Quick Study: May 25, 2021

Jo Reed:  Welcome to Quick Study, the monthly podcast from the National Endowment for the Arts.  I'm Josephine Reed. This is where we’ll share stats and stories to help us better understand the value of art in everyday life.  And I’m copiloting Quick Study with Sunil Iyengar. He’s the director of Research and Analysis here at the Arts Endowment.  Hello, Sunil.

Sunil Iyengar:  Hi, Jo.

Jo Reed:  Let’s begin with the basics:  What does the Office of Research and Analysis actually do?

Sunil Iyengar:  Well, many people may not know there is such a thing called the Office of Research at the NEA.  What we end up doing is we commission and conduct studies of all types around the U.S. to better understand through data and through measurement why and how the arts matter for individuals and for society.  Many of us already know a lot of this through our own work with the arts, but it’s important, I think, for a lot of folks to also see the numbers and to see good evidence of the arts’ impact.

Jo Reed:  Well, that’s my question, because all of us feel that the arts are really about an individual experience you have with a book or a play or a painting, and it’s subjective, and that experience is almost ineffable.  So how would you quantify it?

Sunil Iyengar:  Yeah, and I think a big caveat I would have to say-- and this should probably be above my desk as part of the job description-- is we can’t have-- we have to have the humility to know that the arts are so complex and inextricable from so many other aspects of everyday life that it’s impossible to put a fine value on it and say, “This is what the arts do.  That’s it.  End of story.  Shut book.”  It’s more that the arts affect us in so many fascinating ways that often go invisible, and so-- but we do know that even through our limited attempts to measure how the arts work on people and on communities, there has been some progress in this area over the centuries and even in recent decades.  One thing we often talk about, for example, is how the arts work on the brain and sort of how it affects, say, brain plasticity and social emotional outcomes that the brain is responsible for.  And we can see this stuff now with high-definition MRI scanners.  That’s just one example, very small example, but we do know there are ways to track the arts if we have more robust data collection mechanisms.  For example, we may not think about how much the arts contribute to the economy, but economists at the government, U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, and elsewhere now can quantify what the arts actually bring to the table when it comes to Gross Domestic Product.  We find it’s about 4.3 percent of all domestic product, or close to $1 trillion, that are generated from arts industries.  These are just slivers, in a way, to tell us, hey, the arts matter in these other ways that often go undocumented, not understood enough by people, and of course, as everyone often says, you can only really value a lot of things if you can measure them.  That’s not necessarily a case of the arts.  We all love the arts, most of us, and it just comes from, as you say, a place that’s ineffable, that isn’t often put into words or numbers.  But we do think that by having further education about how the arts matter in these demonstrable ways beyond the sort of visceral subjective experience you’re describing, we get a better handle on why the arts should be championed in society and why it’s so important to support the arts.

Jo Reed:  Okay, well, we’re kicking off this podcast, Quick Study.  Why don’t you talk just a little bit about what people can expect to hear?  I mean it’s called Quick Study for a reason.  Our thought was to focus on one idea per week.

'Sunil Iyengar:  Yes, that’s right.  That’s right, Jo.  I think what’s fascinating is I don’t think we would be in this place, say, 10 years ago.  We’re now at a point where, obviously, because of technology but also because of the freedom of information flowing across sectors, we have now a regular occurring amount of studies that keep popping up all the time about the arts, and they’re not only about how the arts affect individuals and communities.  They’re also about ways to make the arts’ ecosystem, if you will, better, how can the arts serve more people, issues of diversity, inclusion and access, equity, all kinds of issues that have to do with the infrastructure about the arts, as well as artists and arts workers, and of course, people who participate in the arts and students and people who were educated in the arts.  So there’s a lot of rich material that’s constantly surfacing, and a lot of it is grounded in data, in studies that people have done, often academic researchers but sometimes consultants, sometimes arts organizations themselves, and community organizations who want to get a better handle on how to serve people with the arts more effectively.  And so we get a lot of data, and so what we’re going to try to do here is peel off some studies that literally come to our desk and that some of which we funded, but not always, and bring you the highlights in a bite-sized format so that more people can appreciate them and maybe you’ll (sic) be curious to check them out themselves, and we hope over time will be a narrative here building up to all the ways-- obviously, it won’t be comprehensive, but all the ways in which the arts can make a difference in people’s lives.

Jo Reed:  Excellent. This is going to be dropping every month.

Sunil Iyengar:  Yes, and I’m looking forward to it.  I can’t wait to get this collaboration going, Jo.

Jo Reed:  I can’t either, so Quick Study is now officially launched.  Sunil, thank you so much, and I’ll talk to you next month.

Sunil Iyengar:  Thank you, Jo.  Looking forward to it.

Jo Reed:  As am I.
That was Sunil Iyengar—he’s the director of Research and Analysis here at the National Endowment for the Arts. This has been Quick Study. The music is “We Are One” from Scott Homes Music. It’s licensed through Creative Commons. Until next time, I’m Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.

This month’s Quick Study kicks off the series by affirming the value of research and data in the arts.