Using Data to Expand Equitable Arts Programming in Nashville

This article originally appeared on Data Clinic’s blog on Medium.

In partnership with Metro Nashville Arts, we analyzed data on various arts initiatives in Nashville to provide insights on widening their reach equitably.

Widespread and equitable access to arts and culture is an important aspect of any city’s community planning. Art programming can provide meaningful opportunities for community engagement, creativity, and togetherness — something we’ve all learned to value more than ever during the Covid-19 pandemic. Therefore, ensuring equitable access to art and culture is an important priority for many arts organizations, including the Metro Nashville Art Commission, or “Metro Arts.” Metro Arts is the office of Arts and Culture for Nashville and Davidson County in Tennessee, and it strives to create a vibrant and equitable community through arts by funding nonprofit arts and cultural organizations, public art, artists and youth programs.

Each year, Metro Arts has to decide how to allocate its limited funds among a growing number of organizations. While Metro Arts’ funding has remained relatively flat over the last decade, the number of organizations applying for support has increased. This makes the decision-making process as to how much to give each organization more challenging. Metro Arts traditionally uses a holistic, qualitative review of the various organizations to determine funding allocations. While Metro Arts collects various data about its funded organizations and their projects and participants, it has historically faced many challenges to using that data effectively in its processes. These challenges include inconsistent data collection, limited staff resources and experience with data analysis. Metro Arts’ goal is to ensure that all Nashvillians have equitable access to a creative life, with a particular emphasis on ensuring that Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) communities and communities with higher rates of poverty have the same access as everyone else.

We had the opportunity to help the organization address some of the knowledge gaps and challenges it’s faced around data analysis. We’ve also been able to apply a quantitative lens to the work Metro Arts has been doing to allocate its resources equitably.

For each category of Metro Arts’ programming, we set out to answer two questions: (1) Can we estimate the reach of Metro Arts’ funded initiatives based on currently available data? and (2) can we provide Metro Arts with data-driven insights on funding allocations going forward? We analyzed the data provided by Metro Arts holistically and supplemented it with various publicly available data sets. We also used the FY 2019–2020 data to provide more targeted insights for Metro Art’s grant applications review this year.

In order to evaluate the current reach of public artworks and help identify public spaces in high poverty and BIPOC communities for new public art, we analyzed the locations of public art provided by Metro Arts (1989–2019). We also examined data from the US Census Bureau to better understand the demographic makeup of the communities in the vicinity of public art and used Walk Score data to quantify potential pedestrian access to these installations.

We discovered that about 50% of council districts in Nashville (out of 34) have no public artworks, which provides an opportunity for Metro Arts to expand its reach. Some Council Districts are primarily residential, since Nashville is a city/county government which includes urban, suburban and rural areas, so one possible set of potential locations for new artworks are Nashville Metro Parks, the data for which is made available through metro park boundaries dataset on the Nashville Open Data Portal. The maps below demonstrate where public artworks are located (dots), the locations of parks from Metro Park boundaries (orange regions), and census information color-coded to reflect the percentage of BIPOC population and the percentage of population living below the poverty level in each tract. From these maps, Metro Arts can glean insights about how equitably public art is distributed across different communities, in particular those with a high proportion of BIPOC and high poverty residents (i.e., the North-West and South-East regions of the city). These communities tend to have low exposure to permanent artworks and are considered “key regions” in Metro Art’s effort to ensure equitable access to public art.

Demographic distribution in Nashville with locations of public artworks (dots) and Metro parks (orange regions)

To help Metro Arts identify promising candidates for public artworks in prioritized regions of the city, we leveraged the Walk Score of each region. A Walk Score, ranging from 0 to 100, quantifies how “walkable” a neighborhood is by assessing various factors such as nearby amenities, accessibility to public transport, walking routes, and population density. It can serve as a proxy for accessibility of a location, indicating that there’s a higher likelihood that people would visit public art in an area with a higher Walk Score. The map below demonstrates the average Walk Score for each census tract in Nashville. Not surprisingly, the highest average Walk Scores are in the downtown areas of Nashville (80–100), while parts in the South-East have relatively high scores as well (above 50). Because most public art installations are in the downtown area of Nashville, they are located in regions with a high Walk Score. Since some of the factors that are considered in Walk Scores are also commonly associated with more expensive neighborhoods in cities, we assessed potential bias in the Walk Score (i.e., is a higher Walk Score correlated with higher income and/or lower BIPOC proportions in an area), but did not find significant evidence of these associations. Therefore, each region’s Walk Score can be a helpful metric for Metro Arts to consider going forward in terms of selecting easily accessible locations for public art. Metro Arts particularly appreciated this insight, as its assumption was that high Walk Score neighborhoods are limited to predominantly less diverse neighborhoods. “There are plenty of high Walk Score BIPOC neighborhoods we can consider for future public art,” said Janine Christiano, Strategic Funding and Initiatives Manager at Metro Arts.

Average WalkScore across Nashville (lighter colors indicate higher score)

We provided different metrics including average Walk Score, percentage of BIPOC and low-income residents, nearby public art, and nearby parks for all of the parks available in the Nashville metro park boundaries database. We then highlighted specific parks that could be of interest to Metro Arts, due to their proximity to neighborhoods with underserved populations and fewer current nearby installations (such as Ted Rhodes Park, White Creek Park, and Grassmere Park). We will also provide Metro Arts with code to generate these types of metrics for any new location going forward. These metrics, when used in conjunction with more qualitative information, can help Metro Arts to determine potential future locations for public art installations that expand access to underserved communities.

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