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Meeting Prospectus


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 be diluted.

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.

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