Without the Data, You’re Just Another Person with an Opinion

Posted by Mr. Randy Cohen, Apr 11, 2012 4 comments

Three years before writing Future Shock in 1970, futurist Alvin Toffler first wrote The Art of Measuring the Arts, and noted, "A cultural data system is needed to provide information for rational policy-making in the cultural field and to assist those outside the field in understanding their impact on it."

This week, Americans for the Arts released the 2012 National Arts Index report, which delivers a 2010 score of the health and vitality of the arts in the U.S.

From its low point in 2009, the Index rose slightly from 96.3 to 96.7 in 2010.

This year’s report bears witness to how the arts sector fared during the Great Recession—and the losses were swift and measurable.

In 2010, half of the 83 indicators measured increased, which is equivalent to pre-recession, 2007 levels. In comparison, only one-third of the indicators were up in 2008 and in 2009, just one-quarter increased.

Here are just a few top-level findings from the 2012 National Arts Index:

1. There has been significant growth in the number of nonprofit arts organizations: In the past decade, the number of nonprofit arts organizations grew 49 percent (76,000 to 113,000), a greater rate than all nonprofit organizations (32 percent). Or to look at it another way, from 2003-2010, a new nonprofit arts organization was created every three hours in the U.S.

2. Arts nonprofits show improvement, but continue to be challenged financially: The percentage of nonprofit arts organizations with an operating deficit (requiring them to amass debt or dip into cash reserves) declined for the first time since 2007. In 2010, 43 percent of nonprofit arts organizations had an operating deficit, down after steady increases during the Great Recession—36 percent in 2007, 41 percent in 2008, and 45 percent in 2009. While a troubling finding, this is about the same share as nonprofits in other areas besides the arts. Larger-budget organizations were more likely to run a deficit, and there was no predictable pattern based on specific arts discipline.

3. Arts attendance begins to rebound: In 2010, 32 percent of the adult population attended a performing arts event (up from 28 percent in 2009). Thirteen percent visited an art museum (up from 12 percent). These are the first increases since 2003.

The Local Arts Index . . . Because “Your Mileage May Vary”

Inspired by the release of the first National Arts Index in 2010, the natural question was, “Are these trends happening where I live?”

To answer this question, we set sail with 100 local arts agency partners to discover the Local Arts Index (LAI). It took time and bumpy seas to find it, but what emerged is a set of measures that help us understand the breadth and character of the cultural life of a community as well as ways to connect the arts to articulated community priorities such as health, education, or economic issues.

Today, we start by releasing three of the 50 indicators involved in the calculation of the Local Arts Index—look for new ones every week here on ARTSblog:

Indicator #1 Population share visiting art museums. This indicator is the share of your county’s adult population that attends museums. Worth noting is that one person may go to a museum multiple times, so the share of the population may seem lower than the turnstile numbers reported by the museum. The typical county has about 14.5 percent of its population visiting an art museum at least once in the previous year. (Data from Scarborough Research)

Indicator #2 “Creative Industries” share of all businesses. This indicator is the percentage businesses in your county that are arts businesses—nonprofit and for-profit businesses involved in the creation or distribution of the arts. In the typical county, 2.5 percent of the businesses are arts businesses. (Data from Dun & Bradstreet)

Indicator #3 Expenditure on musical instruments per capita. It’s hard to get a county measure of how many people play music, but measuring consumer expenditures on purchase, rental, and repair of musical instruments is a good proxy. The average county expenditure per person is $9.62. (Data from Nielsen Claritas).

A New Home on the Web

New this year, we created an online portal for the both the Local Arts Index and the National Arts Index: ArtsIndexUSA.org.

Want to do something cool?

Click on the Local Arts Index tab at the top of the page and a map of the U.S. will come up. Select your state and then county and you will see your values for the three indicators being released (Not every county in the U.S. has data for every indicator, but some indicators have data for all 3,143 counties). You can do direct county-to-county comparisons online and will soon be able to download a county-specific report.

Take a minute to visit the FAQ page as well to learn more about the methodology as well as our fabbo 100 local partners who pioneered the way for the rest of us.

This is a new website on the front of a high-octane online database. We would love to hear from you with  your thoughts, questions, and when something didn’t work right for you.

Lastly, BIG thanks to The Kresge Foundation for major funding on this one as well as support from The Paul G. Allen Family Foundation, The Rhode Island Foundation, and The Morris & Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation.

Remember, without the data, you’re just another person with an opinion...

4 responses for Without the Data, You’re Just Another Person with an Opinion


April 12, 2012 at 9:06 am

Thanks for adding your voice to the comments, Margot!

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April 11, 2012 at 6:07 pm

I'm not worried that we talk about numbers all the time. Because, used correctly, these are numbers enveloped in heart and passion. There's an old rule about talking to people in the language THEY understand. The language of numbers matters to a lot of decision-makers. We are not selling our souls to have this tool in our toolbox. We are helping to nurture them as well as the souls of artists and others of our kind.

Thanks, Randy. You make a difference in this world.

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April 11, 2012 at 3:46 pm

Hey Carter,

Thanks for your comment. I would say that the most effective advocacy is when we are telling our story AND using the data. So, it's "and" rather than "or." Check out today's afternoon Blog post:

"The arts are fundamental to our humanity. They ennoble and inspire us—fostering creativity, goodness, and beauty. They help us express our values, build bridges between cultures, and bring us together regardless of ethnicity, religion, or age. When times are tough, the arts are salve for the ache."

I believe this to be true and have my personal stories. I also believe the arts are an industry that supports jobs and generates government revenue. As advocates, we need a full quiver that includes our stories and case-making arrows.


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April 11, 2012 at 2:58 pm

I just love the title of this post! I'm giddy with appreciation (and I've got the data to back it up!)

"Without the data, you're just another person with an opinion" is the constant rule in my life. Whenever I tell my wife I love her I make sure to have the pie charts and tables out or I'm sure I'll get to hear "Well, that's just an opinion!" Whenever I try to teach my children the difference between right and wrong I make sure to provide graphs and relevant statistics to back it up. Without the data it surely all is just opinion.

Even wrong data is preferable to limp opinion. And things like inappropriate use of metaphor needs to be stamped out, analogies kept under lock and key as if they were wayward teenagers, and all poetic uses of language made to suffer a tormented demise. Opinion is so suspect that its as if folks were using their intuition, their personal insight or their imagination, and who cares about that stuff?

Okay, all that was tongue in cheek, but I sometimes wonder if our advocacy is more for a statistical bureaucracy or for the arts themselves. Do we make our case by saying that opinions are invalid? But what is Art if not some person's opinion that this counts as beauty, that the world deserves to include these new things, and that the world is made better by having them in it? What is art if not the highly personal use of imagination to restore opinion to a community's inspection? When we teach art do we teach a grab bag of statistical analysis, or do we show folks how to problem solve on their own, how to figure things out by themselves, how to interpret the world through multiple lenses, and that the world is filled with evanescent multiplicity and plurality far more than the cold hard crystals of statistical data?

Or would we rather Art have only the conviction of pie charts and graphs? Is our conversation 'showing' why art is important, or is it 'telling' it? It seems that we can only be so convincing about art if we promote it out of one side of our mouths and discredit it through the other. If data truly IS all that matters, then obviously Art does not.

Did that make any sense?

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