Q&A Spotlight: “Big Data” Helping the Arts

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Roland J. Kushner

Interview with Roland J. Kushner, Ph.D., Economist, Arts Researcher and Musician

YPP: Why was the Local Arts Index developed?
Kushner: Americans for the Arts had vast experience with overall measurements in creating our National Arts Index: we’ve tracked more than 80 national-level indicators going back to 1998. The Local Index maps data onto specific communities as much as possible, down to the county level. Americans for the Arts Vice President Randy Cohen and I developed this along with Martin Cohen from the Cultural Planning Group.

YPP: Where does local data come from?
Kushner: The Local Index has two main sources. First, we aggregated existing public information from government agencies and private organizations. Second, when we first offered the Local Index in 2011, we partnered with local arts agencies across the country and asked them for in-depth, street-level information: How many seats are in local performance venues? What’s the literary scene? Are there music festivals? This type of information is not found in any national inventories.

YPP: How are arts organizations using this?
Kushner: We created tailored reports for nearly 80 communities nationwide, helping them examine the texture of local arts and culture. People’s eyes are being opened to the rich depth of the arts – beyond dance, theatre, opera, symphony, etc. Those matter of course, but there’s also rock-and-roll, various creative industries, libraries, zoos and other entities with artistic and cultural importance.

Our Indices are evaluated by counties, regional economic development agencies, along with people interested in topics like sociology, economics and history. University students studying arts administration use the data to evaluate geographic areas and organizations: Where do they want to work? What kinds of organizations might thrive in a certain area? This gives them a better sense of the arts environment – its opportunities and its challenges. Arts entrepreneurs can use it in the same way, to evaluate market opportunities.
We’re pleased that our Arts Index website received more than 17,000 hits over a recent 10-month period.

YPP: What can we learn about the performing arts?
Kushner: Certain Local indicators are very telling about an area’s vibrancy: the share of adult population attending live performances, entertainment admission fees per capita, number of performing arts nonprofits and even the number of visual and performing arts degrees awarded.

YPP: What does the future hold?
Kushner: Our 2014 National Arts Index will be published next month; we’re finalizing that right now. Looking ahead, we’re developing tools that can combine local data from multiple counties, such as large metropolitan areas or even entire states. We also want to empower users to analyze data in meaningful ways, such as evaluating their county against neighboring or distant counties. The Local database could calculate, for example, what percentage of indicators are above the national median.

Roland Kushner is co-author and research director of the National Arts Index and the Local Arts Index, produced by Americans for the Arts. His full-time job is Associate Professor of Business at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pa. Americans for the Arts is the leading nonprofit organization for advancing the arts and arts education. For more information, visit www.AmericansForTheArts.org. Kushner has worked in the Lehigh Valley’s arts scene for years, including a founding role at Musikfest in Bethlehem. He performs periodically around the area and serves on the boards of Sing Out! and New Bethany Ministries.

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