Sunday, July 27, 2014

Report on the AFTA Research Meeting

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

Below is a report from David Pankratz on the Arts Research meeting at the AFTA conference last month.

                           An Encore at AFTA in Music City!:
                 Arts Research--Fueling Policy & Advocacy II 
By David B. Pankratz
Research and Policy Director
Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council

Some arts researchers genuinely think that research should be made accessible to scholars, decision makers, and practitioners alike.  Others appear to believe in keeping research reports dense and heavy to prevent improper usage by advocates seeking to make points while compromising the integrity of the research.

Where does the truth lie? Americans for the Arts (AFTA) has devised a unique forum for wrestling with these sorts of research-related questions.

Back in the ‘Burgh  At its 2013 annual convention, Americans for the Arts, along with the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council, convened nearly 40 arts researchers to explore how research fuels arts policy and advocacy (or not).  Using a musical chairs/speed dating/crowd sourcing format, the session was loud, fun, and produced animated debates on hot-button issues.  (Here's a recap).

On to Music City!  AFTA’s Randy Cohen declared at the time we should keep the debates going next year, since such in-person gatherings just don’t come along very often.  Well, that’s exactly what happened on June 13, 2014 during the 2014 AFTA convention in Nashville.

Randy, Clay Lord, Steven Tepper, and I sought out topic suggestions.  We then whittled the many we got down to four:
  • Infrastructure for Arts Research 
  • Creativity" in Research, Policy & Advocacy 
  • Research and Lay Audiences 
  • Influencing Decision-Makers through Research & Evaluation    
Reprising the musical chairs/speed dating/crowd sourcing format, the 30+ attendees engaged in one-on-one and small group discussions on these four topics.

Participating were folks from AFTA, the National Center for Arts Research at SMU, the Cultural Data Project, TRG Arts, Topos Partnership, the Strategic National Arts Alumni Project, and ArtsEngaged, as well as representatives from arts service organizations, LAAs, and arts administration education programs.        

Here’s a summary.
Arts research infrastructure (or “how well-built are we?”)   A lot goes into producing research:
multiple sources of primary & secondary data, plus data aggregators  academia-based scholars, research consultants and entrepreneurs brokers and disseminators of research sponsors of research (foundations and public cultural agencies) service and professional organizations, university programs that prepare researchers and research managers, and a shared research agenda.

Quite a list. So, how strong is the arts research infrastructure?

One attendee focused on what could have been, waxing nostalgic about the 1990s when major funders tried to build a robust arts research infrastructure. It was to mimic the mature systems in education, transportation, health, the environment, and other sectors, replete with multiple university-based programs filled with arts research experts and longitudinal data sets. But that vision came to pass only in part, at best, because of limited funds and few jobs. These days, quipped another, most of us are either research entrepreneurs or, ouch, “accidental researchers.”  

In contrast, we heard a forward-looking, constructive suggestion: “Maybe building our infrastructure means that we go out to other research fields and recruit researchers to dig into our data and issues.”  There are precedents for this kind of collaboration, and the NEA actively promotes it.

But others in the room offered a note of caution, saying we in the arts for too long have allowed methodologies from other fields--ranging from economic impact to community indicators--to guide our approaches to research too much.  Instead, they argued, arts researchers need to be led by core questions which we as a field agree to and can unify around.  On that point, all agreed.  

Sounds good.  But what would those core questions look like?  Candidates ranged from “Why isn’t there enough money for the arts?” to “Why is it so difficult for people to sustain a career in the arts?”  Others focused on broader, cross-cutting questions, which, some said, could induce collaboration with non-arts researchers. For example, “What are the effects of creative expression on human life?” and “What do communities lose when they lack a high level of cultural vibrancy?”

Fuzzy creativity and other terms   Any large-scale research enterprise requires agreed-upon definitions of terms, an area on which several June 13th participants said our field falls short.  One such term is “creativity.”  Some use of “creativity,” we heard, is fuzzy. Other usage assumes that creativity is the province only of the arts, and usage varies considerably by context--educational, business, and artistic contexts, to name a few.  Needless to say, researchers must define all key terms carefully.

Infrastructure, revisited   We were reminded that the arts field is a relative newcomer to big data collection and analysis.  Yes, the arts & culture field is rich in available data sources.  Some attendees even claimed there are more data at our disposal than we are able to use.  And, yes, the capacity for aggregating data sets is increasing markedly.

But for many arts researchers, the quality, comprehensiveness, compatibility, representativeness, and utility of available data remains a challenge.  We heard how data are gathered for different purposes and use diverse definitions. Plus, the goal of comprehensive data collection remains elusive because of time and cost constraints, though some initiatives report success at the local level.

In tracing the roots of data-related challenges, one culprit came to the fore, namely, how de-centralized the primary providers and aggregators of arts data and resources in the U.S. are--AFTA, CDP, the NEA, NASAA, NCAR, TRG, and Sustain Arts.  They were described as being in a “pre-coalition” stage of dialogue, though most agreed these entities are becoming more aligned and inter-connected.  Still others said that for arts data production and analysis to flourish more as an integrated system, we need a fresh infusion of funding.  It’s not clear where that would come from.

But maybe we should give ourselves a break. One attendee posed the question of whether other research sectors are all that well-aligned and inter-connected.  OK, sure, we can chide ourselves, but how bad should we feel?  After all, every research community has huge disagreements on how best to tackle the big questions. And how well are their data sets linked and centralized? For another participant, the idea of everyone falling in line and working within a single organized research infrastructure all sounded a bit authoritarian.

Also discussed was the considerable skepticism about the value of data collection and analysis that many hear from arts & culture leaders.  What are the will, capacity, and interest of arts & culture organizations to treat data and its analysis as a decision-making tool rather than merely a matter of obligation?  Emerging resources like CDP 2.0 and TRG Arts’ Data Center, as well as new forms of training from both upper and middle-level staff that emphasize the outcomes and utility of strategic use of data, are expected to reduce skepticism and increase the strategic usage of data.

Amidst all its talk of data, the group got philosophical as well.  We heard that data does not tell us what to do or what our vision should be, but it can help reduce uncertainty around decisions about how best to achieve our visions.  Also, data do not speak for themselves, we were reminded.  They need to be framed by narratives that either illustrate the impacts of the arts & culture or define needs which the development of new policies and programs might address.

Audiences for research--Who are they?  Do they care?   The topic of curating research for lay audiences, while on the agenda, was troublesome for the group.  It was easy to say who “lay audiences” are not--researchers or data-driven- decision makers.  Lay audiences, we decided, can be arts professionals, funders, board members, and community members.  It was said we need avenues or channels to get the right research to the right people in the right format.  One example--research on capitalization in arts & culture organizations by the Nonprofit Finance Fund is being distributed through nonprofit board training programs that directly reach board members.

One person made the point that funders can be very important as channels for the distribution of research.  They offer an inducement for stakeholders to read and engage with a research report.  Another inducement to engagement cited was to work with lay audiences to provide input into the design of research, including questions to investigate, as well as how best to interpret and translate research results.  Some saw this as a corrective to the tendency for funders of research to exert too much control.

No surprise here--all agreed that researchers need to do an ever more effective job of combining quantitative and qualitative data to create narratives that resonate with lay audiences.  Effective narratives demonstrate the public impacts of all forms of artistic activity, impacts that are inclusive of but extend well beyond economic effects.  The “Arts Ripple” research remains a model of using research to create a framework that articulates the public value of the arts.  Qualitative research that captures the specifics of impacts in the lives of a broad range of citizens can be an important part of narrative-building.      

Policy-makers like stories too   Finally, creating narratives are key to the goal of influencing policy-makers through research.  Such research can serve two purposes.  One is to measure the impacts of policies and whether they are achieving their intended objectives or not, a relatively rare occurrence in the arts policy world.  The other is to identify policy windows by assessing strengths and challenges in arts contexts, which policy-makers, through narratives integrated into advocacy strategies, can be persuaded to address.

Coda  Maybe we can pick up this thread again, among others, at a second encore during AFTA next year in Chicago.  Randy and I hope so.

On the other hand, why not do this kind of thing at other arts conferences that attract researchers? All you really need is a space, a list of research types to invite, publicity via list servs and other methods, and ways to organize and document discussions.  Of course, researchers are a hungry lot, so be sure to have coffee and plenty of snacks.

Thank you David.

Have a great week.

Don't Quit