February 1, 2002
Taking the Measure of Culture:
A Meeting at Princeton University, June 7– June 8, 2002
Supported by the Rockefeller Foundation and hosted by the
Princeton University Center for Arts and Cultural Policy Studies
The primary purpose of this meeting is to stimulate the transfer
of ideas and methods from mature policy fields to the field of
cultural policy research. A secondary purpose is to stimulate
thinking more generally by bringing together scholars facing similar
issues in very different substantive areas.
Much foundation grant-making in the arts has either (1) gravitated
to programs that engage artists and arts organizations in efforts
to enhance the welfare of communities or (2) come to justify itself
at least in part of the basis of claims about the contribution
of the arts to communities, or both. Despite the importance of
these premises, the research base supporting them is still quite
thin. Although there have been a few exemplary studies that cast
light on the relationship between culture and community, many
grantmakers and researchers are frustrated by the slow progress
of efforts in this field.
Two premises motivate this meeting:
1) The conceptual and methodological challenges that arts researchers
face in establishing the impact of the arts on communities are
similar to those faced by researchers working in other institutional
and policy fields. In particular, when studying community-level
impacts, it is notoriously difficult to distinguish between signals
and noise, or to assess relatively small or highly targeted impacts
on large, complex entities.
2) Because scholars in other research areas have addressed these
issues longer than those in the arts, the field of arts research
may have something to learn from their efforts.
In particular, it has been difficult to identify effects of the
arts on communities because of three fallacies embedded in much
cultural policy discourse about the benign influence of the arts.
All these fallacies are familiar to social researchers and there
are various ways to address them, both conceptually and methodologically.
They are presented here simply to motivate the argument that the
arts and other policy fields share analogous challenges, without
any claim that these problems are exhaustive.
The first fallacy is that of homogeneity of “treatment.”
We often talk as if “the arts” were a single thing,
and that exposure to “the arts” represents a single
“treatment” (to use the lingo of medical research)
on the individual or community. In fact, “the arts”
can mean arts education, adult participation in making art, arts
attendance, or the presence in a community of individual artists,
“cutting-edge” arts institutions, neighborhood-based
arts institutions, “major” professional institutions,
or mid-size professional institutions in any of the arts disciplines.
There is no reason to assume that these things have similar
effects on persons or communities. Statistically, if one
pools heterogeneous artistic inputs, real effects will tend to
A second fallacy is that of homogeneity of effects.
We also often speak as if the arts (even when defined with appropriate
specificity) have undifferentiated effects on people and communities,
whatever these effects may be. So we ask, “does art education
improve math learning?” or “do communities with lots
of artistic resources have stronger economies?” It is unlikely
that there are general answers to these questions. Effects may
be heterogeneous due to interactions with other factors,
so that benign effects of artistic resources or experiences are
visible only in the presence of other factors that facilitate
the expression of those benign effects; or effects may be path-dependent,
such that whether or not artistic resources or experiences “pay
off” in desirable individual or community outcomes may depend
on small but decisive intervening events. In either case, decisive
effects of specific kinds of arts programs on a relatively small
proportion of communities will be hidden unless we know where
to look for them.
A third fallacy is that of linearity of effects –
the idea that the effects of increments in arts inputs are invariant
to scale and that their relationship to community-level outcomes
are thus linear in form. Although it is natural to talk as if
this is the case, there is much reason to believe that it is not.
Often returns may diminish: for example, opening the first theatre
and presenting the first concert series in a community that has
access to neither of these probably raises quality of life (for
residents who care) a lot more than adding an additional theatre
group or concert series in a community that already has lots of
these. Or returns may increase to scale: “addiction models”
of arts consumption suggest that participation in the arts increases
demand (through learning that increases the efficiency with which
participants convert arts experience into “utility”).
The premise behind this meeting is that the arts are not
unique in being heterogeneous; having different kinds of effects
on different kinds of people and communities; and having nonlinear
effects. The goal of this meeting is to convene leading scholars
from several fields in which researchers try to ascertain the
influence of relatively small or marginal factors (e.g.,
levels of public health spending, numbers of religious institutions,
the diffusion of new technologies, crime victimization levels,
the quality of educational institutions, or levels of stress and
social support) on relatively large and complex outcomes (e.g.,
community economic development, “social capital,”
maintenance of the housing stock, community identity, or aggregate
measures of community members’ individual well-being).
By bringing together scholars working in a variety of these
fields for a day and a half, we hope to engender wide-ranging,
free-wheeling discussion of key conceptual and methodological
challenges at both the abstract level (which we hope all participants
will find stimulating and useful) and with reference to research
on the arts (with the hope of making a direct intervention in
this field). Panels will be structured around particular problems
(both methodological dilemmas, like modeling path-dependent effects,
and substantive outcomes, like studying effects on economic development).
Researchers from different fields will be asked to make brief
and informal presentations on particular aspects of their work,
with discussants responding informally as a prelude to more general
discussion. For the most part (but not always), presenters will
be from fields outside and the arts, whereas discussants will
be arts researchers who will consider the relevance of the presenters’
comments for research on the arts.
Products of the meeting will include an annotated bibliography
of research on the relationship between the arts and communities;
a paper presenting a taxonomy of mechanisms by which certain kinds
of artistic inputs are believed to influence certain aspects of
community; and a report suggesting new approaches to articulating
and testing empirically the relationship between the two. The
first two will be produced and circulated in advance of the meeting,
whereas the latter document will be informed by the meeting itself
and distributed thereafter.