Sunday, October 27, 2013

Bryce Merrill reports from the Social Theory, Politics and the Arts Conference

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

Report from the 39th International Conference on Social Theory, Politics, and the Arts 2013
From Bryce Merrill, Senior Associate Director, WESTAF

Our panel on data and community began the first day of the conference and, like most early morning scholarly presentations, the panelists and the room took some time to warm up! Steve from the NEA gave the audience an update on the NEA’s “Livability Indicators” project and discussed the challenges of building a community at the federal level while also generating a research model that is locally applicable.

Jim from 4Culture commented on the difficulties of serving diverse communities--whether or not with data--in King County where socioeconomic differences can be vast and challenging. Jim also spoke to the work his organization has been doing to reach out to new immigrant and refugee communities and the unique difficulties service organizations have reaching these communities.

Kris Tucker, representing the perspective of the state of Washington, discussed the ArtsWA “Creative Vitality Index Pilot Project” program that provides labor market data and strategic consulting to research and planning teams throughout the state. These program participants, Kris demonstrated, are tasked with using data for community development purposes, but another, critical function of the project is that a networked community of arts data users are created through the project.

Randy Engstrom spoke to his office’s use of data and evaluation to increase public support for arts education. Engstrom firmly argued that increased resources would not have flowed to arts education in Seattle had the data been unavailable to support the need for additional funding. I then spoke to the two types of data projects WESTAF engages in: 1) “non-research” data projects, typically those associated with our web applications that support the management of the arts and 2) research projects, such as the Creative Vitality Index project, where data is methodologically collected and analyzed. I discussed our work on the Public Art Archive to create a national database of public art, including plans to crowd-source visual data on public art.

Perhaps the liveliest part of the panel occurred when Jim told the audience he has never and will never pay for research! His point, which all panelists more or less agreed, is that with limited funding, it is difficult to justify funding research. Kris and Randy were sympathetic about shrinking budgets, but offered compelling examples of using research to grow funding and, thus, enhance programs and support services. I pointed out that Jim is not alone in the arts world in his reticence to pay for research and that field generally undervalues research. I reiterated a point I have made previously on this blog, however, that unless the arts field finds a way to grow its capacity for sustained and sophisticated research, it will fall behind other sectors in competition for increasingly scarce funding. Additionally, private funders are growing ever-more demanding of grantees to demonstrate with real research the value of their work; not paying for data may not be an option for most.

Ultimately, the panel touched on many themes that would be echoed in several paper presentations throughout the day. I do not think the panel was successful in speaking to the specific regional concerns of the groups represented--we had the perspectives of a city, a county, a state, a multi-state regional, and and the nation on the panel. We did, however, capture what appeared to be the essence of this conference: an academic level concern for arts policy and management.

The following are a few highlights from day one:

  • Michael Rushton (Indiana University) gave a cautionary overview of the L3C structure, arguing for heavy skepticism regarding the ability of this model to combine mission-driven work with for-profit-like entrepreneurialism. Interestingly, the lunch keynote was given by Steve Butcher, CEO of Brown Paper Tickets and creator of the Not-Just-For-Profit business philosophy that BPT follows. Regardless of the legal structure, Butcher argued that business can make money and make a difference. Butcher also had some of the best comic relief moments of the conference, confessing to learning how to code on an Atari100 in KMart while his mom shopped for blue light specials, explaining that he considers his business philosophy to be the love-child of Ayn Rand and Ralph Nader, and jabbing at many nonprofits who appear to be “allergic to making money.” 
  • Louise K Stevens (ArtsMarketing, Inc.) presented a paper on big data and charitable giving, arguing that new, highly localized data sets and data management strategies are making census-level data collection approaches more viable than sampling and modeling strategies. The paper was compelling and rich with detailed data, but the larger argument that the big data project she is engaged in is easily scalable and will replace sampling was less so. 
  • Chantal Rodier (Ottawa) and Serge Poisson-De Haro (Montreal) explored the impact of web 2.0 technologies on performing arts festivals in Canada, illustrating empirically the differences in web 2.0 social media and marketing strategies of small, medium, and large performing arts festivals. 
  • Walter Van Andel (Belgium) used the concept of “effectuation” to explain an entrepreneurial project by the Netherlands Bach Society to build an online platform for all 1,126 compositions by Bach. Principles of effectuation, Van Andel explained, could guide a successful business model for the project in ways that models based on causality could not.
  • A graduate student of at The Ohio State University, Yifan Xu, presented a paper on online interactional differences in American and Chinese users of music platform’s such as Spotify or China’s Douban. Yifan suggested that deep cultural ideologies--American Individualism and Confucianism--might help explain differing use behaviors on these platforms, with Chinese users favoring active interactions (chatting) over passive ones (“liking” music or referring songs).

In a little under 8 hours, I saw 9 presentations and cannot say I was disappointed by any of them. (This is a rare compliment for an academic conference, but I also did not stay for the second day.) As always, the off-the-record conversations were lively and rich. Perhaps echoing Norman Bradburn's recent paper on establishing an arts and culture research network, there were many discussions about solidifying the field's research and policy infrastructure. The diversity of participants was remarkable, as was the strong international presence. Seattle University was a comfortable and accommodating conference location, with only one noticeable glitch in the conference set up. The organizers, Kevin Maifield and Woong Jo Chang, did an outstanding job putting the event together, and special thanks are owed to the many students and staff members that ensured the event run smoothly. I’ll look forward to attending the next one--perhaps at an international location! It would only be fitting...

Thanks Bryce

Have a good week.

Don't Quit