The Sustain Arts Project: Data, The Arts and Working Smarter (Online and Off)

The New York Times used to have a section of their Sunday paper called Databank. An expansive collection of financial information thrilling to anyone who couldn’t get enough from the charts and graphs filling the regular weekday Business section. The Internet made the print edition of Databank obsolete a few years ago but since then data has burst through to every other section of the paper, and so it seems, our lives.

The Age of Big Data
Nate Silver began raising the bar for the layman’s understanding of engaging data when he aggregated and weighted dozens of electoral polls and correctly called 49 out of 50 states in the 2008 Presidential election. Silver went on to make stats-based predictions about the Oscars, and weighed in onweather forecasting too. Now Silver works for ESPN, which is understandable given that executives from professional sports teams and fantasy-sports fanatics are increasingly data-obsessed, even converging annually on MIT for the Sloan Sports analytics conference. And conversations about what types data are collected and how they are used abound whether the topic is Facebook’s new privacy settings, Edward Snowden and the N.S.A., or Dave Eggars’ latest work of fiction.

Increasingly, managers and decision-makers are expected to not only collect and manipulate data but to know how and when to use it.

In part the daily engagement of data to make decisions has moved from the realms of science and medicine and the far corners of finance to the mainstream because advances in technology have made accessing – and aggregating- data faster, cheaper and easier.

Increasingly, decisions that used to be made entirely by people with personal experience, deep intuition and an intangible gift for seeing the future are being made by people who understand that those are all important qualities, but the game has changed; if one incorporates empirical information about past performance the odds of success go up. Increasingly, managers and decision-makers are expected to not only collect and manipulate data but to know how and when to use it.

The Sustain Arts Project
It’s in this changing landscape that I’ve been working on the Sustain Arts project to better equip the arts and culture sector with relevant data about cultural production and activity to answer these questions: Who creates art? Who presents it? Who participates? And, how is it funded?

Sustain Arts is a project of the Hauser Institute for Civil Society at Harvard University, in partnership with the Foundation Center and Fractured Atlas, and I’m the Bay Area field director.

The project is ambitious: seeking to pull together existing data specific to the arts and culture sector (like the NEA’s Survey of Public Participation in the Arts and information from the Cultural Data Project), to the nonprofit sector (like the financial information disclosed on the 990s every 501c3 files), to philanthropy (thank you Foundation Center for sharing your information on arts grants made by over 100,000 grantmakers!) and the general population (cheers to you U.S. Census!).

The scope of the project is broad too: beginning in Detroit and the Bay Area, Sustain Arts will engage a total of six regions over the next three years, developing regionally specific online platforms to share complex data in simple terms empowering arts organization administrators to get accurate answers to practical questions quickly.

Questions like:

  • “Who funds groups like us?
  • “With whom should we cross-market our next show?”
  • “Is the audience for our kind of work likely to grow or shrink in the next five years?”

And enabling arts funders and policy makers to make informed strategic decisions with empirical information about what’s happening on the ground currently, and an objective basis for predicting what will happen next.

Decisions like:

  • “If we pull our funding out of this community will other funders fill the gap?”
  • “Is the need for our support in community x or in discipline y going to increase or decrease?”
  • “How will we know if our grants to increase a community’s access to the arts are working?”

Beyond the Data
You might get the idea that this is all about the technology. But, you’d be wrong.

Certainly, a major focus of our efforts over the past year has been to develop and design tools to assimilate large sets of various data easily and elegantly–not an easy thing to do in the cultural sector where, unlike say the National Football League or the National Weather Service – there is as-yet no system-wide standard for collecting data. Even the taxonomy for artistic disciplines, genres, types of organizations and programs vary from field to field and among the diverse array of actors in the nonprofit and for-profit sectors and the unincorporated space in between. (We’ve also learned already that arts organizations count attendance differently, that tracking arts participation is itself a multi-step computation, and context matters tremendously when weighing the significance of public funding for the arts. For example, in Detroit the city has declared bankruptcy, in San Francisco the Hotel Tax Fund is a lifeline for 200+ grantees).

But our work with representatives from arts organizations in Detroit has strengthened our conviction that it’s the offline conversations that matter most if all this data that we’re compiling and presenting in an ongoing, dynamic and artful way will inform the decisions that will increase the odds that the arts in America will be sustained.

It’s in the in-person conversations when data is paired with personal experience and contextual insight, that charts and graphs are translated into solvable problems and opportunities to be seized. It is our hope that equipped with good data these conversations will happen in staff and Board meetings, when grantmakers and grantseekers get together, at local and national conferences that bring arts community members together and in collaborations between the arts community and partners throughout the social, public and private sectors.

We’ve been working behind the scenes evaluating data, engaging funders and arts community partners and working with the data visualization experts at San Francisco’s Stamen Design to reveal broad landscape views of the arts ecosystem and enable arts organizations and funders to find their place in it.

We Invite You to Join Us
We’re getting ready now to engage Bay Area arts community members in a series of small-group discussions about how the Sustain Arts endeavor can support and bolster existing efforts to strengthen arts organizations and the arts ecosystem as a whole.

If you are interested in learning more about Sustain Arts please sign up for our newsletter.

And if you are interested in participating in small group discussions about the project and how it can align with the questions you face and the type of work you do please let me know by sharing your information with me here.

We realize we have a lot to learn.

We also realize that whether its the alpha version of new software or the first-read of a new play, we have a long way to go and will only be successful if we listen well and commit to adapting our approach along the way.

I look forward to hearing from you.

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