The Bottom Line on Film Tax Credits

Photo by vancouverfilmschool. Some rights reserved.

Photo by vancouverfilmschool. Some rights reserved.

About a year ago the New York Times ran a series of articles on corporate tax breaks, complete with a web-accessible database of state tax incentives for businesses. All in all, the Times discovered 1,874 state and local incentive programs that give out a combined $80.4 billion to corporations each year. To put those figures in perspective, the tax breaks doled out by Oklahoma and West Virginia are worth about one third of those states’ entire budgets. Manufacturing is the most highly subsidized industry, receiving about $25.5 billion in tax breaks annually, followed by agriculture and oil, gas, and mining. Fourth on the list? Surprisingly, it’s the motion picture industry, which nets about $1.5 billion in state and local tax credits per year.

What’s behind this $1.5 billion tax rebate for filmmakers? While industries such as agriculture have been subsidized for decades, state and local tax credits for film productions are relatively new. Louisiana was the first state to introduce such an incentive in 1991, and other states were slow to follow suit. Only four states offered incentives to movie producers in 2002, but once the idea caught on it spread like wildfire, and by 2010 forty-four states offered some form of incentive to filmmakers. The specifics vary from state to state, but typically the financial incentives (for which TV productions, industrial videos, commercials and sometimes even video games are eligible) consist of some combination of tax credits, cash rebates, employment rebates, sales tax and lodging exemptions, and fee-free use of shooting locations. In order to qualify, productions must generally satisfy certain conditions, such as spending some percentage of their total budget locally, shooting a certain percentage of the footage in-state, employing a certain quota of local residents, or exceeding a minimum amount of in-state spending. In addition, some states require that the action of the films take place in a local setting or even demand that the film depict their state in a positive light in order to qualify for tax credits.

To be clear, the film industry isn’t supported out of any particular concern for cinematic art, nor are politicians incentivizing the production of films because they think we’d be better off as a society if we had more movies and TV shows to watch. As is the case with many other corporate tax breaks, the main reason for offering tax credits for filmmakers is simply jobs, jobs, jobs. State officials don’t particularly care if a company is making movies, auto parts, or toothpaste—if it has the potential to create a lot of jobs for local residents, officials want those jobs in their legislative district rather than someone else’s. They are willing to dangle tax breaks as bait on the assumption that the jobs created by the firm will bring more money into the local economy than the government will lose by providing the tax break.

So how effective are the tax incentives for film and TV productions in generating jobs and/or revenue? That depends on whom you ask. Or who funds the research you’re looking at.

The ROI of film tax credits

Reports funded by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), the main lobbying arm for the movie industry, consistently show a positive return on investment for state treasuries. For example, a recent study of the New York State Film Production Tax Credit commissioned by MPAA found that “for every $1.00 of credit distributed, the State and City received a combined $2.23 in taxes.” In Florida, a research firm that was hired by MPAA found that $118.7 million in tax credits yielded $140.44 million in 2011/12, for a more modest return of $1.18 to the dollar.

By contrast, a recent report on Louisiana’s Motion Picture Tax Credit by the State Auditor found that the state supported the film industry with $196.8 million in tax credits and only received $27 million in additional taxes in return (about $0.14 for every dollar spent), and the Massachusetts Department of Revenue found its return to be only marginally higher at $0.16 per dollar spent. A 2011 article by the Tax Foundation lists several other studies by state agencies and a few that were funded by MPAA exhibiting the same discrepancies.

How do these studies arrive at such vastly different numbers? To get some insight into this question, we can take a look at two conflicting reports on Massachusetts’ Film Industry Tax Incentives that were published this year: one by the Massachusetts Department of Revenue (mentioned above) and the other by HR&A Advisors for MPAA.

MA Department of Revenue


Tax credits awarded

$44 million

$37.9 million

Taxes generated

$6.9 million

Not reported

Jobs created in MA



Economic Impact

$118 million

$375.3 million

* This is not explicitly reported as the number of jobs created, but is implied by the statement, “Massachusetts motion picture production employment increased 46.1 percent from 1,630 jobs in 2006 [the year the tax incentives were introduced] to 2,380 jobs in 2011.”


As far as I can tell, the disparity, most notably in the estimated economic impact, results primarily from the following differences in the models and their underlying assumptions:

  • Opportunity costs: Since the state is required to maintain a balanced budget, the Department of Revenue assumes that any incentives that are provided to the film industry have to be paid for by saving money somewhere else in the budget. So instead of just calculating the positive effect that the tax credits have on creating jobs, their analysis factors in the number of jobs that will be lost in other areas of the state’s budget due to cuts. Of course, these cuts have negative ripple effects throughout the economy just as the newly created jobs have a positive impact. By contrast, the MPAA report only looks at the positive effects of the new jobs that are created.
  • Wages paid to non-residents: Both reports acknowledge that some of the jobs that are created by film and television productions in Massachusetts will be held by people whose primary residence is in another state; however, the manner in which the studies correct for that varies considerably. The MPAA report merely exempts “individual employee salaries over $1 million, as it is assumed the majority of these employees are non-residents, so multiplier effects associated with this spending are not realized within the Commonwealth.” The Department of Revenue similarly excludes all payments to recipients earning more than $1 million per production, but in addition it excludes 95% of all other wages paid to non-residents. The rationale is that most of the lodging, food, and incidental expenses for non-resident employees are paid for by the production company, so that only a small portion (estimated at 5%) of the non-resident workers’ paychecks gets spent in-state.
  • “New” spending vs. total spending: The Massachusetts Department of Revenue is careful to exclude the production of TV shows and commercials that would have been produced in-state even in the absence of the incentives. This wasn’t of great consequence in 2011 (the latest year included in the study), since $174.6 million of the $176 million spent on TV and movie productions was deemed to be “new” (i.e., induced by the tax credit). However, in 2010 41% of the total film production spending ($29.5 million out of $71.6 million) would have been expected to take place in Massachusetts even if no tax credit had existed. (The large difference between 2010 and 2011 was attributed to the discontinuation of some long-running TV programs that were produced locally). The MPAA study doesn’t factor pre-existing film production into the equation, preferring to attribute all of the current film production activity to the incentive.

Despite the considerable differences between the studies’ findings and their disagreement about whether the incentives produce a net benefit for the state treasury, everyone agrees that the tax credits have a positive impact on the economy. For example, the 2013 audit in Louisiana found that every dollar of film tax credits resulted in $5.40 in economic output. However, that’s not really saying much, since almost any form of government spending is likely to have a positive impact on the economy. The question is how the impact of the tax credits compares to other things the state could have done with the money.

What about those jobs?

As mentioned above, in most cases the objective of these tax incentives isn’t necessarily revenue generation but job creation. Are film tax credits efficient means of creating jobs? One way to consider that question is how many tax dollars are being spent for each job that is created. According to the Department of Revenue, Massachusetts’s taxpayers had to fork out $128,575 in tax credits for each job that was created in the film industry in 2011. Seeing as the median wage for jobs created by the film industry in Massachusetts was $70,657, that doesn’t seem like a very good deal. The state could have employed almost twice as many people at the same income level if it had simply hired those people directly, instead of subsidizing motion picture companies. The picture looks somewhat better if one uses MPAA’s numbers, but it’s still not great. Assuming (generously) that all of the jobs that were created by TV and film productions between 2006 and 2011 can be attributed to the tax incentives, 750 jobs were created in 2011 at a cost of $37.9 million. That comes out to $50,533 in state spending for each new job. So even using MPAA’s more favorable numbers, it seems that the state paid more than two thirds of the wages for the film industry’s new employees.

Film-induced tourism

One factor we haven’t considered yet is the effect that film and television may have on tourism and the public perception of the locations where they are produced. There are certainly a number of cases in which blockbuster films have led to significant increases in tourism, as The Lord of the Rings trilogy did for New Zealand. And once local residents get past the street closures, traffic delays, and general nuisance that come with a major movie shoot, I’m sure many would agree that there’s some excitement in spotting Hollywood celebrities at local restaurants. There’s also some satisfaction to be gained from recognizing familiar landmarks on the big screen when you see movies that were shot in your hometown. In that sense, local film productions may promote a sense of pride in and attachment to a location, so that tax credits could be justified on the basis that they improve the quality of life for local residents. If nothing else, they give them something to talk about.

Both the tourism and public opinion arguments are valid reasons to support tax incentives for movies. It therefore seems appropriate that MPAA includes film-induced tourism in its recent reports on state tax incentives (in Florida and Massachusetts); however, the measurement of this effect remains problematic. Having consulted twelve representatives of Florida’s tourist industry, MPAA figures (conservatively, it claims) that 5% of all tourism in the state can be considered film-induced tourism and can therefore be added to the economic impact of the film tax incentives. The MPAA-commissioned study of Massachusetts’s film tax incentives uses a different methodology that was employed to assess the value of New Zealand’s exposure in the Lord of the Rings and Stockholm’s exposure in the Millennium trilogy. This approach equates each recognizable shot of the location where the film is set with the publicity that is achieved by a 30-second paid advertisement for the destination on primetime television. The cost of purchasing enough airtime on television to reach an equivalent number of viewers is then assumed to be the value of the advertising that the film provides for the location.

However, if tourism is the objective, the tax credits shouldn’t be granted to all movies indiscriminately. Only those that showcase the location prominently and identifiably should be eligible. I wouldn’t doubt that ABC’s Nashville is having a positive effect on the psyche of that city’s residents as well as on tourism and the local economy. As the assistant commissioner of communications and creative services for the Tennessee Department of Economic and Community Development noted, “You’re not only getting the 20-plus episodes per season”: every advertisement and preview for the TV show is essentially advertising Nashville. By contrast, it’s hard to imagine how shooting Homeland in Charlotte, NC, would do much to increase public awareness of North Carolina’s attractions, given that the show is supposed to be taking place in Washington, DC.  Incentive programs that require films to be set in-state and/or depict the location in a positive light make a lot of sense from this perspective (though the latter condition may seem dangerously close to censorship).

So where does that leave us?

In December, the Bureau of Economic Analysis, which among other things is responsible for determining our nation’s Gross Domestic Product, for the first time released a calculation of the economic value of the arts and cultural production in the United States. According to the BEA, arts and culture contributed $504 billion to our GDP in 2011. To put that in perspective, that’s almost twice the $289.9 billion generated by mining (which includes all oil and gas extraction). The motion picture industry alone added $83.2 billion to the US economy, which, believe it or not, is more than the total value added by automobile manufacturing. The motion picture industry has long been touting its economic significance to argue for more favorable tax treatment, and these latest numbers will only bolster its case.

Yet critics of film tax credits claim that these policies do nothing to stimulate the economy and merely pit states against each other in a race to the bottom. Even some people within the movie industry acknowledge that if the tax credits are the only thing that a certain location has going for it, business will likely move somewhere else as soon as the financial incentives are rolled back or some other state offers even bigger tax breaks. Once the states have foregone all tax revenue from movie producers in the rush to compete with other locations, the playing field will once again be even and the industry will settle where it was to begin with—the only difference being that the production companies no longer pay taxes and state budgets are even tighter than before.

I haven’t found any data to indicate whether or not the incentives are increasing due to competition between states, but from a theoretical perspective the race-to-the-bottom argument is compelling. Even if one believes the MPAA studies that show a positive return on the states’ investment, if the states keep raising their tax incentives to compete with their neighbors, the public benefits of attracting motion picture productions will eventually approach zero.

In the material I’ve reviewed for this article, there is little to suggest that the current incentives offered by state and local governments are optimal in any sense. I have yet to come across calculations that show that a certain level of tax incentives creates the greatest number of jobs per tax dollar forgone. So why do some states offer 15% tax rebates while others offer 20%? Are the expected returns really higher in some states than others, justifying the additional investment? Or are the higher tax incentives necessary in states where the conditions for filmmaking are otherwise so poor that no producers would go there if the rates were any lower? Since I haven’t been able to find a convincing rationale for the levels of the tax credits, I assume the levels are indeed set according to inter-state competition, which is consistent with the race to the bottom scenario. If that’s the case, I’d say it’s a poor justification for public spending. (This situation isn’t unique to the motion picture industry, by the way. The same doubts about inter-state competition and the race to the bottom hold true for all sorts of corporate tax breaks that try to bribe corporations into setting up shopor keeping current plants open – in particular locations.)

So how might we improve the current system of incentivizing film and TV productions? Even if the economic argument offered up by MPAA doesn’t hold—and, personally, I’m inclined to believe the governments’ internal audits that show a net loss for the states—I don’t think one must abandon the idea of incentivizing motion pictures entirely. The system might just need to be improved to target those productions that are likely to generate the greatest public benefits.

The fact is, the current tax credits already target specific types of motion picture productions. Minimum requirements for the production budget and/or the amount of money that is spent in-state are presumably designed to ensure that the tax breaks go to big-budget productions that will employ a lot of people. The large corporations behind those productions are the ones most likely to respond to incentives, moving their operations to whichever state offers the lowest costs, whereas a small film production company in Massachusetts is likely to work in Massachusetts whether or not the state offers any incentive. However, for that same reason one might argue that the large corporations are precisely the wrong place to invest public money: they operate nationally (or internationally) and will fly in people from around the world to work on the production, so relatively few of the jobs created will go to local residents. Furthermore, as soon as another state offers bigger tax rebates, they’ll pack up shop and move there. Any spike in economic activity from a big-budget production coming to town is therefore likely to be short-lived. Wouldn’t it be better to give the tax breaks to smaller firms whose production budgets are too modest to fly in talent from out of state? Those productions might not hire a whole lot of people, but at least the paychecks will be going to local residents, and if the production does well and the company grows, that growth will happen in-state.

The one argument that does work in favor of giving tax breaks to big budget productions is their ability to reach a wide audience and potentially increase tourism or improve public opinion of a certain location. In order to fully endorse this approach, I’d need to see more credible research on the economic value of the exposure that shooting locations receive, preferably coupled with a greater capacity to predict which films are going to have a significant impact in that regard. As tempting as it is to reduce the conversation about film tax credits to a simple thumbs-up or thumbs-down, it would be smarter to consider how to determine which productions to incentivize with tax credits and where such tax expenditures would be wasted. That’s speaking from the perspective of job creation, of course. If the objective were to improve the quality of cinematic art, an entirely different set of selection criteria would be necessary.


Around the horn: POLAR VORTEX edition!




  • George Zimmerman is once again in the media spotlight for selling a painting he made on eBay. The patriotically themed piece sold for $100,099.99, prompting outrage from some and a web-sale response by artist Michael D’Auntuono. In a move the artist calls “hypocritical,” D’Auntuono’s attempt to sell his response piece, and donate part of the proceeds to a charity advocating for crime victims, was censored by the auction website for violation of eBay guidelines.
  • Acknowledging that less than 5 percent of its grants for repertory development have gone to women over the last quarter century, Opera America is launching a grant program targeting female composers.


  • Is Facebook’s new donate button “good, bad, or ugly” for nonprofits? Beth Kanter argues it does more harm than good, and rallies for a Facebook Ad Grants program similar to Google’s.
  • In its quest to make culture “the spirit and soul of the nation,” China opened more than 450 museums in the last year alone, bringing the total number in the country to nearly 4,000.
  • Did you finish 1984? New all-you-can-read book services are compiling data on not just what we read but also how quickly we do it, how long we linger over which passages, and whether we finish specific books. (Turns out people are more eager to learn how biographies end than business books.)
  • Mara Walker, chief operating officer for Americans for the Arts, reports on her experience as the only American participant at this year’s International Arts Leadership Roundtable, organized by the Hong Kong Art Development Council.


  • You’ve Cott Mail readers offered bold predictions for the arts in 2014: ballet will relocate to London, we’ll all stop saying “outreach” (but do it more in our communities), and new artist-led theater collectives will rise up to seize the means of cultural production, among other prophecies.
  • The Wall Street Journal’s Terry Teachout, meanwhile, predicts audiences’ growing “on-demand” mentality will continue to spell trouble for nonprofit theater companies, and urges them to embrace and market the “intimacy [of the] small scale, handmade art form.”
  • In an interview with Barry Hessenius, WESTAF Executive Director Anthony Radich unpacks his longstanding call to “reimagine” state arts agencies (i.e., embrace more flexible staff structures and find ways to get “free from the negative undertow of state restrictions while retaining that still-important connection to the state government”) and offers insight on the future of state support for the arts.
  • Providence, RI has acknowledged how much the city’s future depends on its four main nonprofit higher-ed institutions: Rhode Island School of Design, Brown University, Johnson & Wales, and Providence College. Financially reliant on an industry that isn’t requited to pay local taxes, the city of Providence has negotiated an attempted economic revitalization plan that has the schools make sizable contributions to the city in exchange for sweetened deals on land usage and campus expansion.
  • Createquity’s own Talia Gibas lays out three different conceptions educators, artists, and advocates draw on when they talk about “STEAM” as the intersection of the arts with science, technology, engineering, and math. She argues that art may primarily represent aesthetics and design, curiosity, or creativity, and that there are important differences among the three.


  • The Foundation Center’s annual “Key Facts on U.S. Foundations” report is out in time for the New Year. Giving is on the rise: the approximately 82,000 foundations in the U.S. gave $45.9 billion in 2010, $49.0 billion in 2011, and an estimated $50.9 billion in 2012. The report also breaks down the largest grants by the largest foundations for 2011 by issue, geography, and a host of other dimensions, revealing among other things that the top 1% of recipients captured half of these grant dollars.
  • The McKnight Foundation has released its findings in a study it conducted, with help from the Center for the Study of Art & Community, on artists supported by its fellowship program since its establishment in 1982. The study asked artists six questions that gave them an opportunity to “reflect on the environment, conditions, and motivations that affect their work.”
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Fall Fellowship: A Recap

Congratulations to Lindsey Cosgrove and Jena Lee, the last-ever Createquity Writing Fellows (the program will be known as simply the Createquity Fellowship starting this spring). Jena and Lindsey were much more integrated into the daily operations of the site than previous Fellows and are the first group to have participated in every Around the Horn published during their term, each contributing a handful of bullet points per post. In addition, they continued the Createquity tradition of challenging, in-depth original analysis with the posts below:

Lindsey Cosgrove added a second perspective on arts education to complement that of associate editor Talia Gibas, and brought a penchant for examining new initiatives or trends for Createquity.

  • Lindsey took a new resource for arts marketers through its paces with CultureHive: A New Home for Busy Arts Marketing Bees. Released just prior to the National Arts Marketing Project Conference in Portland, OR, this was the most-read post of the term.
  • Lindsey followed up that piece in short order with No Strings Attached, a revamped edition of the blog post she wrote as part of her Fellowship application. The post examines the story of GiveDirectly, a new charity whose no-nonsense approach to helping the poor is favored by effective altruists, and considers the parallel to the nonprofit sector’s thirst for general operating support.
  • Lindsey has the distinction of publishing her Arts Policy Library piece earlier than anyone else in the program’s history, a full week and a half before the end of the term! Arts Policy Library: How Art Works praises the common-sense approach taken in National Endowment for the Arts’s research agenda and system map, but wonders why so much of the effort was spent reinventing the wheel. How Art Works: the I’m-late-to-work version gives the highlights.
  • Grantmakers in the Arts Goes to Washington chronicles GIA’s arts education advocacy partnership with DC lobbyists the Penn Hill Group, and the progress the two organizations have made in the nearly two years since the engagement began.
  • Lindsey wrapped up her term with Portfolios: The Next Wave of Student Assessment? The piece considers the rise in using portfolios, a key instrument of arts education, as a means of evaluating students in non-arts subjects as part of a growing trend called performance assessment.

Much of Jena Lee‘s work this fall focused on the intersection between economics and the arts, and visual arts in particular.

Some of Jena’s and Lindsey’s better work was swallowed up by the holidays, so I encourage you to check it out if you missed it – particularly the two Arts Policy Library pieces and Value vs. Value. In the meantime, please join me in toasting our two graduates!

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Createquity in Quotes: 2013

The arts, including painting, sculpture, installation, dance and music, are in part about creating a sensory experience—something for the audience to see, feel or hear. And perhaps more than any other discipline, food has the ability to appeal to all of our senses—a combination of colors, textures, crunches, smells and tastes goes into the making of a meal, and the selection and transformation of those elements is creative. When a creative, sensory form also has the capacity to express philosophies, inspire multiple interpretations, conjure narratives and/or allude to complex meanings, it is art, whether the medium is paint or piano or polenta. Food has not replaced art as high culture; it is art.

—Jacquelyn Strycker, From Palate to Palette: Can Food Be Art? (January 7)

Like the NCRP report, “Fusing” provoked strong and varied reaction across the arts and funding communities (GIA’s online forum on equity in arts funding provides a good sample) when it was originally released. It also provoked a strong and varied reaction in me. Reading it evoked frustration similar to what I feel when I read arts education reports that draw conclusions affirming my fundamental beliefs (i.e. that the arts are a powerful learning tool for children), without providing clear evidence for those conclusions. I understand and support the arguments the reports are trying to make, but wish they did a better job making them.

—Talia Gibas, Arts Policy Library: Fusing Arts, Culture and Social Change (January 14)

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.

—Ian David Moss, Solving the Underpants Gnomes Problem: Towards an Evidence-Based Arts Policy (February 25)

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.

—Anne Gadwa Nicodemus, Artists and Gentrification: Sticky Myths, Slippery Realities (April 5)

All in all, reforming the deduction on charitable contributions isn’t necessarily a bad thing for the arts. There are ways of changing the tax code that could actually increase revenues and diversify the sources of income for arts organizations, even while helping to reduce the federal deficit. Since any change creates uncertainty and will likely produce losers as well as winners, I can understand arts administrators and advocates who would rather stick with an imperfect status quo than commit their careers and their organizations to an uncertain future. However, I believe that participating in the discussion and shaping the outcomes to fit our sector’s interests will ultimately prove more productive than trying to block change from the start.

—John Carnwath, The Deduction for Charitable Contributions: The Sacred Cow of the Tax Code? (April 23)

In a Createquity post this May, Tegan Kehoe suggested “making responsible efforts to keep [deaccessioned] objects in public hands” as a reasonable standard that should avoid the worst outcomes of deaccessioning. But the proposed restrictions being placed upon the DIA would forestall even this approach. Let’s say the DIA wanted to invest in the goodwill of Detroit’s citizens by prudently selling or leasing artworks to other nonprofit institutions to help the city recover. According to Elliot Bostwick of Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, as quoted in the New York Times, most museums only exhibit between two to four percent of their collection at one time. It’s entirely possible that among the museum’s more than 60,000 works—some of which will never be exhibited—there are items that no longer support the DIA’s vision. If executed carefully, a sale of these holdings could be seen as an act of generosity on the museum’s part and actually benefit the institution over the long term, while ensuring that the deaccessioned works remained accessible to the general populace. Yet with the art authority resolution in place and counties threatening to remove taxpayer support, the DIA could be held hostage by the very laws designed to protect its interests.

—Jena Lee, Detroit Institute of Arts: What’s a Museum to Do? (September 3)

But it’s also not hard to see the transfer in setting from underground movie theater in heady 1970 to establishment art museum in 2013 as a particularly insidious kind of cultural appropriation. It was a striking experience to watch Right On! from the comfort of MoMA, of all places. It was, in fact, like being in a museum, as if there were a glass wall between the movie and me allowing me to appreciate it as a cultural object while preventing me from truly entering its world. The raw, unfiltered power and emotion directed at the camera was boxed in and partially neutered by the time it reached me on the other side of the screen, sitting next to my white college friend and the many white people in the room who could have been my friends if I’d happened to come across them in a different context. As unmistakable as the film’s point of view was, it was easy, too easy, to compartmentalize it as an artifact of a different era, a time when revolution was in the air and the evils of racism were upfront and obvious.

—Ian David Moss, What We Talk About When We Talk About Race (November 19)

Earlier this year teachers in Seattle flat out refused to administer mandated state exams, claiming that the tests were a misuse of precious school resources, unfairly used as part of teacher evaluations, and an inaccurate indication of student learning. And Seattle isn’t alone. The organization United Opt Out National has assembled a state-by-state guide for opting your kids out of testing, claiming, “high-stakes testing is destructive to ALL children, educators, communities…and the democratic principles which underlie the purposes of public education.” Let’s say they’re right and standardized tests have got to go. What would be a scalable alternative? One possible solution percolating amongst education reformers may surprise you: portfolios. The practice of assessing learning with portfolios has deep roots in the arts world, visual arts and creative writing especially. Could portfolios save our public school students from a life of drill-and-kill?

—Lindsey Cosgrove, Portfolios: The Next Wave of Student Assessment? (December 30)

This was the first year that the most popular article on Createquity was not written by me, which I consider to be a mark of success for developing the authors (and editors) of this operation. In fact, I don’t show up until #5 on the list! Here were the most-read posts from 2013, in case you missed them:

  1. The Deduction for Charitable Contributions: The Sacred Cow of the Tax Code?
  2. Artists and Gentrification: Sticky Myths, Slippery Realities
  3. From Palate to Palette: Can Food Be Art?
  4. What Is a Museum?
  5. What We Talk About When We Talk About Race
  6. America’s Top ArtPlaces
  7. The Cultural Data Project and Its Impact on Arts Organizations
  8. Looking Beyond Our Borders for National Arts Education Policies
  9. Artists Shaking Up and Strengthening Communities in Rural America
  10. The Potential of Partnerships in Arts and Healthcare

In addition, honorable mention goes to 2012 posts Public Art and the Challenge of Evaluation, Creative Placemaking Has an Outcomes Problem, In Defense of Logic Models, Burning Man is Dead; Long Live Burning Man, and Fuzzy Concepts, Proxy Data: Why Indicators Won’t Track Creative Placemaking Success, all of which were still going strong in 2013.

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The Top 10 Arts Policy Stories of 2013

The Thinker at the Detroit Institute of Arts - photo by Quick fix

The Thinker at the Detroit Institute of Arts – photo by Quick fix

Each year, Createquity offers a list of the top ten arts policy stories of the past twelve months. You can read the previous editions here: 2012, 2011, 2010, and 2009. The list, like the blog, is focused on the United States, but is not oblivious to news from other parts of the world. I am grateful to Createquity editorial consultant Daniel Reid for contributing the entry on the arts and the GDP.

This year provided us with a mix of hope and stress. While boasting its share of concrete triumphs and failures, such as the launch of several field-building initiatives and the very high-profile flaming out of the venerable New York City Opera, 2013 was most notable for providing us with markers along the path of longer-term trends. With the struggles of the Great Recession largely behind us, arts stakeholders increasingly turned their attention to non-financial matters, planning for the future and seeking to invest wisely. Yet the specter of fear and dysfunction in Washington, DC hung over the arts field to a degree not seen since at least the Bush years, sapping enthusiasm from even the most passionate of government idealists.

10. Changing of the guard at ArtPlace

As noted in last year’s top stories roundup, creative placemaking was cruising for a bruising in 2012. While a number of factors contributed to the backlash against the signature arts policy push of Rocco Landesman’s tenure as NEA Chairman, by many accounts, the brusque style of ArtPlace’s founding director Carol Coletta didn’t help. Under her leadership, ArtPlace – a private-sector collaboration between 13 of the nation’s largest arts funders initiated by Landesman and the Ford Foundation’s Darren Walker – came under fire for failing to disclose its funders’ geographic restrictions, missing opportunities to thoughtfully measure creative placemaking’s impactbeing cavalier about gentrification and other social justice considerations, and supporting a project that alienated the people it was trying to help. In the midst of all this, Coletta decamped for a VP position at the Knight Foundation in March. Her eventual replacement announced in December, following an interim stint by former William Penn Foundation president Jeremy Nowak, was the NEA’s Chief of Staff Jamie Bennett, who had ingratiated himself with arts stakeholders across the country in his now-former position and earned widespread admiration in the process. Change is in the air at ArtPlace (the organization is moving with Bennett to New York, for one), and many eyes are watching the fledgling creative placemaking standard-bearer as we head into 2014.

9. City Opera bids farewell

Amidst near-death experiences far and wide, New York City Opera is the biggest and most famous U.S. arts institution yet to actually fail as a result of the Great Recession. The once-mighty company, which had visions of a $60 million annual budget as recently as 2008, had drastically scaled down its ambitions following a disastrous season during which it presented no full productions, lost its (brand new) general director, and managed to draw down or lose the majority of its endowment. By the time George Steel took over in 2009, most of the damage had been done, and City Opera could no longer afford its just-renovated home at Lincoln Center. A last-ditch effort to raise $7 million (including a first-of-its-kind-at-this-scale “save the opera” $1 million Kickstarter campaign) fell short, and the organization announced it was beginning bankruptcy proceedings in October.

8. Arts’ impact on GDP gets counted

Advocates at Americans for the Arts, the NEA, and elsewhere have spent years touting the arts’ economic impact, on the theory that legislators and executives will find this argument singularly compelling and respond by taking their fingers off the “defund” button. This year, their case got official recognition from the Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA), which calculates GDP. First, in July, the BEA revised its methodology for calculating GDP to include the money businesses spend to develop intellectual property, including artistic work like music and film; this added 3% to our nation’s economy overnight and underlined the economic importance of investment in creative work. Then, in December, the BEA and the NEA jointly released the first-ever official tally of the value the arts add to the U.S. economy, which they will continue to track annually (note that this does not yet take into account the methodological changes announced in July). The total – $500 billion a year, more than the entire tourism sector – impressed some mainstream news outlets and was promptly put through the spin cycle by a few creative-industry advocates, especially in Hollywood. But the bigger surprise was how little excitement the story seemed to generate in arts circles – perhaps because of the report’s bad news about the arts’ post-recession recovery, the fact that commercial fields accounted for the bulk of the value, or the omission of ancillary spending (such as on dinner before the theater) that often figures prominently in more localized economic impact studies.

7. The arts (start to) get serious about diversity

Yeah, yeah, I know. Talk is cheap, and our field has been dithering about multiculturalism, demographic change, and the need to diversify boards, staffs, and audiences for decades. Looking beneath the surface of the blogosphere debates, however, one does get the sense that momentum for action is growing. 2013 was the year of the inaugural SphinxCon, a convening on (racial) diversity in the performing arts spearheaded by a man who was almost the next Chairman of the NEA (more on that below), and the leaders of numerous relevant service organizations showed up to put their views on the record. One of those service organizations, Theatre Communications Group, is now a year into an extensive and very public “diversity and inclusion” initiative and the conversation is bubbling up at other service organizations as well now that financial survival is no longer everyone’s first priority. Meanwhile, Grantmakers in the Arts had its entire board undergo training by the People’s Institute of Survival and Beyond, a leading purveyor of anti-racist thought. These are small steps in the grand scheme of things, and diversity is not the same as justice, but one can’t help but be encouraged watching the organizations charged with leading the field begin to walk and not just talk.

6. The arts research field makes halting progress toward field-building

Last year, I got so frustrated with the state of arts research that I blathered on for more than an hour to the University of Chicago Cultural Policy Center about all of its problems and how to fix them. Fortunately, it turns out that I’m not alone in seeing the need and opportunity for reform of our field’s research infrastructure. The first and easiest step toward a better future was always going to be a way for people working in this area to communicate more effectively with each other, and May’s launch of the Cultural Research Network goes a long way toward checking that box. This was also the year that the arts began to flirt in a big way with Big Data. We saw the launch of two immense arts data aggregation initiatives, Philadelphia’s CultureBlocks (building off of the work of Social Impact of the Arts Project researchers Mark Stern and Susan Seifert) and Southern Methodist University’s National Center for Arts Research (aggregating data from the Cultural Data Project, TRG Arts, and elsewhere). A third project, the Harvard-led Initiative for Sustainable Arts in America, is set to launch in Detroit and the Bay Area in 2014. Meanwhile, the aforementioned Cultural Data Project is taking a look in the mirror with a gigantic, year-long strategic planning process that looks like it will result in major changes for the organization and the field. We’ve got a long, long way to go, but the progress we saw in 2013 toward a smarter, more tech-savvy, and more collaborative knowledge management infrastructure in the arts is highly encouraging.

5. The NEA remains Chairless

When Rocco Landesman left his post as chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts in December 2012, there was no reason to think that the leadership transition would be anything but smooth. Senior deputy Joan Shigekawa, who had long been rumored to be the one running the agency behind the scenes anyway, became the acting head, and a search for a new director began immediately. Yet as the year dragged on, the process became murkier, and at this point no one seems to be sure when the Obama administration (which is in charge of the search) might get around to formally nominating a new leader. Sphinx Organization founder and National Council on the Arts member Aaron Dworkin is the only individual to have publicly confirmed being a candidate for the gig and was widely seen as the frontrunner for the post until he pulled his name from consideration over the summer; he would have been the Endowment’s first black chairman. NEA fans can take heart at least in the fact that they are not alone; the National Endowment for the Humanities has likewise been without an official leader since May.

4. A roller coaster year for the DIA

My goodness, where to begin? The Detroit Institute of Arts has had more ink spilled on it in the last two years, it seems, than Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. It was just last August that the DIA was triumphantly celebrating the passage of a millage, or property tax, in three counties providing the institution with ten years of guaranteed operating support, allowing it to build its endowment and place itself on secure footing for the future. But then in July the City of Detroit announced that it was filing for bankruptcy, placing the DIA’s art collection – much of which is owned by the city – in jeopardy. The city’s state-appointed emergency manager, Kevyn Orr, has reportedly asked the DIA to come up with $500 million to help appease creditors and lead Detroit out of the doldrums, which is about how much the auction house Christie’s has assigned to the value of artworks purchased with city funds. The most interesting potential outcome has the city and the DIA entering into a “grand bargain” involving an effort to raise the $500 million from a consortium of local and national funders, including the Kresge and Ford Foundations, and turn the DIA into a private entity, free from city control. Regardless of how this one turns out, it’s an object lesson in the potential pitfalls of direct government involvement in arts institutions.

3. Edward Snowden shows us we’re not as free as we thought

A 30-year-old former government contractor running off with four laptops and goodness knows how many hard drives’ worth of secret intelligence documents made for a compelling news story, but its connection to the arts wasn’t immediately clear. After all, the initial disclosure – that the United States National Security Agency was working with phone companies to collect metadata (information about calls, though not the calls themselves) en masse – seemed like it might be No Big Deal. It’s helpful for our national security apparatus not to have to wait for days to know who’s called whom, they still have to get a warrant to figure out what was actually said, and it’s all cleared by the Congress and our courts. Right? But as more and more revelations from Snowden’s treasure trove have come to light, the creepier this whole thing has gotten, and the more it’s become apparent that virtually nothing we do online is secret from the government. The NSA has intercepted the fiber-optic cables that carry Internet traffic to collect information on activities without the Internet companies even knowing; the agency “repeatedly broke surveillance rules,” and there have already been cases of “willful misconduct” like stalking love interests. Here’s what’s important to keep in mind from an arts perspective: the United States has always prided itself as a country of free expression. One of the most important ways in which that freedom of expression has been possible is that the government has intentionally held back from giving itself the means to control it, letting social norms and the marketplace have influence instead. There may be little reason to think that Uncle Sam would be interested in some random artist’s work today, but imagine a change in administration, another war, and a widespread movement for social change in which artists play a big role, and all of the sudden 2013 might start to look a lot like 1983.

2. Obamacare gets off to a rocky start

For years, advocating for health care reform was a major priority of a number of arts organizations. Once the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act was passed, several of those organizations (including the one that I work for) took the opportunity to declare victory and go home. Pretty much no one considers Obamacare to be perfect, but the legislation had been widely praised and its rollout highly anticipated in arts circles because of its promise to better serve freelancers, particularly those with modest incomes (due to the subsidy provided). However, when couldn’t process enrollments to save its life upon its October launch, it all started to look very, very fragile – particularly the already popularity-challenged individual mandate that is, according to economists, the linchpin to the entire system. It looks like the worst fears about Obamacare’s shaky launch have passed, but not before a small business exchange and the employer mandate were delayed for a year and other concessions were made to mollify angry citizens, many of which are arguably bad policy. Make no mistake, the Affordable Care Act is here to stay – but how much it’ll actually end up improving things is perhaps a bit more in question than it seemed a few months ago.

1. Wait, who elected these guys?

When the dust from the 2012 election cleared and Barack Obama was still president, the Senate was still Democratic, and the House was still Republican, we knew we were in for another two years (and most likely four) of divided government. But I don’t think too many people expected it would get this bad. The hyper-partisan environment, political infighting between conservative and establishment Republicans, petty power struggles between branches of government, and the determination to treat even the smallest difference of opinion as a virtual fight to the death all contributed to one of the least productive Congressional years in recorded history and a 16-day government shutdown that earned the ridicule of the world. As much as this sucked for all of us as citizens, it all but put the kibosh on any dreams of transformative arts policy coming from the Obama administration. With so many urgent national priorities getting in line to be ignored or gamed by a Congress that is far more adept at drafting press releases than passing legislation, maintaining the status quo is about the best that arts advocates can hope for in 2014.

Honorable mention:

Happy 2014 to all!

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For Public Artists, A Very Public Removal


Graffiti mecca 5Pointz was whitewashed in November by the property owner in preparation of the building’s demolition. Photo credit: Dan Nguyen

For two decades the warehouse in Long Island City, Queens, known as 5Pointz stood as an unofficial museum of graffiti art. Jerry Wolkoff, the building’s owner, was considered an ally of graffiti artists for offering it up as a free canvas in the ‘90s – but that ended in 2010, when an artist was injured on site and the city fined Wolkoff for several building violations. No legal protections had ever been secured for the artwork, and despite an attempt to win landmark status and a last-minute call to “Save 5Pointz” by street art superstar Banksy, a judge ruled on November 12 that Wolkoff had the right to tear the complex down. Two residential high-rises will be built in its place. 

With the rise in Percent for Art programs around the country, questions of ownership, responsibility, and control over public art remain critical. Increasingly, commissioners of public art attempt to pre-empt these problems by hiring public arts advisors and engaging communities in the selection process, even inviting them into the creative conversation with the artist. But public art is a complicated and varied medium that includes a broad spectrum of artistic styles and approaches – from the most familiar bronze figural monuments to massive mid-century abstract sculptures, site-specific installations, and new media forms.

The challenges to long-term success—and the trickiness of defining that—are formidable, even for site owners and artists who go in with a clear-eyed, thoughtful process. Though art consultants and community dialogue help in the conscientious placement and positive reception of public work, they do not always guarantee the art will remain undisturbed. This post explores some of the ways public art can go awry – and how artists can try to protect their work.

Threatening Signs

A variety of factors can lead to the removal and scrapping of public art, including neighborhood development, changes in building ownership, dilapidation due to poor maintenance, and shifts in demographics or public sentiment. In the case of 5Pointz, the matter involved real estate development and a changing community. The area of Queens where the warehouse resides has seen major increases in property values resulting from gentrification. The building owner wanted to capitalize on the property, which has sat empty—with the exception of its use by graffiti artists—since the incident in 2010. Paradoxically, the popularity of 5Pointz as an open-air museum likely contributed to the development of the neighborhood that led to the decision to demolish it, which points to the special need for forward-thinking legal protection of arts initiatives in public areas off the beaten path.

Sometimes when a building or site is sold, the artwork that adorns it no longer fits in with the taste or interests of the new owner. Lumenscape (2009), a City of Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs Percent for Art piece created by artist Rob Ley, lost its site-specific home above the Wilshire and Western Metro station when the newly constructed Solair building was sold shortly after opening. The new owners, Starwood Capital Group, decided to remove the piece, but thoughtfully gave Ley the option to take it back rather than simply disposing of it. Ley has since sought a more permanent location for the work. Planning for possibilities like the sale of the underlying site is wise, and to protect their interests artists should think like lawyers or engage others to do it for them.

Maintenance—or the lack thereof—is another major issue when it comes to the longevity of a public work. While freestanding art in bronze, marble, or metal needs occasional cleaning and restoration, site-specific installations and new media work can require a lot more attention. In the case of Athena Tacha’s installation Green Acres, created for the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) in Trenton, NJ, the DEP asserted that it needed to replace the work because the ground tiles, which had settled unevenly over the years, were a safety hazard in the case of emergency evacuations. Tacha claimed that the problem was caused by poor maintenance and the DEP’s decision to add trees to the planter boxes without consulting her – the roots eventually grew beneath the tiles and disrupted them.


Athena Tacha’s Green Acres was threatened to be removed for reasons related to public safety and maintenance. Photo credit: Athena Tacha, 1987 (The Cultural Landscape Foundation)

The rise in new media and digital art has resulted in a whole new set of maintenance issues. If an artwork isn’t properly installed or funds are not set aside for routine repairs and updates, a once visually stunning piece can become a public art fail. Once described as a “floating television garden,” video art pioneer Nam June Paik’s Video Arbor (1990) is composed of cage-like columns supporting multiple TVs surrounded by wisteria. Although the foliage is regularly trimmed back, visitors report that the televisions are rarely on, and the site’s management has blamed faulty wiring and an outdated LaserDisc system for the AV problems. Preservationists have started a conversation with the Nam June Paik Foundation in the hope of procuring financial support for the repair and upkeep of Video Arbor. However, if the managers of the site where an artwork resides don’t have the resources to fix these kinds of technical and equipment failures, the easiest solution may be to take the work down. Specifying the maintenance that will be required—and who is accountable for performing it—in the early phases of a project’s development can go a long way toward preserving it as long as possible.

Perhaps the most difficult issue to avoid is shifts in social attitudes and values. At the University of North Carolina (UNC), Chapel Hill, a bronze statue called “Silent Sam” was erected in 1913 to commemorate the 321 alumni who died fighting for the Confederacy in the Civil War. A hundred years later, members of the student body, which now includes many African Americans, consider the 20-foot Confederate soldier to be racially offensive and a thinly disguised tribute to the legacy of slavery. Despite the school’s attempt to quell criticism by erecting another monument, Unsung Founders Memorial by Do-Ho Suh, celebrating the unknown slaves who help build the university, detractors continue to call for the older bronze to be removed. At the same time, there are those who would rather see the piece contextualized with a plaque speaking to the history of racial discrimination associated with it. Of course, art is sometimes designed to be provocative; in this case, though, public attitudes have changed over time, creating new controversies that were not anticipated by the artist or the owners of the site. To stave off more immediate backlashes, however, public arts commissioners and artists can include local communities in the creative process to ensure their values and interests are reflected as accurately as possible in the final work.

Rights and Responsibilities

Regardless of why it happens, the decision to remove public art is almost never the artist’s. While abrupt disposal may feel to the artist—and devotees, as in the case of 5Pointz—as though a painting she labored over has publicly had a hole punched through it, the actual outcome for the work may not be outright demolition. It could be indefinite storage, sale on the secondary market (usually for the owner’s benefit) or, in the case of Ley, a return to the artist. In an effort to avoid these events, every artist should think carefully in advance about how to preserve her vision.

So what can artists do to ensure their work is protected in the long run? States differ slightly in their public arts policies and the rights they allot to artists. The Art Law Blog points to guidelines established by Americans for the Arts to help commissioning agencies and artists sidestep potential snafus. The national Visual Artists Rights Act (VARA) of 1990 also states that artists have “the right—(B) to prevent any destruction of a work of recognized stature, and any intentional or grossly negligent destruction of that work is a violation of that right.” VARA has helped numerous artists prevent destruction or removal of their works over the years, but it is not a panacea. VARA only covers works produced after 1990 – and public art contracts often include waivers of this right. In the case of 5Pointz, the judges considering the case ruled the building was not a “work of visual art” and therefore not of “recognized stature” under the act.

With the popularity of public art programs growing around the country, debates over what should be done when an artwork is no longer welcome at its site will continue. One solution to the controversy may be to establish a decommissioning standard wherein work that was once considered permanent can be formally and more respectfully retired from its original location if another home or collector is found for it. Another interesting model is temporary arts commissions like those made by the NYC Public Art Fund. In these instances, the public art has a limited exhibition life, the opportunity to change venues, and the potential for purchase and permanent display. Regardless of whether these options are embraced as industry standards, artists must be vigilant about negotiating on their own behalf to avoid VARA waivers, ensure proper funds are available for installation and long-term maintenance, and at the very least procure a right of first refusal should their artwork ever be displaced.


Portfolios: The Next Wave of Student Assessment?


The ubiquitous multiple choice answer sheet. Photo by COCOEN.

Pretty much no one likes standardized tests. The concept is nothing new, of course – the New York State Regent Exam dates back to Civil War times. A century and a half later, the implementation of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) hinged all of the federal government’s reward and punishment on a school’s “Adequate Yearly Progress” (AYP), a now-infamous composite measure of school performance primarily based on test scores. In the decade since, test-bashing has become something akin to a national pastime, and folks are acting out.

Earlier this year teachers in Seattle flat out refused to administer mandated state exams, claiming that the tests were a misuse of precious school resources, unfairly used as part of teacher evaluations, and an inaccurate indication of student learning. And Seattle isn’t alone. The organization United Opt Out National has assembled a state-by-state guide for opting your kids out of testing, claiming, “high-stakes testing is destructive to ALL children, educators, communities…and the democratic principles which underlie the purposes of public education.”

Let’s say they’re right and standardized tests have got to go. What would be a scalable alternative? One possible solution percolating amongst education reformers may surprise you: portfolios. The practice of assessing learning with portfolios has deep roots in the arts world, visual arts and creative writing especially. Could portfolios save our public school students from a life of drill-and-kill?

The Mechanics

A portfolio is a collection of individual work samples (some of which may have been graded previously), assessed as a whole. It’s a way of combining disparate items into one aggregate assessment demonstrating the application of skills and concepts learned in a classroom setting. Portfolios can be either summative or formative in structure. A summative portfolio focuses on the product or end result of the student’s learning such as, for example, a digital recording of a final performance, a scientific lab report, or a final series of photographs. A formative assessment takes into account the student’s process of learning and can include works-in-progress or evidence of the effort leading to the final product. This type of portfolio might include an actor’s annotated script, the shape and light charcoal studies for a still life painting, or math problem demonstrating the steps in between question and answer.

There are three key elements of assessing learning with portfolios:

  • Clearly defined skills and/or knowledge to be assessed,
  • Work samples, determined either by the student or the teacher or both, and
  • A rubric with which to score collection of work with clear descriptors for each level of success, usually using a point system, and ideally made available to students before portfolios are submitted. (Examples can be found here.)

Sometimes the items included are accompanied by written reflection on the process of creating the final product or the intention behind the work. To demonstrate content knowledge, more traditional academic writing may be included as well.

Part of a Larger Movement

Portfolios are one assessment tool under the larger umbrella of an emerging mode of student evaluation called performance assessment. According to Beyond Basic Skills: The Role of Performance Assessment in Achieving 21st Century Standards of Learning by Linda Darling-Hammond and Frank Adamson:

For many people, performance assessment is most easily defined by what it is not: specifically, it is not multiple choice testing. In a performance assessment, rather than choosing among pre-determined options, students must construct an answer, produce a product, or perform an activity.

Using performance assessment, a student might be asked to write a letter to the editor about a historical event from a specific point of view, draw a series of electrical circuits explaining how changes in configurations would affect the flow of electricity, or demonstrate the ability to use a map by actually navigating.

Performance assessment is rising in popularity as the Common Core State Standards inch closer to full implementation. These new learning standards, adopted by 45 states, four U.S. territories, and the District of Columbia, require “a greater focus on critical thinking, synthesis and analysis, problem solving, communication, media and technology.” States including Maine, New Hampshire, New York, and Ohio are starting to adopt performance assessment systems—which reveal students’ ability to apply information, not just to remember and regurgitate it—to meet the new standards.

Not all performance assessment techniques include portfolios. But portfolios (whether arts-specific or not) are an important piece of the performance assessment puzzle, and learning from the arts’ experience with portfolios could be useful as performance assessment reform initiatives move forward in schools and districts across the country.

Portfolio Assessment in Practice

Some schools and districts are already making use of portfolio assessment. The Beacon School, a public high school in New York City, has been celebrated as a national model of portfolio assessment since it opened in 1993. From the beginning, Beacon leaders wanted to assess their students using methods similar to those employed in graduate schools. Students assembled a portfolio of long-term projects and representative samples from all of their classes – science, history, English, foreign languages – and defended their work to a faculty panel.

By the end of its first decade, Beacon’s plans for portfolio assessment had been somewhat derailed. In the late 1990s New York State began to require students to pass the state’s Regents Exam to graduate. This new requirement meant time was diverted from labs and projects to test preparation. In his 2004 reporting on the Beacon School, writer Jay Matthews explained, “even the most ardent advocates [of portfolios] have acknowledged that samples of student work cannot compete with the ability of standardized testing to quickly and cheaply determine the overall performance of a school district.”

The school still maintains as much of its original assessment strategy as possible. Its website stresses the dual priorities of the school and the state: “Beacon offers a dynamic, inquiry-based curriculum for all students that exceeds standards set by the New York State Regents. Technology and arts are infused throughout the college preparatory curriculum. Each year students must present performance-based projects to panels of teachers, and pass New State Regents tests and community service to graduate.”

School districts in Tennessee are using portfolio assessment for a different purpose that harkens back to its arts-based roots and combines student evaluation with teacher evaluation. In Tennessee’s teacher evaluation system, 35% of a teacher’s employment review is based on test scores. This is a problem for the 70% of teachers in most schools who do not teach a state-tested subject, but portfolios may offer the solution. As reported back in 2012 in The Commercial Appeal newspaper, “[The head of Memphis City Schools arts education, Dru Davison,] and 40 Memphis art teachers wrote a four-page rubric for what peer reviewers should see in the student work for each of 40 art disciplines, from marching band to jazz band.” Each teacher chooses samples of his or her students’ work to form the teacher’s review portfolio, which is then assessed by a blind peer group based on the pre-determined rubrics. The Tennessee Fine Arts Growth Measures System, as it’s called, is in the pilot phase in Memphis City Schools and is starting to garner some national attention. Participation is voluntary for Tennessee school districts. More than ten are participating this school year, up from three last year.

Laura D. Goe, a research scientist at the Educational Testing Service, told EdWeek about the initiative, “Tennessee has the right idea in promoting this effort to achieve some rigor and comparability in a set of content that is difficult to measure…To me, it is a model for where we want to ultimately go [with teacher evaluation], and where I think we will go in most subjects.”


The case studies in Tennessee and the Beacon School are intriguing and reflect well on portfolios as a school-wide, district-wide, and maybe even statewide option for evaluating students and even teachers. Could portfolio assessment become a core mechanism for measuring student learning, on the scale of standardized tests?

Statewide and national testing systems depend on reliable, valid results. Reporting on The Beacon School, Jay Matthews wrote, “the argument between advocates of standardized tests and advocates of portfolios usually ends with each side saying it cannot trust the results produced by the other.” For portfolio assessment, it is often the problem of subjectivity that causes concern among test supporters.

Standardized tests, with so-called selected response questions such as multiple choice or true/false, don’t need to be graded by humans. Such questions can arguably be biased, and there is the possibility of human error in the setting of the machines and the handling of the scoring sheets, but the grading is never subjective thanks to grading machines, which also make the process comparatively faster and less expensive. By contrast, portfolios must be graded by humans and grading between raters or even the same raters at different times can be inconsistent. A good rubric and rigorous training can eliminate some personal bias, but not all (see page 22 of Beyond Basic Skills for more information). This problem is a big one if portfolios are to be adopted on a large scale. The ability to reliably compare standardized tests makes it possible to identify outliers among schools, districts, and states, to learn from overachievers, and support underachievers. If the assessment itself and the grading method are not the same for all students, the evaluation won’t be useful for these purposes.

Fortunately, there are large-scale testing systems that already deal with this problem. The Advanced Placement exams taken by high school students in advanced classes in subjects like history and English, for example, are composed of a series of essay questions of various lengths. Students take the exams and then their teachers ship their answer booklets off to be graded by trained “readers.” The writing portion of the SAT is another example. The volume of exams to be graded by each trained reader means that for a handful of SAT essays, factual errors may be overlooked as readers are rewarded for speed. In such cases, students end up demonstrating their knowledge of the grading system rather than their writing ability. While there may be issues with the quality of grading vs. quantity of exams, the fact that the SAT has been accepted for years as a satisfactory (if far from perfect) method of judging students’ college readiness should mean that the subjectivity challenge of grading portfolios is nothing new or prohibitive.

In education, it all comes down to implementation. If a student’s portfolio is filled with work samples that aren’t authentic demonstrations of knowledge and skills learned, it is no better an indicator of learning than a long chain of multiple-choice questions with memorized answers. For portfolio assessment to succeed as a nationwide option for student evaluation, appropriate learning goals must be set with rigorous and specific rubrics. Teachers must also be well trained in administering and scoring assessments, and students well prepared. It’s a novel concept to some, but if portfolios continue to spread as a viable, scalable assessment method, we might emerge from the era of crushing accountability into a new age – one in which testing has a positive effect on learning. 

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Grantmakers in the Arts Goes to Washington

willard jpeg

The lobby of the Willard Hotel is rumored to be the birthplace of the term “lobbying.”
Photo by Ellen Meiselman

In March of 2012, Grantmakers in the Arts (GIA) launched the Arts Education Funders Coalition. The goal of the Coalition is “to research and identify federal policy opportunities that promote equitable access to arts education in all public schools.” It consists of about 135 individuals from 115 organizations within GIA’s membership and is led by a small advisory committee of prominent voices in arts advocacy, education, and philanthropy.

This is new territory for GIA. The organization’s president and CEO, Janet Brown, acknowledged in a recent conversation that public policy can be uncomfortable, risky, and “very difficult to get funders to invest in.” Successes are few, far between, and at the mercy of our volatile political process. But when a critical mass of arts education funders felt funding nonprofit programs was no longer a sufficient strategy to achieve their aspirations to further arts education in public schools, they decided to attempt to affect policy directly, and GIA took on the challenge.

Setting the stage

When attempting to influence public policy, an organization must first decide where and how to target its efforts. Will the focus be on the federal, state, or local level? Should a law be enacted, tweaked, or repealed? With the Arts Education Funders Coalition, GIA decided to focus on the federal level and work toward adding pro-arts language to existing education legislation.

In announcing the formation of the Coalition, Janet Brown explained:

Why is GIA involving itself in federal policy, you might ask. It’s because that’s where decisions are made in education in America. Although we’d love to believe that education policies are determined locally, the reality is federal policy drives the actions made by state departments of education and local superintendents and school boards. Our obsession with testing to determine learning is evidence of this. Equity issues are best dealt with at the federal level where the governmental “carrot” is meant to level the playing field.

Despite its national aspirations, the Funders Coalition hasn’t garnered much attention to date from the arts sector. According to Janet Brown, “[The Arts Education Funders Coalition is] not a very visible project because it’s a different kind of advocacy than American for the Arts (AFTA).” AFTA, the lead advocacy organization for our sector, mobilizes email campaigns and organizes Arts Advocacy Day, which brings hundreds of people to Washington each year in an overt attempt to draw the attention of policymakers to issues concerning the arts community, among other advocacy efforts. (The organizations are talking to each other: AFTA’s Vice President of Government Affairs and Arts Education, Narric Rome, is on the advisory committee of the GIA Arts Education Funders Coalition.) GIA is taking a quieter approach, banking in part on the assumption that a pro-arts education agenda would have more clout coming from a group of people who have skin in the public education game:

As a group of funders who have contributed millions of dollars to the public education system or to the nonprofit arts sector to compensate for lack of arts education in public schools, Coalition members and other funders have a stake in developing effective policy that will secure the place of arts education in twenty-first century education.

To lead the effort, GIA hired a Washington, DC firm specializing in education policy, the Penn Hill Group, to help develop an agenda and do the on-the-ground lobbying. Executive vice president Alex Nock has been presenting the Funders Coalition’s progress as part of GIA’s web conference series.

The Funders Coalition’s agenda takes on many aspects of federal education policy, including juvenile justice, research, Head Start, teacher evaluation, and the cornerstone of federal education legislation, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA, formerly known as No Child Left Behind). It describes the arts-positive change the Funders Coalition would like to see in each area, including:

  • “that any school improvement structure adopted in ESEA reauthorization… include arts education as a strategy in the overall plan to turn around a low-performing school,”
  • “that arts education be integrated into the Head Start standards and partnerships be encouraged between Head Start providers and community arts organizations,” and
  • “that the [Investing in Innovation] program adopt an absolute priority for arts education that requires the Department of Education to fund quality applications with an arts education focus.”

The agenda is multifaceted, but GIA’s focus is on language. According to Janet Brown, the Coalition faced a choice at its outset. It could propose new, stand-alone legislation to advance arts education, or lobby to change existing laws. After considering the contentious political climate, relatively low priority of education policy on the congressional to-do list, and extreme amount of time and effort brand new legislation would require, GIA and the Penn Hill Group deemed the latter option more realistic.

The story so far

We’re just weeks away from the Coalition’s second birthday. What progress has it made?

On November 18,2013, GIA sent an email to members of the Funders Coalition with good news: “Through work with Members of Congress and their staff, [we were] able to ensure that arts education would play a prominent role in the preschool programs funded under [a proposed] bill should it pass Congress over the next year.” Time will tell how “prominent” that role actually is, but the announcement suggests an encouraging victory for what is a relatively new effort.

Pre-K may have been low-hanging fruit for the Funders Coalition. Without standardized testing and other competitors for the class time that older students face, Pre-K curricula naturally have more room for the arts. But according to Brown, the inclusion of arts-friendly language in the bill was not inevitable. “If we had not been there the language would not have been included,” Brown said. “Bills are written based on the knowledge of the staff who are writing them.” If that’s the case, it’s a good thing the Penn Hill Group and GIA are there to educate them.

The Coalition has also succeeded in getting more specific language included in Senator Tom Harkin’s bill to reauthorize ESEA, which will hopefully be brought to the Senate floor for consideration in March or June. ESEA has been waiting for reauthorization since 2007, and Alyson Klein for EdWeek accurately called its chances back in June: “Everyone knows that the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act is ultimately headed absolutely nowhere [in 2013], thanks to partisan divisions.” The language included in Senator Harkin’s bill is a win for the Funders Coalition, but the success of the bill is difficult to forecast given Congress’s recent track record of inaction when it comes to ESEA.

The next act

The Funders Coalition’s effort raises familiar but tricky questions about arts education advocacy:

  • Is legislative language without designated funding enough to make real change? New York City’s arts education legislation is a great example of the folly of language that isn’t backed by specific, dedicated funding. In 2007, $67.5 million previously earmarked for arts education was released to the discretion of school principals. Accountability measures were put in place to theoretically ensure that students received the arts education prescribed by law, but many arts advocates would argue that the state of arts education in New York City schools has declined as a result of the change. The conventional wisdom is that if decision makers don’t have to spend money on a non-tested subject, they likely won’t, focusing resources instead on subjects in which the school is held accountable for its performance. To ensure the delivery of arts education in schools, policy needs to mandate what is to be provided to students, allocate dedicated funding, and establish a mechanism to ensure compliance. How much will be budgeted, for example, for the arts if they are to play a prominent role in preschool programs across the country? Will the appropriated funding be enough for full-time arts teachers in every school or simply materials with which general classroom teachers can incorporate arts projects? Language will help, but it’s not everything. Funding is a very important piece of the puzzle. Which begs the question…
  • Does it make more sense to work at the federal or state/local level? Federal policies set priorities which states are encouraged to adopt via competitive funding programs and other means of reward and punishment. All states receiving Race to the Top grants, for example, must develop comprehensive teacher evaluation systems as a condition of funding. Nevertheless, education is constitutionally assigned as a state concern and the bulk of education funding – over 90% – comes from state and local sources. Therefore, state and local officials have the most control over how education funds are spent. If you grant the premise that money is a key, if not the key, ingredient in successful reform, the states could be the best place to advocate for arts education.

For now, it’s too early to tell what answers we might glean from GIA’s experience, and whether its quieter strategy will pay off. It could be that potential victories for the Funders Coalition really do influence state priorities and lead to expanded arts education opportunities in schools. At the very least, as the Funders Coalition continues its work we should know more about the potential for funders to be advocates. There are many valuable lessons to be learned as this effort continues.


Studio Thinking: the condensed version

This is an abridged edition of the full analysis of Studio Thinking for the Createquity Arts Policy Library.

First published in 2007, Studio Thinking: The Real Benefits of Visual Arts Education by Lois Hetland, Ellen Winner, Shirley Veenema, and Kimberly M. Sheridan offers a new approach and perspective on the “real benefits” of visual arts studio education. The authors believed that by studying the intrinsic value of teaching art rather than its instrumental effect on other subjects, like math and reading, they would be able to make a stronger case for the importance of studying art.


Studio Thinking presents the researchers’ careful observations and analysis of 28 visual art projects taught in five high school level studio art classrooms at two Boston area high schools with “exemplary” arts programs. Using an admittedly subjective approach, Hetland, Winner et al. worked to incorporate evidence-based methods in the study as much as possible and developed a code system to calculate how often specific habits and skills observed being taught. Through this rigorous process, they were able to identify four “Studio Structures of Learning” and eight “Studio Habits of Mind.” A second edition published in 2013, Studio Thinking 2, features a new addition to the core Studio Structures of Learning, further explanation and examples of habits of mind, and new information on the application of the authors’ research since the book’s first publication.

According to the authors, the Studio Structures for Learning are four modes of instruction germane to the studio classroom: Demonstration-Lecture; Students-at-Work; Critique; and Exhibition (with Transitions functioning as a sub-structure between the other four). These Studio Structures create a supportive atmosphere for learning eight so-called Studio Habits of Mind (SHoM): Develop Craft, Engage and Persist, Understand Art Worlds, Stretch and Explore, Envision, Express, Reflect, and Observe.

These habits are taught in a non-hierarchical manner, each no more important than the rest, and a class may consist of several habits taught in “clusters” and/or interwoven into the Studio Structures. The combination of Studio Structures and SHoM is what Hetland, Winner et al. call the “Studio Thinking Framework.”

Studio Thinking notes that the Studio Thinking Framework can be useful as a method of self-assessment for both teachers and students, as well as in non-classroom settings. The authors are now using the framework as a guide to conduct a study that examines the transference of studio thinking – i.e. the degree to which students’ engagement with the SHoM leads to their using similar dispositions when engaging with subjects such as math and reading.


The Studio Thinking Framework has been widely embraced since it was first introduced, with the original Studio Thinking making the New York Times bestseller list and the authors consulting on a number of national, state and local arts education initiatives. While well executed on the whole, Studio Thinking suffers from several limitations in its methodology and design that narrow the extent to which it truly “makes a case” for different forms of arts education.

The Studio Thinking study focused solely on the visual arts and more research is needed to determine how applicable the framework is across all arts disciplines. Furthermore, the visual art classes studied mimic a pre-professional studio teaching style commonly found in college-level and adult arts courses, which implies that the research may have little to say about the art classes more common to secondary and primary settings. By the authors’ own admission, Studio Thinking’s descriptive and theoretical approach makes no attempt to “prove” anything about the benefits of arts education. Given these methodological limitations, the use of the framework in transfer studies, the promotion of it as a tool of advocacy, and arts advocates’ quick adoption of it, all seem a bit premature. It would be more prudent and helpful to conduct research that compares the differences between teaching arts and non-arts subjects from the perspective of studio habits of the mind to more accurately pinpoint the benefits of arts education relative to other subjects and students.


Studio Thinking‘s reception to date, and in particular the alignment of the Studio Thinking Framework with federal and state arts education initiatives, suggest that the authors’ findings will have some long-term influence on the way educators, advocates, and policymakers think about studio arts and education as a whole. Does Studio Thinking promote a space in society where teaching the arts is valued for its own sake and not a means to an end? In one sense it does isolate how studio learning encourages the development of important critical skills necessary to produce creative, engaged individuals. However, the decision to focus on the results of the method of teaching and use the study to once more look for arts transference to other subjects should concern arts advocates. It suggests an easy leap for policymakers to say, “Thanks for showing us how to better structure curriculum and classes for the other still ‘more important’ subjects. So now we really don’t need the arts.”

As the emergent Studio Thinking movement focuses more on expanding and generalizing what is learned in studio classes beyond the studio, a clear distinction between the effects of the art and the effects of the teaching will become increasingly important.

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Arts Policy Library: Studio Thinking

Studio Thinking

For a 75% shorter read than what you’re about to experience below, try Studio Thinking: the condensed version.

At the turn of the millennium, arts education found itself increasingly under the axe in a school system beleaguered by budget cuts, low grades and poor test scores. Arts advocates and educators were scrambling to prove the worth of the arts as a means of boosting those test scores and grades in academic subjects deemed “more important,” like math and reading. Motivated by claims of evidence supporting this case, Project Zero researchers Lois Hetland and Ellen Winner conducted a meta-analysis of related research studies dating back to the 1950s to determine if there was in fact a direct correlation. They found no evidence to support the notion that studying the arts caused students’ standardized test scores or academic grades to improve. Arts advocates reeled at this disclosure, which provoked no small amount of controversy in arts education circles. Nevertheless, Hetland and Winner believed that by taking a different approach to the research—one based on the intrinsic value of teaching art rather than its instrumental effect on other subjects—they would be able to make a stronger case for the importance of studying art. They thus set out to determine the “real benefits” of a visual arts studio education. The result was the first edition of Studio Thinking: The Real Benefits of Visual Arts Education, authored in 2007 by Hetland, Winner, Shirley Veenema, and Kimberly M. Sheridan.

Studio Thinking exhaustively presents the researchers’ careful observations and analysis of 28 visual art projects taught in five high school level studio art classrooms. Their findings suggest that students not only learn “dispositions” specific to visual art, but also six general “habits of mind” that are potentially useful in other subjects. A second edition published in 2013, Studio Thinking 2, features a new addition to the core Studio Structures of Learning, further explanation and examples of habits of mind, and new information on the application of the authors’ research since the book’s first publication.


Studio Thinking and its update present what the authors identify as the “real curriculum” of a visual art studio education. The authors focused on the visual arts to establish parameters for the study, but hoped that others would look more closely at other arts disciplines. At the time the initial research for Studio Thinking was conducted, there was no other arts-related research that examined the day-to-day teachings of studio art, so the authors developed a methodology based on traditions established by three pioneering non-arts classroom studies: Magdalene Lambert’s Teaching Problems and The Problems of Teaching; James W. Stigler & James Heibert’s The Teaching Gap; and Harold Stevenson’s The Learning Gap.

To observe studio instruction in practice, Hetland and Winner worked with five visual arts teachers at two Boston area high schools with “exemplary” arts programs, the public Boston Arts Academy and the private Walnut Hill School for the Arts. They chose the former for its student demographics, which mirrored those of the Boston area. The Walnut Hill student body, by contrast, was mostly middle and upper-middle class, with a diverse mix of local and international urban and suburban students, and a high concentration of Koreans. At both high schools, students were admitted by portfolio review and/or admissions assignments and interviews. They spent a minimum of three hours a day working on their art under the guidance of their teachers, all of whom were also practicing artists with Master’s degrees in art or art education.

The setting of the study is the studio class environment, which, according to the authors, differs from a “traditional” classroom setting in a number of ways. Traditional classrooms arrange desks in rows facing the front of the class. The teacher often lectures or gives a presentation, and sits at his/her desk while students work on tests or other in-class assignments. In an art studio,  by contrast, easels, horse-stools, and various seating apparatus are typically arranged in a loose circle. In the center of the room the teacher lectures, demonstrates, or sets up a still-life model. When not giving a presentation, the teacher roams the studio space executing tasks or visiting students at work. Special lighting and music may also be employed in the studio class to promote an active and focused atmosphere.

Over the course of the yearlong study, Hetland, Winner et al. observed the instruction of 28 art projects. Using an admittedly subjective approach, they worked to incorporate evidence-based methods in the study as much as possible. By videotaping the classes, they were able to compare their direct observations with documentation and more thoroughly analyze student-teacher interactions. They requested post-class written reflections from teachers, conducted interviews with students, and examined samples of the student’s artwork for learning patterns. A code system was created based on their initial analysis, which took into account teacher’s intentions as stated in their interviews and calculated how often specific habits and skills were taught. The code was further refined with the assistance of consulting field specialists and distilled into categories that described what the researchers had observed being taught. Through this rigorous process, they were able to identify four “Studio Structures of Learning” and eight “Studio Habits of Mind.”

According to the authors, the Studio Structures for Learning are four modes of instruction germane to the studio classroom. Initially observed in each teacher’s class were three structural elements: Demonstration-Lecture; Students-at-Work; and Critique. Each studio class features a combination of these activities. In Studio Thinking 2, Hetland, Winner et al. introduce a fourth culminating structure called Exhibition. It is described as an “overarching” structure that encompasses the original three. The authors also identify a fifth sub-element called Transitions, which is the time spent transitioning between all other structures.

An illustration of how four Studio Structures are integrated into Walnut Hill teacher Jim Woodside's studio class. The authors call this studio time organization a Punctuated Class whereby the structures are layered with shorter intervals between them.

An example of how the Studio Structures are integrated into Walnut Hill teacher Jim Woodside’s art class. The authors call this organization of time the Punctuated Class whereby the structures are layered with shorter intervals in between and a critique at the end. Image: Studio Thinking 2, p. 29

These Studio Structures create a supportive atmosphere for learning eight “Studio Habits of Mind” (referred to in the text by the somewhat unwieldy acronym SHoM): Develop Craft, Engage and Persist, Understand Art Worlds, Stretch and Explore, Envision, Express, Reflect, and Observe. The authors assert that these SHoM are what the studio arts “actually” teach. Each is considered a “disposition”—a term and theory borrowed from the work of Project Zero co-founder David Perkins and his colleagues—or way of thinking that includes specific core skills, an inclination to use those skills, and an alertness to opportunities to put them to use. Not all eight habits of mind are not necessarily present within each studio project, but usually several are learned within a successful course. The authors found that the habits are taught in a non-hierarchical manner, each no more important than the rest, and a class may consist of several habits taught in “clusters” and/or interwoven into the Studio Structures.

Each structure emphasizes the studio habits in different ways. For example, when Walnut Hill teacher Jason Green gave a presentation on clay assembly, the researchers observed four SHoM embedded in the Demonstration-Lecture segment of his class. As he manipulated the clay and spoke, the students “learn[ed] to observe as they look[ed] carefully at ceramics; they learn[ed] to envision as they plan[ned] their designs; they learn[ed] to express as they think about conveying some kind of idea or feeling in their set; and all the while they [were] learning to acquire technical skills required for expertise in ceramics.” Put in the authors’ terminology, the teacher “used a ‘cluster’ of Observe-Express-Envision-Develop Craft: Technique.”

The Students-at-Work structure allows students to spend in-class time working on an assignment, while keeping the classroom focused on art-making goals. Teachers are able to give individual attention and address the specific needs of each student, creating a tailored approach to learning studio habits when students require help. While a cluster of SHoM are embedded in the art project, the teacher draws each student’s individual habit needs into the foreground as he circulates the room to offer one-on-one guidance. For example, a student may be encouraged to “Envision” what another color would do for a painting, or “Persist” in pulling the final composition together.

In the context of the Critique structure, the period when students and teacher collectively analyze individual artworks, the students integrate SHoM through a process of inquiry, observation, and discussion. This structure allows them to make connections with habits different from those that may have been taught in other stages of the class. During a critique, the teacher may compare a student’s unique style to a particular artistic movement unfamiliar to the class (Understand Art Worlds). Another student may be asked to explain why she made a particular artistic decision (Reflect) and how the work would differ if she had done it another way (Envision and Express).

New to the second edition of Studio Thinking is the fourth structure, Exhibition, which the authors claim incorporates all eight SHoM. Through the staging and presentation of the artwork produced within the Studio Structures, students learn different but supportive skills that provide a broader context for understanding the purpose of art, and for deepening their comprehension of the studio habits.

The combination of Studio Structures and SHoM is what Hetland, Winner et al. call the “Studio Thinking Framework.” An interesting outcome of the original study, described in the second edition, has been its application as a method of self-assessment for both teachers and students. Rather than focusing solely on skill development, such as drawing techniques, instructors may evaluate their own teaching weaknesses and strengths through the lens of the framework, or set goals to improve certain dispositions in their students by altering their teaching approach. The authors also report instances where students themselves have used the framework to assess and improve their skills and dispositions.

Other Applications of the Studio Thinking Framework

Hetland, Winner et al. suggest that the Studio Thinking Framework can also be useful in non-classroom settings, such as teacher education programs, museum and gallery education, new technology research, and even policymaking. The authors suggest using the framework to inform new teachers of the “purpose and rigor” of arts education and to improve museum- and gallery-offered courses. They also present ideas for adapting the framework to non-arts subjects, and attest to witnessing its use in a variety of classroom environments:

Teachers have reported to us that the Studio Habits of Mind are broad enough to offer guidance for curriculum and teaching in their disciplines, and the Studio Structures for learning foster classroom cultures of thinking and learning across disciplines by modeling how to organize classroom time and interactions around personalized and collaborative projects.

According to the authors, non-arts subjects can easily make use of the Studio Thinking Framework by dedicating most classroom time to the Students-at-Work structure. By using a studio, laboratory, or workshop model, teachers can personalize the classroom setting, provide instruction across a wide range of skill levels, and more effectively guide students in their dispositional learning.

Hetland and Winner, with the help of Lynn Goldsmith of Education Development Center, are currently using the framework as a guide to conduct a study that examines the transference of studio thinking – i.e. the degree to which students’ engagement with the SHoM leads to their using similar dispositions when engaging with subjects such as math and reading. At the time of Studio Thinking 2’s publication, the authors were only able to cite one instance of potential direct transference of a SHoM (Envision) to a non-arts discipline (geometry). Preliminary findings from comparing the performance of arts majors, theater students, and after-school squash players on spatial geometry problems developed from standardized tests indicated that the art majors performed better initially and also gained more on the test than the other two groups. The authors caution, however, that the experiment does not conclusively demonstrate transfer because they were unable to assign students randomly to the three groups to create a “level playing field.”


According to the authors, the Studio Thinking Framework is “a set of lenses for observing and thinking about teaching and learning in the visual arts and beyond.” In Studio Thinking and its second edition, the authors succeed in presenting visual arts studio teaching as a flexible model that not only promotes art techniques and skills, but also critical observation and thinking habits that are applicable in many disciplines. The four Studio Structures and eight Studio Habits of Mind are easy to comprehend and have broad appeal. Together they provide a dispositional vocabulary that augments the skill-building aspects of an arts curriculum with an alertness to opportunities and inclination to use those skills beyond the classroom. With the Studio Thinking Framework, the authors have created a common language and working model that can be used by educators, administrators, and policymakers in discussing arts education. That enables advocates to speak more broadly about what is achieved through arts learning.

Indeed, the Studio Thinking Framework has been widely embraced since it was first introduced, with the original Studio Thinking making the New York Times bestseller list. On a national level, the authors have consulted on the development of Turnaround Arts Initiative, a project of the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities, which pairs several under-performing urban elementary schools with famous artists like Yo-Yo Ma and Chuck Close to provide enriching studio-style arts classes. At the state and local level, the new Common Core State Standards place an emphasis on the dispositional vocabulary invoked in Studio Thinking and are arguably supportive of the authors’ position that SHoM is the core of arts education. As part of a K-12 arts integration program in Alameda County, California, the framework has been implemented as a shared conceptual language across disciplines to communicate with teachers, administrators, advocates, and parents. Their students have been taught to use SHoM as a method of self-assessment and critique.

Despite this positive reception, Studio Thinking suffers from several limitations in its methodology and design that narrow the extent to which it truly “makes a case” for different forms of arts education. The authors acknowledge that the study’s reliance on ethnographic methods renders it inherently subjective. Another set of researchers might have identified a different set of habits, such as those outlined in Eric Booth’s “The Habits of Mind of Creative Engagement.” It is important to understand that Studio Thinking‘s descriptive and theoretical approach makes no attempt to “prove” anything about the benefits of arts education, but rather “make a case” for them.

Studio Thinking focuses on the visual arts at the expense of other arts disciplines, although the authors report a few positive findings and comparisons by other researchers and experts in the areas of dance, theater, and music. Notably, Boston Ballet’s Center for Dance Education conducted a two-year study to determine whether the habits were taught in dance and concluded that all eight were present in their dance studio classrooms. Matthew Hazelwood, former conductor of the National Youth Orchestra of Colombia, reported using SHoM as a way to enrich his orchestra class instruction, and theater teacher Evan Hastings is using the framework to help his students track and assess their own development. Nevertheless, more research is needed to determine how applicable the framework is across all arts disciplines.

Finally, the study was conducted in just two high schools in the Boston area, both of which cater to students who already have a strong interest in and aptitude for the arts. The visual art classes studied by Hetland, Winner et al. mimic a pre-professional studio teaching style commonly found in college-level and adult arts courses, which is unusual in most high and middle schools and practically non-existent at the elementary school level. If the “real benefits” of arts education are found only in a college-style course, the research may have little to say about the art classes more common to secondary and primary settings, taught as they are in most cases by teachers less skilled or credentialed than those the authors observed. Would the eight studio habits have been as evident if classes serving students new to the visual arts, or younger students, or special-needs students, had been a part of the study? And would those same students learn the SHoM as readily as the arts-inclined students in a studio-structured environment?

Given these methodological limitations, the authors’ use of the framework in transfer studies, their promotion of it as a tool of advocacy, and arts advocates’ quick adoption of it, all seem a bit premature. While Studio Thinking has certainly added to the arts education conversation, the findings arguably appear only to scratch the surface of the benefits of teaching art. Rather than rushing to test transference and apply the framework across disciplines, it would be more prudent and helpful to conduct research that compares the differences between teaching arts and non-arts subjects to both arts-interested and uninterested students from the perspective of studio habits of the mind. Doing so might more accurately pinpoint the benefits of arts education relative to other subjects and students, and go much further in supporting the authors’ claim that the arts teach “a remarkable array of mental habits not emphasized elsewhere in school.”


Studio Thinking‘s reception to date, and in particular the alignment of the Studio Thinking Framework with the President’s Committee’s agenda and the Common Core State Standards movement, suggest that the authors’ findings will have some long-term influence on the way educators, advocates, and policymakers think about studio arts and education as a whole. In doing so, will it make an intrinsic case for the value of teaching the arts?

The eight Studio Habits of the Mind as implemented by Alameda County "Art is Education" program. Note: Understand Art Worlds has been altered to Understand Communities.

The eight Studio Habits of the Mind were implemented in Alameda County’s arts integration program. Note how Understand Art Worlds has been altered to Understand Community in order to expand the framework across non-arts disciplines. Image credit: Art is Education

On the one hand, these developments are encouraging in a country where arts education has been increasingly marginalized over the last couple decades. The success of these early programs will have a hand in determining whether the Studio Thinking Framework will continue to have influence and application. If the results are favorable, perhaps more studio-style arts classes will be incorporated into students’ everyday curriculum in the interest of promoting a studio-centric version of increasingly popular habits-of-the-mind learning. Studio Thinking openly advocates for incorporating studio teaching methodology into these other classroom formats and, in this way, the authors offer a way of valuing arts education that could potentially encourage a demand for it.

But this also implies that Studio Thinking makes a case for studio format arts education as the only area where these particular skills and habits can be learned, which it doesn’t. The authors make a pointed effort to illustrate how SHoM can be applied to non-arts subject areas. If students can get the same benefits from conducting a chemistry experiment or building a physical model based on mathematical theory as long as there is an emphasis on habits like Envision, are we once more back to the drawing board in trying to articulate why arts education is important?

The decision to focus on the results of the method of teaching should concern arts advocates. It suggests an easy leap for policymakers to say, “Thanks for showing us how to better structure curriculum and classes for the other still ‘more important’ subjects. So now we really don’t need the arts.” As it is, the authors’ ongoing research into using the Studio Thinking Framework as “the foundation for more precisely targeted and plausible transfer studies” hews closely to the instrumental language of looking for causal relationships between the arts and other academic disciplines. If the studio structures and habits are indeed the “the real benefits of visual arts education,” then using the framework to once again test for improved performance in other subject areas is more than a little ironic.

Does Studio Thinking promote a space in society where teaching the arts is valued for its own sake and not a means to an end? In one sense it does isolate how studio learning encourages the development of important critical skills necessary to produce creative, engaged individuals. However, as the emergent Studio Thinking movement focuses more on expanding and generalizing what is learned in studio classes beyond the studio, a clear distinction between the effects of the art and the effects of the teaching will become increasingly important.

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