Dr. Maria Rosario Jackson and Robert Santos

Chair of the National Endowment for the Arts and Director of the Census Bureau
Headshots of a woman and a man side by side.

NEA Chair Maria Rosario Jackson, photo by Aaron Jay Young and U.S. Census Bureau Director Robert Santos, Courtesy of the US Census Bureau

Music Credit:  “NY,” composed and performed by Kosta T from the cd Soul Sand, used courtesy of the Free Music Archive.

Jo Reed: From the National Endowment for the Arts, this is Art Works, I’m Josephine Reed. Today, a special edition of Art Works—a conversation between the Chair of the National Endowment for the Arts Dr. Maria Rosario Jackson and the Director of the Census Bureau Robert Santos discussing the profound connection between the arts and science.  It’s moderated by the Director of Research and Analysis here at the Arts Endowment Sunil Iyengar. In fact, it was Sunil’s brainchild. Now you or may not know that the NEA and the Census Bureau have a long history of working together in cultivating data sources such as surveys about arts participation. Sunil happened to be in a meeting, several months ago, with Chair Jackson and Director Rob Santos, and was impressed by how fluid their conversation was—moving from the arts to science to back again, and thought this would be a great podcast-- for others to hear first-hand how these two agency heads relate to each other, especially since working across federal agencies and departments has been a key priority of Chair Jackson’s. Happily, for us, they graciously agreed. And, the result is a far-ranging discussion that explores the intersection of arts, culture, and statistical science. So, here is the conversation between Chair of the National Endowment for the Arts, Dr. Maria Rosario Jackson and the Director of the Census Bureau Robert Santos, moderated by Sunil Iyengar who is the NEA’s director of research and analysis.  Let’s listen.

Sunil Iyengar:  Director Santos, it's really a great pleasure to get to speak with you and Chair Jackson. I was wondering, for over four decades now, we at the NEA have worked closely with the Census Bureau to track levels of arts participation throughout the country and really have your agency to thank for that. We've used census data to report statistics about artists and cultural workers and arts organizations. I was wondering, Director Santos, if you can tell us from your perspective, why the arts merit that kind of attention from the federal government's largest statistical agency? In fact,  why this whole endeavor of scientific measurement being brought to the arts from your perspective?

Robert Santos: Well, thank you very much for that question and it's an honor to be here today with Chair Jackson having this little chat. The tracking of public participation in the arts and active engagement as artists is incredibly important from a societal perspective and that's part of the reason that we make sure to do our best to collect good quality data from the American public on their participation in arts. We need to know who we are as a country and it's the mission of the Census Bureau to provide the highest quality data on our nation's people and our economy and, by knowing a little bit about how we participate in the arts, we can get a fuller breadth and appreciation for how we engage not only with the arts itself, but with each other as human beings in our society. That allows us and helps us with other research that shows that participation in arts and enjoyment of arts actually helps our health, our well-being. That is really highly valuable when it comes time to take a look at other socioeconomic characteristics, our health issues, either mental or physical limitations, employment, unemployment, our situations. Because art, when you put it into the mix of all the other types of services that we can provide, really completes the holistic picture that we need in order to understand us better and for government to better serve us.

Sunil Iyengar: I really appreciate that. And we're truly grateful for this partnership with the Census Bureau and with you, Director Santos, and the chair of the NEA, Dr. Maria Rosario Jackson, herself has experience, rich experience with research, with data, and using that for the purpose of community engagement and so I wanted to, Dr. Jackson, you may have your own comments on what was just said by Director Santos, but I also wanted to ask you if you could speak a little bit about kind of in your prior life as a researcher, educator, writer, and consultant, to what extent did data, or even maybe census data, help you catalyze conversation with funders, developers, and policymakers?  

Maria Rosario Jackson: Thanks, Sunil. Like Director Santos, I feel so honored to be in this conversation and be in this conversation with Director Santos and in the position that he's holding now, which is so important. I want to riff on something, Rob, that you said that I think is so poignant, and that is we need to know who we are as a country. And the Census, as an agency, as a practice, is such an important element of that quest to understand who we are as a country and I think that we, from so many different perches within federal government and beyond, we can't do our best work if we don't know what we're dealing with, if we don't know the conditions that people find themselves in, if we don't know about the demographics of our society and I'm so grateful that part of what the Census has devoted attention and resources to is some sense of understanding cultural participation in the United States, because that, too, is part of understanding who we are as a country. I was very grateful for that phrase, Rob, and I'm sure we'll come back to it in the conversation.

Robert Santos: Thank you very much, Maria. I totally agree, of course, and I look forward to our continued chat right now.

Sunil Iyengar: Well, Robert, it's funny because when you were talking, and I think we can hear the passion that you have for the mission of the Census Bureau and how it intersects with what we do at the NEA, I felt that there's something maybe lurking beneath the surface there in terms of your own interests in the arts, personally, and I'd love to hear more about that. I know Chair Jackson often talks about living artful lives, so it'd be great to hear what a top statistical official of the government does with the arts in their own time.

Robert Santos: Yeah, it's really interesting that Maria talked about leading artful lives, because I think that artful lives are essential to being the full human beings that we are, the full contributors to society that we are and, in my case and the case of many other social scientists, an artful life, I believe, is an accelerator to being even better scientists. I often engage in my own personal art--photography. I was a live music photographer for South by Southwest festivals in Austin, Texas, for eight years. And that was the most incredible experience because you not only were able to practice the art of photography with some amazing human beings who are fellow artists and fellow creatives, but also we were able to witness the richness of the artists that were performing and the richness of the artists that were speaking about how they went about doing things like writing songs or coming up with a movie script or creating a new vision of what gaming should be in the technology arena. But when it comes to science, being artful is essential for being a better scientist, because science itself, the innovation and the advancement, doesn't necessarily come from a mathematical formula or a test in a lab. It comes from this creative spark. The creative spark is what propels the ideas to create a hypothesis, like theory of relativity or quantum mechanics, that type of thing and then go out and gather information and then verify or revise the hypothesis. You're getting knowledge gain. Knowledge gain, to me, and science is very much tied into creativity, which is fueled by living an artful life and that's what I found through my experience being a photographer and also being a writer. I can talk about that later on if you want, because I've taken enough time describing some of these other things.

Maria Rosario Jackson:  I think it's such an important observation to recognize that there's a connection. I mean, oftentimes you think of it as those two areas of study, of practice, of funding, of policymaking-- you think of them as completely separate when they're not and recognition that creativity has to be a part of science and that there's relevance there feels really important. It makes me think about the efforts to move from STEM to STEAM. From science, technology, engineering, and math to having the arts included in that and that feels like such an important progression. Rob's comments just make me more excited that there is energy around this concept of STEAM and not seeing the arts as separate from our endeavors related to science and technology.

Robert Santos: Thank you for that, Maria. I actually would like to give an example of how some of those things tie together. When I was a live-music photographer, I would be engaged in taking photographs. There would be other photographers assigned to the event, and they would be moving all around to get all these different lighting and perspectives and so forth for their own vision and I found that I ended up doing the same thing and they would come to me and say, “Why did you insist on taking a photo of this person where there's just a black background?” and then I'd show them the picture and they'd say, “oh my God, what a different perspective. Here we are chasing light and you embraced the darkness.” So I offered a different perspective and that added value and insight into the work that they were doing. But, see, that lesson applies equally in science as well and especially in work that's done by the Census Bureau in terms of surveys and the cultural relevance and such. What we found is that there is no one best way to ask a question. You really need to take into consideration who is it that you're asking? When is it that you're asking? So that one can tailor and get different approaches to capture the most relevant and accurate information, and none of that can happen unless you get these diverse perspectives from different types of individuals. So that's actually how I'm working with the Census Bureau as a leader to show an appreciation for allowing different perspectives before any decision is made and that includes perspectives from the community because those are really, really cogent, informative perspectives that bring in cultural lenses and bring in different types of values and life experiences that we really need in order to do a better job and all of that ties up into art.

Maria Rosario Jackson: This idea of diverse perspectives is really getting my attention because it's so central to different aspects of my career and even what I'm doing at the Arts Endowment as chair now. But to offer an example from an earlier part of my career, when I was teaching, I often taught students from public policy, public administration, arts administration, a number of majors, let's say, that at their best are in the business of creating healthy communities where people can thrive as professionals. This is what they aspire to do. And I would often provide an assignment for my students that was about getting to know a community and, of course, the census information was invaluable because that began to paint the picture of the demographics of a community. And I would always supplement that kind of a resource with other perspectives and other ways of knowing. One particular resource that I would turn to when we were looking at communities in the L.A. area, there's a neighborhood called the Watts-Willowbrook neighborhood in Los Angeles and it's an area that is known for being challenging. There is a high rate of poverty. There is evidence of crime and there are a lot of characteristics that often are painted as community deficits. And it just so happened that there was an artist that helped to lead a planning process in that neighborhood and part of the planning process included conducting an asset map and one thinks, “Are there assets in a community that is so challenged?” And the answer was “Yes,” and those assets were often cultural, and the way that the artist did it was through engaging with community members to better understand the things that they were passionate about, the things that they loved, the things that they were involved in from a creative perspective. They created these really beautiful videos and even a book about the cultural assets in this neighborhood and so when we would look at that neighborhood in class, I would offer what was available from census data, what was available from administrative sources at different scales, whether it was state data or more locally generated data and then I would also layer in this cultural asset mapping that had been led by an artist in collaboration with communities in order to come up with a more comprehensive and, frankly, a more humane understanding of who lives here and what do they care about? What are their aspirations? It really was an effort to get students to think in a more holistic way about how you come to know a place and a people. And I go back to what you said earlier, Rob: We need to know who we are as a country, we need to know who we are as communities, in order to do our best work in creating places where people can thrive.

Robert Santos: Hear, hear.

Sunil Iyengar: That's a great segue because I actually was wondering in all this, as we talk about the arts and how they can complement science and improve social science and statistics gathering, what Maria is talking about is also the creativity and, also, to a large extent, trust building, right? It's artists and culture bearers as trusted, not only messengers, but helping to collect that kind of information and do it in a way that resonates with community members. Rob, when you were talking about really how essential it is to reach out into these communities and engage with them directly and how artists can help with that, do you have any thoughts about, from your perch at the Census Bureau, how can artists be part of this conversation and really help to communicate with the population in a way really provides information that's of use to the Census Bureau, but also is authentic to communities? Do you see a role for artists as trusted messengers in your own mission?

Robert Santos: Thank you for that. Throughout history, art has been a central tool for societal living, for improvement in society, for getting people to care about things, for getting them to understand the importance of things like “Don't mess with Texas,” the good old ad campaign about anti-littering. That function of using creativity to apply to societal issues or problems, to promote a sense of belonging, to promote a sense of civic engagement-- we should go out and vote, we should not litter and those types of things are really advanced through art. I have witnessed firsthand-- and there are examples everywhere-- of how one can invoke artists and have them as central players in just about any endeavor so that they create pieces that blend together analytic types of things, data visualizations even, but in a way that is intrinsically both pleasing, offers different types of perspectives on what's going on in terms of the information and data that are being relayed back, and then reinforces the central message of either making sure you're a good citizen, or helping your neighbors, or participating in a census or a survey. We've seen things, say, in the 2020 decennial census even, where we had artistic reincarnations of things like the Loteria, -- there are cards that have little icons, very colorful, of different types of characters, and birds, and skeletons, and scorpions, and things of that sort. And because of the pandemic, we could not use our usual face-to-face methods, or community organizations couldn't do that. So rather than having a table in a grocery store saying, “Come fill out a census,” they were going out and distributing in community centers that were giving out water, and talking about best practices for vaccines and things. They were handing out these Loteria cards that, instead of the usual icons, they had different census characters on them, like an enumerator, or a little graph, or things of that sort. So it was reinforcing the necessity and the importance of civic participation, but doing it in an artistic way that was very pleasing to the eye, and got you to think, “Oh, this is really interesting.” There are many other aspects like that. I think it's so important that all federal agencies should have artists in residence. I would love to have that at the Census Bureau, and I'm thinking really hard about how maybe we can do that, because there are specific applications in just about everything we do that could benefit from the artist's touch. Their creativity, their interpretation of both the data, as well as the types of messaging we're trying to get out.

Maria Rosario Jackson: Well, the idea of artists in residence in every federal agency, that's music to my ears. Recently, we announced a collaboration with the Environmental Protection Agency around artists in residence at the EPA, focused on water. We're so excited about what is possible there and I think the inclusion of artists and people who are willing to use their imagination and help us get unstuck, I think, is so vital right now. As you were talking, Rob, about your experience with the Loteria cards during the pandemic, it made me think of a collaboration that the National Endowment for the Arts had with the Centers for Disease Control also during the pandemic. It was focused on working with community-focused, often arts organizations and artists, to help communities both process what was happening during the pandemic and also become vaccine-ready. So there was the deployment of artists' talents in helping people to understand complex health issues, in helping them to process their own feelings about fear and loss, and so much that we were going through in that period of time that was so disturbing and disruptive and full of unknowns. The collaboration that the Centers for Disease Control was able to foster with these art-based or arts-relevant, community-based organizations around the country, I think, made a really important impact in those places. The program was actually called Trusted Messengers, and it was looking to artists as people who could help explain things and who could help individuals and families and communities process something that was really difficult. I am so grateful that we had the opportunity to help to contribute to that kind of asset in communities around the country.

Robert Santos: Well, Maria, you need to know that in full disclosure, the notion of artists-in-residence came from the event I attended that you sponsored through NEA.

Maria Rosario Jackson: That's fantastic! We hope that that's a catalytic event. This is a summit that happened at the end of January, and it was called “Healing, Bridging, Thriving: Arts and Culture in Our Communities.” It was fantastic in that it demonstrated the importance of those intersections of arts and other federal agencies and other areas of practice. I'm glad that was inspiring to you, Rob. It was wonderful to see you there.

Robert Santos: It was great and, if you don't mind, I'd like to use this conversation and where we're going to illustrate how I used writing in the sense of art with healing. Because in 2021, I was the president of the American Statistical Association, the largest association of statisticians in the world and that was basically the time of the most intensive COVID infections. Society was pretty much still shut down and as one of the things that I had to do every month was a little newsletter and do a President's Corner. Typically it was, “Oh, there's this webinar coming up. You should maybe go check out some statistical methods.” I knew that the nation was suffering, and I knew that my fellow statisticians were suffering as well. So I used those 12 little blogs of a thousand words to instead send personal messages and reflections that would help folks understand that we're all in this together and that we need to help each other out and we can do so virtually. So I would tell stories about of resilience and how we need to tap into them and I told stories of creativity and mentoring and it was specifically focused on thinking as creatively as I could to help the folks that were suffering so much because they were stuck in their homes. So it was really a time of need and we need to think creatively and react creatively in those ways to try things differently and become vulnerable and just go out there to try to help people and help society.

Maria Rosario Jackson: Well, that's a really beautiful example and it makes me think about some of the words that the Surgeon General shared with us during that summit. I think it was really meaningful when he addressed the audience. I was in conversation with him and we were talking about the advisory on loneliness and social isolation and the need to address human connection as a health issue and, in the course of that conversation, he talked about how we should all see ourselves as healers and that healing didn't only happen in the context of the official medical profession, that through our creativity, our ability to connect as humans, and often through the things that we do through art, whether we're assembling to experience it together or whether we are in the creative process and making something, that these ways of connecting are, in fact, part of what we need as a nation to heal and that this was especially evident as a result of the pandemic and the isolation that people have experienced and, in some cases, continue to experience. Rob, your story made me think about that very recent call to action, I think from the Surgeon General, that we should understand the power of creativity in relation to our ability to contribute to healing.

Robert Santos: Well, I was honored to be able to sit and watch your dialogue with the Surgeon General and it was so inspiring, and I hope our listeners have an opportunity to hear that session and the entire summit if it was recorded. 

Sunil Iyengar: Yes, it was. Actually, we have it on arts.gov, so we'll definitely make sure to get the word out. We would love more people to be able to experience that. Looking ahead, now that we've kind of had a really pretty expansive conversation covering a lot of ground, but at the same time really touching on some areas that I, for one, have not seen quite in this light before, I'm just wondering, in the future what kind of opportunities do you see for our agencies perhaps to think about working together? You mentioned the residencies idea, Rob. Are there any other things, Chair Jackson or Director Santos, you have in mind about how we might continue this really healthy alliance?

Robert Santos: Yes. What I've been doing at the Census Bureau are a couple of things that very easily can incorporate the arts. One of which is to stress the incredible value of a communication strategy to the public as part of our effort to serve the public as public servants who provide data and show the value proposition of our data as a method of engaging communities, of building trusted ecosystems, and creating a two-way partnership. As part of that communication strategy, there's nothing more empowering to me than to add artistic perspectives and build those in. So I see, moving forward, ways in just about everything we do, from creating data visualizations to creating online interactive tools that are visually driven, as well as things like webinars and audio podcasts like we're doing now, embed that artistic perspective in order to take something that might otherwise be rote and only of interest to a data nerd and transform it into a story to show the value of storytelling within the context of data and art. I think that can really empower and bolster the value of the information we're providing to the American public in a way that resonates with them, in different ways for different folks of different cultures, languages, perspectives, and so forth.

Maria Rosario Jackson: I think Director Santos has laid out some really interesting and compelling opportunities and I think there's so many points of intersection from continuing to push the envelope to figure out how we better account for artists, to continue to work with the SPPA as we do over the years to make sure it evolves in ways that continue to be relevant to our society, understanding the role that artists can play in making sure that people participate in the census and understand why it's important to do that. I think there's a role for artists in helping us to understand what the census tells us and augmenting that story, helping us to look at it from different perspectives and figure out what it means as we try to better know who we are as a country. I'm excited about what we might do together. I'm very excited based on this conversation and what I think we can dream up.

Robert Santos: We will get into good trouble together.

Maria Rosario Jackson: Yes, yes!    What's funny is you have a Census director who can talk art and a chair of the NEA who can talk data. So that's a pretty cool combination.

Robert Santos: I think it is. You're offering different perspectives to the audience. 

Maria Rosario Jackson: Yes, yes, yes.

Sunil Iyengar: Well, this has been a true pleasure and an honor, so thank you both for spending time today within this discussion. We look forward to working together more.

Robert Santos: Chair Jackson, thank you very much. It's been an honor to be on this podcast with you, and I look forward to working with you in the future.

Maria Rosario Jackson: Likewise, Director Santos. An honor and truly inspired about what we can do together.

Jo Reed: So, there you have it—an open and far-ranging discussion between the Chair of the National Endowment for the Arts Dr. Maria Rosario Jackson and the Director of the Census Bureau Robert Santos moderated by the Director of Research and Analysis at the Arts Endowment Sunil Iyengar in a special edition of Art Works. We’ll have links in our show notes to the Census Bureau and to “Healing, Bridging, Thriving: Arts and Culture in Our Communities,”  the summit held at the Arts Endowment at the end of January.  You’ve been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Follow us wherever you get your podcasts and leave us a rating on Apple, it helps other people who love the arts to find us. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I’m Josephine Reed—and thanks for listening.

In this special edition of Art Works, Chair of the National Endowment for the Arts Dr. Maria Rosario Jackson and U.S. Census Bureau Director Robert Santos have a far-ranging discussion that explores the intersection of arts, culture, and statistical science. Moderated by the NEA’s Director of Research and Analysis Sunil Iyengar, the two agency heads begin their conversation by mapping their journeys to the crossroads of arts and statistical science, both noting that these fields enhance each other. Chair Jackson draws from her extensive background to highlight how robust data, including Census information, serves as a critical tool for fostering meaningful dialogue and shaping community-centric policies, while Director Santos shares his personal journey through photography, emphasizing how an artful life can fuel creativity and propel scientific advancement. They explore the power of incorporating diverse cultural insights into community studies to better understand more diverse and inclusive societal landscapes. They talk about how artists can act as trusted conduits for authentic data collection and community engagement. Director Santos and Chair Jackson champion the idea of embedding artists within federal agencies, illustrating how artistic creativity can invigorate public service and communication strategies. Finally, they discuss the vast potential for their agencies to collaborate further, harnessing the arts to deepen the impact of statistical data on public understanding and policy-making. We’d love to know your thoughts—email us at artworkspod@arts.gov. And follow us on Apple Podcasts!


The summit held at the Arts Endowment at the end of January was “Healing, Bridging, Thriving: Arts and Culture in Our Communities,”.