Art Works Blog

Taking Note: The Creativity of Arts Research

Brushes by flickr user Mae Chevrette

Part of the reason I was excited to come to work in the NEA’s Office of Research & Analysis (ORA) was because I anticipated that the challenges associated with better understanding the value and impact of the arts in society would be difficult and interesting. Though I didn’t have a background as an arts researcher, much less as an artist (other than a less-than-stellar career as a chorus member in a couple of high school musicals), it was pretty obvious to me that efforts to learn about how art works would be full of pitfalls and complications.

This is exactly why the research grants the NEA began awarding in 2012 are so exciting. With a topic as complex and full of nuance as the arts, the opportunities for interesting research work abound, and this grants program plays a big role in ensuring that we at the NEA can contribute to the growth of the field and an improvement in our understanding of the role the arts play in society.

In the round of funding announced in 2011, the NEA awarded 14 grants totaling nearly $250,000 to teams of researchers in the arts. These grants are funding a wide range of interesting projects: an analysis of longitudinal data to examine the impact of music training on cognition and social outcomes; a study designed to explain the “birth” and “death” of arts and cultural institutions; a study of the impact of arts programming on at-risk youth in Florida; and…well, and 11 other great ideas that NEA funding is helping to make a reality.

ORA got the news this week that results from this round of funding have started to roll in. We recently received the first draft of a study by Kelly LeRoux and Anna Bernadska, both of the University of Illinois at Chicago, titled Impact of the Arts on Individual Contributions to U.S. Civil Society (check back soon for the study's full text). This study examines the relationship between involvement in the arts and four different outcomes related to civil society. The study, based on data from the General Social Survey (GSS), a nationally representative survey of adults living in the U.S., shows a consistently positive relationship between civil society and each of four different measures of arts participation.

For example, the study finds that people who participate in the arts, either through attendance at arts events or as performers and artists, are consistently more likely to also participate in a variety of civic and community activities. This is true even after accounting for other factors that are likely to affect arts participation, such as age, education, income, gender, race, and the region of the country in which a person lives. The authors present similar results for three other variables covering two dimensions of civil society: social tolerance (measured by tolerance for gay and lesbian persons and by attitudes toward racial and ethnic minorities) and an index of altruism (measured by frequency of engaging in selfless, other-regarding behavior). In every case, higher levels of participation in the arts, either as an audience member or as a participant, is associated with higher scores on the measure of civil society.

As I mentioned above, research on the arts is full of pitfalls and challenges, and this study is not (and could not be expected to be) the final word on the topic. As the author notes, data on arts participation were last collected in the 2002 GSS, so circumstances may well have changed. The measures of civil society may not capture the full scope of what we mean when we use that term. The theoretical underpinning of the link between arts participation and civil society could be better defined. And the data and research design make it impossible to conclude definitively that arts participation is causing (or even affecting) civil society outcomes. The causal arrow could be pointed in the other direction, from social tolerance, for example, to participation in arts events. Or both tolerance and participation could be caused by a third unmeasured factor, such as growing up in a household that valued the arts.

But these critiques are, in a larger sense, quibbles. Most social science research is vulnerable to the same kinds of problems to a greater or lesser degree. Advances in our understanding of the value and impact of the arts in society are cumulative; they will occur only as more people and organizations see the opportunity for serious research with meaningful real-world implications.

And ORA is working hard to make this possible. The guidelines for the 2013 round of research grants were posted at the beginning of August. We have added an arts-related supplement to the 2012 GSS, which should make it possible to investigate whether the 2002 findings reported by LaRoux and Bernadska are present today. We're working on a variety of other arts-related data collection activities, including the 2012 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, which was fielded this summer, and we are exploring or executing collaborations with federal entities such as the U.S. Census, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the National Institutes of Health.

But we're not just trying to lay the foundation for others to do new research that helps us understand the role the arts play in society. We've also got a full plate of our own research activities, from developing indicators of community livability that can help us understand the impact of creative placemaking, to exploring possibilities for randomized control trials of arts education interventions, to working to improve our understanding of how creative expression can help heal combat veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injuries.

Indeed, the work we do in ORA has been every bit as diverse and challenging as I had hoped it would be. It takes a lot of creativity to figure out how to learn about the value and impact of the arts. Fortunately, there could hardly be a topic more conducive to stimulating that creativity. I couldn't be happier to have joined these conversations.

Interested in applying for an Art Works research grant? On September 12 at 3:00 p.m., we will be conducting a one-hour Research: Art Works guidelines workshop webinar. Tune in!

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