Classifying Three New Research Reports About the Arts

By Sunil Iyengar

In his entertaining essay “The Hedgehog and the Fox” (1953), Isaiah Berlin distinguished between two kinds of thinkers. Berlin’s now famous title was inspired by the ancient Greek poet Archilochus, who is credited with saying, “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” As with people, research reports can be subject to this distinction. We all know of studies that have culminated in one grand finding or that have presented a series of findings grouped by a single, clarifying idea.

Set against these types of studies are reports which, while thematically distinct, offer an abundance of mini-discoveries, bullets and sub-bullets, and stray tidbits. It isn’t that such reports lack a unified message (if they do, then blame the writing)—rather, like Whitman, they contain multitudes. This variety of report might owe its idiosyncratic structure to a topical richness that did not exist previously: a new trove of data that demands to be inventoried, or a fresh emphasis laid on a conventional research question.

Fox or hedgehog? It’s a question I ask myself about the three new research reports issued this week by the NEA’s Office of Research & Analysis. Each stems from a first-of-its-kind investigation about the arts in the United States. Each comes from a different federally sponsored source. And, less by design than by fortune, each covers a single year in the arts from a unique but complementary vantage—allowing us to trace the arc of supply and demand for arts and culture in 2012, and to glimpse some common motivations for that demand.

  • A Decade of Arts Engagement: Findings from the Survey of Public Participation in the Arts, 2002-2012, represents the NEA’s most current assessment of how Americans conduct arts activities—whether attending arts events, creating or performing art, reading literature, consuming art via media, or learning art. This report provides exhaustive detail about how arts participation differs by demographic subgroup and by socioeconomic status, but it also shows state, regional, and metro-level variations in involvement by art form. For the first time, moreover, we’re posting interactive visualization tools to accompany the data release.
  • When Going Gets Tough: Barriers and Motivations Affecting Arts Attendance is the NEA’s first national study of reasons and obstacles for going to live visual and performing arts events. Although the agency has conducted surveys of U.S. arts participation since 1982, it has never before asked both why people choose to attend arts events and, if they chose not to attend, what prevented them from doing so. Again, an interactive data-visualization feature (titled “Why Don’t They Come? Characteristics of Interested Non-Attendees of the Arts”) permits further exploration of variables beyond those discussed in the report itself.
  • The Arts and Cultural Production Satellite Account: 1998-2012 presents final estimates from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, covering the total value added by arts and cultural goods and services to the nation’s GDP. In addition to this total dollar figure, the account reveals how many workers are employed in arts/cultural industries, what is the ratio of imports to exports of arts/cultural commodities, what share of the overall “creative economy” (e.g., copyright-intensive industries) is contained in arts and culture, and to what extent does arts/cultural consumption spur economic and job growth. A series of NEA “issue briefs” breaks down these topics into easily understood terms.

So where do I place these reports in the Berlin/Archilochus menagerie? While they each are larded with descriptive statistics, and thus convey multiple findings, it's hard not to see a unifying principle at work. Together, the reports show the arts as deeply woven into the social, civic, and economic milieu of American life. But this realization occurs only when we broaden the scope of art forms, intentions, and industries we seek to measure. Only by applying diverse research angles to the same question—what is the role and importance of art today—can we understand the arts' contiguous relationship to a host of factors and choices affecting our nation's future. These reports, therefore, are part hedgehog, part fox.