National Arts Index: Curtain Falls on Project

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national arts indexEarlier this year, Americans for the Arts (AFTA) published its sixth and final report on the health and vitality of arts and culture in the United States – the National Arts Index. (We last wrote about this Index in December 2014.) Recently, we caught up again with Roland J. Kushner, one of its creators, to ask about the factors behind the project’s culmination and some of the key takeaways.

Mission Accomplished. “When we started it, there was never a prescribed lifespan,” recalls Kushner, adding that while the Index was positively received, it did not generate sustained media buzz from year to year.

“We’re proud that we accomplished our objective, including publishing a final report showing how the arts rebounded after the recession.” Kushner says the Index was conceived before the last recession; the first report was published afterwards, in 2010.

The National Arts Index was also emulated overseas, including the U.K. and the Netherlands. Last December, Kushner was invited to South Korea to speak about how that country might develop its own comparable index.

“Maintaining the Index was a lot of work and we were very transparent about our methodology if anyone else wants to carry it on,” explains Kushner. He adds that the information comprising the 81 indicators – “hundreds and hundreds of lines of data” – was made available for outside analysis.

Kushner says the Index has been a very valuable complement to his own teaching and research work as an associate professor at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pa., along with helping others who teach arts administration and cultural policy.

Final Results. The 2016 report includes ten summary conclusions on trends and points of interest highlighted in past reports. Four of these ten conclusions are: 1) The arts track the economy, with a slight lag. 2) Audiences are changing how they choose to engage in the arts. In 2013, 31 percent of U.S. adults attended a live performing arts event, decreasing steadily from 40 percent ten years earlier. 3) Technology is changing audience engagement, including how musicians can deal directly with consumers, bypassing traditional record companies and promotions businesses. 4) Arts nonprofits face continued economic challenges, with 42 percent failing to generate positive net income. (All ten conclusions and the entire 150-page report can be foundhere.)

Contributing Factors. When asked why the Index project concluded, Kushner cited three factors: Growth in Big Data – More data sources than ever before are easily accessible to the general public; Schedule Challenges – Data sources aggregated by the Index often lagged behind, making it difficult to maintain the Index’s publication annual schedule; and New Priorities – AFTA needed to re-prioritize how its research dollars were spent; other research projects did not face the Index’s challenges.

As an example of recent AFTA research, Kushner cited survey results released last month about perceptions and attitudes about the arts in America. More than 3,000 American adults were polled.

Looking Outside & Within. Going forward, without the Index, Kushner expects that people can use easily accessible indicators published semi-regularly by organizations like Theatre Communications Group, League of American Orchestras, Motion Picture Association of America and National Endowment for the Arts. To gauge the vitality of the arts in his own community, Kushner says he’ll look at the kinds of measures captured in the Arts Index — but also at his own avocation as a musician: “Can I still get gigs playing guitar and singing folk songs?”

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