Public Perceptions of Artists in Communities

A Sign of Changing Times


  • Jennifer Novak-Leonard Northwestern University
  • Rachel Skaggs Vanderbilt University


There is a growing recognition within the arts and cultural field that the public roles and work of artists are changing. Within the field, artists are increasingly lauded for their work as entrepreneurs, civically-minded problem-solvers, and agents for social change. Amid a shift away from the arts policy paradigm that has largely focused on nonprofit organizations over the last half-century within the United States, there is a hypothesis stemming from within the arts and cultural field that a policy paradigm focused on artists' roles in community change, development, and placemaking will take hold. Public opinion and perceptions have an important influence on the formation of public policies, yet whether and how artists' roles in public life are perceived beyond the arts and cultural field is unknown. This lack of understanding impedes the arts and cultural field's ability to monitor if such a policy paradigm shift is occurring and to develop policies to support artists' work within and with communities. Therefore, we developed and pilot tested survey indicators to gauge public perceptions of artists within communities. In this article, we describe the indicators, report on the national pilot test topline results, and discuss the indicators' merits to be used over time drawing from the pilot test results. Understanding public perceptions of artists within communities can inform and influence policies supporting artists' work and offer a means to monitor shifts to the larger arts and cultural policy paradigm in the U.S.

Author Biographies

Jennifer Novak-Leonard, Northwestern University

Dr. Jennifer Novak-Leonard specializes in the development and use of novel measurement systems to understand cultural participation and the personal and public values derived from these experiences. She has published influential work that appears in public reports and peer-reviewed journals on how to understand the multiplicity of ways people participate in art and creative expression, and on the intrinsic impacts of arts experiences. She is often called upon to develop and expand robust data sources related to arts and culture, and to aid policymakers and cultural leaders in their use of research and data for decision-making. Novak-Leonard regularly serves as a research advisor for national and regional data collection and research efforts. Recently, Novak-Leonard led the planning study and pilot test for the 2017 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts. Her prior studies include arts participation in immigrant communities; public funding for art, arts in higher education, the professional trajectories of art students, intrinsic impacts of arts experiences, and the creative economy; her work has been supported by the National Endowment for the Arts, National Institutes of Health, Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, James Irvine Foundation, and RAND among others.

Novak-Leonard is Principal Investigator for one of only four inaugural National Endowment for the Arts’ Research Labs, designated to serve as a center of excellence for research on arts and creativity. She currently serves on the Editorial Advisory Board of Cultural Trends, a peer-reviewed journal committed to the principle that cultural policy should be rooted in empirical evidence, and advises the Public Cultural Policy Research Center at the Chinese National Academy of Arts in Beijing, China. Recently, Jennifer led the planning study and pilot test for the 2017 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts for the National Endowment for the Arts and was a Scholar in Residence with the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities. Jennifer has advised numerous national research efforts, including the National Archive of Data on Arts and Culture, DataArts, The Association of American Cultures, Sustain Arts, and the National Art Education Association. Prior to joining Northwestern, Jennifer was the Associate Director of the Curb Center for Art, Enterprise, and Public Policy at Vanderbilt University. She has held appointments at NORC and the Cultural Policy Center, both at the University of Chicago. Previously, Jennifer was a Senior Consultant at WolfBrown and a Policy Analyst at the RAND Corporation. She earned her BA from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, her MPP from the University of Chicago, and her doctorate from the RAND Graduate School. Her doctoral research focused on cultural participation as a means for immigrant integration.

Rachel Skaggs, Vanderbilt University

My name is Rachel Skaggs, and I am the Lawrence and Isabel Barnett Assistant Professor of Arts Management at The Ohio State University. I am a member of Ohio State's department of Arts Administration, Education, and Policy, where I use a sociological lens in my research and teaching about the role of art in society. Reflecting my interest in arts entrepreneurship, I am also affiliated faculty with the Barnett Center for Integrated Arts and Enterprise.

The questions that guide my research focus on how workers in post-bureaucratic employment situations (freelance, project-based, self-employment, and other forms of free agency) are able to craft careers out of a series of self-directed projects and jobs, particularly in creative industries. I am especially interested in how workers in these situations collaborate and cooperate along the way. To answer these questions, I use a mixed-method, multi-level approach centered around social network analysis.

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How to Cite

Novak-Leonard, J., & Skaggs, R. (2017). Public Perceptions of Artists in Communities: A Sign of Changing Times. Artivate: A Journal of Entrepreneurship in the Arts, 6(2), 5–22. Retrieved from