The Next Cultural Data Decade

Published in: GIA Reader, Vol 25, No 3 (Fall 2014)

Beth Tuttle

The Cultural Data Project (CDP) was launched in fall 2004 as a statewide, web-based data collection system for arts and cultural organizations by a group of Pennsylvania grantmakers and arts advocates, including the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance, the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council, the Heinz Endowments, the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, The Pew Charitable Trusts (Pew), The Pittsburgh Foundation, and the William Penn Foundation. After being incubated for nearly a decade within The Pew Charitable Trusts, in April 2013, the CDP began operations as a 501(c)(3) organization.

Last year at this time, Janet Brown challenged the GIA Reader audience with a simple question: “We’ve seen all the data, but how have they driven our actions?” She wondered if grantmakers and cultural organizations could or would make changes based on what we learn from the increasingly available information that we have at our disposal.

In a parallel universe, those of us at the CDP were asking ourselves and our partners in the field that very same question. Having just become an independent nonprofit, we were in the midst of a year-long period of gathering information and exploring the ways in which we could empower the arts and cultural sector more fully with high-quality data and resources. We hoped that the tools, information, and insights the CDP provides would inspire the sector to a stronger culture of learning, leadership, and action. We spent a great deal of time listening, reflecting, analyzing, synthesizing, and (frankly) dreaming about the future, which has culminated in a new strategic direction for our organization.

The GIA Reader invited us to share some of the things we learned, a bit about where the CDP is going, and what we see on the horizon.

From Field of Dreams to Moneyball

There are signs all around us of the enormous potential represented by this new era in which we live: one of burgeoning data, information, and the potential for greater insight. As we reported in New Data Directions for the Cultural Landscape, an overview of developments in cultural data over the past decade, the act of decision making in organizations across all kinds of sectors — business, government, and nonprofit — has been transformed by data. Organizations use “big data” analytics to reveal important insights about the way people shop, drive, vote, and click. New metrics have been developed to better predict everything from a Major League Baseball pitcher’s win rate to which city blocks are likely to become crime hot spots or the next top real estate destination. The cultural sector has by no means sat on the sidelines during this data revolution. Yet the questions remain: Are the data driving our actions in the cultural sector as they are in other industries? And are we prepared to make the most effective use of what data have to offer us?

As a longtime facilitator of group planning process work, I believe in the power of metaphor to accelerate change. One of my favorite techniques is to invite participants to choose a movie title that best embodies their organization’s current reality and one that embodies where they would like to be in the future. You can just imagine the dialogues when the choices include It’s a Wonderful Life, Titanic, Singin’ in the Rain, Apollo 13, and How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying.

For the CDP, the choice of movies was clear. We were Field of Dreams for our first decade, embracing the philosophy of “if you build it, they will come.” As Marian Godfrey, Pew’s former senior director of Culture Initiatives, reflects, “We may have been somewhat naive [when first envisioning the CDP] . . . we truly believed that people wanted the information and that if we gave it to them, they would use it to make the world a better place.”

But we emerged from our recent planning with something more akin to Moneyball’s “changing the rules of the game” mind-set. We recognized that building a national cultural data set is only the means to a greater end. The endgame lies in empowering organizations with the knowledge, skills, and resources to make productive use of those data in ways that challenge entrenched thinking and conventional wisdoms in order to strengthen the sector’s vitality, performance, and impact. In other words, we want to move from simply collecting data to putting data to work, and to help the field move from simply knowing to actually doing.

Godfrey does not mince words when talking about what she and the other founders of the CDP learned during this first decade. “First, we found that [grantmakers] don’t automatically want the information even though they know they should. Second, they don’t always like what the data tell them and therefore they are unwilling to take action. And third, as long as the CDP was solely a compliance initiative then organizations wouldn’t be inclined to use the data either.”

Strategic Shifts

As a result of our discernment and planning process, it became clear that several strategic shifts would be required in our thinking to carry the CDP and the field forward into the future.

The first necessary shift is to put arts and cultural organizations’ needs at the forefront, committing to improve the user experience and to enhance the CDP’s relevance and impact. Although public and private grantmakers are absolutely critical to the success of the endeavor and are the primary paying “customers” for the CDP, the principal mission-driven impetus that brings participating grantmakers together with the CDP is the goal of strengthening arts and cultural organizations and the arts ecosystem at large. Even as we recognize that it likely will take many more years to change organizational practices and attitudes about the role and value of data, performance indicators, and metrics in the business of the arts, we believe that this is ultimately the best contribution we can make to create a stronger sector. Building the desire and appetite for information and strengthening the data literacy required to make good use of it will benefit arts managers, grantmakers, and advocates alike. It will propel more data-informed decision making and innovation and support those seeking to adopt more reflective management practices.

The field has come a long way in the past decade as evidenced by the growing recognition of the need for better filters, analytic tools, and training to deal with the growing volume and variety of data that are becoming ever more available. Zannie Voss, director of the National Center for Arts Research and chair of Arts Management and Arts Entrepreneurship at Southern Methodist University, provided an example of this progress from her fifteen years working with Theatre Communications Group to produce Theatre Facts: “Theatre leaders now actively use Theatre Facts for budgeting purposes, as a basis of discussion with their boards, and as a benchmarking tool in considering their organizational performance. We are also seeing similar engagement with data-driven findings in other arts disciplines.”

Educators are taking note as well. The CDP is frequently approached by leading graduate programs in arts management to discuss the need to incorporate more course offerings in the use of cultural data and analytics, management and information technology, and research in order to equip the next generation of cultural leaders. The CDP’s goal is to accelerate this pace of change to prepare the sector to seize the benefits of the data-rich twenty-first century.

A closely related second shift that we will pursue is to transform the CDP’s data collection process and software platform from a compliance task to a valuable tool for organizational learning and management. Or, as Voss puts it, changing the “perception of data collection from stick to carrot.” Data collection must become easier, more intuitive, and more part of daily operations for cultural organizations that are severely capacity constrained.

This change will be accomplished by the significant overhaul of the CDP Data Profile and software platform. The one-size-fits-all approach that had characterized the CDP’s data profile in the past will be replaced with a streamlined, modular, and more flexible survey tool, tailored to meet the differing circumstances of cultural organizations depending on their discipline, type of activities, and size. Features such as the ability to automate data entry and to incorporate current-year budgets and financial goals will be made possible through the integration of popular financial accounting software packages. Integration of ticketing and customer relationship management programs combined with mobile apps to collect attendance figures throughout the year will improve the accuracy of audience reports and decrease the amount of estimation that typically plagues efforts to collect participation data. In these ways and more, the CDP will begin to offer a greater value proposition to the arts and cultural participants, who are the lifeblood of the system.

Improving the user interface with a more fluid “wizard” approach and offering significantly enhanced online training, educational resources, and peer-to-peer learning through social networks will also make the technology and data concepts less intimidating for reluctant users and create self-paced “on-ramps” to the data literacy highway. Reducing the friction associated with data collection initiatives will allow participants to become more comfortable with their participation. Providing the technology to integrate the use of the system, its analytics, tools, and resources more fully into daily management activities paves the way for organizations to derive more positive value in exchange for their contribution of data. Ultimately, these changes will combine to transform the CDP from a once-a-year obligation to a frequently tapped business resource.

Drawing on several years’ experience with nearly 250 New York cultural organizations participating in the Bloomberg Philanthropies management training initiative, Anita Contini, program lead of Art and Culture, concludes, “Using data is not a one-time opportunity, it is a 24/7 practice. The data is living, breathing, and changing all the time. . . . [Cultural organizations] looking at their data regularly has to become part of maintaining their cultural health.”

The third change that is required is a sector-wide shift from isolated, one-off data projects to a more cohesive and coordinated strategy that reflects a shared vision and distributed leadership across the arts ecosystem. During our year-long dialogue with arts and cultural leaders, philanthropists, arts advocates, and researchers, this emerged again and again as a clear, compelling need. Therefore, to propel the accessibility and use of data and its impact on the cultural sector, the CDP will serve as a catalyst and convener of a national coalition for cultural data. The state-based coalitions that we have developed over the past decade provide a critical foundation and an important jump start for this endeavor in terms of their local touchdown, the breadth of field knowledge they offer, and the stakeholder networks they represent. To navigate the complex terrain of the rapidly changing data landscape, we must explore:

  • the development of shared definitions, language, standards, and practices;
  • ways to streamline and coordinate collection efforts;
  • smart investments in technology and data infrastructure;
  • new and emerging research questions and data needs, especially in the areas of changing participation, impact measures, and fueling adaptive practice; and
  • mechanisms to make data initiatives more inclusive and representative.

None of us has cornered the market on new ideas or insights. Neither we nor any other single organization can independently meet the breadth and depth of the sector’s need for a range of reliable, accessible, and interconnected information resources. If we seek to become a “learning sector,” genuine breakthroughs in strategy, practice, and understanding will emerge at the intersections of different perspectives and ways of knowing.

The CDP began this journey ten years ago, when a group of forward-thinking grantmakers recognized that a moment of inflection was possible — a moment when the confluence of information and technology could make tremendous new insights possible. But insights alone do not result in action or impact. So we find ourselves at an important pivot point, where the next steps we take together have the potential to “change the rules of the game,” by putting high-quality data, insights, and resources in service to the needs of the arts and cultural sector.

Data-Driven Action and the Next Cultural Data Decade

With these strategic shifts and the future of data for the cultural sector in mind, the CDP posed two questions to a number of our colleagues:

  • How are data driving your actions as grantmakers today?
  • How do you see the cultural data landscape changing in the next decade?

Excerpts from their responses follow.

Within the last decade . . . we discovered we needed to expand our data investment. The commission withstood devastating budget cuts during the Great Recession. . . . But beyond the funding constraints, recession-era politics forced changes to the authorizing environment, intensifying the focus on accountability and transparency.

Though certainly it was difficult to survive the recession, I think its lessons made us smarter, renewed our resolve and made one thing explicitly clear for the future: in the arts and culture sector, we need better quantitative and analytical management tools. Solid, abundant, easily-accessed data — and the good wisdom to act on it.

We believe that the power of data lies in how they help us assess opportunities, measure progress, evaluate impact, and improve performance. For us, as a funder, data has helped us provide better support to the field and to the institutions we are working with.

[Working with a group of grantees to develop social media capacity,] we had them collect data daily through either Google analytics or other sources. . . . It was really powerful to see that they learned to read metrics better because they were using the tools all the time. They were able to harness that information to create better engagement, to understand what works and doesn’t work, and to explain to their boards how and why these things work.

[Looking ahead,] there is a lot of discussion around the flexibility of tools, sharing of information and insights, and listening to what your community wants from you, not just telling them what you have to offer. . . . Sometimes smaller organizations are more nimble, hungry, and willing to grab and use any new information or tools they can get their hands on.

We continue to use the data principally to understand the financial health and capitalization needs of the region we serve. . . . We look at five years of financial indicators, which help us make decisions about how to best fund an organization. . . . We have built into many of our grants a considerable amount of financial technical assistance to help organizations develop an appropriate financial model. I think this will continue given the dynamic environment in which organizations are operating.

Although [data initiatives like] the CDP provide a way for funders to analyze organizations and for organizations to look at themselves, I believe their greatest value is providing an instrument for funders and organizations to use together to talk through how funding can help them be resilient organizations in service to their artistic missions.

Now that we have several years of data, we’ve started to report trends back to the field. The first such analysis of nonprofit salaries in LA County was downloaded a record number of times. But there’s no question that how we collect this information — creating the value proposition for arts organizations — is going to be the key to a more robust universe of usable data in the future.
There are more and more arts program officers who are earnest, knowledgeable, thoughtful, and intelligent, who realize that this information ought to be helpful and ought to give them better tools to assess the effectiveness of their investment and give them better tools for advocacy with the people [within their foundations] who are controlling the purse strings.

I think one of the problems is that we don’t allow ourselves to use the data in the context of a more sophisticated human understanding of what motivates us as funders; what motivates people at arts organizations; and what motivates the audiences to participate. . . . We need to develop approaches and practices that effectively put the data in partnership with other, more human, emotional, and imaginative factors that influence decision making.

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