WolfBrown: On Our Minds

Posts tagged ‘research’

Digging into Data

May 9th, 2011

The Digging into Data Challenge is an international project exploring how quantitative reasoning, and in particular, the use of fast and large-scale computing might create both new questions and new ways of understanding in the humanities and social sciences. Round One was launched in 2009, and results are already rewarding- and in some cases startling. Mapping the Republic of Letters, a project examining the circulation and content of letters sent between members of an early scholarly social network, reveals that the Enlightenment was not a cascade of radical ideas flowing south from Northern Europe but a ferment fueled by a network of personal correspondence across Europe. Another winning proposal, Mining a Year of Speech, used software to analyze over 9000 hours of spoken word recordings- by far the largest dataset ever used in the linguistics or phonetics fields.

With a second round of Digging into Data due to begin later this year, could arts researchers step up, join the conversation, and field competitive proposals? What data do we have to put on the table? What could we learn from generations of song lyrics, museum signage? The letters and newspapers of small towns? Could we develop an understanding of how a community makes a place for the arts, or how a work of art becomes iconic? Finally, how can we use new computational strategies to approach research questions?

The Digging into Data Conference will be held next month in Washington, DC.

2010 in Review

January 10th, 2011
The statement “no one can read everything” is actually a colossal understatement.  Even when describing the literature from a narrow field of interest like arts policy and research, no simple informed search from a few selected sources will suffice.   That is why, each year at about this time, I ask a few colleagues, “what did you read this past year that you found especially interesting and insightful?”  Here are three interesting pieces from a much larger array sent to me by my friend and colleague Aimée Petrin, Executive Director of Portland Ovations (Aimée was reviewing material as background for her organization’s strategic planning process).  In each of the selected items, I found many nuggets to savor, each of which is important to consider in maintaining a thriving arts organization.

In “The Performing Arts in Lean Times,” as I looked at the list of participants, I was reminded that the challenges we face today in the arts are truly global in scope and that the solutions may come from unlikely places and from new colleagues around the world.  Diane Ragsdale’s “Surviving the Culture Change” notes a lovely quote by Susan Sontag  about “the precarious attainment of relevance.” Ragsdale applies it to the idea of strategic adaptation as a prerequisite of artistic vibrancy in the 21st century.  Finally, there is the Philadelphia Cultural Alliance’s “Research into Action: Pathways to New Opportunities” (which includes, among many other things, work by Alan and colleagues in WolfBrown’s San Francisco office).  It is a reminder that strong data-based community assessment work is often the soundest way to map a strong future.

We invite you to share your favorite readings from 2010.  What will be most relevant in 2011 and beyond?  Join the discussion here.


I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the intersection of research and planning.  How do research and planning work align?  When does too much research become “information overload?”  What makes research “actionable?”  Recent work speaking directly with community groups, funders and arts administrators here in the Bay Area has been an eye-opening experience for me in terms of illustrating the power of qualitative data-gathering and its impact on strategic thinking for organizations and individual artists.  As part of a larger study of donor motivations for The San Francisco Foundation and the East Bay Community Foundation that we are doing in partnership with Helicon Collaborative, Fund For Artists grantees conducted participatory interviews with donors to arts projects.  In addition to gathering data, the exercise helped artists and arts managers learn how to talk to donors about their underlying values and motivations.  Sure, the exercise served a research purpose.  But it also helped to develop a new skill set that will pay dividends long into the future.  Similarly, in our current work with World Arts West, the presenter of the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival, a series of meetings with representatives of different ethnic dance communities generated a good deal of insight into their challenges and aspirations, but also opened a door to building stronger community ties.  These two examples have shown me how powerful information and, more importantly, the act of gathering that information, can be to creating new relationships and exposing strategic opportunities.


Creative Cultures

January 14th, 2010

Fred Starr is one of those rare Renaissance men who is a profound thinker on many topics, an active musician, and a man of the world.  Formerly President of Oberlin College and of the Aspen Institute, he gave one of the great speeches to a gathering of the League of American Orchestras some years ago diagnosing the problems of the field. He also chaired the Advisory Committee for the Knight Foundation’s ten-year initiative to assist symphony orchestras.  Currently, he is chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International. Whenever he writes something, I know it will be interesting. One of his latest pieces discusses Central Asia from the 9th to 12th centuries – a period of time in which the region was the focal point of science, art and philosophy. For those who worry about whether the United States of the 21st century can retain its dominance as a center of creativity and innovation, this article is a great read.  No society can expect to hold a dominant position forever, he argues, but, based on the experience of Central Asia, there are many forces that can influence the rise and fall of a creative culture.  In this time of simplistic formulations and prescriptions for fostering a creative workforce, it is refreshing to have the long view.


Wanna Dance?

April 17th, 2009

Dance has been on my mind a lot lately as important findings about dance seem to pop out of our research efforts on a regular basis. A study of Dallas public school children commissioned by Big Thought found broad interest in many forms of dance among young people. Is dance a way to address parents’ worry about lack of physical activity? Despite what could be called a perfect storm of interest in dance, it is often the last form of arts instruction offered in schools. It is not just kids who want to dance, adults want to dance too. A recent study we conducted for The James Irvine Foundation found that a third of adults in several inland regions of California would like to take dance lessons, and just last month we released a study of Philadelphia adults for the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance which found that the most frequent form of dance participation is ‘watching television programs about dance.’ Like it or not, dance has jumped to the forefront of public consciousness. Will leaders in the cultural sector allow this moment to pass us by, or can we manage a strategic response? How can this energy be harnessed? Last month, Dance/USA, with support from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, announced a new grant program to support the development of innovative approaches to Engaging Dance Audiences, which WolfBrown will help to assess. Until we can bridge the gap between personal practice (dancing) and attendance (watching dance), the professional dance field will not benefit from the groundswell of interest in dance, and the public will not benefit from the great artistry of the dance field.

Do you have a “land line” for your telephone service? Or do you only have cellular service? Personally, I would never give up my “land line” (and I was upset when we were forced to “go digital” with that line last month), but I know others do not share this old-fashioned perspective. Increasingly, people are moving to cellular-only phone service, and this shift has changed the landscape of general population research for firms such as WolfBrown. Did you know federal law makes it illegal to call cellphones using automatic dialers? Did you know that a huge fraction of cellphone users are minors who are usually ineligible for surveys? (Did you know that “cellphone” is now one word?) While telephone surveys used to be a standard tool for reaching random samples of adults in a given community, response rates for phone research have decreased significantly over the past decade, while bias has increased (i.e., only people with an interest in the survey subject matter tend to respond). Meanwhile, the quality of online consumer panels has increased, providing a new avenue for gathering data quickly and at a reasonable cost. Phone research is not dead yet, but we are using it less and less frequently, while developing new approaches to online and intercept sampling.

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