Building Knowledge to Enrich and Embolden Cultural Life

Published in: GIA Reader, Vol 17, No 1 (Spring 2006)

Alberta Arthurs

Under Marian Godfrey's direction, GIA held a pre-conference immediately before its 2005 conference called "New Directions in Cultural Policy Research." As part of that meeting, four well-respected individuals were asked to assess the impact and importance of research in the arts. They were asked to specify the big ideas currently in play and to speculate about the future of those ideas. Predictably perhaps, the four argued for the importance of research to the cultural sector. More surprisingly, they agreed that the platform for cultural research needs serious re-planking. They each pointed out that the cultural establishment is not yet making good use of research. They speculated that the reason for this may be that researchers have not made themselves sufficiently visible to those who can put the results to use. From Nashville and New York and Washington, citing scholars country-wide, these experts set fresh goals for researchers and fresh challenges for grantmakers. From their own special vantage in higher education, they asked the critical question: is research important? The answer they give is yes, but they acknowledge that there is work to do to situate researchers within the arts, to make the knowledge relevant, and — above all — to use research to enrich and embolden cultural life.

The four speakers were Bill Ivey, Stefan Toepler, Steven Tepper, and Ed Pauley. Synopses of their remarks are offered here with the hope that their ideas will resound, that the questions will continue, and that grantmakers in the arts will help to make the essential connections between the base of knowledge that is being built and those who need it.

Bill Ivey
Research and policy questions related to for-profit and nonprofit arts

Bill Ivey offered vivid examples of the kinds of questions he believes researchers should be asking. “How does Wal-Mart shape access to music and movies? Are foreign films playing at the multiplex? Who owns the local R&B FM radio station? Is there a public interest in expanded copyright protection? How has Target made good design a component of good business? Is it acceptable that Baywatch is the most popular TV show in rural villages in Morocco?”

Ivey argues that we need a new approach to nurturing the U.S. arts system, stating that... “our forty-year-old...mechanism” has brought us to a stalemate. We are conducting only “narrow, repetitious policy conversations.” He sees the need for new priorities in research to match new priorities in the arts themselves; specifically, he challenges us to focus more attention on and develop more knowledge about the for-profit as well as the nonprofit arts.

Working from within the “nonprofit box,” as Ivy calls it, we have found allies in education and in urban development; we have held the line in funding and support; we have produced sophisticated research. But “... the nonprofit sector still feels marginalized, under-resourced, under-appreciated.” We must explore a “second path” in research if we are to “de-marginalize ourselves” and achieve more relevance. We need to think much harder and learn much more about “the broader ways in which Americans engage in culture.”

We must cease arguing merely for funding, says Ivey, and frame our findings instead in terms of “public participation and amateur art making, cultural literacy... localism... issues of choice and freedom... international relations and even national security.” Defining our work this way will bring “culture closer to the center of good public policy.” Research based on a broad definition of arts and culture connects with the public interest, commanding attention, helping to shape policy decisions, enabling the arts to “stand tall” in the company of “other sectors with a ...claim on policy — health care, transportation, the environment.”

Ivey envisions a broad and embracing research agenda that will allow the arts to be policy-effective, to contribute to the positive course of public life. The Curb Center for Art, Enterprise and Public Policy commits itself precisely to such research.

Bill Ivey is director, The Curb Center for Art, Enterprise and Public Policy, Vanderbilt University

Stefan Toepler
University-based research centers: What are they doing? What is needed to sustain them and transmit their work?

Stefan Toepler's main point is that cultural research is growing as an academic specialty. The range of subjects and approaches now being used is large; the number of specialists and students is growing. To succeed, however, cultural research needs financial support. It needs support from administrators and faculty on its campuses. And — of most importance — cultural research needs to be validated by the arts sector itself. It needs to achieve what Toepler calls “moral sustainability” within its own sphere of study by demonstrating its relevance to policy and to the health of the arts as a sector.
Toepler describes five representative centers, pointing to their approaches, their products, and their activities as a way of describing the universe of academic centers.

• The Curb Center for Art, Enterprise and Public Policy at Vanderbilt focuses on both for-profit and nonprofit organizations and concerns. It engages in policy research, convenings, and interventions that cut across the cultural sector broadly and inclusively.

• The Cultural Policy and Arts Administration Program at Ohio State University offers arts administration programs, works on concrete sponsored research, and is also active in conceptualizing key policies through convenings and special projects.

• Princeton's Center for Arts and Cultural Policy Studies fosters the intellectual base of cultural policy studies and research, enlisting faculty talents into the arts, identifying key topic areas for students, supporting a central database in arts and culture, and organizing issue-based conversations.

• The Cultural Policy Center at the University of Chicago is housed in the public policy school and places an emphasis on quantitative analysis. Its subject interests are addressed in local and national conferences.

• The Center for Arts and Culture, located at George Mason University, was a field-building center that developed research networks and inventories, and maintained a listserv and a web-based “commons.” [Editor's note: After more than a decade of work, the Center for Arts and Culture brought its work to a close at the end of 2005.]

Other research centers of importance are at the University of Pennsylvania, Columbia University, New York University, Northeastern University, University of Oregon, and Columbia College (Chicago). Additional cultural policy initiatives are based within many university-based arts administration and arts training programs.
All of these centers encourage faculty and student engagement, drawing on diverse disciplines. All of them sponsor convenings. All house research projects, some are funded or commissioned, many are course- or degree-related, and some are specialist-driven. Most of the centers are struggling for funds and for attention within their home institutions.

There are more researchers and more data than there were ten years ago, which is good news, as Toepler sees it, but there remains a huge job ahead to justify and expand cultural research. Above all, we need to find the “larger framework or context” for the studies that are accumulating. We need to determine the state of the research and of the information that we have. We need to identify cross-cutting themes, we need to identify the users of the research and the “policy readiness” of the practitioners, and we need to agree on research priorities. Without this degree of self-study and self-scrutiny, sustainability will continue to be a problem.

Stefan Toepler was director, Center for Arts and Culture,
George Mason University.

Steven Tepper
Are we asking and answering the right questions?

Steven Tepper argues that arts professionals, researchers, and practitioners need to learn together how to define and measure “cultural vitality.” Cultural research should produce results that can be used to generate better art, better communities, better citizens, better interchange, and better understandings of the world in which we live. Tepper offers a synopsis of current cultural research, indicating where “it might be heading,” dividing the work into several categories, and assessing its potential to have this kind of impact.

The first category is what Tepper calls “aperture research;” research that widens the view of what we would traditionally, or conventionally, think of as the arts' domain. He puts “cultural indicators” research into this category, as well as work on the informal arts, studies of immigrant arts, and some of the research into new technologies. These and other current topics represent a “new landscape of activity.”

A second category in Tepper's topography is ”conceptual” or “big think” research, the kind of work done by the larger think tanks and by specialist scholars. A major dilemma is that these big ideas are not yet receiving the airings, the testing, and the analysis that big new ideas in other research areas receive. Assumptions formulated in this kind of research require assessment and analysis, discussion, and building a collective agenda around them if they are to be truly transformative. Research in culture does not yet have this capacity, in Tepper's opinion.

Cultural practitioners are more familiar with Tepper's third category of research, “best practices” and “case studies.” But cultural practitioners have yet to learn ways to contextualize these studies and to analyze the conditions that surround them and that might lead to replication of “desired results.” We have not yet looked at best practices across multiple communities in order to better understand their meaningfulness.

“We also do evaluation research,” as Tepper points out. Unfortunately, he believes, most of the work in this category is not yet “robust.” Its methodologies are not well controlled and it is not publicly available. Foundations, especially, do this research for their own internal purposes, and their tendency is not to share it. This kind of information must be aggregated so that “we can learn from each other and so that we can use this test bigger theories about what works and why.”

Researchers have done some interesting work on the benefits of the arts. But this kind of research is “notoriously difficult to do,” and we need to learn how to do it better. We need to narrow our claims. We need to undertake long-term, longitudinal studies and analyses as other fields do. We also need to assess the “consequences” of specific policies as well as their benefits; we must “do the research necessary to understand the consequences of not intervening in or supporting the cultural sector.”

Tepper thinks that the most successful research efforts in arts and culture have been in mapping and enumerating the sector. “How many artists? How much money do they make? ...How much money flows out of the arts into the rest of the economy? How many arts organizations and enterprises are there? Where are they?” Questions like these fascinate us, and justifiably so. But perhaps, says Tepper, we are endangered by “metric mania.” We need to better assess what these numbers mean, “Do the numbers add up to cultural vibrancy?” What do the numbers tell us about what our communities need?

Tepper's three categories suggest both the potential of cultural research to aid and augment cultural actitivity in the country, and the ongoing challenge to marshal and manage that research so that it does the work effectively. Relationships among researchers, funders, and cultural professionals seem to be key to that challenge.
Steven Tepper is associate director, The Curb Center for Art, Enterprise and Public Policy, Vanderbilt University and associate professor of sociology.

Ed Pauley
Foundations and cultural research — issues and responses

Ed Pauley asks: Why don't most foundations fund research, and when should they do so? How can the best research opportunities be identified? How should research be planned and assessed?

Foundations, he maintains, fail to fund research because they are not convinced of the value of doing so; research is seen as too technical, too costly, too potentially controversial, or irrelevant. But the primary reason that foundations avoid research is that it diverts funds from direct support for cultural organizations and activities. We need powerful arguments for research, justifying it as having foreseeable benefits to the field we support, before foundations can be expected to fund it.

Research is easiest to support when it clearly provides specific knowledge that the arts need in order to move ahead. The key question, from Pauley's perspective, is “What do your foundation and its grantees most need to learn in order to reach their goals?” The goals may range from the need to support innovation and change, to the need to reach particular target groups, establish new practices, or build organizational capacity. The essential requirement is that goals — whatever they are — and research that can support the goals are clear and specific. Another requirement is that the benefits of the research must justify its cost. An individual arts organization can seldom undertake research, since benefits will be slight for that single institution. On the other hand, foundations, which support many cultural organizations, can more easily justify the cost of research.

“The benefits and utility of...research...matter most.... The voluntary spread and take-up of research is a crucial gauge of its value,” in Pauley's opinion. On these grounds, he argues that research projects should be validated by cultural and philanthropic leaders who know best what information they need. Before research is undertaken, these individuals should also be asked to think ahead about “using and spreading research products.”

Ed Pauley is director of research and evaluation,
The Wallace Foundation.


Each of these four experienced witnesses acknowledges the growth of cultural research in the last decade, and each raises questions about the worth and applicability of what is being learned. Ivey insists that our policy conversations are empty without consistent attention to for-profit as well as nonprofit cultural activity; he believes that a research agenda becomes important if it covers the whole sector. Pauley argues that “research products” must provide functional measures and assessment tools for funders and cultural leaders. Tepper sees the importance of serious, well-conducted, and well-controlled research to furthering “cultural vitality” as a national norm. Toepler speculates that the sustainability of cultural research will rest on its relevance to the arts sector itself, that without this “moral sustainability” research will not thrive. Each in his way, these commentators stress the significance of connecting research to practice, of using research to inform policy discussions, and of building knowledge in order to strengthen the arts.

For grantmakers in the arts, the challenge seems clear. If bridges are to be built between researchers and practitioners, grantmakers are the obvious architects. Grantmakers can work with grantees and contacts to help determine what we need to know. Grantmakers can also work with researchers to strengthen the capacity for research and to augment and refine a national agenda for learning. At this important juncture in the evolution of cultural research, cultural grantmakers have a leadership role.

Alberta Arthurs is a cultural consultant and commentator, and board member of National Video Resources.