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Arts & Culture

SMU's Arts Research Center Gains Bigger Staff To Study Cultural Institutions

SMU DataArts, formerly called the National Center for Arts Research, produces studies on how cultural institutions work, how they benefit communities and how they can work better.

When it started six years ago, Southern Methodist University’s National Center for Arts Research (NCAR) already had the largest arts database in America. Since 2012, the center has used sources as the National Endowment for the Arts, the League of American Orchestras and the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies to analyze how cultural institutions work and can work better and how they benefit communities.

Now, NCAR is merging with the Philadelphia-based research center DataArts. The new center, called SMU DataArts, has the potential to be a global leader in cultural research.

Since 2012, NCAR has made headlines with studies on such issues as the gender gap among art museum directors, or whether NEA grants benefit only the wealthy. It’s also delved into what significance arts leadership has with the success or failure of cultural institutions. It’s provided online diagnostic tools like the Arts Vibrancy Index, which measures communities across the U.S. based on a dozen factors such as the number of arts groups per capita and a city’s public support for its cultural offerings.

In doing all this, the SMU center has had a full-time staff of only four people. Now, in merging with DataArts, NCAR will gain 22 employees. The new SMU DataArts center will be headquartered in Dallas with an office in Philly. DataArts started there in 2006 as the Cultural Data Project, and by 2013, its data collection efforts had spread to 13 states.

Zannie Voss, the founding director of NCAR, will head up the newly christened center, which is being given major support from Bloomberg Philanthropies as well as Dallas arts patrons.

DataArts and NCAR had been working together since NCAR’s beginning, Voss says, but now they’ll be able to “marry” their data platforms. The merger means SMU DataArts will be able to turn around its studies more quickly, she says, and improve its online tools for arts managers and grant makers. It’ll provide more precise data and will be able to research deeper areas of both academic and practical value.

“No one else is looking at the financial and operating health of arts institutions to the extent that we are,” Voss says. “Ultimately, we want to be able to create a national culture of data-driven decision-making. And by engaging in this together, we can collectively advance that goal in a much more effective way.”

Voss says one research topic SMU DataArts is looking into is whether arts districts actually benefit the arts groups that are in them. Another project is creating a spatial model of arts-goers and businesses situated near theaters and museums.

Urban density is generally a boon for cultural institutions: It provides more “close-in” audience members, which is beneficial because attendance drops off drastically with longer commutes – or even when patrons just have to cross a bridge. But urban density can also create barriers, like parking or higher housing costs. Which factors affect different arts scenes — and how much?

Voss says with its research, SMU DataArts could influence not only cultural policy decisions but even urban planning.