What we do ...


The Cultural Ecologies Project is a public research, learning, and residency program of the IUPUI Arts & Humanities Institute (IAHI). It asks the seemingly simple question, "How do cultural interventions transform cities?" We work with community stakeholders to design and develop programs as well as examine the impact of the arts and humanities across multiple scales — from the personal to the neighborhood to the city level.

We develop new platforms for collaboration as well as new models for formal and informal learning.   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, research, 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 and prepares them for jobs in the cultural sector. 
  6. Residency programs that spark collaborations and investigate innovative approaches to equitable cultural action. 
  7. Educational programs that develop new ways of thinking and doing. 

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 their importance however, 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 is it that we should be measuring? For whom are we measuring? What types of cultural programs might make the city a better place?

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 usually 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 concept of an 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 effects on behaviors, attitudes, and values over time.

The tools for planning, research, assessment, and evaluation that we 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.

Our research protocols focus heavily on understanding historical and sociopolitical patterns in addition to 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.  

About the IUPUI Arts & Humanities Institute 

Established in 2012, the IUPUI Arts & Humanities Institute (IAHI) supports research and creative activity across the Indianapolis University-Purdue University, Indianapolis (IUPUI) campus; serves as a campus liaison to the central Indiana community; and fosters ongoing partnerships and ventures that advance arts and humanities endeavors at IUPUI and in Indianapolis.

The IAHI showcases and promotes the major intellectual and scholarly contributions that IUPUI faculty members from across the disciplines are making in the arts and humanities, serving individual faculty members, groups, and interdisciplinary teams through grant programs, workshops, symposia, and research collaborations. 

As an urban-based institute, the IAHI works closely with the Indianapolis community, connecting local institutions and residents with IUPUI. Working with Indianapolis’ diverse publics to create engaging new programming and forums for dialogue, creativity, and experiment, the IAHI also facilitates experiential and service learning opportunities for faculty-led student teams in academic programs across campus.

The IAHI seeks to become a national model for an urban-based arts and humanities institute that is both a leader in academic research and creative activity and an active participant in its community.

The IAHI is a collaboration between the IUPUI Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research, the School of Liberal Arts, the Herron School of Art and Design, the IUPUI Library, the School of Informatics and Computing, the School of Engineering and Technology, the School of Science and the School of Medicine.

To learn more about the IUPUI Arts & Humanities Institute and its programs, visit our website at iahi.iupui.edu.