Art Works Blog

Taking Note: Arts Research & the Research & Development Ethos

"Only connect." —E.M. Forster

It's become common practice in certain circles of arts advocacy and cultural policy to say that artists are entrepreneurs. Nor is this solely a doctrine of convenience. In the last two decades, the values of creativity and innovation have figured increasingly in rhetoric about the importance of small-business-owners to the nation's prosperity. So why not artists?

Research has contributed to this formulation. As the NEA reports, Americans whose primary occupation (measured by number of hours worked per week) is an artist are 3.5 times more likely than U.S. workers in general to be self-employed. They are also more likely to hold part-time jobs, as artists or otherwise.

Other studies show the impressive degree to which artists skillfully navigate job opportunities across the nonprofit and commercial sectors. In national surveys, meanwhile, arts graduates report they could use better training in how to assemble their career portfolios with the same care they lavish on their artistic projects.

If research about the arts has helped to cultivate this image, then perhaps arts researchers can be forgiven for appropriating the "entrepreneur" tag for their own purposes.

Last month, I joined two colleagues (one from the NEA and another outside it) in hosting a panel at the Grantmakers in the Arts' (GIA) annual conference. Titled "Arts Researcher as Entrepreneur," the session asked what arts-related research could possibly have in common with research and development. Hint: more than a noun.

True, research is inherently about problem-solving and discovery. But for arts policy and practice, research can be a further innovatorforging paths for programmatic collaboration across domains as disparate as health, economic development, or urban or rural community planning.

This is because most attempts to quantify and validate the impact of arts "interventions" necessarily flow from knowledge and experience in other communities of practice. As cross-disciplinaryindeed, cross-sectoralresearch continues to expose links between arts participation (for example) and individual or societal benefits, new programs and partnerships will emerge at those frontiers.

Of particular relevance to this argument is the rise of community arts programs integrated with healthcare delivery, whether for civilian or military or veteran populations. Also promising are examples of art departments co-located with science, technology, or media labs on university campuses. Or consider arts organizations working with community development offices to achieve a shared objective for a town or neighborhood.

In each of these potential cases, research can set the terms for fruitful collaboration between arts practitioners and specialists from other, historically "non-arts" disciplines. Research underwrites these relationshipsand it serves as an advance guard, heralding growth opportunities that neither sector can realize on its own.

Precisely because the arts are seamlessly bound with other components of everyday lifei.e., for the same reasons that frustrate our ability to isolate its effects and to measure them appropriatelyresearch about the arts can create "new contexts for practice and production" (the subtitle of the GIA talk referenced above).

If you buy this notion, and if you agree that research can be the bedrock for entrepreneurship in the arts, then check out this questionnaire. Variously called "Heilmeier's Catechism" or "Heilmeier's Questions," it's used routinely by none other than the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in vetting proposals. Next time you want to launch a program or initiative, run it by the research and development gold standard.

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