Sunday, March 3, 2013

Research and Data Blogathon Day #1

Good morning.
“And the beat goes on........................”

This is day one of a five part blogathon on the issues of Research and Data within the nonprofit arts universe.  I have invited five experts to weigh in on a different question each day. Here are the panelists:
    Margaret Wyszomirski
    Bryce Merrill
    Elizabeth Currid-Halkett
    Randy Cohen
    Sunil Iyengar
(please see the latter part of last week's blog for bios on each participant).

Of course no limited discussion can possibly be dispositive of all the issues involved in what is a complex subject.  Doubtless, this discussion will raise as many questions as it provides answers.  Our purpose is to provide further food for thought that the field as a whole may continue to grapple with how best to conduct its research and collect the data essential to that research.

Barry:  QUESTION #1:  How does research in the arts field compare, on the whole, to other sectors in terms of quality and best practices? How does research in the arts field compare to academic research on the arts? Are there any recurring or under-recognized problems with research in the arts field?

Margaret Wyszomirski:  The question presumes that we all have the same “field” in mind.  The field has different names as we move around disciplines and approaches.  There is art history and practice, theatre history and practice, arts management/administration, cultural studies, cultural policy studies, city and regional planning with an arts focus, cultural sociology, cultural anthropology, the art market, cultural economics, arts education, community arts, etc.  I wrote about these field building components in a book called Understanding the Arts and Creative Sector in the United States (2008).

A consequence of these different research and analysis traditions is that it is incredibly difficult to integrate, synthesize and synergize across and among these different streams to actually create an interdisciplinary field. That also hinders our ability to generate conceptual and theoretical development.  This means that while we have improved our ability to understand what is happening, we aren’t making a lot of progress is explaining why and Why some things work or don’t work.  Then there is the dual perspectives of practitioners and scholars—a divide that characterizes many fields.  But here, there is an unusually strong traditional of distrust of scholarly research. Add to this a tradition of financial support for information-gathering and research that has tended to privilege consultancy, directed research commissioned by service organizations, and foundation sponsored research rather than academic research and we have another kind of disconnect in “the field.”  This is far less the case in Europe, where the European Union has been a positive force for propelling arts-related research and building inter-disciplinary and cross-national networks.  We also lack much support for fostering the next generation of researchers since there is little earmarked fellowship support for graduate students interested in the area.

There is also a disconnect between how the arts field validates the activities of practitioners and how the academy validates research. Few in the agency know or follow the academic literature in the field.  And when they do, it is usually because the author has been validated by consultancy contracts from arts organizations, government arts agencies, and private foundations active in cultural philanthropy, not through peer assessment. These same validators tend to play important roles in the circulation of knowledge and research, with government agencies, foundations, and service organizations either self- publishing the research they commission and trying to circulate it broadly among members of the arts community.  Alternatively, research commissioners often treat contract research as proprietary and for internal use and closely control its circulation.  Academic research tends to be validated through peer review at scholarly journals and university presses before publication and followed  circulation aimed primarily at other scholars.  Sometimes researchers earn both types of validation, but, in general, academic research in the arts (and arts policy) field doesn’t have the same respect in the US that it has in other countries or in other policy communities.

Bryce Merrill:  There is a simple answer to these questions: in the field, which includes arts policy, arts administration, applied arts, and arts advocacy, research does not compare favorably in quantity or quality to other sectors. Arguably, art history, art education, art sales, and art as practice are the most active areas of research in the arts, and they are well represented in their respective disciplines (history, education, marketing, and so on). However, their inclusion in our comparison of arts to non-arts research does little to disprove the following argument regarding the meager status of arts research.

If we take funding to be an important indicator of the quality and breadth of arts research compared to other sectors, then it is easy to make an unfavorable comparison. Consider that in 2011 the federal budget for research and development (R&D) in the Department of Defense was $79 billion dollars; $31 billion for Health and Human Services; and $582 million for the Environmental Protection Agency. Again, these are just the budgets for research and development. The budget for the National Endowment for the Arts, the federal counterpart to these agencies, was around $161 million dollars total in 2011. Even if the Smithsonian’s R&D budget--$259 million in 2011--was added to the total budget of the NEA, that total, $420 million, wouldn’t equal the R&D budget of the EPA. There are other streams of money flowing into arts research--such as those from state and regional arts organizations and national arts service organizations--but even adding those figures to the already inflated total would not make up much of the difference. Comparing private investment in arts and non-arts research would only exaggerate the problem. Say what you will about the public value of the arts compared to defense, health, and the environment; support for arts research cannot be said to compare favorably to these other sectors. As an aside, the importance of creating research partnerships between the arts and other better-funded and prepared sectors, such as the NEA’s collaboration with Health and Human Services, should be obvious.

The arts as a sector is not known, with few exceptions, for leading research and innovation, but rather responding to trends in other fields and disciplines. The proliferation of, and lengthy struggle with, economic impact studies in the arts field is a case in point (see Radich, Seamen, Sterngold, or Madden for critiques). We should strongly consider, by the way, exorcising the input/output ghost of Wassily Leontif or at least putting it in its proper place. The field’s current interest in indicators, livability, vibrancy, and placemaking is not novel, either. As Rhoda Phillips has written, for example, research on community indicators has been conducted since the early 1900s. Modifying the research agenda for placemaking to focus on its creative elements is building on--not pioneering--good work. While this work is important--and an argument of philosophical absurdity can be made that everything is derivative--the arts field does not regularly produce cutting-edge research. Even the work on neuroplasticity, an area where the arts is contributing meaningfully, was not pioneered in the arts field.

We can look to the marginal place of arts research in the academy for more evidence of the stunted position of arts research. Academic arts research often resides in departments of arts administration or public policy departments; certain social science disciplines may allow an arts researcher to stow away; and even the occasional economist like Bruce Seamen can make a comfortable home outside of a college of liberal arts and sciences. This list of where arts research resides in the academy is not exhaustive, but it does point to arts research as a secondary concern. Art for art’s sake may be a popular sentiment, but arts research for arts’ research sake is a rarity. One can point to a handful of arts research institutes, such as the University of California Berkeley’s Arts Research Institute, for evidence to the contrary, but its hard to see those examples with all of the demographic institutes crowding the view.

I want to be clear that I am responding to the question, even if it might sound like I am bemoaning the state of arts research. Those scholars and practitioners who are immersed in the field and committed to its substantial growth could not rightly argue that research is our strength. Some might suggest that it should not be our strength, but many others--influential others--would strongly disagree. If the arts as a sector is to grow fruitfully and adeptly, it will need to reflect on the importance to committing more time, resources, and attention to research--more than just on the annual occasions when we are lobbying for our livelihood. The sector will never rival defense R&D spending--or the enormous non-arts research activity in the private sector--but the field’s vitality and longevity may depend on upping the ante on research. One reason for the sector’s underdeveloped research work could be that the research is not in the educational or experiential backgrounds of most of today’s art administrators and funders. A review of the research credentials of leading arts administrators in the field clearly illustrates a paucity of educational experiences that include serious training in sophisticated research methods.

There is much to be hopeful about when it comes to the future of arts research. Undoubtedly, there are innovative and ambitious arts research projects. A few of the exciting and academic-level projects happening in the field are the following: The Social Impact of the Arts Project at the University of Pennsylvania; the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project, a collaborative project between the Indiana University Center for Postsecondary Research and Vanderbilt’s Curb Center; the many, many projects of Ann Markusen et al.; James Catterall’s academic and applied research on arts and creativity; and Future of Music Coalition’s Artist Revenue Streams. There are numerous individual scholars doing important work relevant to the arts field, such as Fred Wherry, Diane Grams, Gordon Shockley, Joaquin Herranz, Carl Grodach, and others. (I am limiting my responses to the U.S. here, and the pool grows larger if we look at arts research internationally, but so does breadth of comparison.) Large arts funding institutions are increasingly stressing the importance of research to the field, even if there are growing pains along the way. So-called “design thinking” also bodes well for the arts, as computer scientists, designers, artists, educators, and policy makers have framed artful thinking and inquiry in a manner that is catching on rapidly! Blogs like Createquity and this one are very thoughtful about research in the arts and do an exceptional job of what I can call “critical flag-waving” for arts research. I do believe that the field is experiencing an exciting period of growth. So are the aforementioned sectors. And, as I will discuss in the next question, the age of “big data” may in fact widen the gap between the research haves and have-nots if we are not all careful.

Two final thoughts: those individuals and organizations that have long carried the torch for arts research should be acknowledged. The culture of the arts field is currently ripe for a growing and sophisticated research agenda, and this support has not always been so abundant. In particular, the field owes a debt of gratitude to those who have pushed the field beyond advocacy and toward accuracy. Finally, while writing this, I am reminded of Rocco Landesman’s oft-quoted remark about the ratio of arts administrators to artists, and I suspect there are those reading this who think I am advocating for more research and less art. I am not exactly. I am suggesting that an investment in more and better research is an investment in art--more art, better art, more impactful art, more valuable art.

I know the question also asked about “best practices” and “common mistakes,” but I will respond to those concerns in questions 3, 4, and 5.

Elizabeth Currid-Halkett:  Research in the arts field is about impact and take away and real world implications. Academic research sometimes addresses these issues – particularly in the areas of planning and policy (e.g. impact on tourism, gentrification) – but often is much more concerned with the intellectual and theoretical framework of the research, which does not necessarily directly impact the arts.  One of the regular problems within arts research both in the field and the academy is how to define the arts – which sectors are included? Which occupations? Who is undercounted? Who has the greatest economic impact? Because artists often have more than one job, sometimes their art work is not captured in government data and so we don’t have a precise count or sense of artists. Also, many different scholars and practitioners use varied definitions of the arts – for example, do we count media industries and publishing or just fine art? Other conceptions of the creative economy like the “creative class” are criticized for being too broad and yet definitions that just include fine art, film, music and fashion may be too narrow.

Randy Cohen:   Quality is on Par . . . Scale of Investment is the Bigger Issue
At its best, arts research is as high quality, meticulous, impactful, and durable as any sector.  Regardless of field, the researchers I meet are typically intelligent, hard working people with integrity who genuinely seek to do good work and find a better answer to persistent questions.  Every sector has its disagreements about what should be studied, and how, as well as interpreting what is meaningful—academics dedicate entire conferences to debating these questions.

Since we are in for a week of research blogging, it is worth remembering that “research” is as complex and multi-dimensioned of a word as “art.” Regardless of whether one is studying medicine, behavior, crime statistics, or the arts, there are many ‘types’ of research. Three that Barry’s Blog readers typically come across would be:

  • Applied research solves practical problems. It gathers information and creates knowledge that helps us evaluate the efficacy of programs and policies, which can then be used to help in the development of new (and hopefully better) ones.  
  • Basic research builds knowledge for knowledge’s sake—typically thought of as more experimental and theoretical.  Its pay-off may be decades down the road.
  • Evaluation research measures the effectiveness or performance of a program or concept in achieving its objectives.

One of the big differences between the arts and other sectors is funding and research opportunities.  If arts research is a rose garden, medical research is a field of sunflowers.  There are billion$ and billion$ for research in the sciences, public health, and technology.  This resource differential brings the arts up short in several important ways:

Da Capo!  Music performers will recognize that command: “Again, from the beginning!”   Good research is replicated.  Scientist Karl Popper wrote that, “a scientifically true effect is one that can be regularly reproduced by anyone who carries out the appropriate experiment in the way prescribed.”  Imitation is not just the sincerest form of flattery, but good science, too, and increases confidence in our findings.

Benefits of the Long Haul . . . Periodic updates of research enable us to track changes over time, and more observations means more learning (e.g., does attendance change seasonally, with the economy, or with societal trends?).  The Framingham Heart Study was created because not enough was known about heart disease. Now we know what cigarette smoking, high blood pressure, cholesterol are doing to our health.  They’ve been at it since 1948!  Big learning takes big investments over the long term.

There is an old research joke about scientists testing the jumping ability of a frog . . . When you tell a frog to jump, it leaps straight ahead.  Tie-up it’s left legs, however, and tell it to jump—it bounds to the left.  Tie-up all four legs and tell it to jump…the frog goes deaf.  I picked that one up during my medical research days at Stanford University.  Every sector has its share of its brilliant and not-so-brilliant work and debated interpretations.  The quality of arts research is on par with other fields and is improving all the time.  When comparing the investments by funders and valuing long-term arts research, however, the arts are still making their way.

Sunil Iyengar:  Many long-standing attributes of arts-related research serve to distinguish it from research in other sectors. These inherent differences are important to recognize when making cross-sector comparisons about quality or "best practices."

Let's start with the national infrastructure for arts and cultural research. Rivaling the plurality of the arts themselves, the research labor force is diverse and scattered. Leading contributors to arts and cultural research may come from academia or consulting firms. If from consulting, they may specialize in the arts, one dimension of the arts, or a distantly related subject; they may evaluate arts programs and policies or analyze and report general trends in the field. If from academia, they may work in arts management, art history, economics, business, sociology, cultural anthropology, urban planning, neuroscience, psychology, or education. Then, too, arts researchers aren't restricted to universities or businesses. Arts organizations, funders, and policy-makers at the local, state, and national levels crunch their own statistics and analyses, which often fuel the work of academic or commercial researchers.

This heterogeneity begins to explain some of the current strengths and weaknesses of arts-related research when compared with research in other sectors. Because of their differing orientations toward arts and cultural practice, researchers struggle with a variety of questions, definitions, theoretical models, and outcome measures. It's a healthy, bracing exchange--one that attests to the passion and creativity of the research community, such as it is.  But the system has drawbacks. For example, unlike other fields of academic research or evidence-based practice, arts-related research (in the inclusive sense I've just described) is currently lacking a peer-review journal or network. Ideally such a source would not only be read and cited by researchers in an arts sub-sector; it would be used for decision-making by researchers, organizations, funders, and policy-makers, both in the arts and in other fields entirely.

Instead of one or two authoritative sources, meanwhile, we have many stimulating blogs, aggregators, listservs, and newsletters. This tradeoff might be worth celebrating--the institution of scientific peer review is not without its own lineage of problems--and, we may well ask ourselves, is the situation so different in other fields of research? An interdisciplinary ethos in every science, no less than technology itself, has created multiple channels for communicating and parsing research results. But sometimes one would appreciate standard definitions of concepts, agreement about research questions worth pursuing (how often do we see data mined for any quantitative information about the arts whatsoever, rather than data collected and analyzed to answer a specific line of inquiry?), and clearly validated metrics that can be applied across the field. These vulnerabilities can lead, in turn, to poorly designed studies and results that can't be replicated.

Tomorrow's question deals with "Big Data" and access to that data.  Please follow along and if you have a comment enter it below by clicking the comment icon.

Thank you.

Have a great day.

Don't Quit