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Assessing Perceptions of Art and Creativity

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We’ve been getting a lot of interest from arts funders and arts organizations to do more evaluation work. I think it reflects a growing desire to have quantitative and qualitative data that can speak to the benefits of artistic creation and participation.

Gwendolyn Rugg, Principal Research Analyst
Academic Research Centers

NORC continues to expand its work for arts organizations. We’re using research to gain fresh insight into efforts to attract audiences, forge unexpected partnerships, create meaningful experiences, and measure impact.

Our recent study supported by the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) found a surprising distinction in how Americans think about and practice “art” and “creativity.” While traditional participation in the arts—going to the symphony, visiting museums, etc.—is declining, Americans instead see themselves applying creativity to activities beyond the arts—like problem-solving, entrepreneurship, and social networking—that aren’t typically thought of as creative.

These results came from one of NEA’s inaugural Research Labs grant projects, for which we collaborated with arts researchers and practitioners from Northwestern University, Vanderbilt University, and the Arts & Business Council of Greater Nashville, to design and conduct the first-ever nationally representative survey of creativity. We polled Americans on self-perceptions of their own creativity and how they express creativity in their daily lives. Looking beyond traditional indicators of creativity such as making art, creative activities included on the survey ranged from “leading a group” and “launching a new business” to “making up dance moves” and “finding ways to motivate yourself to do something.”

We’ve also completed several projects focused on Chicago’s vibrant arts and culture scene. Since 2008, the MacArthur Foundation’s International Connections Fund (ICF) has given 133 grants to Chicago arts organizations to co-create original work with peer organizations in other countries. Our evaluation of ICF’s first decade found that 97 percent of participants thought that an ICF grant pushed their artistic boundaries—one of ICF’s primary goals. These international exchanges also brought new experiences to Chicago artists and residents, and reached more culturally and geographically diverse audiences. But we also found that many smaller organizations were opting not to apply for grants due to factors such as limited time and resources, or the daunting prospect of pursuing an ambitious grant from the prestigious foundation. As a result, we made recommendations to MacArthur staff on ways to encourage smaller, often more diverse organizations to apply.

In another evaluation of boundary-expanding work, we’re studying the impact of the University of Chicago’s Arts, Science + Culture Initiative on program participants’ intellectual and personal development, academic work, and long-term professional trajectories. The initiative supports discipline-defying collaborations between graduate students in the arts from the University of Chicago and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and graduate students in the sciences. The program engages students, faculty, and the public across a range of disciplines, from music, theatre, and sculpture to astrophysics, mathematics, and neuroscience.

Just as important as learning about creative experiences is understanding audience members’ reactions to art. Yet, cultural institutions have limited ways to engage audiences after they leave the venue. To test a novel way to capture audience experiences, we designed a pilot study to explore how experience sampling method (ESM) data collection might be adapted to a new context: the art museum. Using ESM, we tracked museumgoers’ short- and longer-term impressions of the Smart Museum of Art’s South Side Stories exhibition on the University of Chicago campus in 2018. The questions probed visitors’ immediate impressions on the day of their visit and how much they continued to think about the arts experience in the following days and weeks.