Revisiting Research: Art and Culture in Communities

Janet Sarbaugh

This article is part of the Revisiting Research series.

The Urban Institute’s Art and Culture in Communities report is part of a larger body of work, the Arts and Culture Indicators Project (ACIP), led by Dr. Maria Rosario Jackson. When this work came out in 2003, I remember how revelatory and liberating many of us in philanthropy felt the project was. We had new language and new definitions that forced us to think beyond our traditional measures of cultural vitality, which were based primarily on the nonprofit cultural institution. The work didn’t discard the traditional definitions — it just greatly deepened the meaning of cultural vitality and our concept of where it occurs. It helped us understand cultural activity as people experience it, rather than as cultural institutions define it. For example, informal and amateur cultural activity can and should play an important role in cultural vitality, and participation means much more than being only a consumer. Similarly, cultural activity happens in many different places, and communities contain many kinds of “cultural districts.” The new work had the added benefit of linking the arts and culture field in meaningful ways to other fields, such as urban planning, and community and economic development. It had the potential to align the nonprofit arts with other policy areas and to make us less self-referential and insular.

The report was also daunting, however, because of the complexity and porousness of its definitions of cultural vitality, which would necessarily change according to the characteristics of a given community. We could no longer comfortably assume that cultural health equaled butts in the seats, earned or contributed revenue ratios for a group of nonprofits, or positive critical reviews. Rather, cultural vitality was about opportunities for creative expression for all people living in our communities. Defining what cultural vitality is in each of our communities and how we can best support it takes real time, effort, and exploration. There is no formula, and I suspect precious few funders and nonprofit arts organization leaders have devoted the time needed to truly apply to their work the expanded framework of cultural opportunities and participation that ACIP proposed.

Years later, I believe strongly that this research deserves more attention than it has received to date. It is probably more relevant today than it was when released, given its emphasis on expanded definitions and more-nuanced measures of vitality. Consider the hugely changing demographics of our country; the renewed emphasis on placemaking; the growth of regional indicator projects tracking multiple measures of community health; and the much greater emphasis on measurable outcomes in philanthropy. There is still so much mining of this work to be done. Too often our field has let others define us too narrowly. There remains tremendous opportunity to apply this work to make cultural life a widely accepted part of community health and well-being, and to do it on our own terms.