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The new National Center for Arts Research will be a catalyst for the transformation and sustainability of the national arts and cultural community

Story by Victoria Winkelman, Photos by Kim Ritzenthaler Leeson

Research That Will Transform the Arts

The idea for the center grew out of years of research and national consulting work that discovered arts organizations around the country were facing challenges with finances and community engagement without enough information to create solid strategies to move beyond the problems. The solution is a comprehensive national database that will analyze patterns of arts patronage and management.

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 organizations nationwide.”

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.”

The Partners

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 and engagement.

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 performance.

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 report.

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 external affairs.

“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.”

First Steps

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 visit

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