Monday, May 29, 2017

Is It Time for an Arts Think Tank Yet?

Good morning.
"And the beat goes on................"

Floundering under the weight of the Russian Investigations and Probes, it was reported this weekend that the Trump Administration is assembling a WAR ROOM (borrowing a page from the Clinton Administration that, facing the Monica Lewinsky scandal, assembled lawyers, investigators and communications people to manage that White House situation).  An internal War Room seeks to contain, manage and respond to the investigations, theoretically allowing the rest of the White House to continue with normal business and their legislative agenda and other projects.

A War Room is akin to a Think Tank in that you assemble experienced experts who can approach the subject from a wide variety of perspectives, do their own investigations and research and lobby for specific actions based on the consensus of their findings and their own agenda.  In truth, it is an assemblage of the Generals who can fight the war to victory, then disband.

Think Tanks or Policy Institutes are independent organizations that assemble a body of experts to consider specific social, political, economic, societal or cultural issues by engaging in research and advocacy around those issues.  Unlike War Rooms, they are ongoing institutions.   Click here for a list and description of the Top 50 Think Tanks in America.

The most media covered Think Tank of late is the Heritage Foundation, founded in 1973, which originally gained recognition during the Reagan years, and more recently as the most influential conservative organization in the country by having its roadmap adopted in large measure by the Trump Administration as its agenda.

Other influential Think Tanks - both liberal and conservative (ranging from the Human Rights Watch,  to the Council on Foreign Relations, the Urban Institute to the Economic Policy Institute) center around science, the environment, the economy, technology, war and international relations.  Many are generally unknown to the public, but wield considerable power in political and government circles.  Many, but not all, are affiliated with a University, and many have full time fellows and researchers working on issues under the purview of the organization.  Well funded Think Tanks have full staffs, ambitious research, communications teams and substantial outreach to decision makers and to the media.  Over time they gain prestige and are seen as authoritative sources of information.

Two or three (The Rand Corporation, The Aspen Institute, The Urban Institute) have, from time to time, taken up studies, research and positions on Arts and Culture topics, but these have been isolated, occasional forays.  There is no Think Tank that has as its principal charge the Arts, Humanities, Creativity, Culture, Heritage and other facets and divisions of the wider field of culture and creativity.

Why not?  

Given the disparity between what the public says about arts and culture and their actions, given the repeated and regular attacks on the Arts, given both the suggested and proven value of the arts on multiple levels and given the extent to which the arts and creativity are a major facet of the American job market and economy, one would think the many disciplines under the banner of Arts and Culture would be a prime area for the formation of a Think Tank dedicated to the study and consideration of the field.

There are a number of University programs that focus on various aspects of the Arts and Arts Administration - but for the most part these are student oriented degree programs, and not Think Tanks per se.  And there are a number of national arts service organizations that have programs and events that are almost mini abbreviated Think Tanks - but again transitory and without portfolio or faculty.   And, to be sure, there is now widespread, independent, robust and rigorous research being conducted on a global basis on Arts, Culture, Creativity and the attendant subjects thereto.

But no real Arts and Culture Think Tank.  No organization with the authority, prestige and cache of an established Think Tank.   And we could use something like that.  Such an institution could play a role in protecting and sustaining the knowledge base of our most accomplished and experienced leadership as they retire.  It could also play a role in the mentoring and preparation of future generations of leadership.  And it could launch and sustain deep conversations about issues that impact all of us.  Finally, it could command media interest and attention so that the field isn't ignored.

The principal reason we don't have an Arts Think Tank is very likely no funder has ever considered the seed funding to start one.  And that is usually what it takes to launch this kind of ongoing effort.   We have within our ranks the experts - with prestigious qualifications and degrees.  We have the basis of the research apparatus.  We know the issues.  We have the need.

Maybe the time has come for a consortium of funders to consider the establishment of a legitimate Arts and Culture Think Tank (The Arts and Culture Institute),  affiliated with a University somewhere, and which could provide an umbrella for research, advocacy, dialogue, inquiry and discussion of Arts and Culture in America.  And help unite all the many disparate conversations that are already going on.

I'm not the only one over the past decade who thinks this might be of enormous value to our field.  Maybe some smart people might put together a proposal and seek funding.

Have a good week.

Don't Quit


  1. There is already a think tank for classical music: the Future Symphony Institute with lots of expert material. Especially now that classical music (orchestras, opera houses, concert halls) is under pressure for being 'no longer relevant to the modern world', such institutes are immensily important, since such art forms embody not only aesthetic pleasure but also important knowledge about the human condition.

  2. I can't imagine that allowing arts leaders to climb further up the ivory tower is a step in the right direction, Barry, or that asking funders to furnish a penthouse suite for them is a good thing. The knowledge we need to sustain the arts resides in the hearts and minds of tomorrow's audiences and they're not up there.

    1. Well... OK. But only if the caterers offer a chicken and a salmon option for the meetings.

  3. Thanks Barry. Policymakers might take the arts more seriously if there were dedicated researchers in a few respected think tanks.

    Some years ago, when I was a fellow at Brookings, I suggested a focus on the arts to my colleagues. The proposal went nowhere.

    More recently tho, Brookings and the NEA collaborated on a publication of research and an event, suggesting things may be changing.

    Permanent research programs for the arts inside existing think tanks would be ideal because the platform is so much stronger than in stand-alone, start-up entities. For now at least, the arts need the seal of approval of respected research institutions.

  4. Karen Brooks HopkinsAugust 2, 2017 at 10:18 AM

    Dear Barry,

    In your recent article, you called for the formation of a national arts and culture think tank. While not completely fulfilling all the potential roles of a think tank, I would like to introduce you to The National Center for Arts Research (NCAR) at Southern Methodist University. NCAR is dedicated to the study and consideration of Arts and Culture. The Center was developed as a collaboration between the Meadows School of the Arts and Cox School of Business to act as a catalyst for the transformation and sustainability of the national arts and cultural community. NCAR’s mission is to be the leading provider of evidence-based insights that enable arts and cultural leaders to overcome challenges and increase impact. NCAR seeks to use its findings to spark dialogue both within organizations, within the field, and in policymaking rooms in communities across the country.

    NCAR employs a full-time director, research director, research fellows, associate director and web designer, with the addition of SMU development and marketing staff. Currently I serve as NCAR’s Nasher Haemisegger Fellow. In this role I serve as an intellectual partner, counsel, and ambassador, working with NCAR leadership on the critical issues prevalent in the arts and culture field. I succeeded Kate Levin, a Principal with Bloomberg Associates and former Cultural Affairs Commissioner for the City of New York. NCAR also utilizes a national board of advisors to help discuss, direct and promote its research agenda.

    NCAR’s research team is open beyond the boundaries of the university. White papers have been co-authored with leaders in the field such as Andrea Louis of the Asian American Arts Alliance and Zenetta Drew of Dallas Black Dance Theatre. In addition to the SMU-based researchers, NCAR currently works with Ernan Haruvy, the Donna Wilhelm Research Fellow and a Professor of Marketing at UT-Dallas, as well as Yewon Kim, a PhD Candidate in Marketing at University of Chicago.

    An understanding of nonprofit arts and culture organizations’ health requires centralizing data from the entire arts and culture ecosystem, harnessed from reliable, known national data partners within one site where it is merged and mined for insights. NCAR’s core data partners (DataArts, Theatre Communications Group, the League of American Orchestras, TRG Arts, and OPERA America) are collaborators who not only allow NCAR to examine their data but also think through pressing issues in the field, and jointly conduct and publish research.

    NCAR investigates issues of importance to managers of arts organizations nationwide and provides findings based on this research free of charge to arts leaders, funders, policymakers, municipal leaders, researchers, and the general public. Findings are shared through the NCAR website, e-newsletter, traditional and social media platforms, as well as webinars, workshops and special events.

    As the center grows in resources and age, its profile is gaining traction. Nonprofit Quarterly, CityLab, the New York Times, Broadway World, Philanthropy News Digest, Chronicle of Philanthropy, Inside Philanthropy, New York Observer, The Art Newspaper, and Artsy, are just some of the media outlets that have spotlighted our reports. Its diversity paper resulted in a panel discussion livestreamed across the Internet, and NCAR’s director has been invited to present findings at conferences, both North American and international. The Arts Vibrancy Index has been picked up by more than 70 newspapers across the country in 2017 alone.

    NCAR is a research center, advocate and resource provider. It is a place for arts and culture thoughtful analysis, meaningful insights, and critical discussion of challenges faced by the field today.

    I hope this information is useful and that practitioners become more aware of NCAR’s work, which will hopefully add value to the arts and culture field.


    Karen Brooks Hopkins