Art Works Blog

Taking Note: How Cultural Policy Works (and a Goodbye)

[From the director of the NEA Office of Research & Analysis: Joanna Woronkowicz joined the NEA in early 2012 as Senior Research Officer. In her time at the Office of Research & Analysis, she gave considerable thought---working with the rest of our staff---as to how we should structure and administer our Research: Art Works grants program, how we can track NEA research accomplishments more effectively, and how we can enrich our analytical skills with curiosity and knowledge about theory and practice in social sciences research. She’ll be missed greatly---and her colleagues wish her well at Indiana University.]  

Since arriving at the NEA, I've had a hand in dozens of projects, some of which have produced tangible results and others that require more thinking and planning.

In regard to the former, I'm especially proud to have been part of managing the Research: Art Works grants program for which the NEA distributed $350,000 this year to various nonprofits. I had always just heard about NEA panels and the process by which grants are awarded, so it was enlightening to see just how it all unfolds.

In regard to the latter, my colleagues and I in the Office of Research and Analysis have devoted a lot of time to figuring out what makes sense, both for the office and the field. We've spent hours discussing everything from how to write a survey question to the usefulness of big data. It is through these discussions that I've updated my thoughts about where research in the arts is heading.

A Way Forward

There's a reason why in the first three paragraphs of this blog post I've tried to refrain from using the words "arts" and "culture"; it's because I believe if we are to move research about arts-related topics forward, then we must invite a new cohort of researchers to the table, ones who don't necessarily know much about the field of arts research and who don't use the same type of jargon. These can be established researchers in other disciplines or other federal agencies, or those just starting out. The point is that we need fresh perspectives if we are to gain insight into some of the questions that researchers have struggled with for decades (e.g., the economic impact of the arts).

Establishing an interdisciplinary network of researchers (a topic of this column's previous post) is one mechanism by which we can encourage idea-generation. An avid supporter of research networks, the MacArthur Foundation states that networks "... bring together highly talented individuals from a spectrum of disciplines, perspectives, and research methods [to] examine problems and address empirical questions that will increase the understanding of fundamental social issues and are likely to yield significant improvements in policy and practice."

An effective network comprised of an influential group of researchers also has the potential to bring recognition to the field of cultural policy. For example, a subset of a field of survey methodology dealing with the cognitive aspects of recalling information (CASM) emerged in the 1980s through a series of meetings that brought together statisticians with social psychologists to talk about how to bridge disciplines. Building on these same ideas about the benefits of networks, Norman Bradburn proposes an arts and culture research network made up of a group of interdisciplinary researchers (note that Bradburn was also a key participant in the network that created CASM).

Those familiar with the term "cultural policy" most likely know that the U.S. is known for not having one. This is made evident by our decentralized funding mechanisms and the absence of a cultural ministry. Yet those of us who have an interest in the ways in which culture plays a role in society understand that by implementing cultural initiatives in tandem with other types of policy, we are in effect creating a cultural policy.

Take, for example, the practice of building cultural facilities to aid in community development  (a topic I focus on in my work on cultural facility development). Cities across the U.S. continue to invest billions in cultural facilities with the hopes of spurring regional economic growth. Local governments also provide subsidies to private enterprise to help achieve this goal, such as tax-abatement programs to incentivize arts-related businesses to set up shop in certain areas. While such "policies" don't stem from the federal government, they are still policy, in that they're government-run programs that affect the everyday lives of people. Denying that these types of programs are indeed policies prevents us from committing to fully understanding their potential impacts.

But for cultural policy research to have impact, we must also use methods that help us unequivocally communicate the effects of cultural programs. In economics, we understand the difference between "positive" and "normative" as being analogous to the ideas of "what is" and "what ought to be." As opposed to positive economics, which promotes research that is "value-free," research in normative economics is based upon assumptions of what is fair and what policy goals should be. For example, rather than assuming that "arts education should be implemented in schools to foster positive youth development" (a normative statement), we could say, "youth who participate in arts education programs have higher test scores, better grades, and are less truant than youth who do not participate" (a positive statement). The latter states the facts and moreover, supports these facts with evidence. A good counter-argument will also include facts, supported by evidence. Therefore, not only is an argument against the fact that arts education relates to positive youth development harder to make, but the statement has greater influence upon policy-makers since there's real evidence to support it.

An arts and culture research network comprised of a highly trained interdisciplinary group of researchers can have two aims: offering fresh perspectives and promoting the field. Furthermore, a network can continue to produce and encourage research that deals with the investigation of facts, as opposed to that which emphasizes value-based statements unsupported by evidence. While the latter certainly has a place in the arts and culture field more generally (particularly for building support of programs) the former has the potential to have real, long-standing effects on cultural policy.

My Epilogue

That all being said, the time I've spent at the NEA has taught me a great deal about how the arts can contribute to our daily lives. In my new role as an assistant professor at Indiana University's School of Public and Environmental Affairs in Bloomington, I'll have the unique opportunity to integrate the study of cultural policy into the broader realm of research through collaborating with researchers across an array of disciplines. I look forward to spending my time gathering the evidence that can show us how art, and cultural policy, really works.

It's been a pleasure.


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