Taking Note: New Avenues of Research from a New Recruit
Art in Colors by flickr user Ishrona
After recently experiencing a deluge of change, which involved moving to a new city and taking on a new role as the program analysis officer in the Office of Research & Analysis at the NEA, I’ve begun to generate new ideas for how to create change in the arts. I feel most comfortable contributing to such change through research, since it is where I have the most experience.
Before returning to the District last week, I lived in Chicago where I was a researcher at the National Opinion Research Center (NORC) and the University of Chicago's Cultural Policy Center. My studies there focused on America’s cultural infrastructure: what the development of infrastructure has looked like over the past two decades, why we spend capital on building new infrastructure, and what strategies we can use to develop infrastructure that contributes to more sustainable arts organizations. This research provided the foundation of my doctoral degree in Public Policy at the University of Chicago, where I benefited from the experience and expertise of a unique community of skilled researchers.
Prior to all of this, I was an artist myself (a musical theater actress---I still sing). I consider my experience as an artist to be the underpinning of how I now think about research in the arts, since I experienced first-hand how the arts create public value---which brings me back to my new role at the NEA, and my ideas on how the arts may benefit from future research.
I’d describe the future of research in the arts as having three clear avenues. The first avenue I’d call Arts and Community, which includes research focused on how arts and culture contribute to more livable communities; not only how the arts aid economic development, but also how they help build social cohesion among community members and give people a sense of belonging in the neighborhoods in which they live. Some recent NEA efforts that have dealt in this realm include reports like Live From Your Neighborhood: A National Study of Outdoor Arts Festivals, and Arts and the GDP: Value Added by Selected Cultural Industries, and of course, the Our Town initiative. The arts can benefit from this avenue of research through identifying specific relationships between arts and community characteristics.
The second avenue of the future of arts research seeks to expand on the meaning of The Supply and Demand of the Arts. In his blog post from last March, Sunil Iyengar, director of research at the NEA, raises the issue of defining supply and demand in the arts from a traditional economic perspective by posing the question, “Is the supply-and-demand model appropriate for a sector whose existence is based on the premise that certain needs cannot be gauged, much less served, by market forces?” He is right to propose that the way we define supply and demand in the arts needs to be reconsidered if we are to accurately understand the sector and its needs. This may involve including informal arts participation as a part of what comprises demand. What’s important, however, is that we begin to define supply and demand in a way that is useful to the health and sustainability of the arts sector and all of its individualized components.
And finally, the third avenue consists of The Impact of the Arts on Individuals, with studies that seek to observe how arts participation contributes to health and well-being; for example, how arts education might promote positive cognitive development, or how participation in the arts can contribute to overall health. Again, the NEA has already begun exploring this avenue through its research on the arts and human development and its studies on arts education. Being able to start making causal impact statements can help strengthen the role the arts play in developing strategies for a more productive society.
The overarching themes of these three avenues are two-fold: they all focus on the integration of the arts and culture within other sectors of society, and they all require more precise answers as to how we define what “the arts” actually are. Both themes are emerging in contemporary research including research at the NEA. Our next step is to determine how we can refine and develop the research to illustrate these themes more clearly. Most likely, this will include using new research methods to further demonstrate how the arts enrich the lives of all Americans and enhance the livability of communities. It is this vision of the NEA that I am honored to pursue in my new role. During my time here, I look forward to pursuing ideas and research that will enhance our understanding of how the arts and culture create public value.