Arts Research: Fuel for Policy and Advocacy?
What do musical chairs, speed dating, and crowd sourcing have to do with arts research? Well, on Day 2 of Americans for the Arts’ National Convention in June, co-hosted by the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council (GPAC), Randy Cohen, AFTA’s Vice-President for Research and Policy, and I, found out.
Context: We knew that arts researchers and policy wonks from arts service organizations, academia, consultancies, and foundations would be among the 1,000 convention attendees coming to Pittsburgh. Randy and I also knew that opportunities for researchers and wonks (and geeks, too!) to gather in one place and explore issues connecting research, policy, and advocacy were, at best, rare. So we invited 40 such folks to do just that!
Format: In the lobby of Bricolage, a small, progressive theater in Pittsburgh’s Cultural District, four groups of 10 chairs each were divided by topic--Producing Arts Research, Evaluating Policies, Disseminating Research, and Leveraging Research for Advocacy. As participants arrived at 8:00 am, they scoured the room and chose, on a first-come, first-served basis, which group to sit in (the Musical Chairs portion of the program). Each participant then engaged in five animated, 5-minute conversations with others in their group (i.e., Speed Dating). According to Randy’s phone, the decibel level in the room rivaled that of a rowdy night club. Leaders of each group then shared highlights of those conversations with all the convening’s participants (Crowd Sourcing).
Findings and Recommendations: Sound fun? It was. And frenetic. And loud. But were any ideas generated? Turns out our early-risers were problem-solvers too. Several recommendations emerged. Some details:
1. More policy-oriented research? Policy research assesses whether policies (funding among them) work or don’t work, are efficient, fair, and/or achieve impacts efficiently (without unwanted side effects). Attendees said that more would help decision-makers in public agencies, foundations, and corporations to update existing policies and plan for the establishment of new ones.
For its part, advocacy-driven research--often in the form of public opinion research, economic impact studies, and program evaluation--can build awareness of the public value of the arts. However, its aim, more often, according to many in our group, is to generate ammunition to maximize (or safeguard) funders’ budgets. In addition, such research is often conducted without ties to change-making policies. Others offered counter-examples.
Some expressed concerns that current arts research is not “aspirational” enough--it deals with “what is” vs. “what could be.” How come? Several said the sector just doesn’t have the history or infrastructure, like the fields of education, health, or transportation, to support research-based, in-depth examination of future policy options.
2. A little help here for arts researchers? Several folks pointed to the conditions of arts researchers as an issue, identifying a lack of support and incentives in academia for both basic and policy-oriented arts research, a dearth of pathways for young researchers to enter the field, and limited professional development for current arts researchers. Further, some attendees asked “who gets to ask the research questions in the arts?,” suggesting that research sponsors may have excessive sway on that score.
Some good news re: other perennial barriers to arts research production: a) an NEA research agenda (“How Arts Works”), b) NEA grant funds to research, c) emergence of a new, arts research community--the Cultural Research Network, and d) the proliferation of arts databases, including the Cultural Data Project, National Arts Index, Local Arts Index, the TRG arts community databases, CVI, and NCCS, among others. Graduate students and scholars in al fields gravitate to bid data these days. So what more can be done to keep arts data current and accessible?
3. Not just non-profits anymore. All said the trend to expand the focus of research beyond the non-profit arts to include the for-profit arts, creative industries, avocational arts, education, and humanities must accelerate. Arts researchers, we heard, should explore interconnections between multiple sectors, share each other’s data bases, sit at each other’s policy tables, integrate our issues into the data collection systems of other sectors, and communicate research results across sectors.
4. Yes, research can leverage advocacy. The convening’s participants, despite their stronger interest in policy-oriented research, addressed the question of “How can our research effectively leverage advocacy?” Starting with the premise that data, however big, current, or long, doesn’t speak for itself. Instead, data requires interpretation at every stage of the research to advocacy process. On the other hand, attendees called for greater care by advocates in reporting research results, with less “cherry-picking” to support pre-determined positions. We also heard that all of us need to more effectively integrate research data with stories as part of building larger narratives, told in plain language, if advocacy is to have impact. Finally, we heard that end users will need to become more effective themselves at leveraging research for planning and management purposes. This year, we at GPAC will look at how local arts organizations are utilizing CDP, community arts databases, and economic impact calculators.
Conclusion: Randy has expressed his hope that our inaugural event in Pittsburgh is the first of many annual researchers convenings at AFTA’s national conventions. To be sure, there’s certainly no shortage of topics to explore (nor conferences to meet at). There is progress still to be made in integrating arts research, policy, and advocacy. Next year in Nashville?