Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Research and Data Blogathon - Day #3

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

Correction:  I inadvertently added the last paragraph of Bryce Merrill's post yesterday to Sunil Iyengar's response, incorrectly attributing those remarks to him.  I have corrected that error on the website itself.  My apologies to Sunil, Bryce and the readers for that error.  Mea culpa.  

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Here are some additional resources on the issue of Big Data:

  • Article in Wired Magazine with an interview of Victor Mayer-Schonberger and Kenneth Cukier on their new book, Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think in which they argue that thinking in "quantified terms" is wholly legitimate;  that big data is a valid means to evaluate virtually anything - including grant making.  Here is an except comment by Cukier sure to stir controversy:   
    "When I talked to people about the book in Britain, I had a lot of university professors come up to me in the arts, and they were all complaining that you actually can’t put forward a grant these days in the arts without being able to quantify what you’re doing. And you’ve got artists — they come up to me and they yell: ‘how am I supposed to quantify my success, I’m an artist?’ They believe that this quest for quantification has gone too far.  Now I’d push back against that. I’d think it’s actually very reasonable that if you’re going to produce something like art, that you try to look for ways to improve it and understand it by, if you will, how many people it reaches, how many times it’s been shared on the internet. If it’s something that has an online compliment of it, that will have an impact."
Under this argument, the legitimacy, value and excellence of art is to be determined by the reach of its audience?  Within a timeline?  Is that what we want?  Doubtless Van Gogh would not have qualified for any support under that guideline, as few people were interested in his work at the time.
  • Another article in Wired authored by Samuel Arbesman counters that big data is a limited snapshot in time and thus its applications are likewise limited.  He argues that we should focus more on "long data" - validation of a hypothesis suggested by Big Data over a longer period of time (which perspective he suggests may often change the data and the inferences to be drawn therefrom)  And he means really long data:  "By “long” data, I mean datasets that have massive historical sweep — taking you from the dawn of civilization to the present day." Though he later implies a generation or two might be long data too.   Perhaps long data of a lesser sweep is a good idea, but then the question looms:  How long?  A hundred years worth of data might still not have demonstrated any interest in Van Gogh.  
  • And in still one more article, Nassim Taleb argues that "Big data may mean more information, but it also means more false information."

Clearly, while all data, including Big Data, has the potential to teach us more about what we do, how we do it, and what the impacts are -- we must always consider tempering any data that we attempt to use to validate artistic worth, excellence or acceptance and embrace,  as questionable in determining when and where we put our resources.

Day #3:  What's next?

Barry:  QUESTION 3:  (a) What are some of the most promising, but under-developed areas of research for the arts? What are the questions to which the field still lack answers?

     (b)  What are the new frontiers of arts research? What else is new in the world of research to which the field should pay more attention?

Randy Cohen:  When I worked at Scripps Clinic & Research Foundation back in the 1980s, we had live chamber music in the lobby every Tuesday afternoon.  Patients walked or were wheeled in, they sat next to the fountain, the din of a hospital lobby subsided, and the music soared.  What I witnessed every Tuesday was nothing short of miraculous.  Patients who I saw unwell and lethargic in their rooms transformed in the presence of the music . . . their eyes got less cloudy, their posture improved, and they became more engaged with their environment.  It was like they got a shot of something, I used to think…a “shot of the arts!”  My mythology came pouring back and I remembered that the Greeks appointed Apollo to be their God of music and healing (talk about a big portfolio!).

It was only years later that I began to learn about the body of research documenting the health and wellness benefits of the arts—shorter hospital stays, less depression, less medication, and even lower medical costs.

Cost may be the most critical issue facing the healthcare system today. In the past 30 years, healthcare has ballooned from 6 to 17 percent of the nation’s GDP—exceeding $2.5 trillion in 2010—and the forecast is for a continued escalation as our population increases in number, age, and life expectancy.  Is there a role for the arts?  Tallahassee Memorial Hospital was seeking to improve the healthcare experience for its young patients receiving CT scans as well as increase the efficiency of their procedures (i.e., reduce the number of retests).  Their intervention was a music therapist during the preparation period for the test.  The kids with the music intervention needed less sedative medication, boasted a 98 percent procedural success rate—and saved $567 per procedure on nursing and anesthesiologist time, medicine, and hospital overnights.

As America searches for answers to its healthcare challenges, I believe the arts are part of the solution. So, Barry, if you’ve got $1 million for my next study, I want to partner with university hospitals and take this experiment to scale and see if these results hold.  I’m with Apollo!

Margaret Wyszomirski:  Five areas I would consider under-developed are:
1.  Understanding and addressing the operation and role of small arts organizations and informal arts activities in the arts ecology and how they might be assisted in becoming less precarious.  This also implicates the idea of arts-based entrepreneurship.  For example, only within the last year has a critical mass of interest in this generated a new online journal focused on this subject—ARTIVATE.
2.  Research on the interactions between art fields; between nonprofit, commercial and informal arts activities; between infrastructure components and the core of arts production and consumption.
3.  Research on the impacts of technology across the arts system—creation, production, presentation, distribution, education, consumption, preservation
4.  Research on the effectiveness of different arts policy tools, implementation strategies—what works, how it works, and where it does and does not work.
And as an approach rather than a research topic, there is also
5. Learning from research done outside the United States on shared issues and concern.  There is a lot of research done both academically and by governments that we can benefit from even as we must understand how and when this knowledge might have to be adapted to different assumptions and conditions in the US

 3(b)   I think we need to put more effort into both visualizing data—beyond charts and graphs—as well as visualizing ideas and the relationship between ideas.

Bryce Merrill:  There are so many promising areas of research for the arts--enough to keep someone like me employed (hopefully) for a long time. I was encouraged recently by the commentary of Google’s Policy Manager, Derek Slater, on data in the arts sector. He argued that researchers need to pay closer attention to how creativity is happening online; he stops short of saying we should ignore traditional measures of art activity, such as ticket sales, but urged researchers to study carefully “user-generated” online arts activity. The arts field needs to consider not only how arts participation and creation occur online, but also how digital, user-centered curation is changing the arts landscape. New world issues such as these should be bravely studied, but here I want to identify a lacuna in our knowledge of the old arts world.

State arts agencies (SAAs) and other public art organizations receive less research attention than they deserve. State arts agencies (SAAs), as many scholars (DiMaggio 1991; Lewis and Rushton 2007; NASAA; and others) have pointed out, are, if aggregated, the largest public funder of the arts. It is somewhat misleading to aggregate the budgets of state arts agencies, because they largely act as independent agencies. However, collectively SAAs play a vital, if independently consequential role in the arts ecology of the United States. Serious research attention to SAAs is not commensurate to their position in the field. Scholars such as Paul DiMaggio, Kevin Mulcahy, Julia Lowell, John Urice, Margaret Wyzsomirski, Michael Rushton, and others have produced important research on SAAs. NASAA consistently provides valuable descriptive data about the activities of SAAs, including staffing and funding trends. However, given the central position of SAAs in the field, the shortage of high-level either applied or scholarly research is problematic. Resources for the arts are tremendously scarce, and the field must turn a critical, empirical lens on SAAs, both in service and critique of their cause.

If research on SAAs is concerning, so is the research infrastructure of SAAs.  An informal count of research directors at state arts agencies reveals less than a handful. I know of one, and Ryan Stubbs, research director at the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies, suspects there are a couple more. NASAA can do much to support the research needs of SAAs, but it alone is an insufficient provider of serious research, especially as the field trends toward increased research sophistication. Another, perhaps more serious concern, is how often non-research staff at state arts agencies are tasked with research-related tasks, such as collecting, analyzing and reporting on data. I work with many of these staffers through our Creative Vitality Index project, and I can report that they are all dedicated and talented individuals. However, they routinely express concerns about being adequately trained to handle research. Even when research is conducted for arts agencies by outside parties or related agencies--larger parent offices like tourism or economic development, for example--arts agency staffers are left with the sizable task of interpreting the findings. In the worse case scenarios, researchers with very little understanding of the arts are tasked with providing data to the arts; arts staffers with little research training are charged with interpreting and using those findings; the result is often an empirical mischaracterization of the arts by the arts.

The picture of research sophistication for small, local arts agencies is grimmer, as many of these have small budgets and few paid staff. These agencies, however, experience similar pressure to conduct and use research to advance their missions. In fact, as I applaud the National Endowment for the Arts for elevating the importance of research to the field, I also share the concern of many art agencies that the resources needed to be research-ready are either unavailable or lowly prioritized.

National arts organizations can do a service to all arts organizations by providing high quality, nationally available data at affordable rates. However, some concerted effort must be put into strengthening the overall research arm of the arts at all levels. And, to complicate matters further, we cannot turn every arts organization into a miniature university, nor can we sustain funding over multiple years for rigorously but expensively done studies. A new model for supporting sustained, affordable, scalable, and high-quality research in and for the arts must be developed, and I am not convinced that such an effort currently exists.

A new model will likely involve asymmetrical partnerships between private and public entities, expanded interest in applied and public scholarship at the university level, continued and increased direct criticism of arts research. Whether or not you agree with Markusen’s critique of “fuzzy concepts,” it’s worth acknowledging the importance of critique to good research. Finally, the effort to increase the research infrastructure of the arts will most certainly be aided by technology. The newly announced National Center for Arts Research at Southern Methodist University could be a promising model to advance the field of arts research. I am hopeful that the program will succeed, and will remain cautiously optimistic that the Center can successfully navigate the funding, political, and institutional instability that characterizes much of higher education these days.

I do not know if there is a new frontier with which the arts as a field should be more or less concerned. The role of music in brain lateralization is newsworthy, but no more so than the economics of Spotify. I am intrigued right now by the following topics, to name a few: the relationship of art to social entrepreneurship; how the “value” of the arts can be studied as a nationally standardizable concept and a locally meaningful one; and how digital storytelling and democratizing communication technologies can be used to develop and test cultural policy. Additionally, my work on the Independent Music on Tour program at WESTAF has raised many questions about innovation in the nonprofit arts presenting world and the the abilities of independent musicians to sustain artistic careers financially. WESTAF’s work on the Public Art Archive is opening up new possibilities for understanding crowdsourcing as a form of public art engagement and critique. We are also working to understand the institutional preparedness of the United States to create the next generation of creative workers, workers that are said to the future of our economy. What has not been said, however, is with what means are we prepared to foster these creative workers.

Sunil Iyengar:  3(a) I have at least three answers to this question. One is my usual refrain about research into arts education being in sore need of causal arguments. It remains to be seen whether any strategy other than a prospective, randomized controlled trial will get us there. My second answer also concerns causality--this time, to investigate the relationship of public funding to other charitable giving to the arts and so to learn how one stream influences the other.

My third answer is more of a dark horse. Is there a rational, empirical basis for differentiating between masterful and mediocre artworks? What are the known elements of mastery--art form by art form--and how can we assess that it's been achieved? From here it's not much of a leap to inquire about sources of inspiration. Quoting the Bard in another context: "Tell me where is fancy bred,/Or in the heart or in the head?/How begot, how nourished?/Reply, reply." For all my readings into past research on the arts, I remain deeply impressed by a famous series of "protocols" that the English professor and literary critic I.A. Richards tested on a group of Cambridge undergraduates in the 1920s. He circulated poems stripped of identifiers (to use current research-speak, not his) so that students confronted poems from all periods of English literary history without knowing about authorship. The results were surprising, and birthed the New Criticism, which subsequently held sway over English departments for half a century.

For all our recognition of the diverse media and forms of arts engagement that have emerged in the last few decades, we still seem uncomfortable talking about how decisions of artistic quality are made, especially if we separate this concept from the arts' instrumental benefits (for a specific community or cultural tradition, or for economic or social value). Yet every art form, be it ever so populist, has its own rules, hierarchies, and dynamic set of criteria for self-evaluation, which can be mapped like an invisible republic.

     3(b)  Computer-aided thematic analysis of textual data from interviews, surveys, grant applications and reports to funders, and writings about art. (I'm not talking just word-clouds here.) Computational linguistics, predictive analytics, and network analysis all offer tools and techniques that arts funders and policy-makers can use to direct resources more effectively.

Elizabeth Currid-Halkett:  3(a)  Why do artists locate in particular cities and neighborhoods? How important are the arts to economic development and prosperity? What do artists need to thrive? Why are some places more creative than others? Is there a role for policy or planning in shaping such outcomes?

     3(b)  Big data can be very helpful in tracking in real time the micro movements of artists, their social dialogue and a number of different variables that were previously intangible and unquantifiable.  Data on Twitter, Flickr and cell phones enables us to capture some of the social and creative aspects of the arts. For example, what issues are most important to artists, how they socially mobilize and what political issues motivate them. Also, I think understanding how the actually aesthetics of the art of a particular time period or era shapes where it is produced, how it influences use of public space, infrastructure and neighborhood formation. For example, in recent research with my colleague Sarah Williams at MIT, we were able to track how fashion designers use New York City’s Garment District. We wanted to understand if this contested space that was under pressure to be rezoned was really useful for designers or just an artifact of history.  Our analysis of the cell phone patterns of fashion workers demonstrated that indeed the Garment District was as important as ever and in fact offered benefits to fashion workers that extended far beyond the boundaries of the District. Even five years ago such precise, in-real-time analysis would have been impossible.

Tomorrow's questions deals with The NEA's recently released How Art Works: The National Endowment for the Arts’ Five-Year Research Agenda with a System Map and Measurement Model.

Thank you all.

Have a great day.

Don't Quit