Painting By Numbers: How Cities Can Use Data to Support the Arts

Posted by David Andersson, Feb 25, 2022 0 comments

Although cities increasingly rely on data to help shape policy and identify service gaps, there is often skepticism from both the creative sector and government about whether metrics can meaningfully capture the impact of the arts. In a field where variety of creative expression is fundamental, how do you count what really counts?

For cities that recognize their artists and cultural institutions as a critical part of the economy and essential to quality of life for residents, arts data can be a powerful tool to advocate for culture alongside other city services. Data can also help city leaders understand who is and isn’t being served by government arts dollars and expand access to arts experiences in every community. 

While representing arts impact as numbers risks losing the essential value of creative work, there may be a greater risk of having the cultural field excluded altogether from civic policymaking in the absence of meaningful metrics. And the demand for reliable data is only increasing as local governments face critical decisions related to their recovery from the pandemic. 

Through my work on the Culture team at Bloomberg Associates, the pro bono consulting arm of Bloomberg Philanthropies, a frequent request from client cities has been to help develop strategies to collect the most useful data about the arts in formats that can be easily analyzed, in an effort to improve their arts agencies’ understanding of and service to their local creative communities. 

These data desires echo my past experience working for the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, where I supported a two-year study undertaken with the University of Pennsylvania Social Impact of the Arts Project that found a positive relationship between cultural engagement and whole host of social wellbeing outcomes. The agency subsequently used those findings to increase funding for arts organizations working in underinvested neighborhoods, thus putting great data analysis into practice.

Seeing the common need for better ways to collect and use arts data, our team at Bloomberg Associates conducted sector-wide research and took closer looks at the data practices of fifteen local arts agencies, and produced Arts Data in the Public Sector: Strategies for Local Arts Agencies, a guide for cities to collect and use data about their arts and cultural sectors. Through best practices and case studies, the new resource aims to help arts agencies and city leaders show measurable impact, identify priority policy areas, and establish more equitable and inclusive practices to promote access to the arts across communities.

Screenshot of data chart
Common data categories collected by the 15 local arts agencies included in the Arts Data in the Public Sector guide. Click here to enlarge.

Already, many cities have data about their arts sectors available to them through various sources such as their own grant applications and reports, as well as local or national research partners and other publicly available data sources. And with the move toward online data collection tools and publicly available datasets, it is increasingly possible to approach cultural analytics in strategic and nuanced ways. 

In Charlotte, NC, for instance, the Arts & Science Council used data on cultural transactions (e.g., ticket purchases) alongside median household income data to determine geographic areas with especially low cultural engagement, launching a new Culture Blocks program that fostered programming in those areas. The County agreed to a pilot program of $300,000 in five areas in 2016, which has since grown to $950,000 in ten areas in 2020.

Dancers perform at a street festival
The Hola Charlotte Festival was supported by the Arts & Science Council of Charlotte-Mecklenberg’s Culture Blocks program, which was designed in response to the agency’s analysis of cultural participation data. Photo by Ernest Moren.

In San Francisco, CA, the Arts Commission compared demographics of grantee artists with city census figures, and subsequently hired community ambassadors to do targeted outreach and offer technical support for underrepresented groups. In the 2019 grant cycle, the percentage of Latinx grantees went from 4% to 14% (nearing the 15% citywide census figure). 

While some innovative uses of arts data have required access to additional funds, much can be accomplished with free tools, basic analysis, and some creative thinking. In Phoenix, AZ, the Office of Arts & Culture adjusted the locations of its application seminars to be within a five-minute drive of at least five previously unsuccessful applicants. In Houston, TX, the local agency adjusted its scoring system to prioritize applicants working in underserved zip codes. And many of the cities we studied partner with SMU DataArts, a national arts research center that collects comprehensive data about agencies’ grantee organizations on their behalf.

Performers sing and dance under a tent with brilliant red lighting.
“Pilsen Fest,” curated by Richard Morales, received a grant through the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events’ Neighborhood Access Program, which supports community-based arts activities in neighborhoods with few civic arts investments. Photo by Carolina Sánchez.

In addition to SMU DataArts, there are noteworthy research and data resources available to arts agencies and other interested parties. Our guide builds upon the extensive work of national organizations such as Americans for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies, including the latter two entities’ well-used resource, the National Standard for Arts Information Exchange. We hope our guide provides a useful snapshot and inspiring examples of the power of arts data. 

To learn more:

  • Download the free Arts Data in the Public Sector guide here
  • Watch the recording of the “Activate Your Arts Data” webinar about the guide here.
  • Listen to an episode of the GovLove podcast about the guide here.
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