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Statistics, Studies and the Arts: A Plea For More & Better

Several days ago, AJ blogger Greg Sandow weighed in (here) on the recent Chorus America study, which purported to show that people who sing in choruses are better citizens than
 
studies pile.jpgthose who don’t sing in a group (nothing about singing in the shower…). To recap, here was the main point, taken from the press release:

An estimated 32.5 million adults regularly sing in choruses today, up from 23.5 million estimated in 2003….That’s good news because singing in one of the 270,000 choruses in the U.S., such as a community chorus or a school or church choir, is strongly correlated with qualities that are associated with success throughout life…Greater civic involvement, discipline, and teamwork are just a few of the attributes fostered by singing with a choral ensemble.

Greg, rightly, picked the piece apart — which made me glad, because I was almost suckered into writing an article on the study. Then I actually read it, and realized that I’d pretty much been wasting my time.

If only Chorus America were the only offender on this score (and btw I am not suggesting any maliciousness on its part). Unfortunately it’s hardly alone among arts organizations. I’ve already written here about the useless statistics collected by the Association of Art Museum Directors, imploring them to collect better information. (They told me they’re working on it…then said nothing was decided on the subject.)

Another example occurred in opera recently — though it was not the fault of opera companies. Rather, an Italian medical professor published a study in Circulation: The Journal of the American Heart Association supposedly showing that listening to dramatic music, like opera, influenced the human cardiovascular system predictably and therefore had application in the treatment of heart disease and stroke.

Sounded great for opera, didn’t it? 

But when I called the AHA, asking to speak with other researchers about the study, the whole thing fell apart. The recommended doctor, a board member, ripped into the study’s design and conclusions. What he said made perfect sense. (Makes one wonder, then, why the editors published it…) Let’s hope no opera company started using the study to attract audiences.

Arts groups look silly when they publish flawed studies and funny numbers.

It’s axiomatic that good data is necessary to make the right assessments and to frame questions properly — and that if questions are not framed properly, the answers are likely to be wrong, too. So, yet again — I know arts groups have many things on their agendas nowadays, but — we need better arts studies and statistics. They don’t have to drive the answers; they just have to inform them.

Funders, by the way, want them too.

Comments

  1. Tom Freudenheim says:

    Good on ya for this! What about the AAM (American Association of Museums) citing that more people visit museums than attend sporting events. Not sure they are still using that, but it used to be one of their silly museum mantras. And as to whether going to a museum makes you a better citizen (than singing in a chorus) — well, that’s self-evident, of course! You learn about commerce (buying and selling art plus museum shops), law enforcement (stolen art works), religion (all that art). And directing a museum makes you an even better citizen, since it puts you in touch with the moguls who run the society. Which is why AAMD doesn’t need to study the subject.

  2. anonymous says:

    Anyone who who has ever worked in a nonprofit arts organization knows the pitfalls (and expense) of trying to collect good data. It’s not a simple proposition by any means and even less so when you’re short on staff, money and time!

  3. Stephanie says:

    THANK YOU for this! In my 15 yrs of arts admin, I have become increasingly skeptical of these so-called “studies.” What’s worse is that when we try to show them off to the general public, we look at best pretty stupid and at worst deceptive for trying to promote our agenda with questionable data. Personally I don’t trust any “study” that’s commissioned by an arts org. It’s like the credit ratings system of the ratings agencies getting paid by companies asking for the ratings. Can you say conflict of interest??
    Here’s my very unscientific theory on arts impact: different people learn and relax in different ways. If our education system and our culture doesn’t offer the arts, we are disenfranchising that population segment which learns best and functions best through the arts. For others, it may be sports or nature and that’s fine. My guess is that “good citizenship” for singers is on par with “good citizenship” for athletes – and I say that as a trained singer.

  4. i agreed that it’s not a simple proposition by any means and even less so when you’re short on staff, money and time! – Dave, the hostgator coupon guy

  5. I agree with what the original writer is saying.. although I cannot say that if you decide to sing in a chorus you’re suddenly going to be a changed person. Seth – guitar course guy

  6. Here’s my very unscientific theory on arts impact: different people learn and relax in different ways. If our education system and our culture doesn’t offer the arts, we are disenfranchising that population segment which learns best and functions best through the arts.

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