The Tenth Anniversary of an Arts System Map: How Are We Doing?  

By Sunil Iyengar

A decade ago this month, for the first time in its history, the NEA announced a five-year research agenda dedicated to examining the arts as an ecosystem. What factors influence the health of that system, we wanted to know; of what discrete and measurable parts does the system consist, and what types of outcomes result when the system is in action?

Hang on, you think—this is the arts we’re talking about, right? If my questions sound hyper-schematic, try the NEA’s 2012 publication, How Art Works, whose title is nothing if not definitive.

Despite its air of authority, the report proceeded from a spirit of open inquiry—aided not only by an extensive literature review but also by workshops with artists, other cultural practitioners, and researchers and policy-makers within and beyond the arts sector. These consultations led to the design of a “system map,” at the core of which are “Arts Creation” and “Arts Participation.”

How did we presume to define “art” itself? Flexibly. From the report: “a work of art is an act of creative expression done within the confines of a set of known or emerging practices and precedence that is intended to communicate richly to others.” The map itself consists of boxes and circles—called “nodes”—each representing an input or outcome associated with art-making and arts participation. The whole system is presented as a virtuous cycle, with arrows linking the nodes.

The purpose of the nodes is to tag variables that can be studied though data collection, analysis, and reporting. Each variable is listed in the report, with sub-variables. These constructs, and their relationships to each other, formed the basis of the agency’s first five-year research agenda. From the start, it became clear that federal datasets and NEA-commissioned studies could help to fill out some of the map, but that, generally speaking, more innovative research tools were needed.

Fortunately, How Art Works was designed even as the NEA launched a research awards program—now comprised of Research Grants in the Arts and the NEA Research Labs. (As of September 2022, the agency has made over 200 research awards, for a total exceeding $12 million. The resulting papers and articles are posted to the websites of the NEA and its Research Labs.) These awards permit researchers to use a wide range of methodologies to probe questions about the value and impact of the arts.

A second five-year research agenda, from 2017 to 2021, used the How Art Works system map to develop a more focused set of research inquiries. Then, last December, the NEA published a new agenda covering 2022-2026. It, too, references How Art Works, but prioritizes four clusters of research questions.

Now that I’ve described How Art Works and traced its bearing on three consecutive five-year research agendas for the NEA, I’d like to revisit the original system map. What areas of the map have generated more evidence than others? Which remain underrepresented in arts research, and what new resources are available to the NEA and its beneficiaries in pursuing those studies? 

Without attempting to be comprehensive, then, here are some reflections:

1) Since the publication of How Art Works, the NEA and its federal partners have made significant strides in attempting to characterize what the map calls the arts’ “Benefits of Art to Individuals” and “Benefit of Art to Societies and Communities.” The National Institutes of Health has invested in studies about music’s relationship to neuroscience and health, and the Bureau of Economic Analysis has succeeded in computing the arts’ percentage of GDP. Through its research awards program, the NEA has supported experimental and quasi-experimental studies about the arts and health and education, while the agency’s Creative Forces initiative has piloted studies exploring, among military service members and veterans, the impacts of creative arts therapies on emotional regulation and chronic pain management.

All the same, a challenge is articulated in the title of a report summarizing a planning study that RMC Research conducted for the NEA, as the agency prepared its 2022-2026 research agenda: Yes, “Art Works” – Now What? While acknowledging the need for even more and better studies examining causal links between the arts and individual-level outcomes, the report highlights the opportunity of qualitative studies, mixed-methods approaches, and community-based participatory research studies to tackle priority questions.

These new areas for inquiry are: the arts’ contributions to the healing and revitalization of communities; diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility (DEIA) in the arts; and arts sector recovery from COVID-19 and related social, economic, and technological challenges. In each case, the research questions necessitate the development of theoretical frameworks, in-depth community consultation, and other qualitative research approaches. The focus is not exclusively on whether the arts can alleviate societal problems, but also on how—and under what conditions—these practices work, so they can be replicated.

2) In the How Arts Works report, “Demographics and Cultural Traditions” were positioned not as central to the map but among five “system multipliers”—namely, “factors and forces that broadly influence particular states of the arts system at points in time, and may act through many system variables, even simultaneously.” The report adds: “To understand the state of the system at any point in time, we need to take stock of how the multipliers are affecting it.”

This is true enough, but increasingly cultural researchers, practitioners, and policy-makers want to know more. How do demographic factors and diverse cultural practices affect not only arts participation patterns but societal priorities in establishing and maintaining arts ecologies? In advocating more studies about the arts’ relationship to individual and community-level outcomes, therefore, the NEA’s new research agenda stresses the need to ask not only about whether and how the arts “work,” but for whom.

3) Describing the relationship between the arts and our nation’s “Societal Capacities to Innovate and Express Ideas” (one of the nodes on the system map), How Art Works states:

Our capacity to innovate and to express ideas, and its links to forms and outlets for expression, also point up a core liberty within our society: freedom of expression. This freedom requires certain individual- and community-level attitudes that are facilitated by the arts: for example, the courage to express oneself and a tolerance of new ideas and vehicles for creative expression. The system map implies a link between arts participation and our ability, opportunity, and likelihood to express ourselves freely.

As this passage suggests, the act of arts participation is a civil liberty and is associated with freedom of speech. In the system map, though, this connection is “implied,” and not overtly drawn on the map. Yet when we speak of DEIA—as a priority topic of the new research agenda, for instance—we would do well also to consider values such as compassion when engaging and/or arguing with different viewpoints and ideologies.

Addressing the Scottish Parliament on Aug. 26, as part of a U.S. delegation to the 2022 Edinburgh International Culture Summit, NEA Chair Maria Rosario Jackson said:

If you look around the world and throughout the ages, in strategies to disempower the first thing that is tampered with is one’s ability to make meaning, to ask questions, to have aesthetics, to express yourself creatively—to do the things that we do through art.

How do the arts encourage and promote freedom of expression in general? To what extent do the arts and artists contribute to more open, even if uncomfortable or difficult dialogues within communities and society at large? Similar questions are raised by the NEA’s research agenda, under the priority topic of “The Arts’ Role in Community Transformation and Healing.” To insist on asking them today—and to demand answers—is to voice moral outrage that a novelist can be stabbed multiple times, in broad daylight, merely for exercising his art.

It will take a long time to produce generalizable evidence on such topics, but it is to be hoped that the 2022-2026 research agenda, like the system map that antedated it, will provoke more urgent questioning among the NEA’s research grantees and partners.