Big data comes to Maine arts

By Dagney C. Ernest | Feb 14, 2018
Source: Americans for the Arts America’s arts industries represent 4.2 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product.

Northport — Storytelling is at the heart of being human, and one of the ways we do it is through the arts. The story of the arts in Maine, for both local audiences and beyond, is acquiring a new vocabulary — one driven by numbers instead of words.

On Tuesday, Feb. 27, the Maine Arts Commission and ArtsEngageME are bringing two national figures to a Point Lookout luncheon focused on the economic impact of Maine’s arts and cultural sectors. Guest speakers Randy Cohen, vice president for research and policy at Americans for the Arts; and Dee Schneidman from the New England Foundation for the Arts will focus on the how and why of quantifying the arts in Maine.

The event is driven by survey results released last year that begin to paint a picture of how Maine’s vibrant arts and culture community factors into its overall economy. There is much talk about Maine’s “creative economy,” but up until now, there have not been hard numbers to demonstrate it. That has begun to change, thanks in part to the direction of Julie Richard, who took over the helm of the Maine Arts Commission in 2012.

“The arts commission is really charged with the data collection on behalf of the cultural sector and up until I got here … we had not really been doing that,” Richard said a few hours before the Feb. 7 winter storm descended.

Richard had participated in the every-five-years Arts & Economic Prosperity study in other states and knew the value of having the data it supplies. When she landed at MAC, the commission was approached by Americans for the Arts to be the survey sponsor on a statewide level.

“What that enabled for the state was [the ability to] have community partners, at a much reduced level, cost-wise. The state came in at about $14,000 to participate on a statewide basis, and then anybody across the state who wanted to be a partner with this only had to pay $2,500, and then they got their own detailed data for their own communities,” she said.

The communities that participated in Maine’s first-time dive into the survey were Belfast, Waterville, Portland, Bangor and the High Peaks region. The nonprofit Belfast Creative Coalition was MAC’s community partner in Belfast, tasked with mobilizing the local community’s data collection.

That collection took place in two primary ways. The first was through intercept surveys — those check-off/write-in pages that show up in play and concert programs, at gallery exhibitions and other arts events.

“The coordinating organization sends out the intercept survey to all of the organizations in their community, and it’s up to those organizations to ask their audience members or participants or exhibit attendees — whatever the gathering might be — to fill them out,” Richard said.

The community partner then gathers the surveys of a given timeframe and either sends them directly to the DC/NYC-based Americans for the Arts or to MAC, which does the same. This kind of information, as ordinary as the in-program surveys might seem to the arts consumer, is the gold standard.

“That is attendee data that is collected, which is really valuable,” said Richard.

The other information gathered is the nuts and bolts about each of the area’s arts nonprofits, surveys filled out by the organizations about what they do, budget size and number of attendees. All in all, it was a two-year effort.

“Americans for the Arts takes all of that and works with a national research partner. They do all the crunching and come up with the bottom-line information,” Richard said.

And what is the bottom line for Maine? Because this was the first time the state had participated in the national study — the latest is dubbed the AEP5 — and because there was only about 20 percent participation on a statewide basis, Richard said the results represent a baseline. But the numbers are telling, nonetheless.

“The total economic impact, based on this study of 20 percent participation, was right around $150 million,” said Richard.

That’s $150 million brought into the state’s economy directly because of nonprofit arts organizations, she said.

“If you extrapolate that number, you can get a sense of what the total economic impact of the nonprofit arts and culture sector in the state is — probably much closer to half a billion or more,” she said.

MAC has been sprinkling the survey’s results around its website, but one goal of the luncheon is to inspire people to mobilize around them. The arts are good business for Maine and the data shows that, Richard said.

“By participating in these studies, we have that data that we can then put out to the public and disseminate to the organizations and artists we serve, so that they can use that information as well to make cases for support for their own organizations or projects,” Richard said.

The luncheon is for artists, organizations, representatives of regions or towns — “anybody, really, who is interested in finding out how to use data to tell their story more effectively,” Richard said. She has been to several of Cohen’s presentations and has found them compelling.

“Randy will also talk about the nonprofit economic impact of arts and culture on a national scale, as well, and how that data is used to make a great case for the National Endowment for the Arts,” she said. “It helps you be more aware of the world around you and where we fall into that, which is only a good thing.”

Schneidman, who oversees data collection, documentation and creative economy activities at the New England Foundation for the Arts, will offer a more regional take, presenting on the results of NEFA’s recent study, The Jobs in New England’s Creative Economy and Why They Matter.

“The AEP5 study is based on nonprofit organizational data, but NEFA actually encompasses entrepreneurs and individual artists, as well as people who are employed by cultural or creative organizations,” Richard said.

The Maine Arts Commission, a state agency, is in the final stages of creating an advocacy and support organization to help spread the data-backed stories of the state’s arts and cultural sectors. ArtsEngageME hopes to secure its 501(c)3 status this spring.

“Some of the advocacy we’ll be doing will be utilizing the data we’ve got to tell our story better, on the national and state level,” Richard said.

The luncheon is a starting point for spreading that story to those who are part of it.

“We have such a vibrant and large artist community in this state. The more that they’re connected to each other and connected to us and have an awareness of what’s happening, both at the state level and the national level, the better it is,” Richard said.

And the data will get better and more useful the more Maine participates in the perennial studies. Richard is hoping for much more than 20 percent participation in the next AEP. Community partner organizations are repaid for their efforts and fee by receiving a custom data set, crunched by the national organization. It’s solid information that can be leveraged when seeking funding via grants and other opportunities.

“DataArts is the way [nonprofit] organizations can get involved prior to the next study. I’d encourage them, if they haven’t already, to fill out an arts profile and keep it up to date,” said Richard.

DataArts, formerly the Cultural Data Project, is an independent nonprofit dedicated to the cultural sector. Richard said that Arts For America uses DataArts profiles as a starting point for its studies. Profiles may be entered for Arts & Cultural Organizations; Grantmakers; and Researchers & Advocates at culturaldata.org.

Data collection and number crunching may sound like the antithesis of creativity, but evidence-based numbers don’t lie … and truth is at the core of storytelling, in art and beyond.

“The more that we talk about working together on projects like this, the more we can mobilize the entire sector when we need to, if potential state or federal funding might be under siege,” Richard said.

The Feb. 27 luncheon runs from noon to 2 p.m. in the Summit Room at Point Lookout, off Route 1. The limited tickets are $30 and can be purchased through Eventbrite. The Maine Arts Commission website is mainearts.maine.gov.

Learn about the AEP5 results
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