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Great Lakes Theater "The Merry Wives of Windsor," 2014

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Making the wrong argument to the wrong people

Working at a research organization is strange for me because I’ve always felt most at ease when I’m doing. I want to design and create, to be at the event, to write the content, not analyzing participation and setting strategic plan metrics.  If it’s good content and the right people benefit, we’ve done our job right? Arts and culture changes lives. We know it inherently.

But at last week’s Arts and Culture Roundtable, Robert Morrison shared a quote that hit me pretty hard: “Without research, you’re just another person with an opinion.” Yes, some opinions are more valued with more experience and more knowledge, but we won’t know who is right and how to make the case for our “right-ness” without facts and figures. The point that drove this home for me was that arts education advocates might sometimes be self-defeating bynotconsidering the research. He gave the example that a common argument for arts education is that arts education is the first to go when schools cut their budgets. In actuality, over 90% of k-12 students DO have access to arts education in their curriculum. So it turns out the argument could be that in Ohio, if you cut arts education, you are actually the outlier. It’s a bit more compelling than coming from a place of weakness (in my opinion). Even further into the research, Morrison said that the percentages of participation in arts education (vs. access to it) are far greater in school districts with higher poverty rates than high wealth districts. Cutting arts education in our schools in lower-income neighborhoods becomes a far greater risk when you understand how many students are participating in these classes that are keeping them engaged and in the classroom. See, the numbers may just be an excel spreadsheet, but they ultimately tell a story – we can use them to change the narrative and inform direction.

CPAC Roundtable May 2014 from CPAC on Vimeo.

So now I’m back to thinking about CPAC’s own strategic plan metrics and understanding that we are trying to gauge how to tell the story – that what we do is important in arts and culture. We know inherently that our role is to help you out so you can focus on making people’s lives better in the many ways only arts and culture can. And now I understand more deeply that we dissect cultural data so meticulously in order to validate, understand and make necessary adjustments. It all helps to ensure that CPAC is providing the crucial services for greater Cleveland’s arts and culture sector.

Different stories and data sets will appeal to different sets of people. Some decision makers will only want to hear the case studies (that would definitely be me), but the point is, if you don’t have the numbers to back it up, we may be making the wrong argument to the wrong people.

One last important note is that based on the research that CPAC commissioned (done by a third party researcher), the overall community in Cuyahoga County values arts and culture’s role in improving education: 94% of survey takers (all voters) say that arts and culture helping improve student performance is important. It looks like arts and culture is valued as a core curriculum topic in and of itself in Cuyahoga County! Talk about a research-based argument to share with your policy makers. 

Categories: Arts Education, research, Storytelling

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