Image by macwagen, Creative Commons license
I’ve been blogging for a little over two years now, and in that time a lot has changed. I’ve gone through a complete graduate business program, worked for a summer at one of the largest private grantmaking organizations in the world, expanded my blog reading list by about 2000% , and waded pretty deep into cultural policy and economics literature. The upshot is that, unlike when I started this thing, now I at least sort of know what I’m talking about some of the time. Yet it’s occurred to me lately that I’ve only been reporting my findings as I go, rather than keeping a tally in one place for anyone who might not have been following along the whole time (not to mention myself). So in what’s likely to become something of an evolving exercise, I’m going to try to wrap things up in a tidy little package here for 2010.
Here is (some of) what I know now that I didn’t in October 2007.
- Information overload is shaping up to be one of the major challenges of our time. The quantity of available, accessible, highly relevant information is expanding at a rate far faster than the human brain was designed to handle, while at the same time we’re gaining the ability to communicate meaningfully with more people than was ever before possible. For quantitative information, our information surplus is easily solved by means of computing power, but for the trickier qualitative questions (what does it all mean?), our task is harder than ever.
- For this reason, there exists a huge need for better processing and dissemination of arts research to the people who make decisions about the arts. My experience talking with dozens of arts professionals in the field over the past couple of years has suggested to me that while most try to keep up with current research and may be familiar with some of the more high-profile publications, few have a really comprehensive understanding of what’s out there or have taken the time to come to independent conclusions about what the research says. This shouldn’t be all that surprising, if you think about it; as I’ve learned the hard way, grappling with lengthy technical documents like these takes time–a lot of time–and these people have jobs to do. The bigger issue, though, is that the distribution system for arts research sucks. Generally, the consultant or academic or whoever wrote it will just make a few print copies which end up sitting in an office here and there, and maybe throw it up on a website with no real strategy to draw people’s attention to it. Occasionally, a report gets lucky and gets some media attention. Unfortunately, what often seems to happen is that journalists will simply read the press release and the executive summary and skim the rest (if they even do that). As a result, we don’t get an independent analysis of what the research says and means, just a parroting of however the publisher wants to spin it. That’s not good enough. We need high-quality criticism and contextualization of these studies so that we can really put them to use. Otherwise, their impact will be limited and they are as likely to lead us astray as show us the light.
- More generally, we need to push for better education in the field about statistics and research design. Much of the crosstalk that often accompanies the release of new studies originates in confusion (or, sometimes, deliberate obfuscation) about something as fundamental as the difference between correlation and causation. Other times, problems arise as a result of trying to interpret nonrandom samples (this is particularly an issue for research that relies on surveys) or because studies fail to establish a counterfactual scenario. Quantitative analysis should really be incorporated into every arts manager’s training, the same way that it is for public policy programs and business degrees. Since not everybody’s going to get an arts administration degree, though, one of the things I’d like to do at some point is write a quick-and-dirty primer on how to interpret these studies for people with no background in statistics. All of these things will help – the more the better.
- Economics is a deeply silly field. I’ve written about this in some depth here and here, not to mention here, but here’s the quick version. One of the foundational concepts in economic theory is Adam Smith’s “invisible hand“: by letting individual participants in the market independently and self-interestedly pursue their own preferences, Smith argues, the overall system will naturally gravitate towards the maximum benefit for all. In other words, we don’t have to choose between profit and social good; the one will inexorably lead to the other! OK, now that you’ve stopped laughing and reseated yourself in your chair, here are the problems. In order for this theory to work, a number of factors must be in place: there must be a free and open marketplace in which anyone can participate; prices must be transparent and fair (no charging one person more than another for the same thing); buyers must pay what they owe and sellers deliver what they promise; transaction costs are minimal; and finally, consumers and producers must have full knowledge of their options and act rationally in deciding between them. Oh, and the outcome of the transactions must never affect any third parties, only the buyer and the seller. Think about that list for a second. Do all those conditions, in combination, sound commonplace to you in the real world? Well, it turns out they’re not. Consumers don’t always act rationally. Transactions do affect people other than the buyer and the seller (think air pollution or secondhand smoke; these secondary effects are known as externalities). To anyone who has majored or pursued graduate study in economics, these criticisms will be old hat. Yet despite this, the myth of the “free market,” and the assumption of the consumer as an intelligent, fully informed, rational actor – someone, in other words, who thinks like an economist – persists: in the teaching of introductory economics, and in the popular (and especially conservative) imagination.
- I really underestimated the degree to which the right wing hates public subsidy for the arts. I thought we were over the culture wars of 20 years ago, but this past year proved me wrong. As before, the National Endowment for the Arts has served as an unwitting lightning rod, occupying a role in the conversation far out of proportion to its day-to-day impact on the country’s arts infrastructure. From the fight to include money for the arts in the stimulus bill, to the embarrassingly retro attempt to link the Endowment to porn, to the yellow journalism involving the United We Serve conference call, it’s clear that the NEA is like dogshit to flies when it comes to conservatives. As such, ignoring the attacks no longer seems to be a winning tactic; we’ll need to fight back vigorously and seek out new alliances in order to preserve the vitality of our national arts agency, all the while considering its place in the larger picture and how its existing strengths can be best put to use.
- My interest in arts policy really stemmed from a desire to understand the connection between the arts and neighborhood economic development. When I lived in New York, I saw rents in my neighborhood skyrocketing alongside its reputation for creative activity, a reputation that didn’t exist a mere 10-15 years earlier. From talking to those who had been in the city for longer than me, it was clear that this was an old story: the same thing had happened in SoHo, Greenwich, Chelsea, the East Village, and the Lower East Side at various points during the last few decades. I wanted to understand why this was happening, what art had to do with it, and whether we could devise new ways to return the value that artists create back to them in the form of better compensation. I now know that evidence definitely exists to show a connection between the arts and economic development in specific cases, but it’s not clear yet whether it’s generalizable or replicable in any kind of reliable way. What has become clear is that we need to consider the arts in their larger context more consistently. Neighborhood revitalization is part of a cultural cocktail that includes complementary experiences/resources like coffee shops, restaurants, bars, walkability, access to public transportation, and employment with like-minded firms (whether they be arts orgs, nonprofits, creative industries, etc.). This is where creative class theory most shines, but it needs to be built upon and further refined. In the meantime, a narrow-minded focus on supporting “the arts” may be missing the point to a large degree.
- Grantmaking is hard. It’s hard for reasons I didn’t totally anticipate – namely, the pressure to do the right thing and because of the disconnect created by the unequal power relationship between donor and grantee. I’ve become convinced that this is perhaps the most important problem in philanthropy that no one talks about – at least on the donor side. I follow a decent number of philanthropy blogs and have been to several philanthropy conferences in the past couple of years, and the subject almost never comes up. But in private conversations with people in the field, it’s clear that everyone knows the disconnect is there – how could you miss it? It’s truly the elephant in the room.
- Blogs are really, really important. This one has created numerous opportunities for me, but more importantly, just reading as many blogs as I do has made me feel intimately connected with what’s going on in the field. When I started my job search a little over a year ago, I decided to try to meet as many arts and philanthropy professionals as I could through informational interviews, so that I could begin to get my name on people’s radar and become really fluent in the conversations that were going on in the aether. It was a good strategy until, after some time, I started to feel like I was the one providing the information. I’d be getting recommendations for connections to make or websites to check out that I had covered months ago, and all I could do was smile politely and try to move things in a more helpful direction. I’m convinced, though, that there’s nothing extraordinary about what I did. Like I said, the key factor for me was not the writing, but the reading. Just knowing what other people were talking about instantly made me an equal partner in many of these conversations rather than another clueless student looking for advice. And I suspect that blog-following (or its technological successor, whatever that is) is going to become an ever more important skill in the years ahead as idea exchange and collaboration become more and more mainstream in the social sector. For that reason, I think that starting this blog (since that is what pushed me to start reading more blogs in the first place) is probably the most important work-related decision I’ve made in the past three years. So if you’re reading this (particularly via RSS), chances are you’re on the right side of history. Give yourself a pat on the back!