As Bill Ivey says, “policy accretes around bodies of data.” If we can develop commonly-accepted metrics for characterizing cultural vitality, then we stand a better chance of influencing policy. You can’t win the game if you don’t know the score. And, if you are filling a void of scorekeeping, then you get to shape the rules for scorekeeping, which means you can change the conversation. I see the National Arts Index (NAI) as a major step forward on a longer pathway of developing a set of generally accepted standards for assessing cultural vitality in communities, regions and the country. The Urban Institute has already done a lot of forward thinking about the topic, which you can read about here. What matters the most, however, is not the data itself, but the conversation that happens around the data and the extent to which the NAI can be used to galvanize discussion amongst people who can actually change policy.
When the NAI was discussed at the Grantmakers in the Arts conference back in October, it was interesting to see how some people immediately looked through the list of the 76 indicators to see what was included and what was not included. For example, one person pointed out that the NAI includes just one indicator of arts creation (i.e., “participation in music making, painting, drawing, and/or photography”). There are no indicators, for example, of the numbers of people who sing in choirs, or who compose music on GarageBand, or who belly dance. Those types of data points simply aren’t available, or would cost a lot to generate. But what is the cost of not including them in the national conversation about cultural vitality? This is the risk associated with any aggregate measure like the NAI. We might see a decline of activity in the part of the system that we’re measuring, but miss a rise of activity in another part of the system that we’re not measuring. So it’s incredibly important that we use the NAI to build consensus around “what is cultural vitality” and what should be tracked, so we can continuously improve the measurement system and gain a holistic view of the cultural system that will enrich policy discussions in communities across the country. Without a commonly-accepted measurement system, we will never realize the level of public support we aspire to have.
You may recall how Richard Florida’s scorekeeping rubric for creative economies changed the conversation amongst civic leaders, in part because he produced a quantitative measurement system that policymakers could believe in, and that motivated them to ‘win the game.’ It tapped into a competitive streak amongst communities. Whether or not you agree with his model, he changed the policy conversation. I envision a time, maybe 10 or 15 years from now, when communities across the country strive to increase their ‘creative vitality index’ in order to be competitive, because it’s a generally accepted component of quality of life. The National Arts Index is a huge step forward.