For the Love of Data

arts student learning

Guest post by Kathryn Heidemann, Carnegie Mellon University

D-A-T-A. Data, once considered a four-letter word in the creative industries, has since come to embrace the minds (and even the hearts) of arts managers, artists, and audiences across the creative ecosystem.

When I started working in arts administration 20 years ago, data analysis was often a function of one person in an arts organization – often the lonesome techie or information systems specialist that “ran the numbers” when asked, but often without being asked the critical question of what the data really means, and how it can inform best business practices. A “database” typically meant having multiple, disparate spreadsheets of duplicate stakeholder data in multiple departments. Now it’s 2017, and there isn’t one arts industry conference where data isn’t a hot topic or even the dominant theme.  Customer Relationship Management (CRM) systems now allow us to manage integrated patron data across all departments.  Unleash the power of data, and all of a sudden we can learn what’s working (or not), find out why our audiences are attending (or not), understand donor behavior, optimize artistic operations, evaluate our programs, measure economic impact, and make sound choices toward sustainability. Bring it on!

But how is our arts administration education field responding to the data-centric demands of today and tomorrow? Although some arts administration training programs do not include data literacy as a required competency area, most have incorporated it into their curricula in some way. In fact, the Association of Arts Administration Educators includes data literacy within their Standards for Arts Administration Education program curricula at the undergraduate and graduate levels. The level of mastery in this area often depends on the structure of the programs and where they are housed, program mission/objectives, available faculty, program area of focus, and other factors. In some cases I’ve seen isolated classes (such as “data literacy in the arts”), and in other cases data literacy is integrated/infused into all core classes. 

In the case of our arts and entertainment management graduate programs at Carnegie Mellon University, we have integrated arts management and analytics into our curriculum since our inception 30 years ago (back in the “data = bad word” days), as this was an apropos focus for a program housed in a college of information systems and public policy (in partnership with a fine arts college), with decision-based management scientists as part of the core tenured faculty. Our students are required to take multiple analytical courses. Data-driven approaches are integrated across our arts management core classes. Student capstone projects employ data-centric methodologies to solve a business problem for real arts clients. The Arts Management and Technology Laboratory (AMTLab) fosters dialogue across the intersection of arts management and technology. And our alumni often embrace their analytical skills as keys to success. Our data-DNA is the reason that many of our students choose our program – and, admittedly, it is also the reason that many prospective students choose not to come here. 

But does the buck stop with data? Through this analytical lens, are we teaching our students to be less creative? We are arts managers, after all, so creativity is paramount to our existence and to the industry that we serve. While some argue that data is killing creativity, others argue that it allows us to better tell our story – and also lead to creative freedoms within our industry. (One of our professors, Michael Smith, explored this phenomenon in his recent TEDx talk, Is Big Data Killing Creativity?). While my love for data is untamed, I do insist that data and metrics alone should not override the “gut instinct” management qualities that are often present within true leaders. It is said that numbers don’t lie, but sometimes relying on numbers alone can preclude managers from being entrepreneurial, creative, and forward-thinking, and from taking necessary risks as a pathway to innovation. Although learning the analytical tactics can be difficult, the decision process that results can be “easy,” which is why many students who learn in a more linear way like this approach vs. the grey areas of “gut” management. And I have yet to figure out how to assign a value and enumerate common sense, creative problem-solving, and gut-induced factors into the decision matrix.  In the meantime, I will continue to champion analytical training, especially when balanced with design thinking.  Bring on D-A-T-A, or Design-centered Analytical Thinking for the Arts, to catalyze disruption and innovation in our field.

What are some tactics that you recommend educators consider as we teach emerging arts managers to translate data into insights, and lead with their head, heart and gut?  


About the author: Kathryn Heidemann is the Assistant Dean of Carnegie Mellon University’s Heinz College of Information Systems and Public Policy and College of Fine Arts and Director of the Master of Arts Management Program. Prior to coming to CMU, Kathryn worked in leadership positions for a variety of arts organizations including The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, Edinburgh Festival Fringe, Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, IMG Artists, and Chicago Academy for the Arts, to name a few. An active community leader, Kathryn also serves as an Art Commissioner for the City of Pittsburgh as well as a board member of the Association of Arts Administration Educators. Raised in Australia, Venezuela, Germany, and Detroit, Kathryn is passionate about the role of the arts in fostering cultural diplomacy and building bridges across borders. When she isn’t busy taking a deep dive into data, you can find her rockin’ out on the bass guitar, chasing her two sons (ahem..monsters), or exploring the hidden gems of post-industrial cities.