Sunday, November 29, 2009

November 29, 2009


Hello everyone.

Hope you all had a wonderful Thanksgiving.

“And the beat goes on..............”


Last week the NEA held an online Cultural Workforce Forum, “a convening of researchers reporting on current studies in measuring and understanding the work habits and the economic condition of working artists in America.” A really excellent summary of the findings on that Forum can be found on Ian David Moss’ Createquity website.
  • The data reinforces many of the conclusions we have long held
  • Artists are underpaid in relationship to other workforce segment
  • Artists are less likely to have adequate health care coverage
  • Artists work multiple jobs to support their artistic endeavors
  • Artists are concentrated in urban centers
  • Artists are more likely to be self-employed
  • Women and other minorities are under-represented as a percentage of working artists 
  • Our research methodologies and survey sampling techniques remain simplistic and somewhat flawed, and we need to rethink our data collection ideas, categories and preconceived notions.
    The summary of the data reported is just a piece of the overall research available (or soon to be available) in the pipeline on a host of topics germane to the arts & culture sector – including additional research on the artist workforce, the economic impact of the arts, funding, audience attendance figures, philanthropic giving and other areas. Added to the research of universities and national arts organizations, some generic, some discipline specific, is an even broader swatch of data collected by foundations, state and local governments, and independent arts organizations. For example, the state arts agency umbrella organization, the National Association of State Arts Agencies (NASAA), releases an annual report on per capita state support for the arts. And Americans for the Arts will release the National Arts Index in January – a new highly distilled annual measure of the health and vitality of arts in the U.S. As a sector we are conducting ever greater and more sophisticated data and information.

    What we need, of course, is a single clearing house for the sum total of all arts & culture research -- a repository we lack. It would be enormously helpful if the NEA or some other body (existent or newly created) could identify, gather, organize and cross reference all the data – on an ongoing basis. And perhaps last week’s Forum is a good step in the right direction.

    But beyond that we need to figure out what purpose all this research serves. What can we use it for, what practical application can it have to better our lot? Thus, I think the most salient observation coming out of the NEA Forum, as Ian noted in his blog, was: “The points that Joan Jeffri and Paul DiMaggio were making: it’s easy to get caught up in the data collection aspects of this research without really taking a step back and asking what it all means.”

    What can we do with this data, what purpose does it serve? Data about the degree to which working artists are not able to make a living wage, do not have adequate health insurance, do contribute to the economy ect. all help to identify and point out the needs and contributions of the artist workforce. Do we use that research to rally support for new clarion calls for more financial support, or do we use it to rethink existing programs to specifically address those needs with the resources we already have? Or is there some other purpose?

    Scores of possibilities loom:
    • We can use the data to attract media attention to our plight.
    • We can use the data to fashion more convincing and effective messages for support.
    • We can use the information to clarify our understanding of our own field, including what we consider a working artist to be.
    • We can use the data to identify the most pressing needs and demands of artists and the organizations that serve them.
    • We can use the data to pinpoint where we need to allocate existing funding given our priorities.
    • We can use the data to evaluate and measure past efforts and programs to address specific challenges.
    • We can use the data to refine and improve future research methodologies and to improve standardized data collection and analysis. For example, we have yet to resolve in any meaningful way the distinction (whether real or imagined) between amateur and professional artists. And we have yet to categorize in any practical way generational differences in accessing art.
    • We can use the information to identify intersections with other sectors that might be logical points for potential collaboration and cooperation.
    • We can use the data to guide our efforts to reach the public, audiences, donors and stakeholders.
    • We can use the data to validate and verify new concepts and trends that seem, on their face, useful. Thus the Creative Indexes based loosely on Richard Florida’s theses might be looked at anew to see if they hold up and are truly useful to us.
    • And perhaps hundreds of other uses – which need to be determined.
      I think we can finally claim that research and data collection in the arts & culture sector (including all the various permutations and offshoots of such a vaulted effort) is finally coming of age for us. But that begs the real questions – which are: So what now? How does all this research help us? To what practical benefit can (should) it be put to? And whose job is it to figure that out? How can this mega data storehouse be applied to benefit the individual artist, the individual arts administrator and the individual arts organization? How do we move from collecting raw data (counting heads as it were) to creating a framework to use that raw data to guide our decision making? Who will pay the cost to mount such an effort? Is it worth it? What good is it to fund research if no one will fund the effort to figure out how to use the research? Who but some large academic institution, some well heeled national arts organization, some major foundation or coalition of foundations, or the NEA itself will tackle this challenge? And should they?

      As a field we need to get a handle on all of this. We have made progress in moving towards a more sophisticated, albeit vivisected, data gathering effort. Now we need to take the next step and at least begin to fashion some apparatus and infrastructure that will deal with the harder challenge of making good use of what we find out. Otherwise, we are really just collecting information in a vacuum. Nice to know, but not terribly valuable.

      And that effort should not wait too much longer – the data is piling up.

      Have a great week.

      Don’t Quit