5 Insights from Monicat Data's First Data for Art Workshop

From left to right: Irv Briscoe of Von91, Arlene Birt of Background Stories, Janie Hanson of Connect the Grey

On March 25, the Connect the Grey team participated in Monicat Data's first-ever Data for Art Workshop, the kickoff to an ongoing series on the cross-pollination and shared applications of data and art. While the assumption may be that art is all about emotions and data is hard numbers, Monicat's workshop explored the idea that measuring and analyzing data can help artists enhance their impact, and that artists can bring a valuable perspective to the world of data analytics. 

The workshop dove into those concepts with three sessions: a presentation on evaluation from Renae Youngs of the Minnesota State Arts Board; an interactive session on planning for impactful art led by Teeko Yang of Northern Lights and the My Token Friend podcast and Monicat's Kurt Blomberg; and a panel discussion on bridging art and data with Irv Briscoe of creative agency Von91, Arlene Birt of data visualization firm Background Stories, and our own Janie Hanson, founder and CEO of Connect the Grey.  

As an attendee, I loved the variety of presentation styles ― I got to fill pages of my notebook with definitions and advice from Renae's overview of the field of evaluation, then try to articulate my own thoughts on questions like "what is art?" and "what is data?" during the conversation on impactful art. 

The event also included the opportunity to see original art: It was held at The Third Place Gallery, owned by Twin Cities photographer Wing Young Huie, and the walls displayed his identity-exploring and "what if?"-asking exhibition Chinese-ness.

Here are a few of the insights we took from an entertaining and thought-provoking workshop.  

1. Always start with the questions. 

There are more tools for collecting and analyzing data than ever before, but it can be hard to know what kinds of data to measure, or what to do with all the raw information that comes in. A reminder that was stressed by Renae Youngs of the Minnesota State Arts Board was that it's important to start with the questions. What do you want to know about your work, its impact, and your audience? Then you can decide how and what to measure specifically to find the answers. That focus is especially important for nonprofits and small businesses working within limited resources. 

2. Data and art both involve inquiry. 

This one came from Erin Brueggemann of ArtsMidwest, my discussion partner during the session on impactful art. She pointed out that art is often not just about expression, but also about exploration and inquiry ― digging into a question or into the implications of an idea or action. And data, too, is all about the questions ― measurement and evaluation start with wanting to know more about something. That connection between art and data made me think more openly about both. Data isn't just about numbers; it's about learning, investigation, and seeking to understand. 

3. Data can help us understand how to support artists' work and what resources they need. 

Though their work has value beyond dollars and cents, artists still have to eat and afford insurance ― and it can be hard to understand exactly what goes into a piece of artwork or what artists need to succeed. Using data to capture artists' income, costs, and additional needs and benefits, CtG's Janie explained during the Bridging Art & Data panel, can help others better know how to support artists. Data can also inform ways to recognize artists beyond simply buying their work. For example, while running a gallery in New York, Janie and her business partner hosted a variety of events; capturing data on who attended those events helped them plan future offerings and gather ideas for potential partners and funders to continue supporting the artists. 

4. Data can also help artists find their audiences. 

Artists attract devoted audiences who feel personally connected to their work ― but it's not always easy to find those people when you're starting out. Some art just isn't for everyone; it needs the passionate fans or the people willing to get a little weird. Data measurement and analysis can help an artist find and identify their "tribe," the Bridging Art & Data panel discussed. As Background Stories' Arlene Birt explained, it's like a hardcore metal band's fans: They're a very specific group of people, not a mass audience, but they are ride or die. 

5. In a "post-truth" world, it's important to give people a personal connection to data. 

It's become clear that although there are more opportunities than ever to measure and analyze data, people don't respond to data alone. Facts are often outweighed by people's beliefs, emotions, and biases; people respond best when they have a personal connection to the information. That means that data needs art ― it needs storytelling, it needs visualization, it needs creative expression that invites people to follow a narrative or interactively explore for themselves. Though we all shivered a bit at the idea of "post-truth" (the Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year for 2016), it felt like more of an opportunity than an alarm. As data provides information to help us prove our value and improve our processes, art can illuminate that data in a way that ensures it is understood and used. 

You can check out our Twitter feed and the #dataforart hashtag for more tidbits from the day, and learn more about Monicat Data's work on their website!