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Culture Counts in Communities

A Framework for Measurement

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Document date: November 01, 2002
Released online: November 01, 2002

The nonpartisan Urban Institute publishes studies, reports, and books on timely topics worthy of public consideration. The views expressed are those of the authors and should not be attributed to the Urban Institute, its trustees, or its funders.

Note: This report is available in its entirety in the Portable Document Format (PDF).

Executive Summary

The Arts and Culture Indicators in Community Building Project (ACIP), launched in 1996 with support from the Rockefeller Foundation, seeks to integrate arts and culture-related measures into neighborhood quality-of-life indicator systems. This task includes creating the concepts, tools, and language required to do so. ACIP is built on the premise that inclusion of arts, culture, and creativity in quality of life measures is more meaningful when it relies on the collaborative efforts of the wide spectrum of people involved in the arts and in community building.

Local leaders and researchers have made important strides in collecting and using information about employment, health, housing, and land use as part of neighborhood indicator initiatives—and in interpreting the dynamics of community building. But they typically have neglected the presence and roles of arts, culture, and creativity in community building processes. To begin filling this gap, ACIP went to both conventional and unconventional sources of information. Information-gathering techniques included in-person interviews and focus group discussions with professionals and community residents in nine cities, document review and telephone interviews with staff from arts and arts-related institutions, and on-site examination of selected community-building initiatives across the country.

We found myriad examples of how arts and cultural participation are important elements of community life and essential components of the community-building process. But except for some research on economic impacts of the arts and arts impacts on education outcomes, we found little theoretical or empirical research that speaks to how arts and cultural participation contribute to social dynamics. Moreover, formal data collection practices are also limited. Although they reveal considerable information about funding, audiences, and facilities, they are based on narrow definitions that overemphasize formal venues and miss the many less institutionalized ways in which communities experience arts, culture, and creativity.

Since existing formal data and research are not an adequate base on which to build meaningful neighborhood indicators with an arts dimension, ACIP—based on its field work and document research—developed a set of guiding principles for the treatment of arts, culture, and creativity in neighborhoods and a set of parameters for research and measurement. These have been refined through a process of idea development and debate in workshops and conferences of researchers, community builders, policymakers, funders, arts administrators, and artists—and through application by ACIP affiliates around the country.

Guiding Principles

Four guiding principles can help capture any and all assets related to creativity or artistic endeavor that people find valuable in their own communities and neighborhoods:

  1. Definitions of art, culture, and creativity depend on the cultural values, preferences, and realities of residents and other stakeholders in a given community.
  2. The concept of participation includes a wide array of ways in which people engage in arts, culture, and creative expression.
  3. Arts, culture, and creative expression are infused with multiple meanings and purposes simultaneously.
  4. Opportunities for participation in arts, culture, and creative endeavor often rely on both arts-specific and non-arts-specific resources.

These guiding principles provide a way of identifying many facets of neighborhoods' arts, culture, and creativity. But they need to be supplemented by a systematic framework for description: qualitative description for conceptualization and theory building, and quantitative description for comparable measurement and indicator development. ACIP combined its guiding principles with its field research to develop a framework for this purpose.

Conceptual Framework

The conceptual framework developed by ACIP consists of these principles plus four parameters that serve both as domains of inquiry (for conceptualization and classification) and as dimensions of measurement (for documentation, data gathering, and indicator development).

Presence, defined as the existence of whatever creative expressions a given community defines and values as community assets. Since a cultural inventory is the usual form of chronicling a community's cultural assets, ACIP began its work in this domain with a review of such inventories. We found that they typically emphasize traditional cultural venues, thus missing indigenous venues of validation, as well as any references to the context in which the resource currently exists or its possible historical significance.

The ideal cultural inventory envisioned by ACIP would be web-based, combining qualitative and quantitative methods, including a wide variety of stakeholders, and taking full advantage of the Web's searchable interactive digital capabilities, such as linking graphics, audio, and video. Such an ideal is still in the future. But ACIP was able to identify several examples of less resource-intensive efforts that successfully embrace local values, using such approaches as ethnography, participatory research, surveys, and computer-aided data collection. These and similar approaches can serve as the foundation for more comprehensive, technologically sophisticated inventories in years to come.

Participation, defined as the many ways in which people participate in these creative expressions (as creators, teachers, consumers, supporters, etc.). Unlike the other domains of inquiry in the ACIP framework, cultural participation has been the subject of long debate, often cast in elitist-populist sets of dichotomies: formal-informal, high-low, professional-amateur, and the like. ACIP research supports the recent criticism of such dichotomies as overly simplifying the broad array of participation forms. Our research also confirms other evidence that broadening the definition of cultural engagement increases participation rates substantially—with many people from a wide range of social and economic backgrounds participating at both community and regional levels.

Impacts, defined as the contribution of these creative expressions and participation in them to community-building outcomes (neighborhood pride, stewardship of place, improved public safety, etc.). The direct impacts of arts, culture, and creative expression on communities are not well documented or understood in the arts and community-building related fields, according to ACIP's literature review and field research. Our field work in cities around the country did reveal a long tradition of community arts practice, with many practitioners operating their programs with well-developed assumptions about the impacts of their efforts. But these often go unarticulated and are omitted from the type of theory that can guide systematic research and data collection efforts.

The fundamental challenge here is that the very broadness of ACIP's arts definition—combined with the fact that arts, culture, and creativity are operating in an environment in which many other factors are operating simultaneously—vastly complicates the task of pinpointing the contribution of arts-related activities to the overall impacts observed. ACIP's impact domain addresses these challenges by proposing a middle-range approach. It acknowledges the complexity and interrelationships of arts/culture/creativity in neighborhoods, but offers a bounded conception based on strong suggestive evidence of the relationship of arts/culture/creativity to neighborhood quality of life characteristics.

Systems of support, defined as the resources (financial, in-kind, organization, and human) required to bring opportunities for participation in these creative expressions to fruition. The production, dissemination, and validation of arts and culture at the neighborhood level are made possible through the contributions of many different kinds of stakeholders—both arts and nonarts entities. The network of relationships among these entities constitutes a system of support that is critical to a community's cultural vitality. Likewise, support systems for other issues, such as neighborhood revitalization or crime prevention, are likely to have arts-focused players in them.

The best collaborations encountered by ACIP seem to be those that have specific purposes and involve relationships that enable individual as well as collective goals to be achieved. They come into being and evolve based on mutually recognized strengths and needs, taking the form and intensity that best facilitates the work. Successful collaboration of this sort requires organizational flexibility, time, and patience. It can even involve mediation in situations where the participating organizations have different cultures of work and are beholden to different standards of excellence.

The guiding principles and conceptual framework presented here are useful stepping stones toward the grounded inclusion of arts, culture, and creativity as important dimensions of neighborhood well-being. But truly adhering to them poses both opportunities and challenges.

  • Analysts must recognize that community actors need to be partners in the creation and implementation of studies and data collection efforts.
  • Practitioners must recognize that harvesting their knowledge and experiences in a systematic way is key to the creation of solid grounded
  • theory that can guide research and policy that will further their efforts.
  • Policymakers and funders must facilitate this component of a practitioner's job by incorporating into grants and program guidelines the resources necessary to support theory development and systematic data collection. They must also expand their thinking about strategic points of investment in this important dimension of a community's social fabric.

Note: This report is available in its entirety in the Portable Document Format (PDF).

Topics/Tags: | Cities and Neighborhoods | Race/Ethnicity/Gender

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