Using Research on Arts and Culture

A Case in Point

Anne Focke

A New Framework for Building Participation in the Arts
Kevin F. McCarthy and Kimberly Jinnett, RAND, 2001,
112 pages, 310-451-7002,

Another research report lands on your desk. Do you make time to read it, or does it add to a growing pile of things-to-read-someday?

Many GIA members devote considerable time to research for and about arts and culture, and reports on results of this research seem to be proliferating. One aim of the research is to "bring to the cultural sector the intellectual apparatus and assessment of the academy and the social sciences," observed Gigi Bradford, former executive director of the Center for Arts and Culture and currently a research associate at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage Policy at the Smithsonian. "Sometimes organized under the term 'cultural policy,' the research is part of a new effort to find ways to measure the health and strength of the field."

In the past year, RAND, a nonprofit institution that works to improve policy and decision making through research and analysis, has completed two such studies: A New Framework for Building Participation in the Arts and The Performing Arts in a New Era. As McCarthy and his team of RAND researchers looked at the data from both studies, they were struck by gaps in research — the arts have never systematically gathered information on themselves. “Unlike other areas, there is a real divide in the arts between practitioners and researchers,” McCarthy explained, “so what we found is typical of a field early in its self-conscious approach to research.”

Responding to the increased research activity among members, GIA's board of directors built into the organization's 2002 plan a long-term aim of staying abreast of research relevant to arts funders with an eye to “understanding the role research can play in increasing and improving arts philanthropy.” This effort builds on more than a decade of work with the Foundation Center studying trends in arts funding (available in the Library). The Digest section of the Reader with its short reviews of recent publications and studies gives us another regular way to meet this aim.

GIA is particularly interested in the varying ways that research results are used and put into practice. We appreciate, too, that different members will find research valuable in differing ways. Edward Pauly (director of evaluation, Wallace-Reader's Digest Funds) serves as an advisor to our arts funding research with the Foundation Center and suggests that arts funders “avoid the trap of thinking we know what research looks like.” We should shift our conversation, he suggests, from “data and research” to “what we want to learn.” Further, he noted that research is most apt to elicit diverging responses when it is “ambitious” and “provocatively seeks change in an established way of thinking.” In these instances, he said, “There will be divergent reactions and that's great! These are important conversations to have.”

RAND study of arts participation
A New Framework for Building Participation in the Arts reports on a study by RAND that was supported by the Wallace-Reader's Digest Funds as part of their overall aim to make the arts an active part of people's everyday lives. What led the Wallace Funds to embark on this research? “When we think about doing research,” Pauly reports, “we first ask, ‘What does the field need?' For instance, before we embarked on the study with RAND, we'd been hearing from organizations and practitioners that a key challenge for them was to figure out a pattern in participation. The research that ensued was based on their practices, work, and experiences.”

Michael Moore, director of the Funds' arts program, comments more specifically about the purposes of the research with RAND: “In the past, [the arts community] has mostly relied on insider-generated research by those in the field, valuable for such uses as advocacy and marketing. To successfully build participation, however, arts organizations and their funders need to better understand individual behavior and what causes people to participate or not. Credible and non-partisan research from such respected organizations as RAND and the Urban Institute is the way to get those answers.”

Further, Moore notes that the research grew, in part, from a sense that something important was being left out of the measurements of the health of arts and culture. “Over the past thirty-five to forty years, the nonprofit arts field has formed and adopted two sets of standards. One is based on artistic value; the other derives from such institutional characteristics as size and age. From our experience of working with arts groups, we believe that a third, less well understood, set of standards has evolved having to do with participation. And we believe that many of our assumptions about participation — what it is, where it occurs, and how you create it — are incomplete and in some cases flawed. All three elements that define vital aspects of what arts organizations do — artistry, management, and service to people — are directly and dynamically related to each other.”

Report contents
The RAND study had two purposes: 1) “to better understand the process by which individuals become involved in the arts,” and 2) “to identify how arts institutions can most effectively influence the process.” The researchers reviewed existing research on arts participation, visited institutions that had been particularly successful in attracting participants to their programs, and conducted interviews with the directors of over 100 arts institutions that received grants from the Wallace Funds or the Knight Foundation to encourage greater participation.

The review of current research literature on arts participation concluded that existing literature “offers arts institutions little guidance for their participation-building efforts.” Two drawbacks were identified. First, “it oversimplifies the process an individual goes through in deciding to participate,” leaving institutions without sufficient information to determine appropriate strategies; and, second, “it emphasizes individuals' socio-demographics [that is, their age, prior education, and income, none of which can be changed by an arts organization] rather than their motivations and attitudes, thereby failing to provide the practical guidance institutions need if they are to influence people's participation behavior.”

As part of the research, the authors created a “behavioral model of participation” that was designed to provide an understanding of the process and stages that an individual goes through in deciding to participate. An underlying assumption was that to influence people's behavior — increasing their arts attendance, for instance — one must understand the factors that influence their decision making. “Our model (figure 1) attempts to capture the complexity of the decision making process by recognizing that an individual's decision to participate in the arts is really a set of decisions.”

The “background” stage consists of a person's general attitudes towards the arts and is influenced by such attributes as demographics and personality. The next stage, in which a person forms a predisposition to participate, is influenced by perceptual factors such as personal beliefs about participating and — critically — the beliefs of family, friends, and neighbors who can be part of an arts organization's outreach. This is followed by a practical stage and an assessment of factors such as cost and convenience. Finally comes the arts experience itself and the individual's reaction to it.

The model was a consistent reference throughout the study's site visits and interviews. Using it as a basis for their analysis of effective programs, the researchers recommended strategies and tactics to increase participation in arts organization activities more generally.

Responses to the report
Responses to the RAND report put it in the “ambitious” category described above.

On reviewing an early version of the model Richard Andrews (director, Henry Art Gallery, Seattle) wrote to Moore, “I found the chart and your explanation to be immensely useful (and timely) given the internal planning underway at the Henry. We have been grappling with these issues for some time and hadn't come up with such an elegant and logical framework and descriptive language.... While we lacked the RAND study language, we had come to the realization that we were an organization that must ‘deepen' our relationship with ‘creators, audiences, and stewards.' [The information] will help shape our future board/staff discussions.”

Julie Dalgleish (director, Bush Artist Fellowships) found the report to be “content rich,” but she worries that the valuable ideas presented in the study “get lost in the cold and academic way it is written — a sense of humanity is sapped out. The artist-audience relationship is a personal one, which gets completely lost.” Referring to the literature review, she added, “It concerns me that a significant portion of the publication is devoted to criticizing the work of others who have come before. Developing and nurturing arts audiences is too important and too complex not to find something of value in the hard and caring work of others. Why not acknowledge that work and show how the RAND research advances and builds on what others have done?”

Gigi Bradford drew another conclusion: “If we accept the author's statements that the study's audience is intended to be arts organizations; if there are many variations in organizations, audiences, and canons; if participation strategies vary with each organization's goals and purposes; and if a behavioral model identifying why people participate in arts experiences comes up with the recommendation that each organization should devise its own targeted strategies; then a case study or best practices approach to these topics would be more effective. Textual anecdotes and examples included in the appendix were the most interesting part of the study.”

On the other hand, a survey of best practices is not the research that Jerry Yoshitomi (independent cultural facilitator) needs. “Best practices and success stories are key to making arguments for why what we do is important. But the RAND study is about understanding what we do and how to do it better. If we just follow best practices we risk simply copying them and failing in our imitation. The strength of the RAND work is the way it gives us a theoretical framework on which other things can be built.” In fact, in developing a guide to “new fundamentals of participation” for the Heinz Endowments, Yoshitomi uses the RAND model in just this way — as a framework and reference point for other readings and research.

Yoshitomi also observed that for the individuals working to help arts organizations successfully serve both the art and people who experience it, all the studies can be “too much noise.” As important as the information may be, it can simply seem like too much to read. “Arts leaders often don't know what to read or think, and could use help finding the appropriate door to the information they need.”

Relative to the RAND participation study specifically, Frances Phillips (program officer, Walter & Elise Haas Fund) offers the insight that a distinction between the study's critics and its fans might fall on its tendency to categorize and reduce great complexity to a single model. For some, the essence is lost by boiling the complexity down; for others, key ideas are usefully distilled.

GIA welcomes your comments about research that matters to you.