The rap on research for the arts, museums, and informal sciences

March 14, 2011

NEA report #2: Declining arts education, declining audiences

Last week I wrote about one of the three new reports that the National Endowment for the Arts released, each of which looks at the Survey of Public Participation in the Arts through a different lens. Today we’ll turn to Nick Rabkin’s eye-opening analysis of trends in arts education. We all knew the picture wouldn’t be pretty, but…

Rabkin has been studying and working in arts education for many years and knows the territory cold; he’s currently wrapping up a five-year, multi-funder study of the role of teaching artists in schools and other settings. (Full disclosure: Nick’s a friend, and he and I are developing a research project together.) Rabkin and his co-author, E.C. Hedberg, are both at the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, where Rabkin is also affiliated with the Cultural Policy Center.

Their paper, Arts Education in America: What the Declines Mean for Arts Participation [pdf], dives into two big questions. That there’s less arts education going on in our schools these days is no surprise, but how much less, and for which students? And we’ve known for some time that arts education in childhood is linked to later participation in the arts, but how does the evidence for that link hold up, and what does it imply for arts policy and arts management?

The answers here are pretty grim (my sentiment, not necessarily Rabkin and Hedberg’s). The authors’ ingenious parsing of the SPPA data reveals that arts education rose steadily from the 1930s to the 1970s, which helped create a large national audience for the arts and thereby fueled the terrific growth of the nonprofit arts sector in America: the rise of “a dazzling and diverse collection” of “producing institutions and venues in cities and towns coast to coast.”

But, as you can see, something happened in the late-’70s and ’80s, a reversal that’s unusually abrupt for macro-level social change. Who threw the switch? Probably the back-to-basics school reformers, who gathered steam around that time (and who eventually won passage of No Child Left Behind in 1992). They viewed the arts as a luxury, “soft” goods with no direct impact on broader educational outcomes.

The worst part — and for me the real bombshell of the study — is that the declines in childhood arts education since 1982 have been absorbed almost entirely by African American and Hispanic children. If you look only at white respondents to the survey, there’s been some variation but no decline from 1982 to 2008. It’s the non-white communities where the drop has been precipitous. Although the data is inherently sketchy, the authors believe these declines occurred mostly in in-school arts education, not the voluntary, after-school kind (like private music or dance lessons). ...

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Categories: Arts participation, Early exposure, Learning, Museums, Performing arts, Research findings, Student research, Survey research
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March 07, 2011

Shining brighter light on the arts participation data

The NEA has just released three new reports it commissioned to look more closely at the Survey of Public Participation in the Arts from different perspectives. I’ll blog about all three of them this week and next, starting today with a quick look at the terrific paper by our friends Jennifer Novak-Leonard and Alan Brown about why we need to look “beyond attendance.”

Those two were the obvious choice to tackle this topic for the NEA. In 2004 Brown published a much-needed (and since then, much-cited) framework of five modes of art engagement [pdf], in which observational participation — sitting in the seat, wandering through the exhibition — is seen as only one slice of the pie, and not necessarily the tastiest slice. Novak-Leonard, the lead author of the new paper, worked on the influential RAND study “Gifts of the Muse” (also 2004) and soon thereafter joined Brown at WolfBrown.

Their paper, “Beyond Attendance: A Multi-Modal Understanding of Arts Participation,” [pdf] will speed the shift in the national arts conversation away from butts-in-the-seats thinking and toward a more holistic, contemporary definition of arts engagement. Their analysis shows that Americans are involved in the arts to roughly the same extent in three different modes: attending them live, enjoying them through technology, and participating in creative activities themselves. Their Venn diagram…

…is worth laminating and pinning to your cork board, even though it’s based on SPPA data that are far from perfect or comprehensive. (The next wave of the survey may look very different; the NEA’s research director, Sunil Iyengar, is rethinking the approach, with the help of papers like these three.)

If you add up the numbers in any one circle, you find about half of U.S. adults reporting that they engaged at least once in that mode in the past year. (Obviously, it’s not the same 50% in all three modes.) Note that the percentage of Americans who report engaging in all three ways is the same as the percentage engaging in none of these ways — the artless, we might call them, at least within the set of questions the SPPA asks. It’s roughly a quarter of the population in each case. And you won’t be surprised that the technology-participating crowd is slightly larger than the live-attending crowd; these are 2008 numbers, and I expect to see that disparity grow in coming years. ...

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Categories: Arts participation, Museums, Participatory engagement and co-creation, Performing arts, Research findings, State of the arts, Survey research
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July 12, 2010

Survey “coaching,” accountability, and dollars: a lesson from healthcare

“It only takes a second to fill out,” the x-ray technician told me cheerfully after an MRI I had yesterday. He was explaining that I would soon receive a survey in the mail asking about the service he provided, and he mimed checking off the boxes: “You just go down the list, five, five, five, five…”

Five, as you may have guessed, is the top satisfaction score.

Now, this was a community hospital affiliated with the University of Chicago Medical Center (which is a client of ours). But it’s an example of how all kinds of educational and cultural nonprofits could be thinking about the relationship between customer feedback, staff performance, and the bottom line.

At first it rubbed me the wrong way. My colleagues and I pride ourselves on being rigorous researchers, and we’ve criticized (here and here) survey processes that are less than scientific and objective. The whole point of social and market research is to get a true picture of how people think, feel, and act. You’re not allowed to coach them to give you high marks; you’re not supposed to influence them in any way.

But there was something else going on here, and it made me look more deeply at the role this kind of satisfaction research plays.

My tech’s name was Leo, which he wrote on the card he gave me so I would be sure to put it on the survey. Unprompted by any questions from me, he explained that the survey was a big part of the culture at the hospital. “We strive for five” is a staff mantra. At weekly meetings in each department, workers who received good survey ratings or comments are recognized. This presumably factors into their promotion and salary trajectories.

He even told me that the insurance companies link their reimbursement amounts to those patient satisfaction scores. I don’t know whether this is true or how much of the hospital’s revenue might be at stake in the formula. But what’s important is that Leo and his colleagues see the financial performance of the institution as dependent on the quality of the experiences it provides to individuals like me. ...

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Categories: Accountability, Customer satisfaction, Higher ed, Museums, Performing arts, Survey research
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April 09, 2010

“Majority minority” and what it doesn’t tell us about the future of cultural attendance

Much is being made of the fact that, at some point 30 or 40 years from now, “non-Hispanic whites” will become America’s largest minority. But what will that mean for arts participation and museumgoing? In one sense, nothing at all.

A book review in this week’s New Yorker by Kelefa Sanneh, the magazine’s pop music critic, calls our attention to “Stuff White People Like,” that good-natured piece of social self-criticism in blog and book form by Christian Lander. The list of “stuff” reads like my firm’s client roster: film festivals (#3), non-profit organizations (#12), plays (#43), arts degrees (#47), graduate school (#81), public radio (#44), and of course classical music — or rather, “Appearing to Enjoy Classical Music” (#108). Jazz is also here, I think, under the heading, “Black Music that Black People Don’t Listen to Anymore” (#116).


Combine Lander’s jokey-but-perceptive point with the demographic shifts that will soon mark the end of white hegemony in the United States, and it may look like all of us — you arts and education professionals, and we consultants who help you — are in the wrong business. White, urban, liberal culture and the values associated with it have seen their heyday and are on the way out.
But Sanneh’s essay goes on to complicate that picture, if not undermine it altogether, by pointing out that the category of American whiteness is itself a moving target. Over the decades it has come to include “many previous identities that had once been considered marginal: Irish, Italian, Polish, Jewish.”

At one time, those ethnic minorities were visibly, audibly, even behaviorally other. Yet today, if you wanted to know whether someone is of Irish or Italian heritage, or is Jewish, you’d have to ask.

What changed over that period, the minority or the culture at large? Both. What it meant to be “Italian” or “Jewish” changed, and simultaneously what it meant to be “American” changed. And of course the two processes influenced each other.

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Categories: Arts participation, Culture sector, Demographics, Higher ed, Metrics, Museums, Performing arts, Survey research
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March 12, 2010

The big picture on arts participation is now officially fuzzy

When you factor in personal art-making and participation in alternative, informal art forms, are the arts as a category occupying a smaller or larger share of America’s hearts and minds? The answer may depend on how we define “arts.”

There’s a moment toward the end of The Philadelphia Story when Katherine Hepburn’s character, hung over and confused about who she is and what she should want, laments to Cary Grant, “What am I supposed to think when I — I don’t know. I don’t know anything anymore.” To which Grant’s character replies with the hint of a smile, “That sounds very hopeful, Red. That sounds just fine.”

We reached a moment like Hepburn’s at a small gathering of arts professionals I attended this week here in Chicago. The occasion was a visit by Sunil Iyengar, head of research at the National Endowment for the Arts, to present an overview of the agency’s Survey of Public Participation in the Arts and hear previews from two Chicago-based researchers who are writing papers analyzing the SPPA data from particular angles: Jennifer Novak-Leonard from WolfBrown on arts creation, and Nick Rabkin from the University of Chicago on arts education. (Both are going to be terrific studies, by way.)

Inevitably, the conversation in the room turned quickly into what the SPPA data leaves out, just as it has at other recent gatherings about national arts statistics (including Sunil’s own webcast conference in Washington in December and last week’s by Randy Cohen in Chicago about the new National Arts Index from Americans for the Arts).

Okay, attendance is declining at the traditional, presentational arts formats that lie at the core of the NEA study. But what about people learning to play the guitar, singing in amateur choruses, and going to salsa clubs where they both participate and watch? What about all those technologically-mediated forms of spectatorship and creation? Many of the creative, expressive things that people are doing are captured only partially in studies like the SPPA and even the broader NAI, if at all.

So we’re missing part of the picture, and we have some sketchy evidence that the part we’re missing looks rosier than the part we have.

The big question, as Paul Botts, a program director at the Donnelley Foundation, put it at this week’s meeting, is whether that overall picture is growing or shrinking. Are the arts occupying less or more of Americans’ time and attention? ...

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Categories: Advocacy, Arts participation, Museums, Participatory engagement and co-creation, Performing arts, State of the arts, Survey research
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January 15, 2010

Say it ain’t so, statistician

I’m just getting to a recent book about the buying and selling of scientific “truth,” and it’s enough to make a grown researcher cry. Any lessons for us in the culture and higher ed crowd?

Unfortunately, yes. Doubt is Their Product: How Industry's Assault on Science Threatens Your Health by David Michaels, an epidemiologist who last month became Obama’s OSHA chief, is an infuriating look at big industry’s manipulation of scientific evidence to derail or delay safety regulations. Think cigarettes, lead, asbestos, or remember Silkwood and Erin Brockovich.

The book’s title refers to an infamous 1969 memo from a Brown & Williamson tobacco executive who wrote that, "Doubt is our product, since it is the best means of competing with the ‘body of fact’ that exists in the mind of the general public. It is also the means of establishing a controversy."

The companies and their mercenary scientific henchmen didn’t need to work too hard to find uncertainties to exploit, since doubt and uncertainty are built into the scientific method. (The physicist Richard Feynman called doubt the essence of science.) Real science is about disproving hypotheses, and there are always outlier data, competing explanations, and marginal numbers requiring interpretation. Research is supposed to be empirical and objective, but deciding what counts as knowledge – the process of scientific consensus-building by which we decide what it is we know – is messy and human.

Why does this hit home for us researchers in the arts and education? Well, the science we do is social science, but the statistical and interpretive questions are similar. The advocacy impulse in our world may be socially positive, but it’s still an advocacy impulse and has to be kept from influencing our empirical findings about how audiences think, feel, and act.

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Categories: Advocacy, General, Higher ed, Museums, Performing arts, Research issues, Survey research
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Based in Chicago with an office in Boston, we help museums, performing arts organizations, and informal science institutions take a fresh look at their audiences and discover new ways to deepen the connection and broaden participation. More »

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Asking Audiences explores the fast-changing landscape in which arts and cultural organizations meet their public. What does relevance look like today? More »

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