Getting Savvy with Research


Being a bit of a research and data enthusiast (read: nerd), I was eager to attend February 5’s presentation of “Anatomy of Arts Research” by Bronwyn Mauldin of the Los Angeles County Arts Commission. Fortunately, I was not disappointed by the discussion, which helped attendees understand the sometimes overly-complex landscape of a research report.

Bronwyn helped us understand the kinds of research we might encounter in the course of looking for data on the arts. While primary and secondary research is pretty well known to anyone who ever sat through a freshman composition course, Bronwyn dug a bit deeper to help us understand the difference between scholary, academic research and what’s called “popular” research—I think for much the same reasons we have a category called “popular” music. Basically, it boils down to process and perspective. Academic research undergoes a rigorous “peer review” process that helps the researcher improve the overall quality of his or her output, while “popular” research doesn’t require quite the same rigor. And popular research is often completed with a focus on the practitioner. This means it is data designed to be acted upon rather than just collected and published for debate and discussion.

Another powerful takeaway for me was the rhetoric we in the field use to talk about the data we cull from our work. In the research realm, to identify “impact”—using that specific word—is a tremendous pronouncement that can really only be gleaned from using a randomized control trial, the gold standard of research methods. Since most arts organizations aren’t doing that, it can be tricky for us to claim “impact” specifically—yet, this is often what our grantmakers and donors want us to do. Understanding that our terminology plays differently in different realms is critical.

With research playing such a critical role in the broader advocacy work done by our field—not just by organizations like Arts for LA and Americans for the Arts, but by each individual organization striving to make its outcomes known to the broader public—we really must embrace not only the existing research of our field, but we must be savvy about how we present our outcomes whether we believe we strive to be scholarly about it or not.

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