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ArtSpan, Lambertville, NJ. Image credit: Celeste Lindahl Photography ArtSpan, Lambertville, NJ. Image credit: Celeste Lindahl Photography

Everyday Data: Getting Smart with Arts Data

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  • Posted Feb 26, 2018

by Ann Marie Miller, Director of Advocacy and Public Policy, ArtPride New Jersey

Daily headlines that draw attention to urgent social issues rely on two factors to motivate readers and urge action - a compelling story and data.  We are able to advance solutions to public policy issues like climate change and opioid addiction because data validates exactly how these issues affect our lives. Data informs the talking points that advocates need to communicate effectively. Data plus stories = dynamite, a one-two punch that truly affects change.

As we enter a new year, it’s time for the nonprofit cultural sector to resolve to use data in a similar way to tackle both specific and broad challenges that face the field, such as: 

  • How will fundraising change over the next four years with limits on charitable deductions that are now part of recent tax reform?

  • What are the best ways to increase earned income and maintain ticket buying appeal for young people who have 24/7 entertainment on demand at their fingertips?

  • Are audience demographics changing quickly enough to mirror local populations, and if not, what can be done to better reflect our populations and their varied and priority interests?

Answers to these questions rely on accurate, regular data collection and analysis. Feedback from staffers and board members in the field often state the perennial and obvious challenges to this need, “Our organization is too small; we don’t have professional staff; there is too much turnover to manage data; and the big one—we don’t have time or the financial resources to acquire staff to take on these tasks.”

Data Arts’ Everyday Data videos capture the enthusiastic voices of arts workers who use data to not only fulfill their organization’s mission, but to be effective regardless of size or capacity. A commitment to acquire and manage data helped these arts groups build community, make informed decisions, and become financially resilient, goals so many of our organizations share.

The Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble (BTE), located in a small northeastern PA town, uses data to target new ticket buyers who can become lifelong patrons. BTE recognizes that long-term and consistent data tracking and analysis requires time but produces a measurable return on investment. The operative word here is “measurable.” BTE documents success by tracking data over time along with monitoring patron anecdotes. Their goal is to increase audience engagement, and with a close eye on data, they are succeeding.

Sones de Mexico, managed and staffed by one full-time executive, went from using the director’s personal checking account to pay bills to understanding how to grow and sustain their small folk music group by analyzing trends in their financial data. Sones de Mexico learned that gathering and understanding data gave them a foundation for making smart decisions about how to grow their small organization.

Queer Women of Color Media Arts Project (QWOCMAP) used demographic data to support efforts to deepen a connection to the Native American community and help them tell their stories through film. This is a particularly touching story because data helped QWOCMAP engage a traditionally underserved and underheard community. A commitment to data collection and analysis helped them break down stereotypes and better understand how to attract Native American queer women to their programs and to develop meaningful professional development opportunities.

DanceWorks in Chicago used data to make important organizational decisions. Through careful survey development they reached out beyond dance lovers to a broader network of potential supporters. The results validated their mission—one that supports early career artists and helps those artists become better humans. DanceWorks, with only two full-time employees, was able to translate abstract data into personal conversations, and ultimately increase financial support.  They now have a real action plan that informs their board on how to maximize impact with limited financial and human resources.

I hope you will take the few minutes to be inspired by these videos, and afterward consider some data resolutions for 2018:

  • Come to grips with how data can solve your organization’s most pressing issue—pick the top priority—is it related to audience, programming or a financial problem? Try to focus on ONE issue first, and determine what data is needed to help you make an informed decision or develop appropriate strategies to address the issue.

  • Assign one volunteer person or staff member to data collection and monitor their activity regularly. Determine how to best obtain the data you need, whether through a cultural data profile or a survey. Consult Data Arts online toolbox for workshops and online resources, and don’t forget their help desk is there to guide you through the process.

  • Develop a timeline to collect the data you need. If your board meets for strategic planning, use their schedule to provide data that will inform decision-making. When developing a timeline consider when it is best to start or update your organization’s cultural data profile.

These resolutions will start you on the path toward incorporating data collection and analysis on a regular basis ­- everyday data! At the end of 2018 you can assess the results and fine tune, but I encourage you to make a commitment to data now.

Take a moment to daydream. Imagine you are at a point in the future where your organization is equipped with all the data it needs to make plans for the dreams you’ve kept on hold. Instead of waiting for that surprise donor gift to cross your inbox, you have a strong financial plan for long-term growth that includes programs that were postponed for years. The board considers data in strategic planning and staff is guided by audience data that not only helps grow earned income, but increases donations, and advises artistic decisions. It’s a beautiful daydream that can be a reality by using data every day!

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