Quick Study: April 18, 2024

Jo Reed: Welcome to Quick Study. I'm Josephine Reed. This is the monthly podcast from the National Endowment for the Arts, where we'll share stats and stories to help us better understand the value of art in everyday life. Sunil Iyengar is the pilot of Quick Study, and he's the Director of Research and Analysis here at the Arts Endowment. Good morning, Sunil.

Sunil Iyengar: Good morning, Jo.

Jo Reed: Okay, what's on your docket for today?

Sunil Iyengar:  Well, you and I have had several episodes now where we've talked about the role of the arts in health, and we've described studies dealing with individual or community well-being associated with the arts, or even such emergent phenomena as social prescribing. We've also talked recently about the Surgeon General's interest in how the arts can help to combat social isolation and loneliness.

Jo Reed: Yes, and this has clearly been a priority for our Chair, Maria Rosario-Jackson.

Sunil Iyengar: Indeed, but we've really rarely, if ever, looked at what other countries, outside maybe the U.S. and the U.K., are doing when it comes to infusing some of this research into cultural practice and policy. So today, I was hoping we could dive into a report by a membership group called the Global Cultural Districts Network. The network, or GCDN, was launched more than a decade ago by the firm AEA Consulting. It's come along quite a bit, and now they've engaged the freelance author Rosie Dow to produce a substantial report titled Culture for Health, Implications and Opportunities for Cultural Districts.

Jo Reed: That sounds really interesting to me. What countries are they examining?

Sunil Iyengar: So members of the Global Cultural Districts Network, according to their website, run to 57 or so districts, several in the U.S., of course, but also in Canada, the Caribbean, the U.K., parts of Europe, Asia, Australia, and the Middle East, all various sites on those continents. Membership is defined as organizations who are responsible for, quote, “conceiving, funding, building, operating areas and cities with a significant cultural element.”

Jo Reed: How are they defining cultural districts?

Sunil Iyengar: Well, we're obviously familiar with that term here at the NEA, right, where municipalities or neighborhoods or community organizations work with artists and designers and maybe preservation societies to designate spaces for historic purposes or for arts and entertainment venues or for cultural tourism. Our Creative Placemaking Grants Program for Our Town, for example, supports many of these, as do grants we make to local arts agencies, for example, or through funding that goes through state and regional arts agencies. In terms of the GCDN, they don't offer a hard and fast definition of cultural districts. Instead, they say that cultural districts function in, quote, “a wide range of geographies and operational realities, and they often have unique place-based relationships with societal, environmental, and economic issues they seek to address.” I know that all sounds fairly abstract.

Jo Reed: Yeah, it kind of does, but I get it. Go on.

Sunil Iyengar: Yeah, so to begin with, this report came about because the network was presented with research findings by Daisy Fancourt, an epidemiologist at University College London and her team. I've spoken with, here, on this podcast about some of Dr. Fancourt's work before. Through the analysis of long longitudinal data sets and from a scoping review she did for the World Health Organization, she's arrived at conclusions that form the starting point for this new report. Those conclusions, according to the GCDN, are threefold. One, targeted arts projects for certain groups may help improve people's mental health. Two, engaging in arts and culture in the broadest sense is linked to better mental and physical health across the lifespan. The third principle that they derive from her work is there are currently significant social, economic, and demographic barriers and inequalities in people's access to arts and culture.

Jo Reed: Can you back up just a bit, because you say that this report about cultural districts uses those findings as a starting point. Can you explain how they did this?

Sunil Iyengar: Sure. Back in May of last year, the network held a series of focus groups around the UK study findings, and they unpacked what those findings mean for cultural districts worldwide. Most of the reactions were positive. Participating cultural district leaders saw real value in organizing their work more strategically within a public health framework. But I thought I'd highlight a few of the network's observations that I found slightly different than what might have been expected. They are, in brief, some points of tension.

Jo Reed: Before you go on, can you give me an example of who would be considered a cultural district leader?

Sunil Iyengar: Yes. When I use the term, I refer to policymakers, planners, and executives who the network says come from widely different “international contexts, all working at the intersection of culture and sustainable urban development,” in their words. So that's what I mean by cultural district leader. It's not always the same type of individual because many of these districts are organized in different ways and supported in different ways. But, anyway, about the points of tension I was referring to, although many arts and cultural district leaders felt their contributions already to be linked in some way with greater public health, and even though other leaders said they now may think of moving in this direction, there was some potential discomfort with narratives that support the idea that the arts must have benefit, that's a direct quote, such as health.

Jo Reed: I see. So they're concerned about the arts being only for arts' sake.

Sunil Iyengar: Yeah, somewhat. I mean, it's an age-old policy question, whether it's enough to champion the so-called intrinsic value of the arts, Jo. According to this report, there may have been some wariness among cultural district leaders in assuming that the arts always have to have a measurable benefit for people, whether we're talking about education, employment, the economy or, indeed, health. In fact, some focus group members expressed the sentiment that the UK research results being so strong, it might be possible for arts and cultural districts to go on doing what they're doing without deliberately addressing public health in their own strategies and still kind of reap the overall benefit in terms of well-being for communities.

Jo Reed: That's interesting. What else did they say?

Sunil Iyengar: Well, another area of inquiry for the focus groups was communications. What role should cultural districts play in messaging the plausible health benefits of their work to policymakers and the public? I think there was some recognition here that any argument positing that, quote, all arts are good for health casts the net too wide and may require more resource-intensive partnerships or research investments to back up such claims. Now, the case might be different if the cultural district is pursuing a specific health outcome or aiming to service a specific health condition or population, but in general, the report describes some focus group participants feeling that an arts-and-health frame may divert fundraising from core activities of the district. They pointed out that often the funding they receive will cover only short-term projects, so it may even be irresponsible of them to tackle something as broad as positive health outcomes for an entire community without being able to operate in a longer time frame.

Jo Reed: Oh, I can see that because it takes time, a lot of time, for some of these changes to come about, to be able to measure them.

Sunil Iyengar: That's certainly right, as we know from research. This concern leads into another one. This is an almost existential question for us in cultural policy and arts funding, which is how to provide long-term support that aligns with the types of systems change that may be necessary, not only to achieve positive outcomes for a community, but also to broaden access to arts participation. Focus group participants stressed how capital investments for buildings and physical structures can often be easier than this kind of change. City policymakers can be crucial for these undertakings, but at the same time, cultural district leaders have expressed frustration at having to navigate changing political winds when having to affect systems change. On the other hand, there can also be clear risks in courting private developers for such projects since profit motives must take the upper hand in those cases. So that all complicates the work of cultural district leaders, certainly.

Jo Reed: Yeah, I can absolutely see that. I wonder if the report features any examples of cultural districts where this work is done in an innovative way, for example.

Sunil Iyengar: Yeah, the report, and this is one of the nice things, is the report does include many little examples of how cultural districts are trying to broaden access to arts participation as part of public health. One I liked was how in Munich, Germany, something called cultural passport is given to everyone when they turn 18, which provides free access to cultural events. Now, according to some focus group participants, even this example and others where free access is given for arts attendance raised questions as to whether people will spend time with the arts long or deeply if they don't pay for it. There was also talk about how to, quote, “balance breadth and depth in subsidizing access to arts participation.” So maybe there's more questions here than answers, but I really think the report makes you think about these matters in a helpful way.

Jo Reed: I agree, but I have questions about that because I know when I go to a museum, for example, or a gallery, after 90 minutes, it's almost as though I stopped seeing. I've taken in as much as I possibly can. And at the same time, we’re privileged to live in Washington DC where so many of the museums are free-- and it's a real joy to pop in to look at one painting for 20 minutes.

Sunil Iyengar: Definitely-- you're not going to hear me oppose that strategy, but, I will say that even just going back to research, there does seem to be value that spills over in other forms of arts participation. Years ago, there's been a term coined, the omnivore theory of arts participation, that people who engage in one form of art and do it intensively may very well see the value and may just gravitate to other art forms and other ways of engaging with the arts. Certainly, if you have, it seems to me, a smorgasbord of opportunities in any given district, there's almost a more equals more theory, right?. I don't know if that sounds circular, but, certainly, it's helpful to think about this conversation about breadth versus depth, and I'm glad they raised it in the report.

Jo Reed: I agree. So you're right: so many more questions, but we like that. We like those questions.

Sunil Iyengar: Right. What would we do for a podcast otherwise?

Jo Reed: Exactly. Sunil, thank you so much. And I'll talk to you next time.

Sunil Iyengar: Great, Jo, thanks.

Jo Reed: That was Sunil Iyengar. He's the Director of Research and Analysis here at the National Endowment for the Arts. You've been listening to Quick Study. The music is We Are One from Scott Holmes Music. It's licensed through Creative Commons. Until next month, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.

In this episode of Quick Study, we learn how leaders of a global network of arts and cultural districts regard their influence on community health and well-being.