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creative:impact - Ann Arbor area is one of the most vibrant arts towns in America

SMU DataArts 2022 Flyer
SMU DataArts
SMU DataArts 2022 Flyer

Creative industries in Washtenaw County add hundreds of millions of dollars to the local economy. In the weeks and months to come, host Deb Polich, the President and CEO of Creative Washtenaw, explores the myriad of contributors that make up the creative sector in Washtenaw County.

Deb Polich
David Fair
89.1 WEMU
Deb Polich, President and CEO of Creative Washtenaw, at the WEMU studio.


Daniel Fonner
Kim Leeson
SMU DataArts
Daniel Fonner

Daniel Fonner is the Associate Director for Research at SMU DataArts where he manages the organization’s applied research agenda for projects ranging from program evaluation and workforce demographics to using artificial intelligence to better understand arts and culture audiences. Prior to SMU DataArts, Daniel was a researcher at BOP Consulting in London (UK), the Research and Policy Associate at the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council (PA), and created the project ReMasterpieces.org, which uses artificial intelligence to recreate paintings stolen and lost during World War II. He received a Bachelor of Music degree in percussion performance from Duquesne University followed by a Master of Arts Management degree from Carnegie Mellon University, both in Pittsburgh, PA. Daniel then received an MA in International Cultural Policy and Management from Warwick University (UK) as a Fulbright Postgraduate Scholar.

  • Cultural Pursuits: Percussionist | Re-creation of Lost Art
  • Hidden Skill: Electric unicycle riding.
  • Hometown: New Martinsville, WV
  • Secretly Wants to Be: Marimba designer | Craftsman


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"SMU DataArts Releases List of 40 Most Arts-Vibrant Cities in the U.S."

SMU Executive Summary: The Top 40 Most Arts-Vibrant Communities of 2022

Ann Arbor SMU 2022 Statistics


Deb Polich: Welcome to creative:impact on 89 one WEMU. I'm Deb Polich, who, by day, acts is the president and CEO of Creative Washtenaw. And, on Tuesdays, though, I'm your host for creative:impact, the WEMU segment that explores the impact of the arts and creative industries in Washtenaw County. You know, the greater Ann Arbor area finds itself often brags endlessly about all the reasons that this is a great place to live, work, play, and visit. And, of course, we always add it's a great place for arts and creativity. It's not only that our residents generally like this area, those who track these things place Ann Arbor in the top ten of many rankings, such as the best place to live in Michigan. Depending on the source, we are the number two, six, or eighth best place to live in the country. We are the best college town, and the sixth best place to raise a family. We are also known internally as an arts and cultural town, but, to my knowledge, we've never made any top ten list. That is until now. Just last month, the Ann Arbor area was named as one of the top ten most vibrant, medium-sized arts communities in America by SMU DataArts. Besides bragging rights, what does this mean, and how is it measured? Our guest, Daniel Fonner, associate director of research at Southern Methodist University and SMU DataArts Program, is here, and he's going to help us understand the research on the numbers. Daniel, welcome to the show.

Daniel Fonner: Thank you for having me.

Deb Polich: So, there are probably many WEMU listeners who are saying, "Duh! We know this is a great arts town." Knowing it and backing it up with research and facts are slightly different, wouldn't you say?

Daniel Fonner: Yes, definitely. Being able to apply a more objective approach to these types of analyses really helps to better understand the communities that we look at.

Deb Polich: So, I should share that I was involved in the early adoption of DataArts in Michigan and helped launch it here a number of years ago. But why don't you give our listeners a brief on DataArts and want to collect some measures?

Daniel Fonner: Definitely. SMU DataArts has two sort of arms: one of data collection where we study and work with nonprofit arts and cultural organizations and look at their financial and operating conditions. And then, we have a research arm, where we do academic research as part of Southern Methodist University and use data sources beyond just what we collect internally to better understand the whole ecosystem of arts and culture across the United States.

Deb Polich: So, how do you collect and capture and analyze all of that data?

Daniel Fonner: One of the things that we do, specifically when we're looking at arts vibrancy, is we look for data sources that are available that cover every community across the United States. So, these are data sources that come from the Census Bureau, the IRS, Bureau of Statistics, and other sources where we can get data on every community. We want to make sure that we're not giving communities with better data sources more leverage in these types of analyses. It wouldn't be fair or possible to all communities looking at these data sources. And then, we combine everything to create scores and comparisons across the country.

SMU DataArts Top 40 Most Arts Vibrant Communities of 2022
SMU DataArts
SMU DataArts Top 40 Most Arts Vibrant Communities of 2022

Deb Polich: So, there are--and I'm familiar with many of those data collections. Some only do nonprofits, some do nonprofits, and numbers that come from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The National Endowment for the Arts has their numbers in the west there. And even here, we at Creative Washtenaw collect and report on all 990's in our county. So, everybody's using something different. And often, even gig artists get left out of all the data collection. Is there one perfect or all-encompassing data collection, or is it okay to mash these all up and pull information as you want from all of them?

Daniel Fonner: It can be...it's all choices. And we'll be the first to say that when you're making an index or any type of research looking nationwide, there are going to be slight discrepancies in the coverage of different data sources. And so, we try to be as transparent in our methodology as possible to discuss the sources and to identify where the data comes from. And, specifically, when we're looking at arts vibrancy, our data sources from the Census Bureau allow us to look at business patterns across the entire U.S., which include both for-profit and nonprofit institutions as part of our understanding of supply and the community. And specifically for artists, the Census Bureau's business pattern data does collect information about independent artists across the country, so we're able to include that. So, I would say there's not a perfect singular dataset, but by putting them together in different ways, knowing their limitations, we can get really good analysis across the country.

Deb Polich: So, I've been in this business a long time, as our listeners know. And, you know, we used to talk about arts for art's sake, and that's why it was important to our community or why it's important for government funding. What does data help us in our case statements and in our cause?

Daniel Fonner: I think it gives sort of the other side of the arts creation in our communities. I think arts for art's sake is a valuable argument to make an advocacy and thinking about arts in your communities. But I think just the nature of how politics work in the United States, thinking about government funding, and other aspects, we do have to supply some sort of quantitative approach to be part of that conversation. So, it's not that this type of analysis is better or stronger than thinking of arts for art's sake, but it's a complement. And we want to see how can this information tell us more about arts in a community to support the idea of art for art's sake when we're looking across the country.

Deb Polich: And do you find that there's an impact from the data? Does it make change?

Daniel Fonner: Yes. We've worked with many different institutions using our arts vibrancy work to help rainmakers think about where they want to put funding in a community if there's lower arts vibrancy in a particular area. And we've also used this type of information to help with advocacy efforts in the early stages of discussions, for example, around the Shuttered Venue Operators grant program, where we provided data and analysis to understand what would the potential cost and impact be of that grant program and how would that affect and help the sector.

Deb Polich: And, of course, that led to the largest funding amount ever in the arts and cultural world in the United States. 16.2 billion, I think, was the number. 89 one WEMU's creative:impact continues. I'm Deb Polich, and my guest is Daniel Fonner, director of research at SMU DataArts. The greater Ann Arbor area made it to the top ten list of the most vibrant midsize arts towns in America. And Daniel is helping us break down that report. So, Daniel, let's focus in on the most recent SMU DataArts report. First, what year was it measuring?

Daniel Fonner: This is our 2021 report, which allows us to look back a little bit. A lot of these data sources come in at different times from the federal government. And, for example, there's been a delay in the IRS of processing 990's. So, this is thinking earlier pandemic in terms of what data being captured. But we do model the data in different ways to account for delays in time to help us better combine these different data sources for analysis.

Deb Polich: I'm glad you mentioned COVID and the pandemic. So, are you also...I have to imagine you're able to compare it to pre-pandemic levels, too.

Daniel Fonner: We've done some of that with some of the delays from the different government sources. It's been harder to validate some of the newer data to do some really direct comparison, but we are working on that in different studies that we've done to really think about the impact on the sector.

Deb Polich: So, I want to look at...you guys provided some really great images and graphics, which our listeners can pick up on our WEMU dot org site. I want to look at both, if I can compare and contrast the greater Kalamazoo area, which is also on the list for the first time this year, and Ann Arbor. And you're measuring three. Your graphics showed three different things, and they were arts providers, arts dollars, and government support. So, in the arts provider category, Ann Arbor has a rating of 91, and Kalamazoo is 73. What's being counted there, and what does it mean?

Daniel Fonner: So, within that measure of arts providers, that's what we think of as supply. You're thinking of supply and demand of arts and culture. And that's going to include information about the number of independent artists in the community, the number of employees within arts and culture establishments, the number of organizations, and the number of arts and entertainment firms in the community. So, it's really telling us about what is available in that community.

SMU Data Arts
SMU DataArts
Modeling the Arts Ecosystem

Deb Polich: And, very quickly, arts dollars category and government support categories. What's in those?

Daniel Fonner: For arts dollars, we're going to be thinking of demand. That's going to be revenues of organizations, expenses, and compensation calculated from 990 data. And then, government support looks at state and federal dollars from grants that are given to various communities.

Deb Polich: And government grants do not include local government support. Why is that?

Daniel Fonner: That is correct. As I mentioned with our data sources, we want to make sure we're as fair as possible looking across the country. So, we have not found a good data source that allows us to look at just local arts grants because different communities have different data abilities of what they're collecting and sharing. So, we don't have that as an individual metric. But those dollars are captured within the arts dollars metric thinking about contributed revenue. So, even though they're not supplied individually, they are captured within that.

Deb Polich: Well, Daniel, our time's come to an end here, but I want to thank you for giving us an insight into these stats and allowing us to bravely brag about Ann Arbor being on the top of the list. So, thank you so much for being on the show.

Daniel Fonner: Thank you.

Deb Polich: That's Daniel Fonner, director of research at SMU DataArts. And we've been talking about Ann Arbor making it to the top of the list of the most vibrant midsize arts towns in America. Find out more about Daniel, SMU DataArts, and the report at WEMU dot org. You've been listening to creative:impact. I'm Deb Polich, president and CEO of Creative Washtenaw, and your host. Mat Hopson is our producer. Join us every Tuesday to meet creative Washtenaw guests. This is 89 one WEMU FM Ypsilanti. Public radio from Eastern Michigan University.

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Polich hosts the weekly segment creative:impact, which features creative people, jobs and businesses in the greater Ann Arbor area.
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