How Things Work

When we visit our physicians, we naturally assume they bring a bundle of knowledge and insight to the meeting. For one thing, we expect them to bring a broad and nuanced understanding of human physiology, and how its many interconnecting systems (circulatory, respiratory, muscle, nervous, lymphatic, and so on) influence our health and well being. We also expect that they know how and where to look for indicators of our health (taking our temperature, testing our blood pressure, checking our blood for chemical balances). Finally, we expect them to bring an informed opinion of what "healthy" looks like for patients in general and for us in particular, so they can identify the gaps and seek to correct them. This systemic knowledge, these measures, and this sense of an ideal or goal are integral to medical practice, and essential to our confidence in our doctors to make things better and "do no harm."

Given these complex expectations for our doctors, what bundle of knowledge do we expect of ourselves as grantmakers, researchers, and policy makers in the arts? We all work with communities that are just as complex as the human body, with similarly interrelated and interconnected systems (artists, audiences, organizations, governments, funders). We all seek to guide those communities to increased or sustained health and vitality. And we certainly seek to do no harm in the process. Yet, despite these similarities to the medical profession, we have yet to develop a coherent and consistent way of understanding the systems we influence, defining the indicators that should inform our work, and describing in detail the "healthy" state we envision and where the gaps in that health might be.

It was with this opportunity in mind that the three of us began an exploration four years ago into the world of systems thinking. We saw in this established discipline the potential for broad benefit to the arts and culture community, and especially to those who strive to improve it. Fortunately, we had a wealth of insight and inspiration to guide our efforts, drawn from several decades of explo-rations by others.

Connecting the Dots

About fifty years ago, a brilliant group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology began to ponder the question of how things work. "Things" can mean almost anything. It can mean the forces that underlie global warming, the AIDS epidemic, the economy of Idaho or the pathology of substance abuse. In the arts, "things" can mean how a dance company operates, how an artist's career unfolds, or how the arts environment functions in Nashville.From the MIT group, the concepts of "systems dynamics" became a formal discipline of study. For now, we will stay clear of the technicalities of this discipline and focus on some general principles of direct relevance to arts funders:

  • All systems have an underlying structure of causal relationships that significantly defines their behavior;
  • Systems are so complex that they can never be perfectly understood or predicted;
  • Nevertheless, if one has the capacity to intervene in a system, the chances of positive outcomes are enhanced, and the chances of unanticipated negative outcomes are reduced, according to how well the intervener understands how the system works.

Taken together, these principles explain, for example, why we have medical schools, residency training, and such complex expectations of our physicians. We want medical practitioners (who can be characterized as “interveners in human biology”) to understand how our bodies and minds work as a prelude to any intervention they might prescribe. And yet, we all recognize that even highly competent medical practitioners cannot perfectly predict the outcomes of their prescriptions. Medical practitioners traditionally subscribed to the Hippocratic Oath, which states in part, “I will use those dietary regimens which will benefit my patients according to my greatest ability and judgment, and I will do no harm or injustice to them.” This is a pretty good dictum for those with the power to tinker with any system, including doctors, national security advisors, and arts funders. But in truth, the admonition to “do no harm or injustice” is elusive.

The Map

Knowing all of this, we three set out to gain a deeper understanding of how things work in the arts. Efforts to understand complex systems often begin with the technique of mapping, which entails, as nearly as possible, a clinical description of causal relation-ships, sometimes using diagrams, text, or both together. In the arts, for example, does consumer demand have a significant effect on the output of artistic goods and services, and does consumer demand function the same in driving commercial arts enterprises and not-for-profit enterprises? And what factors fuel consumer demand: Arts education in schools, community settings or within families? Electronic media? Regional concentrations of not-for-profit cultural organizations
and artists?

Fortified with grants from the Packard and Hewlett Foundations, a group of thirteen national experts convened at the Bolz Center for Arts Administration at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in October 2003 to consider the utility of a systems perspective for understanding the dynamics of cultural organizations and the broad arts landscape, and to begin the mapping process1. Follow-up meetings that included Steve Peterson, an independent consultant and teacher of systems dynamics, and Adrian Ellis, an international arts consultant, led to further refinements. Ultimately we produced “The Cultural Dynamics Map,” the poster that accompanies this issue of the Reader.

The point of “The Cultural Dynamics Map” is to drive several conceptual stakes into the ground on the subject of how the arts work in the U.S., and to introduce the basic concepts of systems dynamics to an audience that includes policy makers, managers, public leaders, and funders. Some of the key concepts of the map include:

  • Levels of cultural literacy and demographic flows are essential drivers of the demand for artistic goods and services. This demand is ephemeral, and will dissipate unless it is satisfied by appropriate supplies of cultural goods and services.
  • Supplies of artistic goods and services are produced by four distinct sources: Technologically mediated (e.g. television, film, recorded media, Internet), for-profit, informal (e.g. amateur dance ensembles), and not-for-profit. Each of these sources of supply is subject to its own dynamic forces.
  • The map provides a depiction of the resource base for the non-for-profit sector that includes labor (human capital), physical capital, and contributed cash from individuals and institutions. The map proposes that individual donors are influenced by their own levels of cultural literacy, by population dynamics, and by their exposure to the output of not-for-profit arts organizations.

By no means is this map, in its current incarnation, meant to incorporate all of the factors that impinge on the American arts scene. For example, it does not specifically address the population of artists, intellectual property regulation, or media deregulation. Many lay-ers of complexity can be added, and some of the existing layers already in the map, populations and demographics for example, are mere placeholders for a myriad of systemic relationships that could be incorporated. The current map, as we have constructed and honed it, is designed only to illustrate the central tenets of a systems approach to understanding the arts: That an underlying set of structural relationships is shaping our field's evolution, and though these relationships can never be fully understood, better inter-ventions are possible through deliberate study of the system. In the spirit of presenting this map as an educational tool, it includes definitions of the key terms, a primer on systems thinking, a legend for the graphic symbols, and written text to help the reader to navigate through the map.

At the November 2006 annual conference of Grantmakers in the Arts in Boston, we conducted a session on “The Cultural Dynamics Map” that was attended by a lively audience of about seventy-five. The questions and comments from this session demonstrated that many of the attendees readily grasped the concepts of a “how things work” approach, and saw implications for how cultural policy and funding could be reshaped to incorporate points of intervention that have not been previously explored. As the map's principal authors, we were greatly relieved by this response because we had visualized the possibility of a large collective yawn.

Beyond the Map

Mapping is just the beginning of a fuller exploration of how the arts work, but probably the most important component. Over the past year, the published version of the map accompanying this article has been expanded by a factor of at least ten. It now encompasses a much deeper and vastly more complex array a factors that includes artists, government regulation, physical plants, and relationships between commercial, not-for-profit and informal producers.

The objective is to produce a suitably robust map that represents the interests of the majority of U.S. researchers, policy specialists, funders, and arts leaders, and to involve them in the further refinement of the map. The ideal would be to produce a map that has broad credibility, such that it helps to drive an agenda for research and more insightful policy. Other fields have made major strides in this direction, most notably economic, environmental and health policy, and we believe that the arts could become a more serious policy field by adopting a systemic approach.

Additional tools of systems dynamics, beyond mapping, also merit attention, namely modeling and simulation. Maps can be useful for depicting causal relationships: A influences B, which in turn influences C. However, maps are not strong tools for showing how much A influences B, or how this relationship develops over a span of time. Computer models can accomplish this task handily. In the domain of economics, the Federal Reserve, University of Michigan, UCLA, and many others have maintained models of the U.S. economy that are used to forecast economic conditions and to simulate intervention options, such as changes in interest rates. Even though these models are often wrong in their predictions, they support formulation of systemically insightful economic policies that have a much better batting average than would otherwise be possible.

Taking our cue from fields that have developed models and simulations, we now have a prototype, based on the expanded version of “The Cultural Dynamics Map,” that should be ready for release this summer. This prototype, entitled “Creative Drive,” will be available over the Internet at no cost to users, and will be covered by a Creative Commons license that allows developers anywhere in the world to make modifications.

The prototype has two simulation components. One component is an educational game in which users can try out five different approaches to development of the arts within a hypothetical region. These approaches include the classic use of the arts as a device for economic development, the more recent concept of the arts as a driver of creativity, a strategy for developing cultural vibrancy through enhanced cultural literacy, a strategy for building social capital through arts participation, and a strategy for maximizing public and private intrinsic benefits of the arts.

The other component of “Creative Drive” is a user-defined simulation designed for more advanced users. This component will allow the user to dial-in real or speculative conditions that may apply in regions anywhere in the U.S. or abroad. These conditions will include characteristics of the population, artists, arts producers (media, commercial, not-for-profit and informal), intellectual property regulation, and several other factors. Once these factors have been dialed in, the user will have the choice of ten different policy levers that can be used in infinite combinations to project how a region might be transformed over a period of several decades.

“Creative Drive” is far from the level of refinement found in leading economic, environmental, or health care models, but we hope that, like “The Cultural Dynamics Map,” it will have immediate uses as an educational tool while also helping to advance the no-tion that our field has much to gain from exploring and understanding how things work.


  1. October 2003 session participants included: Alan Brown of WolfBrown, Moy Eng of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, Maria-Rosario Jackson of Urban Institute, John Kreidler of Cultural Initiatives Silicon Valley, Kevin McCarthy of RAND, Mark Nerenhausen from the Broward Center for the Perform-ing Arts, Glenn Peters of the Ohio Historical Society, Steve Peterson of the Peterson Group, Joan Shigekawa from the Rockefeller Foundation, Andrew Taylor from the Bolz Center for Arts Administration at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Russell Willis Taylor of National Arts Strategies, Steven J. Tepper now with The Curb Center for Art, Enterprise, and Public Policy at Vanderbilt University, and Steven A. Wolff of AMS Planning & Research Corp.