Front and Center
The new National Center for Arts Research will be a catalyst for the transformation and sustainability of the national arts and cultural community
Across the country, arts and cultural organizations are
facing unprecedented challenges. Audiences are declining
in many communities. Arts funding has been cut in
numerous markets at the same time that production
costs are rising, leaving many organizations in the red.
In response, arts groups are scaling back productions
and cutting staff and community outreach.
In February, Meadows School of the Arts and Cox School
of Business launched a groundbreaking initiative, the
SMU National Center for Arts Research (NCAR), to respond
to these kinds of critical issues. “To address these
problems, arts organizations need to know what the driving
factors are, which strategies are working and which
aren’t,” says Zannie Voss, chair and professor of arts management
and arts entrepreneurship in the Meadows and
Cox schools and director of NCAR. “They need hard data
and access to information on a national scale.”
At the new SMU NCAR, researchers will gather and
analyze data from arts organizations and arts audiences
across the country, as well as information on market
factors that affect arts organizations. They will seek solutions
to regional and national challenges and share their
findings with arts leaders so that they may assess and
address their organizational health.
“This will be the first center of its kind in the country
and will make SMU a national leader in arts research,”
says Meadows Dean José Bowen. “The center will draw
on the academic expertise of Meadows and Cox faculty
and on the extensive resources and connections available
through both schools and the University as a whole,
and offer a range of services and online tools to help arts
The idea for the center grew out of years of research and
national consulting work by Voss and her husband, Glenn
Voss, Marilyn R. and Leo F. Corrigan, Jr. Endowed Professor
of Marketing at Cox, who will serve as NCAR’s research
director. They learned that arts organizations around the
country were facing often daunting challenges with finances
and community engagement without enough information
to create solid strategies to move beyond the problems.
“Currently only limited information is available, typically
on a local or state basis or by arts sector,” says Zannie
Voss. “Many arts groups have been making management
decisions based on assumptions, anecdotes and guesswork.
Data exists to examine the big picture, and it will be
our job to examine it.”
In early 2012, the Meadows and Cox schools hosted a
public forum to discuss the formation of a national center.
The forum drew more than 200 leaders from North Texas
and national arts and cultural groups, who embraced the
idea and saw the need for information in their own organizations.
Now, a year later, with the support of national
partners and a task force of North Texas arts and philanthropic
leaders, the center has become a reality.
“Our goal for this center is to provide reliable, fact-based
evidence to arts managers to help them with decisions
ranging from investment of marketing dollars to patron
retention to finding new ways to generate income,” says
Voss. “We anticipate it will also help stimulate ideas for
new solutions to existing problems.”
What The Center Will Offer
At the new center, researchers will integrate market, organizational
and consumer data from national resources
to examine patterns of arts patronage and community
engagement. They will analyze financial successes and
challenges, as well as the similarities and differences in
issues faced by arts and cultural groups in different parts
of the country.
“Good data is a powerful tool for arts managers,” says
Voss. “Data that is already available in certain cities
has been used to help arts organizations financially. For
example, one performing arts group was able to negotiate
lower rent by showing the building’s owner that its rent
was higher than that of similar organizations in its area.
In another situation, a state governor had proposed a 7
percent sales tax on arts tickets because ‘it was only going
to target rich people.’ The data proved that the average
arts ticket purchaser in the state made less than $60,000
a year – killing the would-be tax. And those are regional
examples – a comprehensive national database could help
arts organizations throughout the country.”
NCAR will publish an online, annual “state of the arts”
report on the arts sector’s financial health, impact,
assets and needs, operating activity, attendance and
purchasing patterns. It will also maintain a website for
public discussion of best practices and solutions, a dedicated
YouTube channel for video responses and an online
resource library with helpful tools and templates.
The website will offer an interactive dashboard that will enable arts
leaders to enter information about their organizations and receive a score
in each of 10 to 15 categories, or indexes, such as earned revenue and
marketing effectiveness. The indexes will provide a “best performance”
benchmark against which visitors to the website can measure themselves.
Nationally prominent leaders in the arts will be invited to serve as
Center Fellows, who will share expertise and focus research attention
on critical issues in the field. In addition, the center plans to host an
annual symposium at SMU at which significant research results will be
discussed with leading experts.
Access to the center’s data will be free. “We estimate that over 80 percent
of arts organizations in the country have budgets under $100,000,”
says Voss. “Small organizations in particular don’t have readily available
access to information that will help them improve organizational health.
They can’t afford to hire consultants. We want to make sure this is something
available to any organization so that the knowledge will help them.”
To achieve its goals, the center is partnering with numerous organizations.
Critical data will be provided by the Philadelphia-based Cultural
Data Project (CDP), which until recently was operated by The Pew
Charitable Trusts, and by the Theatre Communications Group (TCG),
which is the service organization for American theatre and is based
in New York.
The CDP has been compiling information from cultural organizations
since 2004. It is in the midst of a national expansion and collects data
about finances, programs and operations, including employment, donor
and attendance data, from more than 14,000 cultural organizations in
12 states and the District of Columbia. CDP data has been used in economic
impact reports in numerous states and cities.
TCG has conducted a fiscal and attendance survey of its member nonprofit
professional theatres across the country for more than 20 years.
Findings from this research are published annually in TCG’s Theatre
Facts, which the Vosses have co-authored since 1998. TCG will share
this data with the new center, and TCG and NCAR will digitally link
their stakeholders and research.
Data from the National Endowment for the Arts’ Survey of Public
Participation in the Arts will provide information about arts consumption
NCAR will also include IRS Form 990 data, which almost all nonprofit
organizations are required to file noting their expenses, income and
other details. IRS Form 990 data from approximately 40,000 arts groups
has already been provided to the new center by the Urban Institute’s
National Center for Charitable Statistics.
In addition, the new center will examine Census Bureau data to determine
the market-level factors, such as population numbers and household
incomes, that directly affect arts consumption and arts organization
Other partners are supporting NCAR with a host of additional services.
The Boston Consulting Group (BCG) provided several hundred
thousand dollars’ worth of pro bono consulting. “BCG spent nine weeks
working with us intensively on ideas for the vision, scope, governance
and structure of the new center, and then presented an expert strategic
plan for the center’s first three to five years,” says Voss. “They provided
an incredible wealth of knowledge and insight and are continuing to help
us as members of the advisory board.”
TRG Arts will consult with NCAR to offer insights into how consumers
invest their time and money in the arts. TRG is a national consulting
firm that provides arts, culture and entertainment clients with guidance
and solutions to grow patrons and sustainable revenue. From its client
work and management of 19 data network programs across the U.S.,
TRG regularly studies arts consumer behavior and publishes its analyses
online and at industry conferences.
IBM will create the interactive dashboard for the NCAR website, enabling
arts organizations to access all the data available at the center and
to enter their own basic data for comparison purposes. IBM will work
with SMU to develop and customize the dashboard application, which is
expected to be ready for use in late 2014.
The Nonprofit Finance Fund has been working with NCAR to develop
the financial indexes used in the dashboard and the annual state-of-the-arts
More than a dozen leaders committed to the health of the arts sector
have also stepped forward, providing a total of $750,000 to fund the first
three years of the center.
“We are extremely grateful to these forward-looking community members
who understand both the need for the center and the impact it could
have on not only North Texas arts organizations but those across the
entire country,” says Kris Vetter, assistant dean for development and
“Establishing the National Center for Arts Research at SMU is a perfect
response at an ideal time,” says donor Donna Wilhelm, a supporter of
numerous arts organizations including TACA, Art & Seek at KERA
North Texas Public Broadcasting and the Dallas Theater Center. “The
Meadows School of the Arts program is unique in the country, training
gifted arts students in entrepreneurship. Dallas is flourishing as an
arts and culture renaissance city. Scholarly research and solid data on
the arts headquartered at SMU is a visionary national service.”
The first step being undertaken at the center by the
Vosses is integration of all the data received so far, which
includes information from the CDP on its 14,000 organizations
as well as the TCG, Census Bureau and IRS 990
data. This fall, Zannie Voss plans to complete the center’s
first report on the state of the arts in the U.S.
“In this first report, we’ll be describing indexes for the
country as a whole,” she says. “We want to be able to slice
the information across disciplines, looking at all organizations
of a certain size, having certain characteristics,
in certain markets, and also segment it by discipline. We
recognize that theatres, orchestras and museums will
be affected by different factors, from fixed expenses to
relationships with patrons.
“So let’s say I’m a small theatre company and I go online
to the center’s site to explore what’s going on in theatre
and, in particular, what’s going on in small organizations
about my size across disciplines but in similar-sized
markets. I enter some basic information on my costs,
expenses and more, then get a score on the family of
indexes, and find that I’m not really doing well at all in
the attendance area. The data on the site shows me that
I don’t fill my house to the same percent capacity as my
peer venues. I realize there is more potential for my organization,
so I can then go to the resources section of the
site and find a great deal of information about audience
development, diversification and retention – it will point
me to consulting firms and knowledge leaders, but
it will also point me to others who are discussing the
same issues and who may have found solutions.
“We want to enable arts and cultural leaders to focus on
the areas that are the most pressing issues, to understand
where their strengths really lie, and to not feel they have
to constantly recreate the wheel in order to be successful.”
“NCAR will be a powerful resource for the arts in America,”
says Rick Lester, founder and CEO of TRG Arts and a
distinguished visiting professor of arts management at
SMU Meadows School of the Arts. “With the fact-based
decision-making capabilities that NCAR makes possible,
organizations will be better equipped to develop good
fiscal and operational health.”
To learn more about the new National Center for Arts
Research at SMU and how we are providing datadriven
insights to advance the arts community, please