Three Additions to the Createquity Editorial Team: John Carnwath, Jackie Hasa, and Devon Smith

As announced yesterday, Createquity is blazing a new path and taking the summer off to make it happen. We’ve launched a fundraiser to help make the transition possible – please consider a donation!

Now we get to the second major announcement of the week: the Createquity editorial team just doubled in size! I am thrilled to share that John Carnwath, Jackie Hasa, and Devon Smith have joined Talia Gibas, Daniel Reid, and me in making our little virtual think tank here a little less little and a lot more awesome.

These are some of the smartest and most capable people I’ve ever met, and I couldn’t be more excited about the collective brainpower of this group. Jackie has been involved with Createquity the longest, having served a term as a Writing Fellow back in Spring 2012. In the two years since then, Jackie has helped out Createquity in an ad hoc capacity as a Contributing Editor, and had a hand in bringing to life such articles as Ann Markusen’s Fuzzy Concepts, Proxy Data, Talia Gibas and Amanda Keil’s The Cultural Data Project and Its Impact on Arts Organizations, and Calcagno Cullen’s A Tale of Two Strategies: Participation and Organization at Adobe Books and SFMOMA. In addition to her crackerjack analytical skills, Jackie is an exceptionally gifted communicator and community organizer, and I’m overjoyed to have her on board as a full member of the team!

I met John in late 2012, where he wowed me with some perceptive questions about a speech I’d just given at the University of Chicago Cultural Policy Center about the future of arts research. After noticing some equally perceptive comments from him on Createquity and other sites, I reached out to him to see if he’d be willing to write a guest post on the charitable tax deduction (which was at the time under some threat due to the negotiations surrounding the so-called “fiscal cliff”). That article has since become a traffic monster, racking up dozens of Google search inquiries a day on its way to becoming the most-viewed post on Createquity ever. John subsequently used his research talents to unlock the mystery of film tax credits in another blockbuster post for us earlier this year, and more recently worked with Rebecca Chan to develop her article on state-designated cultural districts that was published last week. John is quite literally a gentleman and a scholar, and we’re privileged to have him with us. (Also, when I said these additions make our team “a lot more awesome,” I wasn’t kidding – John was Dean of the Chicago chapter of The Awesome Foundation!)

I’ve known Devon since we were classmates at the Yale School of Management many moons ago. To say Devon is a superstar is soft-pedaling it mightily. A bona fide thought leader in the realm of social media for nonprofits, she spends most of her time these days devising digital strategies for the likes of the Rockefeller Foundation and Planned Parenthood. But she’s never lost her affection for the arts, and has a knack for blowing our collective minds with thought explosions like last year’s Google Doc read ’round the world and her 7,500-word interview with Barry Hessenius. In the year or two before she landed her current job, she was amassing an amazing portfolio of blog posts and presentations at her website, 24 Usable Hours, the archive of which is still well worth reading today. I’m so glad Devon has decided to return to arts writing on this platform!


Full bios and headshots below:

jc_iiJohn Carnwath is a consultant at WolfBrown, a research and consulting firm serving arts organizations, cultural agencies, and foundations. John’s work primary focuses on arts funding, cultural policy, and related issues of measurement and evaluation. Previously, John developed content for the theater section of the Chicago Artists Resource and served as the Dean of the Chicago chapter of the Awesome Foundation. John holds a PhD from Northwestern University, where he taught undergraduate seminars including “The Economics of the Performing Arts” and “Organizational Structures and Production Processes in contemporary US Theater,” while writing his dissertation on the institutional development of municipal theaters in Germany.

Jackie HasaJackie Hasa is a generalist through and through. Jackie has deep roots in the Bay Area arts nonprofit community, having worked in marketing and development for the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, San Francisco Shakespeare Festival, and American Institute of Architects, and as a public programs fellow with the Emerging Arts Professionals Bay Area. Currently, she serves as Community Partnerships Manager at the David Brower Center in Berkeley, an organization focused on the power of the arts to illuminate critical environmental and social issues.  In her spare time, she helps organize psychogeographical forays into the hidden corners of the Bay Area, helping produce Journey to the End of the Night since 2007 and Wanderers Union since 2010.

Devon Smith SXSWDevon Smith is the Director of Social Media and Analytics at Threespot, a DC-based digital agency serving nonprofits and government agencies. In this capacity, her recent clients include the Brookings Institution, James Irvine Foundation, National Park Service, Pew Charitable Trusts, Planned Parenthood, and Smithsonian Institution. In the past two years, she has been a featured speaker at more than a dozen conferences in the U.S. and Australia.  Earlier in her career, Devon worked for the Actors Theatre of Louisville, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Roundabout Theatre Company, Seattle’s Washington Ensemble Theatre, and the World Science Festival. Devon holds an MBA from Yale School of Management and an MFA in theatre management from Yale School of Drama, as well as two Bachelors degrees from the University of Washington. She is a novice homebrewer, a published playwright, and an avid vagabond.

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From Inquiry to Action: It’s Time to Take Createquity to the Next Level


  • Createquity is relaunching in the fall with a whole new editorial agenda, an expanded team, and a new website! We’re building upon everything we’ve learned over the past seven years to tackle the hard questions that matter and make principled, evidence-backed recommendations for the field that we can confidently stand behind.
  • In order to give us time to prepare for these big changes and do them right, we’re going dormant for the summer starting this week. But don’t worry: we’ve scheduled some re-runs of “Createquity’s greatest hits” to keep things interesting.
  • If you’d like to get involved, please donate to our Indiegogo campaign that will run through early July. Help us bring this dream to life!

"the future soon," photo by k rupp

Photo by k rupp

A Case for Change

Back in March, I co-hosted a Createquity Office Hours gathering for our editors, writers, and readers located in the San Francisco Bay Area. Among the attendees was a woman who wanted us to review a research report her organization had recently published. Createquity’s only real channel for such reviews at the moment is the Arts Policy Library, a format involving an exhaustive deconstruction of seemingly every strength and weakness of a research text. Because they are so labor-intensive to generate, we made a decision years ago to focus Arts Policy Library articles only on high-profile publications – which means that up until now, the way to get Createquity to review a research report has been to get lots of other people talking about it first. As I rattled off a few names of other outlets to whom this woman could pitch her study, I found myself admitting rather apologetically: “the thing is, Createquity is not a tastemaker when it comes to arts research. We don’t drive the conversation, we react to it.”

As I heard those words coming out of my mouth, all I could think to myself was, “Jesus, how lame is that?” If Createquity was not going to be a tastemaker for arts research, of all things, then who was? But as I thought about it more, I realized this observation wasn’t just true for research reports. Our recurring features like Around the Horn and public arts funding updates are necessarily reactive to events in the news. When we do a feature in response to a topic proposal from a guest author or Fellow, we’re reacting to that individual’s interest and expertise. Sure, we have a strong editorial filter, but as I reflected, I came to realize that we hardly exercise any editorial direction at all.

But maybe we should be. Createquity and I have come a long way since the days when I was a fresh-faced grad student with a crazy idea to start a blog about the arts in a creative society, eager to soak up as much information as I could about the field. Back then, blogs were still something of a novelty, and few writers and outlets were trying to draw connections across disciplines and comment on the “behind the scenes” elements of arts management, funding, research, and policy in a broader way. But as this personal blog chronicling my journey through business school has evolved into a multi-author, fieldwide resource read by thousands, a lot has changed alongside it. Social media has become the premier way to engage in discussion online and is changing our reading habits in substantive ways. Arts institutions have created dozens of venues for discussion and debate in the interest of advancing open-ended conversations about the future of our field. More and more, I hear from our readers that that they are simply too busy to keep up with it all. Whereas the problem in 2007 was not enough information, the problem today is that there is too much.

All of this has resulted in a resource that, after seven years, is no longer optimally serving its readership. Don’t get me wrong: I’m incredibly proud of what Createquity has accomplished, and continue to believe that we offer a quality of commentary and depth of insight that is unparalleled in our field. But whereas the crucial opportunity of 2007 was to expand access to conversations about the future of the arts to people who hadn’t traditionally been able to partake in them, the crucial opportunity of 2014 is to start bringing those conversations in for a landing. We’ve collectively learned enough about the way that the arts sector works, what kinds of challenges it faces, and what kinds of interventions are possible that we can begin to make the kinds of principled, evidence-backed recommendations that we can confidently stand behind. So why aren’t we putting actionable next steps in front of people who could conceivably make a difference?

A Theory of Change

Last winter, Createquity’s editorial team gathered in Philadelphia to discuss our strategic goals and the evolution of the site. To frame the discussion, we generated what’s called a theory of change, which is a way of depicting a strategy visually. I’ve now been a part of many theory of change development processes, and the capacity of this tool to open up new ways of seeing one’s role in the world never ceases to impress me. Our own exploration was no exception.

At Createquity, we’ve always placed great importance on quality: of prose, presentation, and analysis. We take pride in our ability to come up with insights that are not obvious and convey them with style. We also try to take an open-minded, objective approach – which is not to say that we never have an opinion, but rather that we adjust our opinions in light of the facts instead of looking for facts to justify our opinions.

These values have built our reputation thus far, and we’ve had the privilege of publishing some truly fantastic articles over the years. But as we fleshed out our theory of change, we realized that publishing articles is not really the point for us. Looking back on what we’ve done to date, the articles I’m proudest of are the ones that actually made a difference in the way that people in power approach their work – most notably the series on creative placemaking and research that began with 2012’s “Creative Placemaking Has an Outcomes Problem.” We want Createquity to be not just interesting but useful – in other words, we want to have an impact.

Createquity theory of change

(Click to enlarge.)

Ensuring a consistent and direct connection between our work and potential decisions on behalf of the sector requires us to engage in advocacy in a much more proactive fashion than we ever have before. And so, beginning this fall, that’s exactly what we’re going to do.

Being the Change

Take another look at the diagram above and you’ll see a key activity for Createquity that is brand new: “Identify and articulate strong cases for change.” What will these cases for change be, exactly? Well, the truth is that we’re going to need to invest a little time towards figuring that out – after all, we’d prefer not to come out with guns a-blazing on behalf of some cause that we later decide wasn’t such a great idea in retrospect. But we have a pretty clear sense of how we’re going to go about it, at least. Createquity’s ultimate goal is to help the arts ecosystem “work better for artists and audiences.” So, what does that look like in practice? What are the characteristics of a healthy arts ecosystem versus an unhealthy one? Put another way, if everything were perfect, how would that be different from how things are today? Our next step is to map out answers to these questions in enough detail that we can start to see the picture as a whole instead of in little bits and pieces. In identifying the gaps between our perfect world and present-day reality, we’ll start to get a sense of where the biggest priorities are, and which of them are not getting enough attention. Once we know which areas we want to focus on, we’ll devote ourselves to researching the state of the evidence in those areas, with particular attention to “what works”: what kinds of interventions and next steps might conceivably move the needle on the things that we think matter most?

This new approach will require a near-total restructuring of our editorial process. Right now, we spend a lot of time (somewhere between 15 and 20 hours a week) assembling links from widely-read sources for regular columns like Around the Horn and the Public Arts Funding Update. Our other major editorial focus, the Createquity Fellowship, has produced some great content (and people) over the past three and a half years, but invariably our team spends so much time editing and mentoring that we hardly have any left over for writing. Imagine if we spent all of that time instead reading all those research articles and publications that hardly anyone else is paying attention to, but arguably have more to teach us? And then synthesizing what we’ve learned so we can point out the areas that badly need more of our collective attention?

For all those reasons and more, we’ve decided to reinvent Createquity from the ground up to support our new vision. When you return to this address in the fall, things are going to look very different around here! As exciting as this is, as you can probably tell, it’s going to take a ton of work. So we’ve decided not to post any new content to Createquity this summer to enable us to focus our undivided attention on preparations for the relaunch. If you just can’t imagine not getting your Createquity fix, we’re taking this opportunity to stroll through our back catalogue and repost some of our favorites. For those of you who have been with us from the beginning, you might be surprised at how fresh some of those old chestnuts still are.

Finally, if you’re as psyched about this new direction as we are and would like to get involved, there are lots of ways to do so!

  • Spread the word: In its new incarnation, Createquity’s success is highly dependent on reaching the right people. If all goes according to plan, we’re going to be putting out some pretty important, compelling stuff in the fall and beyond – better than anything you’ve seen here before. By sharing what you read, you’ll be doing your colleagues a solid.
  • Get into the weeds with us: If you’re not sure you trust us to make the right decisions about which of the arts ecosystem’s problems are most important, or what the research tells us about what we could do to fix them, I don’t blame you. We’re just a few people, after all. That’s why, when Createquity relaunches, the considerations and logic behind all of our major editorial decisions will be accessible via the website – often before any actual cases for change are generated. And if you want to get in there and debate us on the details, I guarantee we’ll listen to you. This is your chance to help steer us in the right direction.
  • Help us pay for this thing: Createquity has been from day one an all-volunteer effort – we don’t even have a bank account. But this new website isn’t going to drop out of the sky for free, and we need to get our geographically dispersed editorial team together in one place for some in-person planning sessions, among other priorities. We’ve set up a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo and would love to have your support – and we have some cool/valuable perks to offer in return. Please consider donating today – it will go a long way towards making our new vision a reality!
  • Join the team: We love working with smart, awesome people! As part of the new plan, the Createquity Fellowship will be evolving into an explicit apprenticeship for joining the editorial team. We also expect to have ad hoc volunteer opportunities available. Stay tuned for further details as the coming months unfold.

Until soon!


Interview with GiveWell

Earlier this spring, I had the pleasure of interviewing Elie Hassenfeld and Tim Telleen-Lawton from GiveWell. GiveWell is a charity rating agency that makes recommendations to donors based on the expected impact of their dollars, rather than more traditional metrics such as how much money is spent on administrative overhead or some squishy notion of reputation. I’ve taken a particular interest in GiveWell’s development since the beginning. Its story is truly remarkable: having started out right around the same time as Createquity, Elie and his GiveWell co-founder Holden Karnofsky adopted a policy of radical transparency, including the practice of recording and posting all of its board meetings for anyone to listen to. Most notably to me, despite a scandal early on that nearly caused the death of the organization, the people behind GiveWell managed not only to recover but become one of the most highly-respected “smart giving” resources anywhere, motivating more than $17 million in donations last year. (A very tiny portion of that $17 million came from my wife and me, FYI.)

Recently, Createquity waded back in to the smart-giving waters after an op-ed by bioethicist Peter Singer comparing donating to a museum to donating to a blindness charity understandably didn’t sit well with the museum community. Singer’s argument had its roots in an emerging area of applied philosophy called “effective altruism,” which argues that we have a moral imperative to do the most good we possibly can and use objective criteria to figure out what that good is. GiveWell has indicated its support for the effective altruist movement, so I thought it was high time to catch up with them to figure out where the arts fit in to all of this.

What was interesting was that the GiveWell folks seemingly came into this experience with a genuine desire to learn from my perspective as much as I was eager to learn from theirs. So at various points I found myself as suddenly the one answering questions, and in particular being challenged to articulate what funding opportunities might exist within the arts that self-aware philanthropists should be paying attention to.

This is a long but rewarding read. Tim and Elie were gracious enough to talk with me for over an hour, and the conversation will be of interest to anyone thinking seriously about philanthropy, advocacy, or research in the arts. That said, simply reproducing the whole thing verbatim here would make for by some margin the wordiest-ever post on Createquity (and that is really saying something), so rather than subject you to that, I’m sharing some of the highlights, condensing and moving things around a bit for the sake of readability.

On Where the Arts Fit in to GiveWell’s World

IDM: GiveWell hasn’t historically given a whole lot of attention to the arts, although I know the arts have been among a broader list of causes considered by the organization. I’m wondering if you can talk briefly about GiveWell’s current orientation to the arts, if any.

EH: There’s two main things I’d tell you about the arts and how they relate to the work that GiveWell is doing. For a long a time GiveWell was almost entirely focused on what we’ve termed evidence-backed, cost-effective, internationally-focused interventions. The arts really didn’t fit into the frame of GiveWell’s research process as it was originally constituted. More recently, as we’ve been working on this broader-scoped research that we call GiveWell Labs, I think it’s not as clear where the arts fit.

One of the things that we’ve always done at GiveWell is research the causes that we collectively, meaning our staff, are most interested in supporting. Early on when GiveWell just started, [it] was just Holden and Elie thinking about where we would give charity. I think now that’s broadened out to the staff we have. My impression is, and I’m certainly speaking for myself, but I think for other staff, that we tend to be more engaged in questions of giving to the causes that we’re currently researching, causes focused on international aid or US policy or scientific research, rather than the arts. And so to some extent those personal interests drive the research we’re doing.

One of the main reasons that we’ve done this is we’ve found that when we are trying to answer the question [of] where would we give our own funds, we tend to do better research then where we’re trying to answer something that I’d say is perhaps more of an intellectual question, which is where would I give if I were interested in something else? So that’s one part of the answer. The other thing I think is just important to ask, and it’s one of the questions that we’re asking for all the causes that we’re currently considering, is to what extent does this field have sufficient funding, versus not? I can’t say that I’m familiar enough with all of arts funding to know exactly how it stacks up, but [I have] sort of a superficial impression that there’s lots of ways in which people can get funding for the arts, whether through, let’s say, privately funded entertainment or government grants or otherwise, and there’s a lot of interest among philanthropists in providing that funding. And so one of the questions that we would have if we were to be involved in this area is what part of this field seems to be under-invested in. I think that question of where additional funding or current funding is not quite meeting the needs is one of the main ways that we’d think about this…[but] in many ways, because of the first point I made I don’t think we’re particularly well positioned to answer [it].

On Prioritizing Basic Versus Higher-Order Needs

IDM: Is it fair to say that GiveWell prioritizes serving the bottom of Maslow’s pyramid or hierarchy of needs? I’m wondering if those concepts of Maslow figure into any of your conversations or thinking about values, or if it’s more coming from an intuitive sense that poverty is central.

TTL: Yeah, I’d say we aren’t just focusing, and don’t want to just focus, on the bottom third or some tier of Maslow’s hierarchy. Traditionally, all the recommendations that we’ve made to date, as you point out, have been in global health and direct aid to people that have dire needs or needs that are different than the needs of people in developed countries.

When we were first deciding what causes we wanted to work on, we wanted to limit it to just causes that had really good evidence of effectiveness, and we found pretty quickly that the types of causes that had really good evidence were interventions in global health and developing countries and direct aid such as using bednets to prevent malaria deaths. There’s been over 20 randomized controlled trials that have connected the properties of bednets to reduce malaria and reduce malaria rates [and] deaths of, especially, people under 5 years old. There are very few interventions available to philanthropists out there that can claim that level of evidence. That was one of the big reasons for our historical focus on global health and direct aid interventions.

What we’ve been working to do recently is also open that up to a broader range of possible causes to look at, and that’s the project we’ve been calling GiveWell Labs, which still hasn’t made any recommendations yet. The causes we’re considering within GiveWell Labs include things that are not just focused in the same areas and includes things like trying to understand if there are ways that a philanthropist can improve scientific research or can change aspects of the political process in the US or elsewhere and a bunch of other causes as well.

We’re definitely very open to the idea that it’s possible to have more impact per dollar with things that are outside of developing health, or things that don’t just affect the bottom tier of Maslow’s hierarchy as you’re saying. But when there’s not as much academic literature on a specific intervention, it’s certainly a lot harder to understand that impact and it’s taking us a long time to try to understand.

IDM: Do you have a formal definition that you use, or even an informal definition, of what the good is that you guys are seeking to create in the world? Because I’m wondering when there are tradeoffs between those kinds of needs, how do you compare higher-level needs to lower-level needs in thinking about that hierarchy?

TTL: Yeah, I think this is a great question. It’s a hard one, and we have not formalized what values we are trying to maximize, if you will, or how to trade off the value of saving the life of someone that’s less than five years old versus maybe reducing the chance of mental development problems in another person, or improving the life of someone in a developed country, or maybe improving an institution like a government that will affect a whole lot of people.

EH: I think the main thing we’ve written that I would just point you to is this blog post [GiveWell co-founder] Holden [Karnofsky] wrote about a year ago called “Deep value judgments and worldview characteristics.” I care about self-actualization, so in some ways, I can easily imagine us being excited about things at the higher end of the hierarchy of needs, but I think it would really depend on the specifics of the circumstance.

One of the things that that blog post talks about is that we are not putting strong weights on achieving specific things in and of themselves – so some artistic endeavor as, like, some sort of achievement, as much as the broader impact that those types of activities could have on individual self-actualization. And so again, I think that one of the challenges for us in engaging with a type of philanthropy that we’re not particularly involved in now is understanding how the activities fund and would contribute to the types of goals that we would value.

On Effective Altruism and Strategic Cause Selection (aka Can You Work in the Arts and Still Be an Effective Altruist?)

IDM: I loved that you guys published a roundup of the GiveWell staff’s personal donation decisions this past December. It was super interesting. One thing I noticed was that there were a couple of staff who chose not to allocate all their charitable dollars to GiveWell-recommended charities. [But] some of the logic that we hear from a theoretical standpoint from effective altruists has to do with the idea of concentrating resources on high-impact opportunities rather than spreading the wealth around.

I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit about the balance between personal passions and feeding those through charitable activities on the one hand, and on the other hand, the moral imperative that a lot of people involved with this movement do lay out around the idea that you really should maximize the expected amount of good that you can do in your life.

TTL: The way I think about this broadly is that it’s important to me to have as big of an impact as possible and to approach that question sort of systematically. For me, not surprisingly, GiveWell is my primary resource for figuring out how to do that with the bulk of my funds – and I guess on top of that, it’s also how I’ve chosen to try to do that through my career – but then there [are] a bunch of reasons why maybe I should give in ways that aren’t just GiveWell top charities. I think you saw a bunch of these in the staff giving profile but, you know, it includes things like, well, if you have particular or special knowledge of a particular area then that might be a really good reason to expect that you might have a really good giving opportunity even if the broader community or GiveWell in particular hasn’t discovered it and developed the same sort of public degree of confidence that you have privately.

Additionally, for me, I think that certain types of heuristics in terms of one’s giving habits or patterns can be really useful even if they can’t quite be justified in this typical sort of straight-line effective altruist or consequentialist type perspective. Even if you can’t prove or you have no expectation that this marginal dollar if given by anyone would be best spent in this particular way, maybe if it’s related to something that you care a lot about or you use as a service yourself. Then that is an additional reason to value it, or to value the principle in general that people using that service might contribute to it to some extent.

IDM: In my professional life, I work with a lot of people who are very cause-centric, right? [Laughs] People care a lot about the arts. And so I’m wondering if you feel that there are principles from effective altruism, or from your general approach to giving, that could be applied even within a cause? As background, I’ll just tell you that when we were working on our effective altruism article for Createquity, we had a lot of debate internally about whether the idea of effective altruism in the arts is an oxymoron because of that cause-agnostic nature of effective altruism.

TTL: I don’t think it’s an oxymoron. I think that it’s totally possible to – if you can restrict the set of possibilities to some subset before, and then even within that subset, there [are] going to be causes that have more of the impact you’re looking for or less of the impact you’re looking for per dollar.

And so I absolutely don’t think it’s an oxymoron. I think that if I had some pot of money that was going to be dedicated towards the arts, then I would definitely be interested to know what are the opportunities to make changes out there, which of the opportunities seem to be most effective could actually be scaled up with more money, versus they might be really effective but giving them more money won’t allow them to do more of the same work, and other related questions.

EH: Yeah. I mean, I think there [are] a lot of the sort of questions and tools that we ask that I can easily imagine applying well to the arts. I think one of the main questions I’d have is, how does the arts funding ecosystem work, and what types of activities or outputs are for whatever reason not valued by the current funding infrastructure, but they appear to achieve the same types of goals, or the goals that one has as an arts funder or an artist?

Those are the types of things that I think come out of what I would characterize as the broad goals of an effective altruist, trying to use the part of your time or charitable funds that is being directed towards altruistic rather than perhaps personal goals as effectively as possible.

While I think people will reach different conclusions about which causes they are excited to work on, there is nothing that seems particularly problematic to me about someone saying, “the way in which I think that I can best contribute to the world is via the arts and, therefore, I’m going to try and maximize in some broad sense the impact that I have in that domain.”

On How to Think About Giving to the Arts

EH: Sorry, just to follow up actually I have a question for you if that’s okay. I mean, I think one of the questions that I would have when thinking about the arts is, what is the problem that additional funding could solve? I think that would help me because I think I have a relatively superficial understanding of what the problem might be, but I would characterize it in such a naïve way that I’m not sure it’s particularly helpful. So my naïve characterization might be something like, we could fund more art than we are currently funding, and the thing that would start to help me think this through more carefully would be, you know, what are we not funding that we should be, and how bad is that, and how much funding would it require? And I guess, then, ultimately, what could that mean to the development of a more complete, richer world arts community? Those are some of the things that I think I would want to ask when starting to think about this question.

IDM: Yeah, so two things, I guess, on that. The first is that I think the arts in some ways have struggled with this tendency of the broader philanthropic and nonprofit or social sector community to frame things in terms of problems, because what I think a lot of people in the arts might say is that we’re not here to solve a problem, we’re here to create possibility. We’re here to sort of extend the universe of what it is possible for humans to do in a way.

And in some ways, what we do has more in common with something like higher education or even science then it does with international development or aid or things like that. With that being said, I think that your question is still valid and important, because you focused it specifically around the idea of, well, what are the opportunities that we’re missing specifically with respect to funding?

I think that there are a lot of potential ways to answer that, but the reason why I asked about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is because if you think about where the arts kind of fit into that, you know, it seems pretty clear to me that where they slot in is in that top need of self-actualization. The arts, creativity, and sort of related concepts – I don’t think anyone would argue that it’s the only form of self-actualization, but Maslow himself talks about that being one of the ways in which self-actualization manifests.

[Later on…]

EH: I do think there is this question about the arts, which I would be interested in hearing from people who are themselves very interested in providing charitable support there, answering the question of how those funds will make a difference. Because I guess I don’t want to, sort of let the arts off too easy relative to any other cause, and I’d be interested in this question of trying to determine what is not being funded that should be, and why. Because it strikes me that there are a lot of institutions and individuals who are interested in being part of the arts and funding the arts, and so there’s something of an obstacle to overcome in terms of convincing, me, let’s say, or other donors that additional funding is really what is most needed there.

IDM: So let me ask, do you think that the greater obstacle for you is more about the value of the arts in the abstract, compared to some of the other things that GiveWell focuses on? Or is it more about, as you kind of expressed just now, a lack of familiarity or confidence that, in GiveWell’s term, there is room for more funding in the arts?

EH: I think the issue is more a room for our funding issue, but I’ll try to explain what I mean by that and then let me know if this makes sense. Basically, I think a world – like, imagine you could just take all of the funding and time that goes into arts and totally take it away, and now it all goes to just, I don’t know, like poverty prevention programs.

I mean, that doesn’t strike me as the ideal balance for the world. You know, like absolutely no entertainment or literature or painting or music. I mean, that does not seem like a good world to live in and so, now, again, I’m just kind of giving you my own values and my impression, [but] I wouldn’t want to see a world where there was none of that. And so, therefore, to me the big question is, does this area have sufficient funding or insufficient funding to engage humanity as much as it potentially can or should, relative to the other needs that people have? That’s a very hard question to answer, but that’s the way that at least I personally look at it.

IDM: So, I think my readers might kill me if I didn’t at least attempt to hazard an answer to that question. I’ll preface this by saying there is no sort of canonical consensus around the answer to that question of, you know, what is it that philanthropic intervention in the arts is supposed to do? But a while back I articulated two ways of thinking about justifications for subsidy of the arts which are mine alone, but also do have antecedents and connections to other work that people have done.

I don’t think it’s realistic to imagine a world where there is literally no art or entertainment, or anything like that. Because it’s part of human expression and people find a way to make it happen, sometimes in very adverse conditions.

[But] if it were only up to the commercial marketplace to decide what art gets created and who gets to be an artist, there would be two things that would happen. In the long run, over time, on average, you would have art and cultural products that cater to a wide, broad-based audience, and so you’d lose some of the diversity of product. You would lose a lot of the most interesting kind of expressions of human creativity that you get, and there are plenty of examples of artists who are considered very famous or important today that basically survived to the present day entirely because of luck. If they survived because of luck, then how many other geniuses or brilliant contributions to the literature or to the set of human achievement were lost, because they were never created in the first place or because they were literally lost? That’s one kind of justification.

The other justification is – so, if we go back to this idea of self-actualization and sort of take it as a given that for at least some people, the path to that is through being an artist or through engaging with the arts in some really deep sustained way in order to have peak experiences, understand and really experience what it means to be alive in this very present and visceral way [such] that you could make a moral argument that everybody deserves to have that opportunity – people’s access to the arts is determined in many ways by the market. And there are many disparities in the level of access that is available to people in various ways, for example due to cuts in arts education funding, it’s much less common now for people from poor or minority communities to have access to arts education than was the case in the past. That’s not necessarily to say that they won’t come into contact with the arts outside of school, but it’s less likely that they will have these pathways into discovering themselves through this medium that is one way to kind of achieve one’s potential. That’s sort of the way that I’m currently thinking about it.

EH: Got it. Yeah, I mean so those two points, and I think maybe this is just something about definitions, but I think that this problem that people who are perhaps socioeconomically disadvantaged have less access to the arts, it’s something that I would almost categorize as part of the general cause of inequality in the rich world. That’s to just say that is broadly speaking how I mentally file this cause, and it would almost be outside of art specifically.

On the first point, you know, I think the place I start is I think the most recent Giving USA survey data says there was roughly $14 billion given to the arts in 2012 and $19 billion given to international aid. And so the question is, you know, we can all agree that here should be, or at least I’m willing to agree that there should be some level of non-market-based arts funding, and then the question is should it be equivalent, roughly speaking, to the amount going internationally or should it be more or should it be less. That seems like the major question to try to answer and it becomes difficult to answer what the appropriate level should be in some abstract sense.

And so that’s why the approach that we’ve taken, at least in the research we’re doing under the name GiveWell Labs, is trying to look for specific areas that where we’re seeing ideas or problems that don’t seem to be funded in the way that they should be, where you can almost see the full concept and idea behind a lack of funding in a particular area. And you can say, you know, this thing, it would cost X dollars and it appears to have insufficient funding, therefore, this is something that is worthy of serious consideration.

On Evaluating and Allocating Resources to Research

IDM: You guys have devoted quite a lot of resources over the last few years to reviewing research literature, often either in connection with GiveWell Labs or to develop a knowledgebase of evidence-backed [interventions] in international aid.

I’m curious if you could talk a little bit about how your process has evolved and changed since you first started. I’m especially interested in whether you feel like you’ve kind of hit upon the answer at this point to what an effective research process is in terms of just going into a completely new area and finding out as much information as you can about what the evidence base is for guiding philanthropic decisions, or if you feel like there is still inefficiencies and problems that you’re still trying to figure out.

EH: Yeah, so the short answer is we don’t have it all figured out yet and there’s a lot we’re still trying to figure out about the best research process. The longer answer is that I think that we have come to a reasonably good process for our traditional research on international aid organizations but even that, you know, is not particularly formulaic because it varies a lot based on the specifics of the intervention or the organization.

There’s two different ways that we’ll look at an intervention. One is the more traditional GiveWell focus, which is very specific interventions that have a great degree of rigorous evidence evaluating their effectiveness. Another type, I wouldn’t even call it an intervention as much as a charitable program area, you know, where one might say hey, we could have a big impact on the world if we were to increase labor mobility or have some sort of software patent reform. These are areas that I don’t think one could call the activity we undertake evidence review as much as trying to get a better sense of the area.

I think the first kind is one where we have a pretty standard process we go through of looking for research that evaluates the question we have. You know, do bednets work, how well do they work. Then we are trying to think of all the questions that we have of the ways that the program could fail and then looking for literature on those questions. So, in the case of bednets, just to play out this example, it would involve how often do people actually use the bednets and was it the case that they only used the nets in smaller, randomized trials but in a larger-scale government program they might not. Or what impact does insecticide resistance have. So then we just go about listing out the questions and trying to answer them.

IDM: So, there’s a piece of that that you’re glossing over a little bit that I’m really interested in. I have to imagine that in the area in which you’re looking, there are hundreds, maybe thousands of studies that are potentially relevant to the questions that you’re looking at. So what are the filters that you use to decide which studies you’re even going to take a look at in depth? And then do you sort of structure the process in such a way so that you are looking at some of them at a shallow level, some of them at a deeper level, and so forth?

EH: The biggest filter that is imposed in the health interventions is we give serious priority to randomized controlled trials, which are created explicitly to evaluate the causal relationship between the intervention and the outcome in a way that other study methodologies have greater challenges to overcome.

That said, we don’t only focus on randomized trials. There’s evidence in our reports that comes from other types of evaluations, other types of studies, but because other types of studies often are not created in such a way to answer causal questions as directly, as easily, and it’s really the causal question is the one that we have (meaning “what can we say generally about bednet effectiveness?” is a question of what the causal relationship is between distributing bed nets and cases of deaths from malaria), we tend to prioritize the randomized studies.

TTL: The other thing that can be really useful when there’s thousands of studies in a general area that you’re trying to understand is using other people’s literature, or in the case at least when there is a lot of randomized controlled trials, there’s some times meta-analyses that are done to try to combine the statistical power of many of these different studies.

Now, I don’t know if this actually applies in the arts. I don’t know how common randomized controlled trials are or whether there is …

IDM: They are not. And I’ll just tell you guys that it’s a little bit funny to hear you talk about how you have so many doubts about the room for more funding in the arts and the general impression that the arts are overfunded. I don’t think that you actually used those words, but the thing is that compared to, like, the NIH spending on research, the amount of resources that actually go into research on the arts is incredibly paltry.

It’s true that there are big, big sums of money spent on arts organizations and arts interventions, but a lot of times that goes to things like buildings, whereas only a tiny fraction of that amount might actually go into studying whether that building ever made a difference to anybody.

I think it’s interesting because, while I think there are lots of arguments that you can make about the relative proportion of funding in the arts versus other areas, I would imagine that the typical ratio of funding that is spent on research about the topic or evaluations of the topic compared to the amount that is actually spent on the program delivery is way, way, way lower in the arts than it is in a lot of other fields.

TTL: It sounds like you think there is a lot of, the research on arts effectiveness is very underfunded.

IDM: I think so, yeah, and it’s, and because of that, you know, by the kinds of standards that you guys are using, the overall quality of evidence in the arts is pretty poor. There’s just, there are a lot of things that haven’t been studied, or they have been studied but not with the kind of rigor that you guys are looking for in your process.

EH: You know, the reason that earlier I was trying to distinguish between sort of these evidence-backed interventions versus other types of research that we’re doing for GiveWell Labs is I really think the latter is the one that seems like an easier fit for the arts, and the one that makes more sense.

It’s almost like I think there needs to be something of a more qualitative case that some part of the arts is underfunded or there is some segment that should be funded to a greater extent than it already is. I wouldn’t expect that rigorous evaluations are the right fit for evaluating that type of activity because I’m not even sure that we could agree on what impact we’re trying to evaluate.

IDM: Right. That makes sense. Could [you] describe a little bit more what that more qualitative analysis looks like? And in particular, I’m curious, is that entirely or almost entirely a theoretical exercise, or are you drawing in research that maybe doesn’t reach the level of randomized controlled trials and is maybe a little bit less expensive or less ambitious as part of the background for information-gathering for that analysis?

EH: I think the best way to get an idea of how we do that research is, we have these web pages that we’ve published that we call GiveWell Labs investigations of new causes or also called shallow investigations. They’re our initial look into various different areas.

On each of these pages, we do our best to answer the questions that we have about that area. It’s kind of like the things that we want to know in 10 to 20 hours of investigation. The questions we’re trying to answer are, what is the problem, and as part of what is the problem, some sense of how big a problem this is in the scheme of things. I think we’ve taken a lot of different approaches to answering that question, but on some level, trying as much as we can to quantify the problem and when we can’t quantify anymore, trying to explain it more qualitatively.

So you’ll see that on these pages. The other question that we’re trying to answer is a question about tractability. We can define the problem, but what can be done, and how likely are these goals to be achieved? Again, these require, without a doubt, a large degree of qualitative judgment about what it is and is not feasible and what is and is not likely, and we largely form these conclusions through conversations with people in the field. In the issues that are listed on this page, the shallow investigations, maybe we have two or three conversations with people in the field. Then there are other investigations that are larger, we call them “medium investigations,” maybe there we’re talking to 25 or 30 people to just try and triangulate what we can understand about the area.

Then finally, we’re asking the question, how crowded is this area? Who else is working here? How much are they funding? What are they funding? Putting it all together, areas where the problem is large and seems particularly tractable, and there is relatively little philanthropic funding, or if there is funding, we can understand why it is focused on part A of the issue but not part B. Those are very attractive and areas that say seem less important, less tractable, but highly crowded are less attractive.

In practice, things don’t kind of fall out so nicely; like normally problems have some combination of these factors and ways that require some thinking about how exactly to prioritize them. Those are the types of questions we’re asking and the types of information that we’re trying to feed into our process as we think about what we’re doing. To me, you know, these are the questions that I would have about the arts. Are we talking about, I don’t know, large museums in major cities? It seems like there is a lot of funding that goes to the Met, and the Guggenheim or other museums like that. I’m sure I sound hopelessly naïve when talking about the arts but that’s one type of question.

IDM: You are stating fact, my friend.

EH: And then maybe on the other hand, you know, you say, well, really the issue is funding of arts access in poorer communities. You could do a little investigation of that area and try to determine, is this something that people focus on and to what extent do they? We would wonder, like, is it that there’s no funding from local government as part of schools? Is there just no interest from major donors? How much money really is there? What could we expect to happen if this were to go well?

Those are all the questions that we ask. One thing just to add, and I know I’ve gone on for a little while on this, but another broad type of activity we’re undertaking in this area is what we call the history of philanthropy project where we basically say we recognize that all of these areas that don’t have that same type of rigorous evidence so arts, but also policy, or even science – it’s harder to know what will work.

One of the things we’re trying to look at is just what has worked historically when philanthropy has been involved, and this is an area where there is very limited information available. The basic idea is to try and do something that is more like investigative reporting or journalistic reporting where you better understand the role philanthropy has played. And I could imagine that also being helpful in thinking about arts philanthropy, where you can look back and say you know, what did someone do 30 years ago and what impact does that seem to have had? It obviously can’t be quantified in the way that saving lives with bednets could be quantified, but it can perhaps offer a deeper picture of what role philanthropy plays in achieving some outcome.


What’s Next for State-Designated Cultural Districts?

(Rebecca Chan is Director of Programs for Station North Arts & Entertainment, Inc., which manages a cultural district in Baltimore. She holds a Master’s of Science in Historic Preservation from the Graduate School of Design at the University of Pennsylvania and B.A. in Anthropology and Cultural Resource Management from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. -IDM)

It’s a crisp spring evening in Philadelphia’s East Passyunk neighborhood, and the avenue is coming alive. Market lights cast a warm glow over a restaurant patio where groups of people dine at picnic tables and a band does a quick sound check on stage. A little further down the block, shops and boutiques begin to close up for the evening, dimming their display window lights as a nearby gallery begins to fill with people out for an opening and a cafe prepares for open mic night. Pedestrians meander the sidewalks and through a small public square, chattering as they pass sandwich boards advertising restaurant week and lampposts plastered with flyers for upcoming film screenings and art shows.  A cyclist darts past a couple hailing a slow moving cab on the narrow street, and a group of twenty-somethings crack open the door of a crowded bar before stepping in.

Summer night on East Passyunk Ave. in Philadelphia. Photo credit: Christopher Woods (Flickr user: ChrisinPhilly5448)

A summer night on Philadelphia’s East Passyunk Ave. Photo credit: Christopher Woods

If Passyunk Avenue sounds like a place you would like to be on a Friday evening, you are in good company. Known for their bustling pedestrian-oriented streets, repurposed historic buildings, inviting public spaces, diverse cuisine and retail offerings and the presence of the arts, informal or “Naturally-Occurring Cultural Districts” (NOCD) such as East Passyunk are highly desired by those vying for an apartment in the hippest area in town, budding entrepreneurs seeking space for new venues, not to mention urban planners and policy makers around the country. The term “cultural district” has been used to refer to a variety of different types of urban neighborhood, and there are even some cultural districts in rural areas (note: for the purposes of this post, arts, entertainment, and cultural districts are collectively referred to as cultural districts). NOCDs evolve without any government intervention, which is the ideal scenario from an urban planning and economic development perspective—due to a fortuitous combination of circumstances, a particular neighborhood turns into a hotbed of cultural vitality without any effort or public spending. Indeed, studies have shown that the benefits of successful cultural districts go beyond their nightlife; these areas are often home to ethnically, educationally and economically heterogeneous populations, and also offer residents a variety of services, making them convenient and distinctive places to live and work.

Designating Cultural Districts

Many cultural districts seek to replicate the success of NOCDs through careful planning and policy, with varying degrees of success. Since the 1980s, cities across the country have tried to foster the development of these planned cultural districts in areas that share many characteristics of NOCD, but where cultural life remains somewhat isolated from the rest of a community, or is just beginning to emerge as a significant factor. The idea is that with a little extra help these neighborhoods could turn into the next cultural hotspot. The development of these districts typically begins with identification of a neighborhood’s potential, often through the nomination and application by local stakeholders. If selected, an official designation is awarded, sometimes accompanied by a suite of government incentives targeted specifically at artists and other cultural producers. Usually positioned as economic development strategies, these programs are designed to encourage artists, entrepreneurs, institutions and potential developers to build on and organize around existing arts- and culture-based assets. If successful, the initial effort to designate a district will eventually result in increased tourism, tax revenue and outside investment in the designated areas.

A concert in a vacant lot in the state-designated Station North Arts & Entertainment District in Baltimore. Photo credit: Theresa Keil, courtesy of Station North Arts & Entertainment, Inc.

A concert in a vacant lot in the state-designated Station North Arts & Entertainment District in Baltimore. Photo credit: Theresa Keil, courtesy of Station North Arts & Entertainment, Inc.

Mere designation of neighborhood as an officially recognized cultural district can by itself provide several benefits, including:

  • Credibility: Though the designation process and standards vary from state to state, designating a cultural district recognizes the arts and cultural resources as defining characteristics of an area. A state-level review process and subsequent designation also lends credibility to this recognition.
  • Catalyst and Organizing Principle: Cultural district designation at the state level can function as an organizing principle amongst artists, residents, business owners, and community development professionals to establish cooperation and consensus as a neighborhood undergoes redevelopment or creates a neighborhood vision plan.
  • Marketing Potential: Given the cachet of cultural districts, designation can be a powerful marketing tool for a neighborhood undergoing active development. Designation offers the opportunity to change or influence the narrative about a given neighborhood in a positive way, as well as influence future investment.
  • Leverage Funding: In addition to some states enabling designated cultural districts access to specific loan funds, state designated cultural districts are uniquely positioned to attract regional and even national funding that might not otherwise be possible in the absence of designation. As an added bonus, the inherently place-based nature of a cultural district draws funding toward defined geographies.
  • Formalizing Relationships: Designated cultural districts offer the opportunity to strengthen state and local partnerships, strengthening relationships between agencies at these levels. Depending on the district’s management model, designated cultural districts can also link artists and informal arts collectives and bolster working relationships across the nonprofit, private and public sectors.

There are currently 13 state-designated cultural district programs, with designation criteria and process varying by state. Statewide programs are usually administered by the program’s respective state arts council, or in some cases by a state Main Street program, another economic development strategy that leverages local assets and emphasizes local heritage and historic character in its approach. Management strategies vary at the local level as well: some are volunteer-led organizations, others are fused with a Main Street program or community development corporation, and a few are autonomous nonprofit entities.

Of the 13 states that have designated cultural districts, only five (Iowa, Louisiana, Maryland, New Mexico, and Rhode Island) offer tax incentives for activity occurring within districts. These tax incentives can take the form of income tax exemptions, property tax incentives, sales tax credits or exemptions, preservation tax credits, or admissions & amusement tax exemptions. Other benefits for state designated districts include technical assistance programs or small grants offered directly to organizations, artists or other entities that are either located in designated districts or partner with the districts’ managing body.

A street view of Central Avenue in Albuquerque's Arts & Cultural District. Photo credit: Kent Kanouse

A street view of Central Avenue in Albuquerque’s Arts & Cultural District. Photo credit: Kent Kanouse

Evaluating State-Designated Cultural District Programs

With the earliest state-designated cultural district programs now more than a decade old, it’s time to ask whether they are working effectively. To date, unfortunately, limited research evaluating state designated cultural districts exists. The National Assembly of State Arts Agencies (NASAA) produced a 2012 overview of state cultural district policy and programs. The topic of cultural districts, designated and not, has also been addressed by Americans for the Arts, and was the focus of a 2013 AFTA preconference.

Several states have attempted to shed some light on the broad impact of their cultural district programs. The Maryland State Arts Council provides a yearly report on the economic and fiscal impacts of its arts & entertainment districts. According to the analysis, which uses the IMPLAN software and input/output methodology, an estimated 5,144 jobs were supported by arts & entertainment districts along with $458.2 million in total state GDP and $38.3 million in total tax revenues.

The Texas Cultural Trust used interviews, case studies, census data and tax records from Texas cultural districts to measure economic impact based on five indicators: population, employment, property tax base, taxable sales, and annual operating budget of the cultural district. The document also attempts to forecast the three-year impact of Texas’s designated cultural districts based on increased marketing and promotion, and changes in property value/property tax base increase.

The Iowa Department of Revenue evaluated its three-tiered state historic preservation tax credit program, one part of which is specifically applicable for the renovation of historic properties in designated cultural and entertainment districts. Using tax credit recipient surveys and Iowa Department of Revenue tax data, the study compares the Iowa historic preservation tax credit to similar programs in other states and evaluates the economic impact. It claims that every dollar awarded in state tax credits leveraged an additional $3.77 in federal and private investment.

Overall, the reports present the presence of a designated cultural district as a benefit and driver of economic development. Data on the number of people taking advantage of the tax incentive programs and the economic impact of these programs is missing from these reports, however, and from other state-designated cultural district programs with yearly reporting mechanisms. While the Iowa report provides an analysis of its historic preservation tax credit, it does not provide an analysis of those used specifically in its cultural and entertainment districts. This may be because certain data is difficult to locate: cultural district income tax benefits for artists, for example, are filed with an individual’s yearly tax forms and are therefore not publicly accessible.


If better data on cultural district tax incentives were available, there’s a good chance it would show that the incentives are of little consequence for the artists, organizations, and developers catalyzing revitalization in designated cultural districts. Several sources, including the NASAA policy overview, a Johns Hopkins University report, and anecdotal evidence from conversations with district managers, suggest that even where tax incentives are available, not many people or organizations take advantage of them.

This is likely a function of the limitations of state cultural district incentives. Specifically,

  • Stringent definitions of “qualifying artist” and “artistic worksignificantly reduce the number of individuals eligible for the incentives. This is particularly true of the income tax and sales tax incentives offered by several state programs. The definitions often require art to be made and sold within district boundaries, which does not reflect contemporary art-making, marketing, and sales practices. “Industry-specific work” such as graphic design or commercial photography does not qualify for most state incentive programs, which prevents many creative professionals from using the incentives.
  • Unclear guidelines for administration of incentives make it difficult for comptrollers or other government officials to determine eligibility for the incentives and to administer the programs consistently. In turn, this lack of an established protocol makes it difficult or impossible to use the credits, causing artists to seek alternatives.
  • Insignificant amounts of eligible income derived from the sale of art, tickets, or other work that does qualify for the incentives further limit the potential pool of applicants. In a time when many artists derive their primary income from other jobs, proceeds from the sale of work might not meet minimum thresholds for reporting, or might go unclaimed on an annual income tax form due to complicated documentation requirements.
  • A lack of promotion highlighting the availability of tax incentives leaves them relatively unknown to the public. Simply put, the existence of cultural district incentives is not widely advertised.

Given the hurdles for using districts’ incentives and the fact that most state programs do not offer incentives at all, it appears the success of cultural districts primarily stems from designation itself and the opportunities to market, program and organize that the designation provides. However, even the components of the programs that do not provide direct financial assistance still require funding and a management structure through which to administer the program. This brings us to another challenge for cultural districts: sustainability.

Regardless of management structure, dedicated staff time is vital to realizing the goals and reaping the benefits of a designated cultural district. Beyond small technical assistance grants, only two states offer operational support for the management of districts at the local level. The minimal funding available for this purpose seems disproportionate to the economic impact that cultural districts are expected to yield.

Perhaps the greatest challenge of cultural districts lies in maintaining affordability for the artists, entrepreneurs, and other longtime residents and businesses of designated districts, ostensibly those catalyzing the economic impact of the neighborhoods. While many NOCDs are celebrated success stories, some, like New York City’s SoHo or Miami’s Wynwood District are criticized for becoming victims of their own success, having experienced rapid commercialization, rising rents and displacement of the artists and longtime residents of the neighborhoods.Policies for state-designated cultural districts do little to consider the long-term sustainability of cultural districts whose “assets” are in large part reliant on individuals who are vulnerable to economic shifts and rising cost of living. Existing cultural district policy does not address issues of affordability, putting the creative clusters that rely on affordable live and workspace options at risk of displacement.


State-designated cultural districts benefit communities across the country, serving as a organizing principle, lending credibility to creative communities at the local level and boosting marketing potential in the neighborhoods in which they are initiated. With some programs now more than a decade old, however, it seems the policy and incentives programs accompanying some of these programs lag behind. While steps are being taken to increase advocacy efforts and expand the applicability and usefulness of these credits, including an expansion of geographic limitations for eligible artists in both Maryland and Rhode Island, progress remains slow. As arts organizations, researchers, and policymakers continue to explore cultural districts and make decisions about the creation of new districts, several key pieces of data need to be added to the equation.

First, data on cultural district tax incentives should be collected and compared to the expectations of policymakers at the time of their creation. Specifically, how many individuals are using the incentives, and how much is being claimed as a benefit of these programs? In addition to providing a clearer picture of the costs and benefits of designated districts, this data would enable more strategic decision-making for promotion of incentives.

Secondly, policymakers and researchers should adjust programs to better support and sustain artists, administrators and organizations. Where incentives for artists and creative professionals are offered, policymakers need to consider how art is marketed and eventually purchased. For example, the relatively recent emergence of Etsy, Kickstarter and other online platforms has changed the way artists and creative professionals seek visibility for their work, network, and sustain their business. Furthermore, increased connectivity between major urban areas makes it common practice to live in one city as a practicing artist and participate in exhibitions in another metropolitan area. Existing policy incentives do not align with these practices.

Finally, cultural district programs need to consider and promote affordability when it comes to residential and work space within districts. Whether at the policy level or local district level, administrators need to consider how to incentivize property owners to continue developing and maintaining safe and affordable studios, galleries, venues and living spaces. Another aspect to consider is adjusting policies and programs to incentivize renters to remain in cultural districts.

At their best, designated cultural districts provide a policy framework that leverages existing creative energy to foster the type of asset-based economic revitalization observed in NOCDs. However, as designated cultural district programs age and additional states create similar programs, it is vital that administrators delve more deeply into the research and evaluation of these programs to monitor the success of these districts, as well as some of their unintended consequences and areas for improvement.

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Congratulations to Alicia Akins

For the past several months, we’ve all had the pleasure of reading a number of posts by Alicia Akins, Createquity’s spring 2014 Fellow. She’s officially wrapped up her tenure as of last week, and as is our tradition, here we take a look back at the articles she contributed to the site:

  • In Models and Trends in International Arts Exchange, Alicia tackled the complicated history and motives underlying international arts exchange and catalogued a number of ways in which it takes place. I particularly appreciate that she tracked down the history of US State Department funding for this purpose since 2001!
  • Dispatches from the East: Museumscapes of Asia recounts Alicia’s personal experiences having traveled the globe’s largest continent for much of the past decade, and the surprising insights about museums that resulted.
  • Nationalism and government support of the arts is an ambitious look at the way that four countries, China, South Korea, Brazil, and Cambodia, conceptualize national and cultural identity in relationship to the United States and the rest of the developed world.
  • Alicia’s Arts Policy Library analysis of Nina Simon’s The Participatory Museum expresses admiration for the book’s applicability even to Alicia’s remote museum in Laos, and explores some of the thornier questions around what “fully participatory” means both for an individual museum and the entire field. The abridged version is here.

Alicia’s back in the United States now and planning out her next steps, so get in touch with her if you like what you see! In the meantime, please join me in thanking Alicia for these great additions to our collection.

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What Kind of Arts Education Does Workforce Development Require?

Photo by E. Briel

Photo by E. Briel

In early 2014, President Barack Obama addressed workers at a General Electric gas engine plant. “A lot of young people don’t see the trades and skilled manufacturing as a viable career,” he said,  “but I promise you, folks can make a lot more… with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree.”

That simple remark sent arts advocates into a letter-writing and tweeting tizzy. When the president apologized a few weeks later, via a hand-written note to an art history professor, the gesture was hailed by arts ed advocates as a victory that acknowledged “the untapped potential of [arts] industries in helping to improve the economic growth, jobs creation, and trade surplus of the United States.”

But the apology, while well-intentioned, didn’t reflect a change of heart. In the letter, Obama admitted that the arts were a source of joy in his life, but explained he was trying to “mak[e] a point about the jobs market, not the value of art history.” According to him, it’s not that art history doesn’t have value; it’s just that its value has more to do with joy than dollars – or practical skills.

Obama, like most high-profile leaders in education, frequently trumpets the need to cultivate an “innovative” workforce. While the definition of “innovation” has long been squishy, the president’s earlier statements suggest he sees an innovative workforce as one with “makers of things, not just consumers of things.” One would think the link between arts education and workforce development would be easier for him to grasp, particularly with reports on the impact of “creative economies” popping up left and right. Yet the link may seem more tenuous than arts educators would like to believe. Take, for example, the 2013 Otis Report on the Creative Economy. Released annually since 2007, and focused on the Southern California region, the report attempts to quantify the economic impact of “creative professions and enterprises that take powerful, original ideas and transform them into practical and often beautiful goods or inspire us with their artistry.” Not surprisingly, the report shows that those professions and enterprises are a big, and lucrative, deal in the region.

Arts education advocates hail these findings as evidence of a huge market for the skills taught in arts classes. Yet it seems that the very for-profit leaders who hire for such creative economy jobs are skeptical of the relevance of arts education. According to “LA Creates: Supporting the Creative Economy in Los Angeles,” which was released as an addendum to the 2013 Otis Report and features a synthesis of interviews with leaders from the creative industries,

While public and nonprofit sector participants were in near unanimous agreement on its importance, private sector participants expressed a fuller range of skepticism about the benefits of seeking solutions through support of arts education, and often didn’t see arts education as a priority among a hypothetical set of specific strategies that would improve the ability of creative businesses to expand and thrive.

What’s going on here? For-profit CEOs rank creativity at the top of their lists of important leadership qualities; arts education advocates have been arguing that their work provides a direct pipeline to the “creative economy” for years. Why, then, does the link between arts education and workforce development seem so difficult for people – even those working in the “creative industries” – to grasp?

One explanation may lie in the disconnect between arts educators’ rhetorical embrace of creativity and the constraints they, and all educators, face in traditional K-12 classrooms. Arts educators have fought hard for inclusion and respect within the public school system, and have dutifully adopted many trappings of that system along the way. The most obvious example is content standards, such as the Common Core, which outline what students should know and be able to do at each grade level. The standards movement started in the 1980s and continues to the present day, when forty-five forty-nine states and the District of Columbia have established them in the visual and performing arts. While arts educators variously embrace or chafe against those standards, they’re widely accepted as best practice, in large part because they allow the arts to demonstrate parity with other disciplines.

But does “demonstrating parity with other disciplines” at the K-12 level foster the best environment to nurture 21st-century skills like creativity? After all, “creative studies” programs in higher education– both bricks-and-mortar and virtual offerings of which are growing in number – are designed around the idea that creativity is not content-specific:

Traditional academic disciplines still matter, but as content knowledge evolves at lightning speed, educators are talking more and more about “process skills,” strategies to reframe challenges and extrapolate and transform information, and to accept and deal with ambiguity… “The new people who will be creative will sit at the juxtaposition of two or more fields,” [the director of a creativity center] says. When ideas from different fields collide… fresh ones are generated.

Meanwhile, most K-12 classrooms are still structured with each discipline, be it math, reading, or dance, in its own bubble. Despite efforts by the writers of the Common Core and the soon-to-be-released national arts standards to provide more flexibility across disciplines, advocates in all content areas are pushing for students to receive a minimum amount of guaranteed instruction in whichever discipline they support.

This raises some questions for arts educators. If the economy of the future will require that students demonstrate more applied problem-solving than content-specific knowledge, our hope that schools address discrete, and traditional, arts disciplines during the school day may not the most obvious choice for our future “innovative workforce” – if cultivating that workforce is indeed what we hope to do. Is teaching the arts a more effective means of teaching 21st-century skills than a framework like the Buck Institute’s Project Based Learning, which puts a heavy emphasis on hands-on, interdisciplinary problem-solving but doesn’t yet have a strong arts focus? If our top priority is “cultivating a 21st-century workforce,” should we be arguing that every student should have, for example, forty-five minutes of violin instruction per week? Are we missing a broader opportunity to get ahead of what may be a long-term shift toward a more interdisciplinary approach in education?

Some arts educators are embracing the interdisciplinary approach via the “STEM to STEAM movement,” a promising offshoot of our renewed focus on workforce development. While broad STEAM rhetoric is as muddled as it is popular, certain STEAM school models, particularly those at the high school level, are pretty friggin’ fantastic. Current interest in STEAM from government and certain business leaders provides an opportunity to investigate research on creativity and problem-solving in a deeper way, expanding our understanding of how creative people work and enabling openness to how “creativity” is taught in non-arts contexts.

Whether we like to admit it or not, the arts do not have a monopoly on 21st-century skills. Nor should those skills have a monopoly on our arguments for why arts education is important.  Perhaps the more willing we are to examine the link between the two, the more likely we are to uncover what the full impact of arts education can be.

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The Participatory Museum: the abridged version

(This is an abridged version of the full Arts Policy Library writeup.)


Published in 2011, The Participatory Museum presents Nina Simon’s social web-inspired approach to museum exhibits and partnerships and serves as a handbook for museum professionals for engaging in participatory projects. The Participatory Museum looks at how audiences participate in online platforms such as YouTube and Flickr and extends those principles to visitor participation in a museum. The first section of the book presents the theoretical framework for participatory design, and the second lays out practical tips for designing participatory exhibits and programs including types of projects, evaluation tips, and advice on how to build institutional capacity for participatory projects.

Four main ideas make up the theoretical part of the book:

Scaffolding places clear parameters through design into an exhibit that help frame the visitor experience and the range and nature of responses generated. Scaffolding guides visitors and keeps requests for participation from being too open-ended.

Me to We Design, a recasting of Simon’s earlier hierarchy of social participation, guides visitors through personal entry points to make connections with content, and ultimately to other individuals. Those connections take many forms.

Social technographics are a concept borrowed from Forrester Research’s 2008 “social technographics” tool, which categorizes audience profiles in social media engagement, audience profiles are based on types of activity and include creators, spectators, critics, joiners, collectors, and inactives. Good design considers how the actions of each audience type can enhance the experience of others.

Social objects function as a conduit for participation allowing visitors to “focus their attention on a third thing rather than on each other, making interpersonal engagement more comfortable.” Giving objects a social dimension can involve making design tweaks, physically altering objects, or reworking interpretive tools to make objects more personal, relational, active, and provocative.

In the second section, one chapter each is devoted to four types of participatory projects—contributory, collaborative, co-creative, hosted—three of which come from the Public Participation in Scientific Research (PPSR) project of the Center for Advancement of Informal Science Education (CAISE). Simon added a fourth type, “hosted,” to accommodate projects that are done by outside groups within the museum. The participatory models range from less to more control on the part of the participants but needn’t be attempted in any particular order. She even demystifies choosing among models through a handy chart.


At first, I was skeptical of the book’s wide applicability. Would it work well in the field regardless of museum type, location, or resources? As I read, however, Simon seemed to anticipate my objections, and The Participatory Museum succeeded in allaying most of my questions.

  • The Participatory Museum is dense in practical information. Tips are peppered throughout the book. Simon reinforces her points with numerous case studies that illustrate both successful and unsuccessful attempts at encouraging participation.
  • The examples are diverse, featuring organizations from several countries, of many kinds and sizes, and at different points on the participation spectrum
  • Between the examples in the text, and anecdotal evidence from colleagues, it was clear that participation, as a tool, is useful in building engagement across a wide spectrum of audiences.

The theories underlying The Participatory Museum appear to be sound even if not originating in or having been formally tested in a museum environment at the time of publication. Simon translates what assessment does exist into practical advice, and even lays out a blueprint for what good evaluation could look like. The Participatory Museum gives every indication of being directionally correct, and an excellent guide to incorporating participatory design into an institution.


Simon’s book has had an undeniable impact on the museum field, reigniting debate over how to breathe life into decaying institutions. In the four years since its publication there has been a shift—or at least public perception of a shift— toward more participation. And even within the field, participation and the principles laid out in the book have become the focus of conferences, institution-wide training sessions, and professional development workshops. Though participation does seem to be where the field is headed, the principles have met with some resistance from proponents of the more traditional museum experience and design and the absolute control and authority of the institution.

At the end of the day, are audiences more engaged and are institutions meeting their missions more effectively through participatory design techniques? The Particpatory Museum’s usefulness ultimately rests on the answers to those questions. We will need closer study of participatory work to fully understand the implications of the broader trends the book catalogues and appears to be ushering forward. What do we gain from participatory exhibits or institutional cultures of participation? What do we lose? The good news is that the success of The Participatory Museum and the speed at which its recommendations have been adopted should provide a wealth of material for researchers to begin answering these questions with more specificity in the years ahead.

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Arts Policy Library: The Participatory Museum



(For a briefer edition of this analysis, check out the abridged version.)

“This may sound messy,” Nina Simon, engineer turned experience designer, writes of participatory projects. “It may [also] sound tremendously exciting.”


Written in 2010 as a handbook for museum professionals who want to engage audiences in deeper forms of participation, The Participatory Museum presents Nina Simon’s social, web-inspired approach to exhibits and partnerships. At the time of writing, Simon was a highly sought-after experience designer whose philosophy was made popular through her blog, Museum 2.0. Part argument for participation and part toolbox, The Participatory Museum aims to inspire readers’ enthusiasm about participatory design and prepare them to launch their own successful projects.

The book itself is the product of a participatory project. Simon used an online wiki format to allow readers to submit relevant case studies and assist with writing and eventually editing. The online version of the book features linked footnotes for the examples used throughout the text.

Taking cues from social websites like YouTube, Netflix, LibraryThing, and Flickr, The Participatory Museum explores how brick-and-mortar institutions can learn from virtual participatory experiences. Simon defines a participatory cultural institution as one in which “visitors can create, share, and connect with each other around content.” Participation encourages multidirectional content experiences: a museum, rather than limiting itself to sending information in the direction of visitors, can encourage those visitors to contribute information to the institution and even share among themselves. Participation also encourages more equitable relationships among all stakeholders, making objects and entire institutions more accessible.

All of this requires an adjustment in thinking about authority, the role of the visitor, and the flow of information between individual and institution. In participatory projects, museum staff members used to holding absolute authority in the interpretation of objects must cede some of that power to visitors. Simon asserts that the very process that makes participatory projects rewarding for museum audiences is often a source of apprehension for museum staff. Done right, according to Simon, “participatory projects create new value for the institution, participants, and non-participating audience members.”


Drawing by Jennifer Rae Atkins

Using the example of how interactivity has transformed entire organizations such as the Boston Children’s Museum, Simon imagines a future where some institutions are “wholly participatory.” The Participatory Museum advocates for the power of participatory design to fulfill idealistic mission statements about engagement, connection, and inspiring action. Nevertheless, Simon is careful to include the caveat that this new method of design isn’t meant to supplant traditional techniques but to augment them, and argues that the two can peacefully coexist.

Structure and scope

The book is organized into two sections. The first, more theoretical part lays out several participatory design principles, and the second details how four different models of participation can work in practice.

Participation in theory

For Simon, the first and perhaps most important point that undergirds all successful design is a clear connection between the institution’s mission and the benefits to be gained from a participatory project by the institution, participants, or audience. No one will be engaged – or fooled – if a museum halfheartedly invites participation because it has become trendy. To reap the rewards of participation, staff and leadership must understand how the project will advance the museum’s core purposes. This grounding in mission and clarity of benefits makes everything else possible.

The Participatory Museum identifies “two counter-intuitive design principles at the heart of successful participatory projects” that reappear throughout the book. The first is scaffolding, the guidance and constraints given to visitors to help frame the range and nature of responses generated. Scaffolding is necessary to set up a safe environment where audience members feel comfortable sharing and interacting with each other. Simon juxtaposes the completely open-ended request for participation with the thoughtfully narrow one.

Compare, for example, the open-ended dialogue program of British artist Jeremy Deller, It Is What It Is: Conversations About Iraq,with the Human Library, an event first held for youth at the Denmark Roskilde Festival in 2000. It Is What It Is attempted to encourage visitors to ask questions of people who had served in Iraq by creating a large gallery with provocative images from the country and installing living-room-style seating. At points throughout the exhibition, soldiers, translators, and others were on hand to answer questions from visitors. Simon argues that It Is What It Is lacked “sufficient scaffolding to robustly and consistently support dialogue”: the two times she saw it at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, there were just two guests sitting on couches next to a powerful object.

The Human Library explores similar terrain: it is intended for “anybody who is ready to talk with his or her own prejudice and stereotype and wants to spend an hour of time on this experience.” Participants select a “book” from a catalogue of stereotypes, such as a black Muslim, a cop, a Goth, or a quadriplegic; once at the “checkout counter,” they encounter a person embodying their chosen stereotype for a discussion lasting anywhere from 45 minutes to two hours. The experience was more carefully crafted, and it was a success at generating the kinds of provocative discussions the designers hoped for. The framing of the event as a library eased some of the expected reluctance in confronting visitors’ own prejudices, allowing participants to choose their own book provided a personal entry point into the activity, and even restricting the time helped set people’s expectations. Simon reasons that limitations make people more likely to participate and that better-defined parameters lead to higher-quality and more relevant participation.

Good scaffolding alone doesn’t automatically result in amazing social participation. Truly social interaction, Simon says, has to start with the individual, who begins to climb a participatory ladder from a personal entry point, her second design principle. “Me-to-We” design, a recasting of her own earlier hierarchy of social participation, guides visitors through those entry points to connections with content, and ultimately to other individuals.


Not everyone will always want to engage with others socially, even if an exhibit is designed to allow it. To categorize the different styles of participation, Simon looks to statistics on American adults from Forrester Research’s 2008 “social technographics” tool, which categorizes audience profiles in social media engagement.

Forrester Research’s social technographics participation ladder.

In this framework, audience profiles are based on types of activity. Creators make up a small part of the participation pie, whereas critics, collectors, joiners, spectators, and inactives represent the majority in social platforms – and all but the last two (not just creators) count as truly participatory. Good design acknowledges the mixed composition of audiences and provides an outlet for each role to be involved, enabling the actions of each audience type to enhance the experience of others.

Simon devotes considerable attention to two other elements of design: technologies for social experiences and social objects. Each of these concepts is meant to aid in moving toward the “we” end of design. Simon asserts that mediating technologies can make people “more comfortable socializing with strangers” within the physical space of the museum. For example, Internet Arm Wrestling, an exhibit set up concurrently in several science centers around the U.S., enabled long-distance personal interactions. Visitors at one institution sat behind a metal arm and a computer screen and arm wrestled someone elsewhere at the same center or hundreds of miles away at another. The exhibit succeeded in engaging audiences in types of behavior they would not normally try within a museum or, probably, anywhere.

Simon doesn’t neglect the role of objects themselves in prompting social interaction. Simon argues that “social objects,” a concept taken from engineer and sociologist Jyri Engestrom, perform a similar role as mediating technologies, allowing visitors to “focus their attention on a third thing rather than on each other, making interpersonal engagement more comfortable.” Social objects differ from regular ones in that they tend to spark interactions among audience members who see them. Simon uses the non-museum example of her dog, who serves as a focal point for social exchanges with passersby when she is out for a walk. Harnessing social potential is as much about good design choices as good object choices, and giving objects a social dimension is an art. It can involve making design tweaks, physically altering objects, or reworking interpretive tools such as panels and labels to make objects more personal, relational, active, and provocative..

Participation in practice

Shifting to the practical considerations for participation in the second part of the book, Simon borrows three categories of participation from the Public Participation in Scientific Research (PPSR) project of the Center for Advancement of Informal Science Education (CAISE) and supplies a fourth of her own. One chapter is dedicated to each of the participatory models:

  • Contributory
  • Collaborative
  • Co-creative
  • Hosted

Simon describes contributory projects as “casual flings between participants and institutions,” with the most common form being the comment box or feedback wall. As the name suggests, these projects solicit contributions from visitors, which can take the form of opinions, stories, or personal objects such as photographs. Of the four participatory models, contributory projects are the simplest to execute and can involve the most people. Even though these projects are relatively casual, scaffolding still helps institutions ask for and receive meaningful contributions through thoughtful questioning and modeling desired behavior. The London Science Museum incorporated visitor-donated toys into the exhibit Playing with Science, and visitors reported feeling a sense of ownership and pride in seeing their toys on display.

In collaborative projects, institutions still take the leading role in project development, but they work side by side with community members to create new exhibits, programs, and services. These projects usually require a higher level of commitment from participants than those in the contributory category. The National Building Museum in DC runs an annual program that collaborates with local youth to create an exhibit based on the photography and creative writing of community members. Participants take part in twelve classes and have the opportunity to “partially self-direct” an exhibit at the museum. To Simon, though, the exhibit is just the beginning. She asserts that the real measure of success for these projects is what happens after they end – specifically, whether participants remain involved with the institution beyond the project. Simon suggests establishing four non-overlapping roles for the management of collaborative projects: project director, community manager, instructors, and client representatives. Each of these roles balances different levels of authority and intimacy with participants, so keeping them distinct, Simon argues, is important to project success and staff sanity.

Co-creative projects may be undertaken at the initiative of outside participants. On the surface, these projects may look very similar to collaborative projects, but the key difference lies in the share of power between the institution and participants. Co-creative projects are demand-driven and “require institutional goals to take a backseat to community goals.” The special sauce that makes these projects successful is a mixture of non-specialists equipped to accomplish both community and institutional goals, and institutions genuinely desiring community input and leadership. Seattle’s Wing Luke Asian Museum uses the co-creative model exclusively in developing their exhibits. Wing Luke staff members facilitate the development of the themes, content, and form of the exhibits by a team of advisors from the community.

In hosted projects, outside participants have almost complete power. One of the most common of these is a late night social event or reception sponsored by an external organization, although some museums may turn over a set of rooms for exhibitions controlled entirely by someone else. In all of these projects, the outside partner carries out their own project within the museum’s space. Despite the near-total abdication of power in these projects, creative constraints are still useful in ensuring a degree of consistency between community-led projects and those led by professional staff.

While the participatory models range from less to more control on the part of the participants, Simon believes that they needn’t be attempted in any particular order and shouldn’t be seen as a progression. She has even demystified choosing among models through a chart that walks through assessing your commitment to community engagement, desired control over the project, preferred level of leadership, availability of staff, skills gained by participants and benefits to nonparticipants.

Toward the end of the book, Simon devotes chapters to evaluating and sustaining participation. Evaluating participatory projects can be especially tricky because it must focus not just on results for the multiple beneficiaries but also on the process itself. And even the best design can crumble with inadequate institutional support and management structures. Simon suggests a few methods to get staff comfortable with taking on more challenging participatory projects, such as encouraging them to “spend time on the front lines with visitors” or conduct audience research. She also offers several strategies for keeping momentum going with newly started participatory projects, including hiring a community manager and cultivating a participatory culture from the very top.


After reading The Participatory Museum, museums and their staff, regardless of their size or resources or content, should be able to begin their journey to reinvigorating themselves, right? What’s good for the web must be good for the galleries? I have to admit that at first I had my doubts.

Specifically, I was skeptical that the book’s techniques would work in a museum like mine, the Traditional Arts and Ethnology Centre in Laos: tiny, few staff, little money, no technology, almost no repeat visitors, and in a developing country. Forrester Research’s social technographics data draws on audiences in North America, Europe, Australia, Metro China, Japan and Korea – all relatively developed places. If any setting could test the limits of this model, it would be here. As I read, however, Simon seemed to anticipate my objections, and The Participatory Museum succeeded in allaying most of my questions about its applicability.

Many books meant as guides meander through abstractions and skimp on specifics, but The Participatory Museum is as dense in practical information as in theory. Tips (“Generally, a platform that has one-fourth to one-half of the space open provides a feeling of welcome and encourages visitors to share”) are peppered throughout the book. Simon reinforces her points with numerous case studies that illustrate both successful and unsuccessful attempts at encouraging participation. For example, in the section on collaboration, she shares her involvement with The Tech Virtual Test Zone, a 2007 project of the San Jose Tech Museum that did not turn out as expected. Simon’s own personal example of participatory failure was a poignant reminder that even seasoned designers don’t get things right all the time.

The examples are also diverse, featuring organizations from several countries, of many kinds and sizes, and at different points on the participation spectrum—some, even, from organizations similar to mine. To cite just a few cases, Simon presents an advice booth set up in the University of Washington-Seattle Student Center, a community photo-documentation project at the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology (VME), and a participatory book-tagging experiment in the Netherlands.

I also saw the applicability of Simon’s approach to the developing world firsthand recently, when my museum undertook a community-based participatory project similar to the VME’s. This work brought a flood of enthusiasm among community members previously untapped through traditional design methods. And a colleague in Indonesia recently quoted the book in justifying decisions she made within her museum. Between the examples in the text, and anecdotal evidence from colleagues, it’s clear that participation, as a tool, is useful in building engagement across a wide spectrum of audiences.

But can we trust the theories underlying The Participatory Museum’s recommendations for practice? While an exhaustive review of primary sources upon which the book draws is outside of the scope of this article, Simon certainly seems to have done her homework: her central typology of participatory projects (contributory, collaborative, co-creative, and hosted) is taken from the literature on public participation in scientific research. She deftly adapts it to the somewhat different context of museums, and added the final category (hosted) herself to account for the use of a museum’s space by an outside organization, where she argues persuasively that the principles of successful participation still apply.

That said, readers should be aware that most of the theory underlying The Participatory Museum had not been formally tested in a museum environment at the time the book was published. Simon speaks forcefully about the need for more and better evaluation of participatory projects; she calls the lack of it “probably the greatest contributing factor to their slow acceptance and use in the museum field.” The Participatory Museum seemingly does a good job of enlisting what assessment does exist and translating it into practical advice, and even lays out a blueprint for what good evaluation could look like, but the evidence presented in most cases is anecdotal. (There are exceptions, such as a 2002 impact study of Glasgow’s Open Museum, which lent objects to visitors in the community.) Purely on the basis of what was known in 2010, it is hard to be sure what tradeoffs would be involved in manifesting Simon’s ultimate vision of a new, wholly participatory kind of museum, or exactly how best to do it. Even so, The Participatory Museum gives every indication of being directionally correct, and an excellent guide to starting that process at an institution.


Whether you love or hate it, the impact of Simon’s book on the museum field is undeniable. With over 250 citations in books and journal articles, and required reading status in graduate museum studies programs, The Participatory Museum is widely touted as a must-read for museum professionals. The book has inspired conferences, institution-wide discussion sessions, and professional workshops around the country, and reignited debate over how to breathe life into decaying institutions. Simon continues to experiment with these principles at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History, where she has been executive director since 2011.

It’s hard to know how much credit The Participatory Museum can claim for this, but there has been a shift—or at least public perception of a shift— toward more participation in the four years since its publication. The Economist recently noted that museums were almost completely unrecognizable, having changed from being places “where people look on in awe” to being places “where they learn and argue.”

But is participation for everyone? There is a tension in The Participatory Museum between Simon’s utopian vision of wholly participatory institutions and her call for balance between traditional and participatory design. Writing about her divergent experiences during a visit to Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks in Wyoming in 2008, she admitted:

I am an elitist when it comes to national parks. I like my parks hard to access, sparsely populated, and minimal in services…I believe in lowering barriers to access and creating opportunities for visitors to use museums in diverse ways. On this trip, for the first time, I truly understood the position of people who disagree with me, those who feel that eating and boisterous talking in museums is not only undesirable but violating and painful.

If participatory design is not the only worthwhile kind of design, where is the proper balance? How do institutions and staff know when they’ve hit the participatory sweet spot and when they’ve gone too far?

Indeed, the principles Simon advocates in her book have met with resistance from some quarters. While many institutions have begun transforming themselves into the new kind of museum that Simon envisions, others hold to their support of quiet contemplation and traditional design and seem to believe that they can meet their missions effectively and satisfy their audiences without these design techniques. Bruce Bratton, a Santa Cruz resident, and Judith Dobrzynski, a New York Times writer, are the most recent standard-bearers of the camp that is critical not so much of The Participatory Museum as of the concept of participatory design itself. Dobrzynski believes that the participatory trend, or as she calls it, “the quest for experience,” has led to a field-wide identity crisis in which entertainment has taken over the previously quiet and contemplative environment for which museums were known. Bratton’s more personal attack took aim at Simon’s own museum, calling it a “hobby circus” and claiming that the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History had devolved into a community center under her leadership.

The Participatory Museum does acknowledge these concerns about audience members who don’t want to take part themselves or feel that others’ participatory experiences are intrusive. Early on in the book, Simon argues that the segment of the audience seeking a more traditional experience should not be left out of the process of “mapping out audiences of interest and brainstorming the experiences, information, and strategies that will resonate most with them” that is foundational to audience-centric design. The research profiling participant types notes that “passive” participants outnumber creators anyway, and through strategic design they can still benefit from others’ contributions. But at the end of the day, are audiences more engaged and are institutions meeting their missions more effectively through participatory design techniques?

For all the accolades and buzz it’s received, The Participatory Museum’s usefulness ultimately rests on the answers to those questions. We will need closer study of participatory work to fully understand the implications of the broader trends the book catalogues and appears to be ushering forward. What do we gain from participatory exhibits or institutional cultures of participation? What do we lose? Are there gaps between perception and reality on this front? (For example, the book presents little evidence that participatory design can make museum audiences less white.) Finally, how can we most effectively take Simon’s advice to put the audience first in any design, given the varied desires and priorities of individual members of that audience? The good news is that the success of The Participatory Museum and the speed at which its recommendations have been adopted should provide a wealth of material for researchers to begin answering these questions with more specificity in the years ahead.

Further reading:


Nationalism and government support of the arts

Fireworks going off over the Bird’s Nest Olympic Stadium in Beijing, China. Photo Courtesy of guccio@文房具社.

On the evening of August 8, 2008, I sat in the Bird’s Nest in Beijing with 91,000 other spectators and a television audience in the billions, watching China tell its story through the arts. Sure enough, after the final firework exploded over the Bird’s Nest, China had accomplished its goal: prove that, through discipline and creativity, it had become a formidable player on the world stage.

After winning its bid to host the Olympics, China stirred with excitement as it crafted the image it would project to the world. Nationalism was palpable among school children, taxi drivers, government officials, and Olympic volunteers. The games may have been about athleticism, but the prelude, the Opening Ceremonies, was about artistry and the Chinese identity. A blank traditional scroll unfurled on the ground and dancers used their bodies to paint the scroll as they danced. Performers danced on a large globe suspended in the middle of a dark Bird’s Nest giving the illusion of being in outer space.

Dancers performing on a globe suspended in the Bird’s Nest. Photo Courtesy of guccio@文房具社.

Leaders in Beijing knew that their creative abilities were being tried along with their ability to pull off an event of this scale and importance. They spared no expense in making it what many critics hailed as the most spectacular opening ceremony to date.

Nation-building and image-building

All countries engage in what political scientists call “nation-” and “image-” building. Nation-building (not to be confused with state-building) is the internal process of creating a shared identity among citizens through policy and the allocation of public funds. Its external counterpart, image-building, deals with shaping outsiders’ perceptions of a country. The arts often factor into these endeavors: domestically, they affirm a sense of shared culture and enrich social life, while through their export, they help communicate a nation’s identity and may serve as a benchmark for international competitiveness. As countries develop, it is thought, investments in image-building can yield both economic and diplomatic returns.

As the globe’s richest and most heavily armed nation, the United States is in a unique position relative to the rest of the world. Looking at examples beyond our borders shows how other countries handle limited budgets, growing or diminishing international stature, and the desire to be competitive. The four countries compared here—Korea, China, Cambodia, and Brazil—are in different phases of development and provide an important contrast to the industrialized European nations to which cultural policy in the United States is so often compared.

In each of these cases, we will examine the importance of the arts to nation-building efforts, as evidenced by public spending; the degree to which the arts are included in nation-building as an explicit or implicit response to America’s perceived cultural dominance; the degree to which the arts are included in a country’s concept of international competitiveness; and the status of the arts as part of an image-building strategy. Looking at examples such as these can offer fresh insights into the arts’ role in creating a national identity and projecting an image of vitality to the outside world.


Historically, China’s cultural sphere spanned the Asian continent. Today, however, it sees its influence in danger of being eclipsed by that of its neighbors—and of the West. China’s investment in the arts is a safeguard against the perceived infiltration of American culture, an attempt for its cultural products to carry more economic weight and status within the region, and a natural extension of its ascendance as a global economic force.

As a relative newcomer on the international stage, China believes that a strong arts sector can help put it on equal footing with developed countries. In recent years, officials have valued culture’s role in “the competition of…national strength.” In 2011, a comprehensive plan for cultural reform was unveiled. China already spends significantly on culture. In 2012, China spent 54.054 billion yuan, or 9.3% of its national budget, on culture, sports, and media. Teasing out the amount for the arts is challenging given China’s notoriously opaque budgets, but if we assume one-third of that 54 billion goes to culture, China’s financial support would be the equivalent of nearly $3 billion in US dollars.

This spending is driven in large part by a reaction against encroaching foreign values. The Chinese consume more American than Chinese cultural products. This trend, and the accompanying values shift, is so alarming to Chinese officials that they counter it with increased spending on theater, television, and radio and regulations restricting foreign programming. In 2006, China’s contribution to the global cultural market trailed that of its smaller neighbors. Japan and Korea made up 13% of the global market for cultural products including literature, popular culture, and games, while the rest of Asia, including China, made up only 6%.

Whatever funding China dedicates to the arts risks being seen by people in more open governments more as a political maneuver than an earnest attempt at moving the arts forward. Financial investments remain undercut by China’s most contentious policy: censorship. From things as trite as blacklisting Lady Gaga and as pedantic as pixelating Michelangelo’s David-Apollo’s privates, to filmmakers and writers being restricted to the point that it forces mediocrity, China tries to keep a tight rein on the ideologies communicated through cultural products. Works of modern dance require approval from a member of the party before they can be performed for the public, and certain topics such as the infamous 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown remain taboo.


Once upon a time, South Korea’s national investment in the arts was a response to the United States’ cultural dominance. After the Korean War, arts policy in South Korea prioritized fostering national identity by highlighting the uniquely Korean aspects of culture. Article 9 of the Korean Constitution declares “states have an obligation to put forth effort in bequeathing and developing traditional culture and creatively enhancing national culture.” In 1973, Korea’s first five-year cultural plans stipulated new funding for culture, 70% of which was allocated for folk arts and traditional culture. Subsequent government administrations drafted their own national cultural plans, and by the 1980s the arts were more broadly included in goals to promote the excellence of the arts and foster contemporary art. By the 1990s, the advent of democracy shifted the focus to cultural welfare, where the arts are used to address social issues and enhance the nonmaterial aspects of life. Recently, however, its motives have changed. The government now looks to the arts to promote soft power, national image building, and economic growth.

Today, Korea has a strong arts infrastructure—arts agencies, university arts programs, performing arts companies, and festivals— that has surprisingly little visibility outside the region. In 2010, Korea’s central government spent approximately 5.7 percent — $56 per capita — on culture through its Ministry of Culture, about a quarter of which went specifically to the arts. The local government spends twice as much. In recent years, arts and culture in Korea is the one category of spending to enjoy an increasing proportion of government budget allocations, a trend mirrored in few other national budgets.

Korea also has a robust set of policies that support the arts -112 in all. These policies cover public art, the promotion of museums, arts education, tax incentives for businesses and individuals, and artist welfare issues. The country’s largest state-funded arts council and funding agency, Arts Council Korea (ARKO), was mandated as part of the Culture and Arts Promotion Act in 1973. The Public Art Promotion Act requires new large construction projects to allocate 1% of their total costs to public art. Corporations can claim higher exemptions for allocating money to cultural services.

With the rising popularity of Korean television, music, and movies abroad, the government has sought to capitalize on their profitability. South Korea’s overseas shipment of cultural goods came to $4.6 billion in 2012. Comparing cultural exports is a regular practice within East Asia, each country hoping to outdo each other and establish its own world-class arts, entertainment, and creative industries. While Korea enjoys relative success in exporting its cultural products within the region, and there is growing interest among the Korean diaspora abroad in cultural products and traditional culture, it also continues to work on spreading its influence to the States and beyond.


Brazil has experienced rapid development in recent years. Like China, it has enjoyed growing economic power and attention on the international stage, but unlike China, its arts policies are not a reaction against the perceived threat of US cultural influence. In one way its motivations seem closer to Korea’s: attaining peer status among developed countries. It also has an increasing demand to keep up with its citizens’ purchasing power, as interest in consuming culture and the arts grows.

Because it’s not possible to unite all Brazilians behind a shared ethnic identity, a strategy used in more homogeneous countries like Korea or Japan, the government must take a more active role in creating a sense of shared identity based on other factors. It seems fitting then that following the 2005 UNESCO Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions, Brazil has allocated funds to promoting social cohesion through the arts and culture.

In 2007, direct funding from the Ministry of Culture accounted for only 0.7% of the national budget, or approximately $420 million USD. But what Brazil’s government lacks in direct funding for the arts it makes up for through a series of innovative policies, including tax incentives. The Social Service of Commerce (SESC), among other things, is Brazil’s leading private financer of the arts. The SESC’s budget for programs in Sao Paulo alone is roughly equivalent to the NEA’s yearly budget. The organization’s funds are tied to a 1.5% payroll tax on companies that is virtually unopposed by policymakers and companies. In addition, the so-called Rouanet Law has allowed corporations to divert their owed taxes to finance cultural activities since 1991 and now drives about $630 million towards the sector annually. In January 2013, the government began offering small annual stipends for each citizen to use on “cultural expenses.” Employers foot the bulk of the money that funds the stipend, with individuals supplying the remaining 10% through their paycheck.

Brazil enacted a ten-year cultural plan in 2010, which lays out strategies and priorities for Brazil’s cultural development. The top priority includes using culture and the arts to help bolster Brazil’s image abroad. One of the others is a series of bills promoting culture and cultural exports, such as a plan to work with trade organizations in hopes of becoming one of the world’s top 20 cultural exporters.


Until relatively recently, Cambodia held prominent cultural status within mainland Southeast Asia, and many artists traveled there to train in their craft. But today, the arts struggle for rehabilitation and revival. When the Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia between 1975 and 1979, intellectuals and artists were targeted for purging. While 25% of the population that died during that period, an astounding 90% of museum workers, professors, performing and visual artists, and writers were killed, forcing the closure of many institutions. Many of the artists that survived subsequently sought to return Khmer arts to their former glory. When things finally stabilized, protection for the arts—both its institutions and practitioners—was written into the new 1993 constitution. However, funding for them did not always follow.

Robert Turnbull describes the situation in the book Expressions of Cambodia: The Politics of Tradition, Identity and Change: “While the Cambodian establishment frequently alludes to Cambodian classical arts being the ‘soul of the nation,’ it has been largely unwilling to develop performance culture in ways that are sustainable or give artists under its charge reason for optimism.” Government funding for performing arts, for example, is on average just 0.25% of the national budget.

Faced with limited government assistance, arts organizations often rely on foreign individuals and foreign-backed NGOs for financial support to rebuild a national identity and improve Cambodia’s image abroad through the arts. Cambodian Living Arts, one of the most active arts organizations, exists in part to “facilitate the transformation of Cambodia through the arts” and specifically, “to create an understanding of what it means to be Cambodian and to create a sense of unity and shared culture.” Amrita, Cambodia’s premier contemporary dance and performing arts organization, seeks “new life for Cambodia’s ancient artistic heritage” in part through networking internationally both to raise the status of Cambodian arts overseas and to find donors.

American influence in Cambodian culture has only recently become an issue, in part because of how reliant the arts are on funding from foreign sources. Cambodian artists and arts administrators are investigating ways to become more self-sustaining. Artists and performers, rather than waiting for acknowledgment from the government of their value, are thus demonstrating initiative in ensuring the arts don’t get neglected while the government focuses on other important development issues.

Bringing It Home

Ironically, the United States, whose arts infrastructure is envied around the world, devotes hardly any government support to the arts at the federal level compared with other nations. Even if you look beyond the National Endowment of the Arts and include appropriations to entities like the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Smithsonian Institution, and the National Portrait Gallery, the US still spends less than one one-tenth of one percent of its budget on arts and culture – orders of magnitude lower than some of the countries covered here. Even Cambodia’s investment in arts and culture dwarfs our own – on a relative basis, anyway.

While government support for the National Endowment for the Arts in particular has declined in recent decades, the truth is that Washington has never played a central role in the shaping of the arts ecosystem nationally. In part this is because of the decentralized nature of government arts funding: a recent NEA analysis shows that state and local funding for arts and culture outweighs federal support by a factor of nearly 5 to 1. And of course, the strong history of private giving in this country makes up for the lack of centralized support to no small degree.

So how has the United States been able to achieve such cultural dominance with so little government support? Certainly, the country’s economic and military might, developed largely without the help of state-supported museums and symphonies, are contributing factors. But it’s hard to ignore the role that the for-profit cultural industries, Hollywood in particular, have played in spreading American identity and influence abroad. US cultural exports in 2011 reached almost $40 billion, with over half coming from the motion picture industry.

Indeed, our examples here confirm that the private sector can have an energizing influence on the arts even when governments have limited capacity to invest directly. In Brazil, the government supports the arts through tax benefits that incentivize private investment; in Cambodia artists and arts administrators have taken the situation into their own hands and been active where the government has been silent.

In this light, the efforts of China and, to a lesser extent, Korea to explicitly build national power and identity through government investment in culture represent a fascinating natural experiment. Every year, the World Economic Forum ranks countries by international competitiveness. Twelve “pillars” including infrastructure, macroeconomic environment, higher education and training, financial market development, market size, and technological innovation determine a country’s rank. Each pillar matters, but each affects countries in different ways. According to the report, economies fall either squarely into one of three stages of development or are “transitional,” falling between them. The first development stage consists of economies like Cambodia driven by unskilled labor and natural resources, with low wages, and only the most basic commodities. Here, competitiveness depends on the strength of institutions, infrastructure, public health, primary education, and a stable macroeconomic environment. China is at the second stage representing “efficiency-driven” economies that thrive on manufacturing. Competitiveness at this stage hinges on higher education and training, an efficient goods market, mature labor and financial markets, technological readiness, and large domestic or international markets. Brazil is in transition between the second and third “innovation-driven” stage, where economies become more competitive by improving business sophistication and through technological innovation. South Korea and the US both fall into this third category, but interestingly, the US’s rank has been declining over the past several years. Will America’s cavalier attitude toward nation-building prove shortsighted in the end? Only time will tell.

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Around the horn: memorial edition

Note to folks going to the annual Americans for the Arts Convention in Nashville – Ian and Talia will both be present, and presenting: Talia at Making Arts Education More Equitable and Available to Everyone and the Lightning Workshops during the Arts Education Preconference; and Ian at Creating a Culture of Learning at Your Organization and the Expert Roundtables. Come say hi!






  • Is it time for foundations to embrace partisan politics instead of trying to remain above the fray? Writers for the Stanford Social Innovation Review think so. “Partisan conflict is not an external factor that advocates can work around,” they write. “It is the defining axis of American politics today, and funders must be unafraid to reckon with it.”
  • The expansion of the Gates-Buffett Giving Pledge – a promise to give away at least half of one’s fortune – to include billionaires from around the world raises questions about different cultural attitudes toward philanthropy (in China, public or transparent giving is eschewed) and about the relative merits of the Big Philanthropy model vs the more distributed community foundation model of giving.
  • Arts entrepreneurship aficionados, look out: Barry’s Blog has a stellar lineup, uh, lined up for a weeklong blogathon on the topic starting…today!


  • The National Academy of Sciences has hard numbers that show students learn better through hands-on activities than through lectures – at least when it comes to the sciences.
  • Philanthropy Northwest reports on a year-long peer-learning project on diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts involving 10 foundation CEOs in the region.
  • Corporate giving is up again, according to the Committee Encouraging Corporate Philanthropy’s annual tally.
  • South Arts has released two research reports on arts education in the South. The first, a survey of nearly a third of all principals in the region, found among other things that Southern students have less access to visual arts and music than other American students but greater access to dance – with significant variation among Southern states. The second, case studies of nine strong arts education programs, found that the successful schools cultivated a shared vision of the arts, incorporated the arts into the core curriculum driven by state and national standards, and exposed students to working artists.
  • Bringing the ability to make snazzy charts and tables to the masses, evaluators Stephanie Evergreen and Ann K. Emery have developed a data visualization checklist for the graphically challenged among us.
  • In case you ever wondered about the correlation between per capita consumption of cheese and the number of people who die by becoming tangled in their bedsheets, Tyler Vigen has you covered.
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