Cultural Indicators

Josephine Ramirez

“Cultural indicators” increasingly pepper the conversation of some arts grantmakers and the concept seems to be emerging as an important conceptual and methodological tool. Josephine Ramirez, at the Getty Center, accepted the challenge of describing the idea and beginning to put it in context.

The need to better understand and articulate the broad societal value of arts and culture is at the heart of a discussion among a growing circle of arts grantmakers and scholars in the U.S. While we can debate how the terms “arts” and “culture” operate interactively, I pull them together here to discuss their relationship to broader societal values. From a concern about societal values flow many topics grantmakers seem to be particularly interested in at the moment: cultural policy, arts education standards, a new rationale for financial support of individual artists, and more. “Cultural indicators” is one of the terms thrown about in the sidelines of this discussion. “Cultural indicators” as a concept came my way via a research project at the Getty Research Institute that was examining the community-building potential of arts and culture. The project used a combination of humanities- and social science-based methodologies to document community arts practices and events, and gave me a working introduction to various social science-based terminologies. At times it seems any language that vaguely links the arts to empirical science acquires instant and uncritical popularity in the arts community—“At last our wishes fulfilled! Scientific proof that the arts are essential!” Despite temptation, we should be aware of the limits of “scientific” measures, including indicators. We must continue to value the underlying nature of arts and culture and respect their innate inability to be quantified. That said, a better understanding of cultural indicators (as well as many other social science-generated tools) could provide us with an effective link to broader societal values and to related policy concerns. Indicators were created as measurement tools by professionals in the social sciences and were developed by using a community's understanding of the way what was being measured connected to its values. Indicators “provide some indication of how you are doing in relation to something that you care about.” (This observation comes from a conversation with Dr. Maria-Rosario Jackson, research associate at the Urban Institute, who was one of my collaborators on the aforementioned project and generously provided me many hours of education and enlightenment on social science issues and methodology.) By providing measureable signposts, indicators track things related to important societal values and goals. For example, the level of participation in a neighborhood arts festival might be considered to be a “cultural indicator” of community cohesion. Indicators can, at their best, help foster good decisions and ward off bad ones and are designed to be periodically updated. They can be particularly helpful in assessing or planning for public policy initiatives. The problem with most arts-related data and the way it is collected is that it tends not to be “anchored in any theories about the societal impacts of the arts” (again a quote from Maria Rosario Jackson, but a point made by many other researchers in the arts and other fields). Instead, the arts community usually gathers data that relates narrowly to itself—attendance figures, ticket receipts, audience surveys, and the like. Exceptions include arts and economic impact studies and arts education studies that collect data from outside the arts. Most of the information collected by the arts sector assesses who comes—and who we'd like to convince to come—to the arts we present. It can be helpful in building our institutions and establishing our community's infrastructure. The data also helps solidify the nonprofit arts community's public presence and begins to articulate the value of what is accomplished on the formal side of the arts and cultural spectrum. In some respects, this represents a significant step in the sector's evolution as a profession. Largely absent from this positioning, however, is a more expansive and nuanced understanding of the experience of arts and culture at the other, informal end of the spectrum. Or as scholar Mario Ontiveros (who also contributes much to my education) put it, “beyond the restrictive conceptions of gallery and museum, or ‘folk and fine art’—beyond restrictive and rigid categories.” Cultural indicators may have tremendous importance here, since these less restrictively-conceived forms are exactly the “location” where arts and culture most directly seem to enter discussions about broader values in our society. To identify specific cultural indicators and their connection to societal values we must first work on our theoretical position. How does our definition of the arts contribute to the definition of the arts' value to society? How can we extend the terms of what we call arts and culture to include the ways it is embedded in the everyday life of a broad spectrum of people? How do we enlarge our view of arts participation so that it captures not only the practices of professionals but also the practices of non-professionals (amateur associations, students) and of artists working in non-arts settings not normally on the arts-infrastructure's radar screen, such as community centers and churches. What about privileging the artistic activity generated by non-professional artists and other “regular” people as a part of their involvement with community and faith-based networks, with or without the guidance of professional artists? Only after we adopt a longer, deeper view of arts and culture in society can we formulate theories that substantively link to broader public experience and concerns. Cultural indicators could then be understood and discussed in policy circles as integral with indicators that assess such other societal concerns as public safety, mental health, and civic strength. Josephine Ramirez is currently program associate at the Getty Grant Program, and was formerly with the Getty Research Institute.