Arts and Community Engagement

Is someone who attends a concert or play more likely to care about the environment or follow current events? The National Endowment for the Arts has awarded the University of Dayton a research grant to study whether people who attend arts events are more engaged in their communities.

Donald Polzella, professor emeritus in the Department of Psychology, said the $10,000 one-year grant will fund a statistical analysis of the relationships between exposure to the arts and a variety of pro-social and civic behaviors and attitudes.

Polzella will analyze data from the General Social Survey, a personal interview survey sponsored by the National Science Foundation that gathers data on contemporary American society to monitor and explain trends and constants in attitudes, behaviors and attributes.

In addition to many arts-related questions, the most recent survey in 2012 included questions about the respondents’ interest in environmental issues, politics and current news events.

“It is a way of looking at the whole landscape of civil engagement — not just specific behaviors like contributing to charity, but rather, whether someone is civically aware,” Polzella said. “That is what we are trying to determine.”

Local arts organizations are interested in learning more about their audiences and can benefit from Polzella’s research, said Paul Helfrich, president and chief executive of the Dayton Performing Arts Alliance, which includes the Dayton Philharmonic Orchestra, Dayton Ballet and Dayton Opera.

“This helps us market more effectively, both to the ticket-buying public and to our institutional funders including foundations, corporations and governmental entities,” Helfrich said in a letter supporting Polzella’s research proposal.

This is the third NEA grant Polzella has received. The previous two included Jeremy Forbis, a former associate sociology professor, and looked at arts-related, pro-social behavior using data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey and its Survey of Public Participation in the Arts.
Polzella and Forbis’ research showed individuals who attended arts-related performances or were exposed to the arts through electronic means in the past year were more likely to vote, volunteer, donate to charity and participate in community activities.

In another letter of support, Culture Works President and CEO Martine Meredith Collier said Polzella’s research was transformative. “It dramatically changes the perception of arts and culture as elitist activity and emphasizes the importance of arts and cultural activities being integrated more deeply into the fabric of the community,” Collier said.

Through the Research: Art Works program, the NEA funds research that looks at the impact of the arts on individuals and groups. In its sixth year of support, the NEA awarded grants totaling $320,000 to 18 organizations, including Yale University, Duke University, New York University and Boston College.

“I’m really proud that we are in that company,” Polzella said. “It is validation that what we’re trying to do is worthy of what some of the most elite schools are doing in terms of research in the arts.”

- Dave Larsen, communication coordinator, College of Arts and Sciences

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