of cultural participants, nonprofit arts organizations, commercial cultural firms, and resident artists). They find that these neighborhoods have higher levels of civic engagement, increased population and housing values, and decreased poverty rates, with little evidence of ethnic displacement.

Even with the most notorious example, SoHo, the story is more complicated than artists suddenly making the area have cachet and driving up prices all by their lonesome. In her seminal Loft Living, Sharon Zukin maps a system of government officials and real estate and banking interests. She tells the story of how they turned to live/work zoning and marketing of the bohemian lifestyle as a profitable way to deal with under-utilized industrial buildings and attract middle-class individuals to the area.


The Co-opted

As the SoHo example suggests, even though “shock troops” is an overstatement of artists’ roles in gentrification, pawns may not be. The perceived link between artists and gentrification is one reason that mayors, developers, and business improvement districts “buy” creative placemaking’s potential. The policy architects behind creative placemaking have been pretty transparent about their implicit goals of attracting such non-traditional arts stakeholders to invest in arts and culture.

The merits of silo-busting aside, I have serious qualms about artists being co-opted within creative placemaking projects. Particularly as advanced by the NEA (but also by ArtPlace), creative placemaking emphasizes cross-sector partnerships. Within NEA-funded projects, an arts or cultural organization always participates, but they may not be the lead partner. Even within arts organizations, administrators far removed from artistic processes may drive institutional involvement. Unfortunately, I’ve seen the line item for artist fees get cut before other project expenses when projects faced budget constraints. Artists are used to coming to foundations and city officials as supplicants, with outstretched hands, palms up, often unaware of their value. They certainly do not rival developers in terms of political savvy or financial capital. These power imbalances permeate partnerships and collaborations. Though creative placemaking initiatives can and often do empower artists, they also run the risk of paying lip service to artist involvement or worse, even using them for nefarious purposes like the exaggerated “shock troops” of gentrification claim that has caught hold of our collective imagination.


Questions and Crossroads

How do we grapple with these issues of agency, voice, and power? Change hinges on powerbrokers, the elites—sometimes merely in that they can obstruct it. How do we prevent their active involvement from silencing, or co-opting, artists and other vulnerable or marginalized populations? How do we make sure these interests are central to placemaking efforts?

Creative placemaking encompasses a broad array of practices, and as a field we need to drill down and examine initiatives that resulted in expanded opportunities for low-income communities, people of color, and artists against those that had undesired affects of displacement. How do different types of interventions correlate with outcomes? Is displacement just a by-product of generalized pressure and larger macro-forces in the economy?

Within the realm of artist space, is artist-ownership a remedy? Artists’ equity stakes do not safeguard against neighborhood change. Even in the celebrated example of the Paducah Artist Relocation Program (KY), many artists cashed out during the economic downturn, jeopardizing its claim as an artist haven. Are models of nonprofit ownership and stewardship, such as Artspace’s, the benchmark? In those, low-income artist tenants have long-term stability, but no equity. However, the building’s artist character and affordability is retained in the long-term. To ensure that a mix of housing options remain for families with modest incomes, do artist space initiatives need to be combined with non-arts affordable housing strategies? What can we learn from land-trust models? Maria Rosario Jackson’s Developing Artist-Driven Spaces in Marginalized Communities: Reflections and Implications for the Field offers some wonderful insights that advance thinking and practice.

I repudiate the notion that artists are the shock troops of gentrification. Artists are, however, on a different front line. They are looking hard at issues of their potential complicity in gentrification. They’re some of the most thoughtful voices grappling with questions of social equity in placemaking. Through nuanced practice, they’re “making the road by walking,” to quote Myles Horton. Instead of casting stones, our challenge as a field is to listen deeply and amplify these voices.


Around the horn: Pesach edition


  • One artist’s activism on immigration and visa reform (he’s banned from entering the USA for 10 years because of a paperwork snafu).
  • The Obama administration has announced three new members of the National Council on the Arts, the body that oversees the NEA. Here are interviews with Maria Rosario JacksonEmil Kang and Paul Hodes.
  • Google’s chief executive is stumping for an unregulated internet in developing nations, but some musicians in Africa aren’t buying what he’s selling. (I wonder, though, if an internet free from censorship must also be an internet without copyright controls.)


  • Wow: after only two years in the driver’s seat at ArtPlace, Carol Coletta is jumping to the Knight Foundation, as Vice President/Community and National Initiatives. She writes a farewell letter via the ArtPlace blog.
  • Margaret Hunt is the new director of Colorado Creative Industries.


  • The Pew Charitable Trusts has restructured its culture program to emphasize project grants made through the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage. The Pew Cultural Leadership Program, which provides general operating support to Philadelphia-area organizations, will disappear over the next two years.
  • Philadelphia arts philanthropist Gerry Lenfest is stepping down from his foundation, which is entering spend-down mode.


  • The San Francisco Symphony is on strike; here is a great background on the situation from San Francisco Classical Voice.
  • A proposed merger between Los Angeles’s Museum of Contemporary Art and the LA County Museum of Art is off the table (for now).
  • Linda Essig reports from the Association of Arts Administrators Conference in New Orleans; Steven Tepper offers his perspective on the 3 Million Stories conference in Nashville hosted by the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project (for which he is research director) and Vanderbilt’s Curb Center.



  • The McKnight Foundation has some cool visualizations of its research on individual artists; Laura Zabel comments.
  • The National Center for Arts Research at Southern Methodist University answers the question, “what is it exactly that you DO?”
  • Writing for the Daily Beast, Joel Kotkin gleefully makes hay on what he characterizes as an admission of defeat from Richard Florida on the efficacy of his creative class theory, but Florida says not so fast. A lot of it is the usual academic pissing match BS, but the original Florida essay that Kotkin cites is pretty interesting and provides some new fodder for gentrification warriors. The money quote (as it were):

    On close inspection, talent clustering provides little in the way of trickle-down benefits. Its benefits flow disproportionately to more highly-skilled knowledge, professional and creative workers whose higher wages and salaries are more than sufficient to cover more expensive housing in these locations. While less-skilled service and blue-collar workers also earn more money in knowledge-based metros, those gains disappear once their higher housing costs are taken into account.

    In other words, as this article on the region-wide effects of Silicon Valley new money points out, “in a free market, people with money drive demand, which then drives supply.” Among other things, the article tells of a just-out-of-college startup techie paying almost $3000 a month for a studio in San Francisco, “simply because he didn’t know better.”

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March public arts funding update


The internet just got a little less friendly for pirates. A new “Copyright Alert” system, the product of a voluntary agreement between internet service providers such as Comcast and AT&T, Hollywood movie studios, and major record labels, will inconvenience persistent illicit downloaders first with warnings and then stronger measures such as slowed service. The Future of Music Coalition (consistently the smartest folks in the room when it comes to the arts and copyright issues) is wary but hopeful.


Governor Rick Snyder of Michigan is pushing to cut in half the state’s generous subsidy to film producers, which currently gives up to $50 million a year in credits for qualifying expenses to firms that set up shop in the state. Michigan had one of the most aggressive film incentive programs in the country just a few years ago, which attracted such productions as “Gran Torino” and “Up in the Air,” but Snyder has since put on the brakes (even as he supported a rebound last year in the state’s arts council budget).


My goodness, the stream of news flowing out of the United Kingdom just gets fatter and faster. First, the embattled Arts Council England has a new head in Peter Bazalgette, a former TV executive and chairman of the English National Opera. Local governments continue to cut arts budgets in the face of financial pressures: Newcastle went through with eliminating its £2.5 million culture budget despite intervention from national Labour party leaders, and is attempting to move towards a privatized model instead; Westminster (part of London) has confirmed that it’s cutting its annual £350,000 subsidy out of the picture; and Scotland’s Moray is ditching its more modest £94,000 culture budget. At least Belfast is increasing its local arts support by 27%, to £1.4 million. A survey of UK theater companies suggests that many are cutting back on productions, commissions, and cast sizes due to the cuts, though small sample size should be taken into consideration. In this environment of austerity it’s a great time for university tuition fees to be tripling for artists, but the British government is hoping that the Creative Employment Programme, a rapidly expanding paid apprenticeship system in the creative industries for youths aged 16 to 24, will offer a smooth pipeline for new grads. (Joe Patti has more.)

The combination of the eurozone crisis and austerity policies has decimated Spain’s system of public support for the arts, with funding dropping as much as half since 2009 according to a recent report. The litany of second-order impacts cited in that article includes 100 employees laid off at a single opera house in Barcelona, a cancelled Lucian Freud show at the Museo Nacionale del Prado in Madrid, and a cancelled three-year collaboration between Madrid’s Teatro Real and the Berlin Philharmonic. The Orquestra Girona is down to one concert a year. But depending on who you talk to, there are opportunities lying in wait amidst the upheaval.

Australia’s government is out with a new cultural policy, and Ben Eltham (author of A Cultural Policy Blog) declares it a hit for artists. (Annoying registration required, but it’s free.) The policy commits $236 million in Aussie dollars in mostly new money over five years to various federal arts and culture agencies and programs. The government has also chosen to adopt many of the recommendations made in an independent review of the Australia Council last year, including a controversial proposal to do away with the Council’s discipline-based system of funding. (NEA, take note!) The package even includes $4 million for a “data collection program to inform research for the sector and to  track public value of investment.” More here. And they’re considering a media reform package while they’re at it Down Under.

In other news, Russia may adopt a restrictive rule shutting out small concert promoters, China is considering royalty rights (droit de suite) for visual artists, and UNESCO has pledged to raise an $11 million fund to restore the destruction in Timbuktu, Mali, but at least one observer is skeptical that the money will be used wisely.

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Around the horn: Habemus papem edition

(This is the first Around the Horn to be put together by one of the Createquity Writing Fellows, Hayley Roberts. Enjoy! -IDM)

Government Policy and the Arts

  • Gladstone Payton details the sequester’s effects on the governmental agencies that provide funding for the arts.
  • Will New Jersey pass legislation requiring cultural and sporting events to only issue e-tickets? Many of the state’s smaller arts institutions hope not.
  • There is a movement brewing to get arts education included in the federal education budget, headed by two Congressmen from Illinois and Oregon, respectively. Oregon has already pioneered this work by proposing funding in the state budget to “to support partnerships between schools, arts organizations and businesses to increase opportunities for students in grades 6–12 to connect with creative industries.”
  • The City of New York is refusing to pay into the pension funds of a number of cultural institutions based in the city due to suspicion of fraud.

Market Research, Data Analysis, and Cultural Organizations

  • Chad Bauman details his experience with data analysis and market research during a transitional period at the Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. The specific recommendations provided by detailed market research and analysis helped the theater through a risky period of transition.
  • There have been a few articles recently about how much personal data is collected and put up for sale, often without our knowledge.
  • Again, market research demonstrates that museums and cultural institutions should be careful about making assumptions about their audience, especially in the context of the major demographic changes in the United States.
  • Adam Thurman’s TedXBroadway talk offers an interesting look at how to think about marketing in a more innovative way that can yield effective results.
  • Western social science researchers are becoming more attuned to the fact that their cultural bias greatly skews the outcomes of their research.

Culture and Economic Development

  • Measuring the impact of the arts or the contribution of the cultural sector to local and national economies has grown in popularity lately. UNESCO recently released a study which reviews the different methodologies various countries use to determine how much culture contributes to economic development.

Changes in New Models of Arts Funding

  • The number of Kickstarter projects being started has slowed down, according to a report from NextMarket Insights. Is this a sign that artists and practitioners feel that the risk of crowdsourced funding is not as reliable as previously thought? Or are entrepreneurs being more selective about which projects they choose to fund in this manner? This week’s massive response to the Veronica Mars movie would suggest the latter. Conversely, in an interview with the NEA Arts magazine, the creators of Kickstarter discuss how the internet and start-ups like Kickstarter have changed the idea of audience and creative place.
  • For some musicians, the dream of sustaining themselves by allowing fans to pay what they want for music has proved to be exactly that–a dream. The reason why may be not be that surprising (hint: it involves streaming services like Spotify).

Shake-ups in Philanthropy, Media

  • The past month had some changes in management across the philanthropic and arts sectors: the Grey Lady has a new Arts & Culture editor with a long history of music journalism experience;  the president of the Ford Foundation, Luis Ubiñas, has announced he will step down in September; and the McKnight Foundation’s arts program officer Laura Zimmermann has also resigned.
  • Pittsburgh, PA’s McCune Foundation plans to spend down approximately $343 million by 2029. The Foundation plans to do so in part by making “transformative multimillion-dollar grants that strengthen the broader community.”

Food for Thought

  • The argument that music education can lead to other academic benefits for students is strongly challenged by journalist Lydia Denworth.
  • The Wall Street Journal takes a long look at the burgeoning relationship between Silicon Valley tech entrepreneurs and the art world. Previously separated by geography and ideology, it appears that the new tech elite are following the example of their Wall Street colleagues and are getting more involved in the art world by establishing connections to galleries and museums. Have readers in the San Francisco-area noticed a shift in the culture of your local cultural institutions due to the tech boom?
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Cool jobs of the month

Performing Arts Program Fellow, William and Flora Hewlett Foundation

A Hewlett Foundation Fellowship allows an individual to enrich his or her understanding of philanthropy and of specific subject matter by engaging in all phases of grantmaking in the Foundation’s areas of interest. Over a two-year term, Fellows are assigned to one of the Foundation’s four programs or to its Effective Philanthropy Group, which supports strategic grantmaking, giving them the opportunity to learn from staff across the organization and from each other. Fellows work closely with the director, officers, and staff of the program/group to help implement its projects and ongoing grantmaking activities. They may be assigned either to work on a particular initiative or to provide their team with broader support: monitoring activities to ensure alignment with the program/group’s strategic plan and collaborating with team members to maintain the high quality of their work.

Within the Performing Arts Program, the Fellow will provide support to various projects, grantmaking activities, and research.  Depending on the nature of the assignment, the Fellow will engage with peer funders, Program staff, and grantees. The Fellow will report to the Performing Arts Program Director and also work closely with three Program Officers.

No deadline.

Associate/Senior Associate for Arts & Culture, Slover Linett

Slover Linett Audience Research is a research firm for arts, culture and science organizations, with headquarters in Chicago and a new location opening in Boston in early 2013. We help museums, performing arts organizations, and other mission-driven enterprises across the country take a fresh look at their relationships with their audiences—current and potential—through qualitative and quantitative research.  We also help their staffs and boards turn that insight into action through facilitated planning or visioning processes designed to articulate clear, compelling principles for organizational identity, audience engagement, and growth. We are currently seeking candidates for two Associate/Senior Associate openings, one based in Chicago and one based in Boston. The Associate/Senior Associate is responsible for leading research projects with all types of clients in our sector. We are open to hiring at either the Associate or Senior Associate level, depending on the candidate’s experience. Both positions will report to the Vice President based in Boston.

No deadline.

Research Analyst and Research Associate, GiveWell

Today, there is little public debate or critical thinking around charity: money flows to the groups that tell the best stories. We picture a different world in which donors reward charities for effectiveness in improving lives. Research Associates evaluate the evidence and cost-effectiveness for interventions (such as insecticide-treated nets to prevent malaria, deworming, or cash transfer programs) aiming to help GiveWell prioritize the programs that appear most promising. A Research Associate combines strong understanding of evaluation and causal inference methods with common sense and critical thinking, such that s/he is able to synthesize a large body of literature and come to well-defended conclusions regarding what the evidence says. We are seeking candidates for full-time Associate positions and summer internships.

No deadline.

Arts Communications Specialist (Publications Coordinator), Harvard Kennedy School

In collaboration with Project Field Director, responsible for implementation of the Initiative for Sustainable Arts in America’s communications strategy and activities, both external and internal. Develops and implements digital communications and social media strategy, manages relationship with design firm for branding and visual identity efforts, manages messaging for the project in print/presentation/written form, assists with project administration, and oversees media relations. These efforts will be managed with an eye toward increasing the visibility of this ambitious national research and policy effort.

No deadline, but applications will be reviewed starting mid-March.

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The Cultural Data Project and Its Impact on Arts Organizations

One intersection of Data and art. Photo by Geoff Stearns.

One intersection of Data and art. Photo by Geoff Stearns.

For all of the predictions flying back and forth about what 2013 holds for the arts and culture sector in the United States, one of the few things we can say with near-certainty is that 2013 will be a year of major transition for the Cultural Data Project (CDP). Our sector’s largest-scale effort to quantify and streamline the “value” of arts and culture across different regions, the CDP is breaking off from its original home at the Pew Charitable Trusts to become a separate nonprofit. Until now, the CDP has been governed by a local Pennsylvania-based board, but it recently launched a national board and announced Beth Tuttle as their new CEO, who will lead a strategic planning process to further evolve its scope and impact. These shifts, according to the CDP, will “put [it] in an even stronger position to serve the arts and culture community” and its “increasingly large and diverse number of constituents.”

As arts organizations are increasingly pressed to demonstrate tangible benefits, this turning point in the CDP’s history provides an opportunity to look back on its trajectory and examine ways to measure the contributions of arts and culture to society.

For those unfamiliar with the CDP and how it came to be, here is a little refresher:

Background of the CDP

The CDP launched in Pennsylvania in 2004 thanks to the collaboration between the Pew Charitable Trusts and a number of local funders. Using the CDP platform, arts and cultural organizations create an annual Data Profile based on their financial audit and quantitative programmatic data, such as the number of exhibitions or workshops held. It is an online tool that aims to help arts and cultural organizations “improve their financial management and services to communities” by streamlining, storing and aggregating data on their financial and programmatic activities each year.

In grantseeking, it functions a little bit like the Common Application for undergraduate college admissions, which some funders have emulated through standardized application templates; once organizations create Data Profiles they can then submit customized reports to multiple funders. Arts organizations also have access to a variety of tools that illustrate trends in their performance from year to year, and can compare their data against other organizations in the region or across all states participating in the CDP.

The tools include:

  • A Program Revenue and Marketing Expense Report, which explores the relationship between marketing expenses and attendance figures
  • A Personnel Report, which outlines costs associated with staffing, salaries and benefits
  • A Contributed Revenue and Fundraising Expense Report, which examines how changes in fundraising expenses effect contributed revenue
  • The Financial Health Analysis, developed in partnership with the Nonprofit Finance Fund, which serves as a fiscal health “check up” and provides an overview of financial strengths, weaknesses and business dynamics

Users can tailor comparison reports according to detailed specifications. For example, if you’re a mid-sized theater company, you can see how your programming and marketing expenses compare to those of your peers.  You can also see how they compare against, say, all arts organizations that were founded within a certain time frame and target a specific constituent group. CDP Help Desk Staff assists in running those reports, and with cleaning and checking the data that goes into creating a Data Profile, which consists of nearly 300 questions and requires 15 to 30 hours to complete.

Why go through such a complex process? For one thing, funders get a standardized profile with grant applications that allows them to easily compare organizations. Accordingly, most funders who support the CDP require that nonprofits submit their Data Profiles and a customized report with their grant applications. Furthermore, many funders are interested in research, and the CDP provides a massive data bank. The more funders require their constituents to use the CDP, the bigger the ultimate payoff for researchers: a regional (and, perhaps one day, national) aggregate of information about arts and cultural organizations, updated annually.

As for the cultural organizations that have to complete the Data Profile, those applying to multiple grantmakers requiring CDP reports receive the benefit of being able to submit detailed financial information in one format. If they participate over several years and take advantage of the reports to track and compare their progress, they also gain a better picture of their own strengths. The drawback comes for organizations with limited capacity to devote to completing the Data Profile, or for those seeking to evaluate more qualitative elements of their work. But therein lie the possibilities.

The CDP’s Impact to Date: The Research Perspective

Thirteen states currently take part in the CDP, with sixteen more expressing interest. (A list of participating states with links to their CDP Web sites is available here.) In the near-decade since the CDP launched, how has it benefited the myriad cultural organizations that input data and the researchers who analyze it?

Most researchers to date have used CDP data to try to quantify the broad “impact” of the arts and culture sector in financial and programmatic terms, totaling up the number of people employed by arts and culture organizations in a given area, the number of public events, the number of attendees, etc.  A snippet from Cuyahoga County’s Strengthening Communities 2011 report provides one such example:

Excerpt from Strengthening Communities

The ability to quantify the scope and variety of the nonprofit arts and culture communities has proven invaluable to several advocacy campaigns. The Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance used CDP data to lead constituents across the state to successfully defeat a proposed tax on arts and culture activities. ArtServe Michigan’s Creative State Michigan Report, comprised mainly of CDP data, prompted the state’s Republican governor to propose a threefold increase in state arts funding.

Regardless of whether studies like these demonstrate that the arts generate economic growth, research resulting from the CDP has undoubtedly helped make the case for investment in the arts and culture and tell a more concrete story about people served. These efforts have been somewhat limited, however, by the “one size fits all” nature of the CDP’s construction. After all, attributes like financial health and the quantity of public events would be more accurately described as outputs rather than outcome or impact measures. The fact that CDP profiles are optional to fill out for organizations whose funders don’t require it also creates challenges for researchers who wish to generalize from CDP data to all nonprofit arts and culture organizations, since the CDP constitutes a nonrandom sample of such organizations. Recently, funders in California and New York have begun piloting small grant programs to support research projects using the CDP in their states; time will tell if these opportunities lead to a more diverse range of inquiries using the data.

The CDP’s Impact to Date: Arts Organizations’ Perspective

The CDP has been a boon to research and advocacy efforts, but cultural organizations themselves don’t always hear about that work, or take full advantage of the CDP’s resources. In 2012, the CDP conducted a survey of over 1,800 arts organizations charged with filling out a Data Profile every year. Arin Sullivan, the CDP’s Senior Associate for State-Based Activities, said that the survey found that 68 percent of respondents had never read a report that includes CDP data, like Cuyahoga County’s. This implies that researchers, and the CDP itself, need to close the feedback loop between research and the constituents being studied. In addition, according to Sullivan, the survey revealed that more than 40% of participating organizations have never run an annual, trend, or comparison report.

There are a number of possible reasons for this. Organizations simply may not be aware of the CDP reporting features. They may have limited staff capacity to run and analyze reports, particularly after devoting significant time to completing their Data Profile. Or they are aware of the reporting features, but don’t think they are worth using.

No matter what the reasons, these results suggest a range of perceptions about the CDP. To some organizations, it is simply a profile to complete in order to get a grant. To others, it is a resource that can help better inform their practice. The same survey that found nearly half of organizations don’t use CDP reporting tools also found that 45% of participants understood their own finances better as a result of completing the Profile. Of those respondents that did use CDP reports, 40% said it resulted in better transparency, 45% said they had a better sense of their progress and goals, and 56% said they had a better sense of their organization over time.  These relatively low percentages suggest that even organizations taking full advantage of CDP reports do not always find them of substantial benefit.

Yet for some organizations, the CDP has been quite useful indeed. DanceWorks Chicago, for example, changed its entire accounting system to align with the format of the CDP. According to CEO Andreas Böttcher, many small organizations have little expertise in accounting, and until the advent of the CDP had no clear template to follow when setting up their books. Using the CDP was “onerous at first,” he said, “but once you have it, you can build a business plan based on what you have to report.”

DanceWorks has also made use of comparison reports. Böttcher said they’ve shown funders, for example, that not only is DanceWorks unique in its programming (which provides a laboratory for artistic growth to dancers, choreographers, and directors), but it is one of only a few organizations of its size to offer health insurance to dancers. Comparison reports also affirmed other things the company was doing well, despite its relative youth: its 80 individual donors reflect a larger funding pool than those of comparable, older organizations, and its web-based donations are 300% higher.

Other organizations have used the CDP to better track programmatic information, such as their most popular services or types of events. One such organization is the Rhode Island Historical Society, whose Executive Director, Morgan Grefe, used the CDP as an opportunity to make a greater commitment to program evaluation.  According to Grefe, having to complete the Data Profile made program evaluation “the thing you can’t ignore instead of the thing you always put off.” She credits the CDP process with the Society’s increased attentiveness to more qualitative program data, which has had an effect on the organization’s work.

For example, staff members started tracking how many visitors to different historic sites used those sites as a “visitor’s center,” asking for brochures and other tourist information, but not participating in a tour of the building.  Tracking such data enabled the Society to illustrate to public and private funders that the sites hold value to the tourist industry as well as to visitors concerned primarily with historic preservation. It also allows Grefe to make programmatic decisions, such as recruiting volunteers to fulfill visitor center functions or investing in more brochures.

An increasingly data-oriented attitude also led to the Society to launch the Rhode Island History Online Directory Initiative (RHODI). The RHODI Project will be “a comprehensive and detailed survey of Rhode Island’s history and heritage sector, [providing] not only trustworthy data on which to base future grant-funded proposals for such activities as collections cataloging, capacity building advice, preservation projects, educational programming, a virtual museum, but also the much needed impetus for synergies and collaborations.”

Beyond the Numbers: Looking Ahead as The CDP Expands

As these examples indicate, the CDP has shown potential in establishing and tracking organizational success measures that can encourage stronger business operations, advocate for the arts, and guide grantmaking. In order for that success to solidify, however, the CDP must gain buy-in from a broader group of stakeholders, and address the fact that its current ability to gauge the arts’ “impact” is limited.

Of course, the CDP can’t be expected to track and measure everything related to arts and culture. Perhaps in recognition of this fact, and in an effort to integrate CDP data with other available resources, Southern Methodist University recently announced a partnership with the CDP to launch the National Center for Arts Research (NCAR). Among other things, NCAR plans to launch an interactive “dashboard” where “arts leaders will be able to enter information about their organizations and see how they compare to the highest performance standards in areas such as community engagement, earned and contributed revenue and balance sheet health.” Assuming the effort manages to avoid redundancies with existing CDP infrastructure, it may fulfill its vision to become “a catalyst for the transformation and sustainability of the national arts and cultural community.”

At this point in the CDP’s history, it’s worth asking how it can further engage arts organizations, and what role it can play in evaluating more qualitative trends in cultural activities, such as audience loyalty and the evolution of programming. Since the organizations participating in the CDP range from zoos to art galleries, attempting to evaluate these aspects in any standardized way may be an exercise in insanity. What’s the dance education equivalent of a blockbuster museum exhibition? Nevertheless, there may be opportunities for the CDP to help organizations draw connections between CDP data and other reports, and to provide them with a broader toolkit of resources.

For example, for more than 20 years the League of American Orchestras has compiled a report of repertoire played by its member orchestras, including a list of the top 10 most frequently performed works, composers, and soloists. Though sadly only published in dense PDFs, one could track the repertoire of the top orchestras and determine if programming is, for example, becoming more conservative over time. Those same orchestras could make careful use of their own CDP data to make connections between programming choices and financial health.

The community and economic development sector, meanwhile, has attempted to build evaluative tools into a shared measurement system with a platform called Success Measures,  which is smaller in scope but has certain similarities to the CDP.  Success Measures provides its members, most of whom are organizations with little experience or capacity for program evaluation, with a set of evaluative tools (surveys, interview protocols, observational checklists, and so forth).  They receive training on how to use the tools and then, using an online system similar to the CDP’s, upload, clean and analyze their data.

Participation in Success Measures is optional. By contrast, in each state where CDP operates, many funders require it as part of the application process, effectively enforcing participation. Given the CDP’s reach and the strong level of technical support it already provides, it is well poised to develop and disseminate additional tools. Suppose an organization was hoping to understand its audience retention rates, and had the option of accessing standardized survey tools as a CDP participant. The CDP would provide the organization with technical assistance in using the tools, in exchange for the survey results being added to the aggregate database. Such a system could not only strengthen the value of participating in the CDP, but also take a step toward a deeper understanding of “impact.” New tools — even optional ones — can motivate organizations to take a closer look at their activities, perhaps discovering how cultural choices affect their bottom line over time, or if their audience development efforts are truly paying off.

No matter how (and if) it chooses to expand, a few things about the CDP are clear:

  • It has propelled an ongoing conversation about the economic role of arts and culture
  • It may yet build the capacity of the field as a whole if it more directly engages the arts and culture organizations it aims to serve
  • To do so, it needs to clarify and draw greater attention to the existing benefits of using the system, and stay alert to organizations’ needs moving forward

With both for-profit and nonprofit sectors gravitating toward Big Data (and seeking more and more people to help them make sense of that data), the CDP can take a lead in ensuring that aggregate information is not only useful to researchers studying the arts and culture sector, but also to the organizations — large and small, vibrant and struggling — that are its engine.

(Talia Gibas is Manager, Arts for All at the Los Angeles County Arts Commission and a past Createquity Writing Fellow. Amanda Keil is a mezzo-soprano and writer based in New York City.)


Around the horn: Argo edition


  • The dreaded sequester began Friday, affecting all federal accounts including that of the National Endowment for the Arts. The NEA will lose 5% of its budget, which works out to about $7.3 million. Grants and administration will be reduced by the same percentage. The reductions only apply through March 27, however, which is the date through which the federal government is currently funded. Congress has yet to pass a budget for Fiscal Year 2013, which we’re already almost halfway through. Let’s hear it for democracy!
  • John Paul Titlow predicts that 3D printing will be the next big copyright battlefield - and the lines aren’t necessarily drawn where you think. (Here’s more from Public Knowledge.)
  • “It’s true that without exposure to the arts, it’s difficult to develop an interest in them. But it’s also true that many of the people who had, say, music education back in the 1960s and 1970s are the same people who are not going to orchestra concerts today. Some arts organizations will have to confront the fact that their audiences are declining because of an irrevocable shift in the culture, rather than simply a lack of education.” Anne Midgette explores the recent resurgence of arts education in our nation’s schools. Here is more.


  • The Kresge Foundation has named Ariel Simon to the new position of chief strategy officer and deputy to the president. Simon formerly worked as a senior consultant in McKinsey’s social sector practice.


  • Poncho, a Seattle public charity that raised money for the arts through galas and other special events, is closing its doors and donating its remaining assets to the Seattle Foundation.
  • Interesting: in recent years, needy communities in the United States are receiving millions of dollars in aid from an unlikely source - the United Arab Emirates.


  • Should museums be looking outside the traditional pipeline for their management talent?
  • Congratulations to Inocente, the first Kickstarter-funded movie to win an Oscar (for Best Documentary Short).
  • Howard Sherman draws very appropriate attention to the lack of consistency in labeling the arts and culture in newspaper listings.
  • The Met Opera, long criticized for astronomical ticket prices, is actually lowering them for next year – and not as an “accessibility” measure. Attendance is down, and leadership wonders if the opera’s much-ballyhooed cinema simulcasts are partly to blame.


  • I think local programming is one of the more underexplored areas of community engagement for establishment arts institutions – especially outside of major artist meccas like New York and LA. Oregon Arts Watch’s Brett Campbell considers.
  • William Deresiewicz reconsiders the is-food-art debate - he had originally come out strongly in the “no” camp, and got, uh, creamed for it.


  • The NEA’s Jen Hughes reports on a new white paper and symposium covering the emerging field of design for social impact.
  • Keith Sawyer shares notes from a small conference on copyright and patent reform to which he was invited to contribute perspectives on creativity.


  • The Wall Street Journal performs an analysis of US Department of Education data, finds that “median debt loads at schools specializing in art, music and design average $21,576.” This compares to $19,445 for liberal arts colleges and $18,100 for research universities.
  • Americans for the Arts is putting out a new ebook series on arts education.
  • The IRS will more frequently publish data on which nonprofits have lost tax-exempt status.
  • Now that everyone’s talking about walkability, more and more competitors to Walk Score are popping up. We already heard about Walk Appeal, a mostly theoretical innovation by urbanist Steve Mouzon. Now comes Walkonomics, created by Adam Davies, which uses an eight-factor index to judge walkability. The Atlantic Cities’s Sarah Goodyear has a review.
  • Keith Sawyer reviews Bruce Nussbaum’s new book, Creative Intelligence.
  • Can’t wait for this Barry’s Blogathon on arts research and data featuring some of the leading establishment names in the field.
  • Nesta’s Hasan Bakshi explains the UK creative industry classification scheme and a fascinating critique that his organizations developed of the existing classifications. This is a dense read as blog posts go, but Sunil Iyengar helpfully puts it into simpler terms. The whole thing is essential if you do any kind of creative economy or creative industry work, but here are a couple of key quotes:

    “The annual DCMS Creative Industries Economic Estimates have shown that Gross Value Added (GVA) in [advertising, architecture, art and antiques, computer games, crafts, design, designer fashion, film, music, performing arts, publishing, software, and television and radio] has in recent years grown at twice the rate of other sectors, helping to raise their profile with policymakers.”

    After conducting sensitivity analyses and other validity checks, Nesta not only can locate those industries which employ creative workers at disproportionately high rates, it can also show how most creative workers are employed in non-creative industries.

    Importantly, our analysis also shows that there are serious misallocations in the DCMS classifications; this includes a definite group of industries, which DCMS does not currently treat as creative, but which have exceptionally high creative intensities, including ‘Computer programming activities’ (62.01) and ‘Computer consultancy activities’ (62.02), which between them account for over 400,000 people.

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Making History While Making Places – Creativity From the Ground Up

Mural in Paducah, KY. Photo by Tom Borrup

Mural in Paducah, KY. Photo by Tom Borrup

(Tom Borrup was kind enough to send this reaction to the recent ArtPlace Creative Placemaking Summit. Tom consults with cities, foundations, and nonprofits integrating the arts, economic development, urban planning, civic engagement, and animation of public space. His book The Creative Community Builders’ Handbook, 2006, profiles communities that have transformed their economic, social, and physical infrastructures through the arts. Hope you enjoy his guest post! -IDM)

Creative placemaking practitioners from across the United States—most of them grantees and funders of ArtPlace—gathered for the first time in late January in Miami Beach. The convening explored an array of topics in a productive quick-paced peer-learning environment.

At various points during the two days, numerous attendees expressed a desire to avoid colonialist practices of the past that resulted in gentrification and the displacement of vulnerable populations.  However, a core component of every placemaking effort, one key to learning how not to repeat mistakes, was largely missing from the conversation: the appreciation of history.

For some, creative placemaking includes historic preservation or reinvigorating 19th or early 20th century cultural resources (a jazz scene for instance), but most practitioners set their sights on a vision for the future that is different, but one that often lacks conscious connection with the historical trajectory that shaped the place to begin with.  Attendees at the conference were treated to the Miami Beach Art Deco District, a dynamic example of a world-class arts and tourism destination leveraging both the natural and built assets of place while fostering a welcoming and celebratory culture.  Not every place has a trove of significant period architecture, nor do they have music legends, momentous events, or even important crossroads. But every place has a history.  Those histories include the ways people have used the place over centuries or even millennia, the dynamics and relationships between people in that place, what grew or took place there, economies that have come and perhaps gone, and even the geological formation. Historical assets include the ways people made their livelihood, in the form of centuries of tradition and knowledge of working with wood, stone, leather or metal; or a special significance that explains why places were used for gathering, resting or healing.  A place that is economically, socially, culturally and environmentally sustainable is one that builds on and creatively interprets what has come before. When placemakers (creative or otherwise) ignore the stories, the assets and the meanings embedded in the ground on which they work, their efforts are exposed to the risk of repeating mistakes, offending residents or stakeholders, diminishing existing livelihoods, missing out on key resources under their noses, or simply importing unsustainable visions.  The long arc of history does not suddenly change direction when a group of artists or small arts organizations arrive and take to the streets.  Over several decades, community-based arts practice in the U.S. has absorbed these lessons, but too few of them have bled into creative placemaking.

In the planning profession there’s an adage that goes:  it’s easier to get people to agree on what they would like to see happen than to get them to agree on what actually did happen.  While I have found this true time and again, that doesn’t mean the easy route of ignoring the past produces the best outcomes.  Neither does learning about and showing respect for history mean freezing it in place or hanging on to old values.  If a placemaker is truly creative, he or she will facilitate key stakeholders in their community to unearth and evaluate the history and stories of place, to re-interpret these values and appreciate how to move that arc of history into the future towards a more equitable and sustainable vision.

Among the exceptions at the Creative Placemaking Summit was the representative of the American Indian Community Development Institute, a Minneapolis group leading the American Indian Cultural Corridor.  For this community, the long arc of history remains raw.  He described the area as a centuries-old meeting place of tribes and later a forced encampment area during the white settler occupation of the early 1800s.  A history of inter-tribal connections, together with continuing police brutality in this place, brought about formation of the American Indian Movement (AIM) there in 1968.  It remains the site of many other activist, service, and cultural organizations, and sits along a pathway also known as Franklin Avenue, a city street that runs through the Phillips Neighborhood, named for early abolitionist and Native rights advocate Wendell Phillips.

To create sustainable communities, creative placemakers need to identify how their work fits into the history of their place.  If the patterns that created inequity, injustice and disinvestment are not in their grasp, they’ll fall victim to those same patterns. The critical process of exploring history as an open and visible part of creative placemaking also demonstrates a respect for place and for the people who are there, who have been there and who will be there.  In all histories there are surely successes and mistakes, and it may not be possible to get everyone to agree on which were which. Yet if the past is not core to creative placemaking – to any kind of placemaking that purports to respect both place and people – practitioners are doomed to repeat it.

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Solving the Underpants Gnomes Problem: Towards an Evidence-Based Arts Policy

That’s the title of a talk I presented via the University of Chicago’s Cultural Policy Center on November 14, 2012. It’s long, but I think it’s one of the more significant things I’ve done recently and hope you’ll check it out if you have some time. The actual lecture portion of the talk occupies the first 52 minutes of the video, and it starts off with a recap/synthesis of material that will be familiar to regular readers of this blog (specifically, Creative Placemaking Has an Outcomes Problem and In Defense of Logic Models). Just shy of the 27-minute mark, though, I pivot and start laying out a diagnosis of how our arts research infrastructure is failing us, a vision for how we could fix it, and why it all matters – a lot.


Since I didn’t write out the speech in advance, I don’t have a transcript for it. However, below is a reconstruction of the new material from my notes, so you can get a taste for it if you don’t have time to watch the whole thing right now. (You’ll notice I make a number of generalizations in the speech about the ways in which arts practitioners interact with research. These are based on observation and personal experience, and are best understood as my working hypotheses.)


[starting at 26:55]

Why is this integration between data and strategy important? Because research is only valuable insofar as it influences decisions. This is why logic models are awesome – they are a visual depiction of strategy. And there is no such thing as strategy without cause and effect. Think about that for a second. Our lives can be understood as a set of circumstances and decisions. We make decisions to try to improve our circumstances, and sometimes the circumstances of those around us. Every decision you make is based on a prediction, whether explicitly articulated or not, about the results of that decision. Every decision, therefore, carries with it some degree of uncertainty. This uncertainty can be expressed another way: as an assumption about the way the world works and the context in which your decision is being made. These assumptions are distinguished from known facts.

If you can reduce the uncertainty associated with your assumptions, the chances that you will make the right decision will increase. So, how do you reduce that uncertainty? Through research, of course! Studying what has happened in the past can inform what is likely to happen in the future. Studying what has happened in other contexts can inform what is likely to happen in your context. And studying what is happening now can tell you whether your assumptions seem spot on or off by a mile. Alas, research and practice in our field are frequently disconnected in problematic ways. Six issues are preventing us from reaching our potential.

Issue #1: Capacity

Supply and demand apply as much to research as it does to artists. There are far more studies out there than a normal arts professional can possibly fully process. I wish I could tell you how many research reports are published in the arts each year, but nobody knows! To establish a lower bound, I went back over last year’s [2011] “around the horn” posts, which report new research studies that I hear about. I counted at least 41 relevant arts-research-related publications – a tiny fraction, I’m sure, of total output. To make matters worse, research reports are long, and arts professionals are busy. For the Createquity Writing Fellowship program, participants are required to analyze a work of arts research for the Createquity Arts Policy Library. I collect data on how long it takes to do this, and consistently, it requires 30-80 hours to research, analyze and write just one piece! Multiply this by the number of new studies each year, and you can start to see the magnitude of the problem.

Issue #2: Dissemination

Which research reports is an arts practitioner likely to even know about? Certainly not all of them, because there is almost no meaningful connection between the academic research infrastructure and the professional arts ecosystem. Lots of research relevant to the arts is published in academic journals each year, but unless the faculty member was commissioned to do their work by a foundation, we never hear about it. Academic papers are typically behind a pay firewall, and most arts organizations don’t have journal subscriptions. To give an example, after I wrote about Richard Florida’s Rise of the Creative Class, Florida pointed me to a study in two parts by two Dutch researchers. It’s one of the best resources I’ve come across for creative class theory, but I’ve never heard anyone even mention either study other than him and me.

Issue #3: Interpretation

Research reports inevitably reflect the researcher’s voice and agenda. This is especially true of executive summaries and press releases, which is often all anyone “reads” of research “reports.” Probably the most common agenda, of course, is to convey that the researcher knows what he/she is talking about. Another common agenda is to ensure repeat business from, or at least a continuing relationship with, the client who commissioned the study. The reality, however, is that research varies widely in quality. There’s no certification process; anyone can call themselves a researcher. But even highly respected professionals can make mistakes, pursue questionable methods, or overlook obvious holes in their logic. And, in my experience, the reality of any given research effort is usually nuanced – some aspects of it are much more valuable than others. Unfortunately, many arts professionals lack expertise to properly evaluate research reports, not having had even basic statistics training.

Issue #4: Objectivity

Research is about uncovering the truth, but sometimes people don’t want to know the truth. Advocacy goals often precede research. How many times have you heard somebody say a version of the following: “We need research to back this up”? That statement suggests a kind of research study that we see all too often: one that is conducted to affirm decisions that have already been made. By contrast, when we create a logic model, we start with the end first: we identify what we are trying to achieve and only then determine the activities necessary to achieve it.

Here are a bunch of bad, but common reasons to do a research project:

  • To prove your own value.
  • To increase your organization’s prestige.
  • To advance an ideological agenda.
  • To provide political cover for a decision.

There is only one good reason to do research, and that is to try to find out something you didn’t know before.

Issue #5: Fragmentation

The worst part of the problem I just described is that it drives what research gets done – and what doesn’t get done. There is no common research agenda adopted by the entire field, which is a shame, because collective knowledge is pretty much the definition of a public good: if I increase my own knowledge, it’s very easy for me to increase your knowledge too. The practical consequences of this fragmentation are severe. It results in a concentration of research using readily available data sources (ignoring the fact that the creation of new data sources may be more valuable). It results in a concentration of research in geographies and communities that can afford it, because people don’t often pay for research that’s not about them. And it results in a concentration of research serving narrow interests: discipline-specific, organization-specific, methodology-specific. My biggest pet peeve is that research is almost never intentionally replicated – everybody’s reinventing the wheel, studying the same things over and over again in slightly different ways. A great example of a research study crying out for replication is the Arts Ripple Effect report, which I talked about earlier. The results of that study are now guiding the distribution of millions of dollars in annual arts funding. Are those results universal, or unique to the Greater Cincinnati region? We have no way to know.

Issue #6: Allocating resources

Everyone knows there’s been a trend in recent years towards more and more data collection at the level of the organization or artist. Organizations, especially small ones, complain all the time about being expected to do audience surveys, submit onerous paperwork, and so forth. And you know what, I agree with them! You might be surprised to hear me say that, but when you’re talking about organizations that have small budgets, no expertise to do this kind of work, and the funder who is requesting the information is not providing any assistance to get it…just take a risk! You make a small grant that goes bad, so what? You’re out a few thousand dollars. The sun will rise tomorrow.

As an example of what I’m talking about, I participated in a grant panel recently. I enjoyed the experience, and am glad I did it, but there’s one aspect of the experience that is relevant here. There were seven panelists, and we were all from out of town. Each of us spent, I’d say, roughly 40 hours reviewing applications in advance of the panel itself. Then we all got together for two full days in person to review these grants some more and talk about them and score them. We did this for 64 applications for up to $5,000 each, and in the end, 92% 94% were funded.

So consider this as a research exercise. The decision is who to give grants to, and how much. The data is the grant applications. The researchers are the review panel. What uncertainty is being reduced by this process? How much worse would the outcome have been if we’d just taken all the organizations, put them into Excel, run a random number generator, and distributed the dollars randomly up to $5,000 per organization? And I’m not saying this to make fun of this particular organization or single them out, because honestly it’s not uncommon to take this kind of approach to small-scale grantmaking. And yet if you compare it to ArtPlace’s first round of grants, theoretically they had thousands of projects to choose from, and they gave grants up to $1 million for creative placemaking projects – but there was no [open] review process; they just chose organizations to give grants to. So there’s a bit of a mismatch in the strategies we use to decide how to allocate resources.

There’s a concept called “expected value of information” described in a wonderful book called How to Measure Anything, by Douglas W. Hubbard. It’s a way of taking into account how much information matters to your decision-making process. In the book, Hubbard shares a couple of specific findings from his work as a consultant. He found that most variables have an information value of zero; in other words, we can study them all we want, but whatever the truth is is not going to change what we do, because they don’t matter enough in the grand scheme of things. And he also found that the things that matter the most, the kinds of things that really would change our decisions, often aren’t studied, because they’re perceived as too difficult to measure. So we need to ask ourselves how new information would actually change the decisions we make.

There is so much untapped potential in arts research. But it remains untapped because of all the issues described above. So what can we do about it?

First, we need a major field-building effort for arts research. Connecting researchers with each other through a virtual network/community of practice would help a lot. So would a centralized clearinghouse where all research can live, even if it’s behind a copyright firewall. The good news is that the National Endowment for the Arts has already been making some moves in this direction. The Endowment published a monograph a couple of months ago called “How Art Works,” the major focus of which was a so-called “system map” for the arts. But the document also had a pretty detailed research agenda for the NEA, not for the entire field, that lays out what the NEA’s Office of Research and Analysis is going to do over the next five years, and two of the items mentioned are exactly the two things I just talked about: a virtual research network and a centralized clearinghouse for arts research.

This new field that we’re building should be guided by a national research agenda that is collaboratively generated and directly tied to decisions of consequence. The missing piece from the research agenda in “How Art Works” is the tie to actual decisions. Instead it has categories, like cultural participation, and research projects can be sorted under those buckets. But it’s not enough for research to simply be about something – research should serve some purpose. What do we actually need to know in order to do our jobs better?

We should be asking researchers to spend less time generating new research and more time critically evaluating other people’s research. We need to generate lots more discussion about the research that is already produced. That’s the only way it’s going to enter the public consciousness. Each time we fail to do that, we are missing out on opportunities to increase knowledge. It will also raise our collective standards for research if we are engaging in a healthy debate about it. But realistically, in order for this to happen, field incentives are going to have to change – analyzing existing research will need to be seen as equally prestigious and worthy of funding as creating a new study. Of course, I would prefer if people are not evaluating the work of their direct competitors – but I’ll take what I can get at this point!

Every research effort should take into account the expected value of the information it will produce. Consider the risk involved in various types of grants made. What are you trying to achieve by giving out lots of small grants, if that’s what you’re doing? Maybe measure the effectiveness of the overall strategy instead of the success or failure of each grant. This is getting into hypothesis territory, but based on what I’ve seen so far I would guess that research on grant strategy is woefully underfunded, while research on the effectiveness or potential of specific grants is probably overfunded. We probably worry more than we need to about individual grants, but we don’t worry as much as we should about whether the ways in which we’re making decisions about which grants to support are the right ways to do that.

Finally, we should be open-sourcing research and working as a team. I’m talking about sharing not just finished products and final reports, but plans, data, methodologies as well. I’m talking about seeking multiple uses and potential partners at every point for the work we’re doing. This would make our work more effective by allowing us to leverage each other’s strengths – we’re not all experts at everything, after all! And it would cut down on duplicated effort and free up expensive people’s time to do work that moves the field forward.

I thank everyone for their time, and I’d love to take any questions or comments on these thoughts about the state of our research field.


Cool jobs of the month

Program Officer – Generalist/Arts, California Community Foundation

he California Community Foundation is a nonprofit grantmaking foundation that administers almost 1,600 individual charitable funds to meet existing and emerging needs in the Greater Los Angeles area. CCF is one of the largest and fastest growing community foundations in the United States. With assets of more than $1.24 billion currently, CCF has awarded more than $1.2 billion in grants and received more than $1.6 billion in contributions over the past ten years. We are looking for a non profit leader with a rich understanding of Los Angeles. This entrepreneurial thinker will work on programmatic strategy and implementation, including the foundation’s arts program strategy, which builds on the premise that arts and culture should be a dimension of everyday life in all communities in Los Angeles County and when all residents have access to arts and culture, communities are stronger.  In addition, the arts play a role in advancing solutions in other issue areas such as education, health care, neighborhood revitalization, and civic engagement and engage a range of constituents from youth to seniors increasing their self-confidence and social-emotional development. This position works with foundation staff, community leaders, non profit partners, donors and individual artists to weave the arts through the fabric of Los Angeles life.

No deadline.

Program Officer, Abrams Foundation

Founded in 1997, the Abrams Foundation is a private foundation with an office in Boston, Massachusetts. Established by David and Amy Abrams, the Foundation has supported nonprofit organizations focused on youth development and related education organizations and initiatives, the arts, and community issues. The Foundation granted approximately $4 million in 2012. The Program Officer will have the opportunity to shape a growing foundation. S/he will work closely with the Principals in developing the Foundation’s interests, policies, and systems as it seeks to move from project-oriented to innovative and strategic grant making.

No deadline.

Executive Director, Charlotte Street Foundation

Charlotte Street Foundation’s mission is to challenge, nurture, and empower artists of exceptional vision. The organization was founded in 1997 by David Hughes, Jr. to support and recognize outstanding visual artists in Kansas City through direct cash awards. Since its launch 15 years ago, Charlotte Street has evolved, developing programs that engage and propel leading-edge artists of exceptional vision while fostering collaboration and a strong sense of community in Kansas City. The Executive Director is a passionate advocate for the mission, vision, programs, and values of the Charlotte Street Foundation. The Executive Director provides dynamic, multi-dimensional organizational leadership for staff, supporters, and the artists’ community it serves, and hands-on management of the organization’s ongoing operations. The Executive Director reports to the Board of Directors and works strategically with the Board and Director of Artistic Programs to successfully fulfill the organization’s vision and outcomes.

Soft deadline: March 30.

Director of Research for Special Projects, Foundation Center

The Foundation Center is the leading source of information about philanthropy worldwide. Through data, analysis, and training we connect people who want to change the world to the resources they need to succeed. Our research department analyzes and interprets the wealth of data we collect on philanthropic giving to create a range of knowledge resources that advance understanding of global and U.S. philanthropy. Stakeholders in the field and the broader public rely on our work to learn about current and historical trends, make strategic decisions, and collaborate more effectively. Recent projects have included full-length reports, research briefs, infographics, data visualizations, online knowledge management tools, presentations/webinars, and convenings focused on issues such as human rights, the global water and sanitation crisis, the future of media in America, and ensuring the sustainability of arts organizations. [The Director of Research for Special Projects is] responsible for developing and directing international, national, and regional research projects on a wide range of issues across the field of philanthropy, in collaboration with other staff and partner organizations. Oversees all aspects of projects, including planning and scheduling, data production, data analysis and writing, preparation of deliverables, and dissemination of research to various audiences.

No deadline. Your boss would be Larry McGill, who has an extensive background in the arts and couldn’t be a nicer guy.

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