Art Works Blog

Taking Note: Varieties of Research Networking

Earlier this year, the ever-prolific Barry Hessenius asked some of us in arts research to take part in a weeklong round of interviews for his blog at WESTAF. Reading that exchange, I was struck by how many piquant observations were left hanging in mid-air, not owing to inarticulateness, but because there's only so much space to devote to a particular issue or problem. After all, each day of Barry's blog-a-thon began with a new question.

Despite these strictures, I was impressed that colleagues of such different backgrounds in the arts and in research could reach such similar conclusions, even though we hadn't consulted each other beforehand. And once more I began to dream of a collaborative research network in the arts. Below are a few models that we might look to.

Model One:

Ian David Moss, research director for Fractured Atlas and founder/editor of Createquity, has done a sight more than dream. On May 15, he and four fellow steering committee members will launch the Cultural Research Network, an "open-resource-sharing community of practice" that can be joined by anyone, anywhere, involved in cultural research. (You can join by clicking here.) So far, the other steering committee members are:

  • Kiley Arroyo, consultant
  • Jean Cook, director of programs, Future of Music Coalition
  • Anne Gadwa Nicodemus, principal, Metris Arts Consulting
  • Andrew Taylor, assistant professor, Arts Management Program, American University

Skirting the line of NEA officialdom, I can vouch that each of these people has a fresh and lively take on the kinds of research needed to guide cultural policy decisions and arts management. They're smart, inventive, and great fun. According to Ian, the network will be a forum for sharing ideas about the "practice and process" of cultural research---how to tackle a technical problem for example, or trading notes on data sources---rather than a place where people go only when they want to promote a finished research product.

As explained in a background document, "our collaborative platform provides opportunities to explore project or professional connections, methodological challenges, technological innovations, standards and practices, and shared infrastructure." For starters, steering committee members will "lead by example by making substantive and thoughtful contributions." They also will survey network members to identify new topics for discussion. Steering committee members serve on a rotating basis, and when the network launches, two more will be recruited.

Model Two:

Another concept for a cultural research network has been explored with the help of NEA funding. In March, Norman Bradburn, a senior fellow with NORC at the University of Chicago, reported results from an "investigation into the feasibility of establishing an arts and culture research network."

Bradburn, who has had a long and distinguished career as a social scientist (and whose contributions to the cultural sector include refinement of survey methods, a study of cultural infrastructure, and a statistical indicators system for the humanities) emphasizes the topic of cultural policy---rather than arts and culture per se---as ripe for a collaborative research effort. Referring to the NEA's five-year research agenda (How Art Works, 2012), Bradburn notes:

Policy research, however, is something quite different from research on how art works to produce valuable outcomes. Policy research studies how law, economic and regulatory policies, institutional practices, and cultural norms affect the quantity, quality, and kind of art produced. Policy research is oriented toward understanding changes in the systems---for example, looking at how the provisions of No Child Left Behind legislation mandating testing for science and math affect the amount of arts education in schools. By contrast, research on how art works focuses more on the ways arts education impacts participation in the arts, and on the effect of that participation on community and individual-level well-being.

As a model for advancing research into cultural policy, Bradburn eyes the MacArthur Foundation's research networks, with each network consisting of "small group of scholars drawn from different disciplines who commit to work together over a period of years to develop a research agenda that will define a field, to share research ideas, and to engage in research that carries that agenda."

According to Bradburn, the evolution of those networks suggests three principles required for success: 1) careful selection of members who reflect "broad, interdisciplinary research and a willingness to share ideas even if they do not actually conduct research together"; 2) a strong leader with a "certain amount of altruism"; and 3) time "to get to know one another and to find a common language."

Although the network could function virtually most of the time, Bradburn suggests that members should meet in person at least twice a year. Ideally, he says, the network would be composed of 10-12 scholars from a variety of academic disciplines who would spend about 10-25 percent of their time doing network-related activity. Having conducted a series of interviews about the concept, Bradburn produces five research questions that such a network might want to pursue:

1) How can we conceptualize cultural policy so that its meaning is clear and we do not have to explain it?

2) Who has responsibility for cultural policy in the federal government? Should there be one body tasked with coordinating policy like the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP)?

3) Should there be a "cultural budget" as there is a science and engineering budget?

4) What are the differences between cultural policy at the national level and at the local level?

5) How should such research in cultural policy be organized and supported?

Discussing question number three, Bradburn concludes: "The dismaying lack of systematic data about budgetary support for arts and cultural activities across a wide range of government agencies results in a distorted picture of what is actually going on." To that point, last year the NEA issued a revised edition of How the United States Funds the Arts, a publication that displays some of the more prominent sources of funding for arts and culture, including those at the federal level. In a further attempt to spotlight arts-related activity within government, the NEA's Interagency Task Force on the Arts and Human Development sponsors a quarterly series of public webinars on topics pertaining to the arts, health, and well-being across the lifespan. We're trying to do our bit.

Model Three:

Ever wonder what a research network looks like when it's all grown-up? Check out the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), which runs several working groups bringing together experts from various sub-fields to study individual topics. NBER bills itself as "the nation's leading nonprofit economic research organization," whose members have included 22 Nobel Prize-winners and 13 past chairs of the President's Council of Economic Advisers. Last week, here in Washington, NBER convened its Innovation Policy Working Group.

What does this have to do with research on the arts? You decide. Out of five draft papers presented at the April 23 event, two have direct implications, and a third, rather more distant. Those papers are titled, respectively, "The Simple Economics of Crowdfunding," "Piracy and Copyright Enforcement Mechanisms," and "Clusters of Entrepreneurship and Innnovation." Authored by Ajay Agrawal, Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto, et al., the paper on crowdfunding shows a scatterplot graph of Kickstarter and NEA funding by state, per capita. The graph (on page 26 of the paper) depicts geographic similarities of entities that received either NEA grants or Kickstarter funding.

“We interpret [the data] to suggest that so far non-equity crowdfunding does not appear to deviate significantly from the traditional geographic distribution of capital allocation," Agrawal writes. "However, that may reflect the distribution of human capital and thus does not imply that crowdfunding is not financing different types of innovation.” In other words, so far there is no sign that crowdfunding reveals different patterns in the clustering of creative talent---but then again the financing method is still in its infancy.

Ditto for cultural research networks.


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