The Google Books Ngram Viewer offers an interesting way to track the popularity of a term over time. The service draws from the scanned contents of tens of millions of books encoded by Google. And it can offer a glimpse at the rise (and fall) of phrases, topics, or subjects over two centuries.
A search for the common terms that capture business practice in the arts (Arts Administration, Arts Management, Arts Entrepreneurship) shows a particularly compelling arc. The Ngram (image below) tells a story of three terms that didn’t show up (significantly) until the late-1960s, peaked or plateaued in book references over the following four decades, then waned and wobbled a bit (with Arts Entrepreneurship appearing in trackable numbers around 2010).
It’s easy to overplay the credibility and utility of this chart. The data come from a subset of published materials (only books that have been scanned accurately by Google). A topic could still have a thriving life in discourse outside of that circle. In the context of all scanned text, these terms are dramatically niche (at its peak in 2005, “Arts Management” represented 0.0000035003% of all two-word phrases in the dataset). And both Google Books and Ngram have been criticized for errors and inaccuracies (here, for example).
Still and all, it’s worth interrogating the words we use to describe our work. And, given the dramatic rise of “creative industries” – an adjacent but related term – it’s worth wondering if there’s a world of people doing what I would call “arts management” or “arts administration” but they would not.
At the end of the day, my passion and purpose is to serve and support professionals who work to “aggregate and animate people, money, and stuff toward expressive ends.” And I’m particularly committed to those who do so in and through the plural sector.
If I’m using terms that don’t resonate with people doing that work, I’d love to find the terms that do! What words or phrases should I be exploring? And where would I find pockets of such people who I could learn from and support?
NOTE: I tried several approaches to include “cultural management” or “cultural leadership” in the Ngram, but those phrases are deeply entangled with for-profit organizational cultural management, cross-cultural management, and a range of other meanings that throw the curve.