This summer marked the five-year anniversary of a remarkable union—the merging of DataArts and SMU’s National Center for Arts Research. Over this transformative period, we've witnessed extraordinary evolution within our own organization and throughout the entire arts sector. As we commemorate this milestone, we take great pride in the strides we've made in creating research and data-driven tools that address the ever-evolving needs of the arts community.
We are honored to reflect upon this occasion by sharing some of our favorite research projects handpicked by our dedicated staff and esteemed advisory board. These endeavors have shaped our organization and left an indelible mark on the broader arts landscape. Join us in celebrating five years of progress, promise, and the enduring power of data and research in the arts.
For many of us, our favorite moments working in arts research occur when our organization’s work is particularly well aligned with the needs of practitioners in the moment.
Rachelle Brisson, Events and Engagement Coordinator, recalls being particularly proud of our work early in the pandemic. “I recall how terrifying the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic was watching the bottom drop out of the live arts and cultural economy as organizations shuttered to protect their community and one another. In It for the Long Haul took stock of where the non-profit arts economy stood about 3 months into the pandemic and provided a framework for the sector to move beyond the crisis.”
For others, pieces relevant to every region, such as our Arts Vibrancy Index, stood out. Patrick Jefferys, Business Development Associate explains, “it connects with every community across the country to celebrate its Arts Vibrancy annually which allows us to engage with arts and culture leaders we don't always get to hear from.... The AVI is great example of combining data points from different sources and telling a compelling story about the arts in each of the 947 metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs) and over 3,100 counties across the country.”
And for some, our research is most memorable when it creates advocacy opportunities, like our report released earlier this year, Local Arts Agency Funding and Arts Vibrancy. Anita Contini, Program Lead for Arts and Culture at Bloomberg Philanthropies and a long-time advisory board member of SMU DataArts shared that this report stood out because of the important facts it establishes about how arts funding impacts communities.
Another theme that emerged was the ability of research to spark change in the narratives and practices that further inequity in our sector.
As Monica Lewis, Engagement Manager shares, “more often than not, research within the arts sector tends to associate relevance and impact with size and growth. I appreciate the Alchemy of High Performing Arts Organizations: A Spotlight on Organizations of Color because it allows us to delve deeper into organizations of color and learn more about their impact, not only within their own structures but within their communities. We explore how they define their success. In this research, we not only analyze the data, but our researchers engage in conversations with organizational leaders to understand their perspectives and experiences.”
Jen Benoit-Bryan, Research Director, cites The Intersection of Funding, Marketing, and Audience Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion as particularly valuable, because “it shows where in the sector change is happening and how the source of an organization's funding can influence its audience makeup. It also highlights the lack of collective progress being made on income diversity among performing arts organizations.”
And Daniel Fonner, Associate Director for Research, expressed excitement about the potential of an emerging area of research into using machine learning models for evaluating grantmaking. “This research opens new areas of exploration that show promise for improving equity, accuracy, and efficiency in grantmaking while also furthering computer science research in machine learning through the use of unique data about the arts and culture sector.”
Staff also expressed excitement for new projects on the horizon. Dennis TenWolde, Institutional Giving Manager, cited some emerging work towards a methodology to help arts organizations understand their audience demographics based on household address data. “Having recently come from a performing arts organization, I know being able to get access to usable audience DEI information is really hard to do but something we could have really used. This project represents our center using great research capabilities to directly address an arts field need.”
Some also cite changes in our approach to research. Katie Ingersoll, Director of Communications, Engagement, and Strategy shared, “I am excited about our work with a research advisory committee of small organization leaders. We gathered the group earlier this year in an effort to invert our research process – to start with conversation with those most connected to an area of inquiry and explore from there. We’ve really given those conversations time and space to percolate, and will likely start to see some research output early next year reflecting these efforts. It's something to look forward to.”
In 2022, SMU DataArts released a strategic plan emphasizing our mission as a research center, providing individuals and organizations the evidence-based insights needed to build strong, vibrant and equitable arts communities. Zannie Voss, Director of SMU DataArts said at the time, “Our future strengths lie in serving the arts and culture field through data collection, integration of data into a model of the U.S. arts and culture ecosystem, quantitative and qualitative research methods, and most importantly, insights that are robust, useful, and valued.” We look forward to the next five years and beyond as we redouble our efforts to listen to intersecting communities within the sector, understand pressing needs, and facilitate learning for ourselves and others via our research.