On Measurement and Research

By Bill Ivey, Director, Curb Center, Vanderbilt University

I believe Adrian, Alan, and Andras are all raising the right questions.  Andras makes the point that we've tried a research agenda, and it didn't take.  It didn't feel this way in the late '90s but my sense today is that our timing was off by about a decade.  Right now everybody seems at least open to fresh look at the sector, and I bet if money were available, we'd be working with an arts field much more open to authentic new knowledge (as opposed to advocacy arguments) than was the case ten or fifteen years ago.

I've been thinking about our big, fine arts organizations while this blog has progressed.  I get the sense that the nonprofit sector -- especially the "big dog fields" like museums, orchestras, dance companies, opera companies -- are today in something of a defensive crouch.  There are many reasons for this, burt it shouldn't be; the fine arts remain a huge and critical part of America's expressive life.  I think we need to ask a new question, "What is the unique role of our Europe-derived fine arts in heritage, voice, and quality of life?"  That is actually a very hard question; in the past a high value has pretty much been assumed.  I think, however, that the nonprofit fine arts have a unique and irreplaceable function in society, but smart people need to really dig in and figure out how to talk about say, classical music or ballet in relation to other kinds of music making, music consumption, and dance.  Alan makes the point that we simply haven't connected with the tradition of homegrown social dancing that he uncovered in California.  The question is, "If you dance at home, why should you connect with modern dance or ballet downtown, and how can you do it?  You dance within your community and family tradition; why should your make the dance tradition of others your own?"  If the fine arts have maxed out working to engage policy leaders as the "be-all and end-all of all art," what is a truer and more-effective way of assigning the value that is certainly there?

But I agree with Adrian that we can measure expressive life.  We have the ability to not only count orchestra attendance and the other usual markers, but we can count the number of locally-written stories on the front page of the paper, the number of music students with private teachers, and the number studying at places like Guitar Center.  We can count independent book stores and nightclubs with live music, Internet and cable penetration, and count the classical players who teach on the side.  Measuring a long list of indicators (and the National Arts Index is a start) will enable us to assess health of community expressive life and open the door to a new generation of cultural plans that may be more compelling than those of the past.

But, as Andras reminds us: "Who will pay to acquire this new knowledge?"

January 28, 2010 7:25 AM | |


This Conversation Are the terms "Art" and "Culture" tough enough to frame a public policy carve-out for the 21st century? Are the old familiar words, weighted with multiple meanings and unhelpful preconceptions, simply no longer useful in analysis or advocacy? In his book, Arts, Inc., Bill Ivey advances "Expressive Life" as a new, expanded policy arena - a frame sufficiently robust to stand proudly beside "Work Life," "Family Life," "Education," and "The Environment." Is Ivey on the right track, or more

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