The Cultural Ecologies Project is a public research program of the IUPUI Arts & Humanities Institute. It asks the seemingly simple question, “How do cultural interventions transform cities?”

We work with community stakeholders to examine the impact of the arts and humanities across multiple scales — from the personal to the neighborhood to the city level. Our goal is to provide artists, cultural organizations, funders, policy makers, and others with:

  1. A central research center that can offer expertise in cultural planning, assessment, evaluation, and reporting.
  2. A suite of open access tools to help individuals and organizations continuously assess their cultural programming.
  3. Reports that contextualize Indianapolis’ arts and humanities environment within national and international conversations and practices.
  4. A model for cultural analysis and planning that can be replicated and scaled to meet the needs of other cities.
  5. An applied PhD program that supports the community by embedding students in cultural organizations.

To learn more about the Cultural Ecologies Project, visit our website.

The Challenge

The arts and humanities are fundamental to the life of cities. They help shape the way that we see the world. They foster creativity, understanding, self-reflection, and empathy. They encourage us to pursue nuanced and complex ideas in our conversation and communication. They bring pleasure and respite from the stresses of everyday life. They create more livable environments that attract and retain residents. They provide valuable skills, essential to the knowledge economy. And, they generate revenue, create jobs, and build the tax base far beyond the cost of investment.

Despite this, we are generally quite poor at measuring the impact of the arts and humanities on our cities. We have some good economic data, which we often use to plan neighborhood rejuvenation schemes. Arts organizations collect basic information such as attendance rates and audience satisfaction to report to funders. But, we don’t tend to ask bigger questions — questions that go beyond simple quantitative and instrumentalist metrics.

How do the arts and humanities participate in the larger transformation of our cities? How do these changes take place at the individual, neighborhood, and citywide scales? Are there better ways that we might analyze, understand, and evaluate cultural interventions? What types of cultural programs might make the city a better place? What is it that we should be measuring? For whom are we measuring?

These are just a few of the big questions that funders, planners, arts organizations, and artists face when they consider the impact of their work. The answers differ depending on who is doing the measuring — and what criteria they use to gauge success.

A number of recent national and international studies have noted an overall lack of adequate methods and tools for understanding the transformative power of the arts and humanities in communities. In part, this is due to the fact that most funders expect artists and cultural organizations to self report on their own work. Since there is usually little money in grant budgets for assessment and evaluation, and since few individuals or organizations have expertise in evaluation, the data that they collect is quite limited.

Our Approach

The Cultural Ecologies Project responds to this deficit by designing and implementing mixed methods research for understanding how cultural interventions transform cities. We use the metaphor of ecology to frame our approach. Put simply, we take the perspective that communities are ecologies — always in flux — made up of interlocking networks of cultural, political, social, and economic interdependencies. Rather than focusing on the cultural intervention as an output that simply needs to be quantified or described, we study its its effects on changes in behavior, attitudes, and values over time.

The tools for assessment and evaluation that are developing capture these complex interactions by examining: (1) the shifting experiences of individuals and groups; (2) the changes in institutional practices (funding, programming, etc.); as well as (3) the structural shifts in Indianapolis’ cultural, economic, and political ecologies. This approach answers the needs of multiple stakeholders and positions Indianapolis as a model for other cities.

We approach our work from several operational principles:

  1. A city’s cultural environment is the product of historical processes.
  2. All cultural interventions exist in relation to networks of interdependent actors and organizations, who are themselves embedded in social networks, hierarchies, and economies.
  3. The arts and humanities have different meanings to different publics.
  4. Understanding individuals’ subjective experiences, attitudes, and social positions are as important as descriptive accounts of changes to broader social, economic, and political patterns.
  5. Cultural works are not simply products; they are processes of creation, reception, and use.
  6. A robust understanding of the impact of the arts and humanities requires a study of more than instrumentalist indicators.
  7. Changes to the cultural ecology may be observed and experienced at different rates, scales, and geographies.

Consequently, our research protocols focus heavily in understanding historical and sociopolitical patterns before beginning surveys, focus groups, and ethnographic field work.

Through training PhD students in the Cultural Ecologies Framework, we are cultivating a generation of experts, who have applied knowledge, and can provide expertise to artists, cultural organizations, and other stakeholders in Indianapolis.

Visit the Cultural Ecologies Project Website