“Art is as much a product of the technologies available to artists as it is the sociopolitical time it was made in” -Jacoba Urist, The Atlantic
I’ve been reading a lot recently about data finding its way into the arts realm, and while I’m certainly interested in the ways in which artists use data as a raw material, I’m even more interested to see how arts organizations are using information design in ways that speak to their audiences and offer in-roads to the work itself.
Art, of course, puts subjectivity and emotion ahead of almost everything else, so you might think that data is an unwelcome invasion. But I’m seeing more and more examples of organizations putting their data to work – not just as a means to make better strategic decisions internally or to pretty up a funding application but as a way to communicate directly with the public, helping them navigate through the work or to highlight the relevance of a discipline.
I saw a great example of this recently, Toronto Symphony Orchestra’s listening guides. This is what they look like:
Hannah Chan-Hartley, TSO’s managing editor and musicologist, is in charge of creating the listening guides with graphic designer Gareth Fowler.
Chan-Hartley said in an interview that she “wanted to remove some of the barriers to comprehension that more ‘traditional’ guides you see in print tend to have.”
For one, these traditional aids often have a lot of descriptive text, which you have to read through and then remember as you listen to the piece. I wanted my guide to be visual, and one that you can follow along with in ‘real time’ while listening.
Secondly, only people who can read musical notation would find the excerpts in the traditional guides useful, so I wanted a graphic way to represent what is being heard so anyone could understand.
And finally, I wanted the guide to be in a format through which you could visually grasp the overall structure of a symphonic movement or an entire symphony – by showing when the main musical themes are presented, developed, and recur, and thereby help to structure your listening.
Personally I thought this whole concept was brilliant and really achieves information design’s primary purpose – bringing clarity and engagement to a complex situation.
And I ask you: what is Brahms if not a complex situation?
(By the way, if you’re interested in music, dataviz and geekery, you should also check out this article in the Wall Street Journal about an algorithm that analyzes and visualizes Hamilton the musical.)
Here at the studio we also launched a new data visualization for a major arts organization recently, which is perhaps why these other projects are piquing my interest right now. The client, Canada Council for the Arts, has undertaken a bunch of research projects in the past year collecting various data: statistical information, financial data, trend data, and geographical breakdowns.
One of the datasets they were ready to visualize was the Canada Dance Mapping Study, which they embarked upon to try and understand the social impact of dance organizations and in making these data available to the public in a more digestible format.
The Council wanted answers to some pretty broad sweeping questions like:
- How does dance benefit a society, a community or a particular group within a community?
- How can dance be an instrument for positive change (mental, physical, spiritual) for individuals within our society?
- Where is our biggest impact on the well-being of Canadians?
You may also like:
So late last year they asked Canadian dance companies, dance training schools, presenters and service organizations to participate in a survey about their programs. Three hundred and sixty-seven organizations completed the survey and FFunction was asked to visualize the data.
There were two main challenges with this viz.
- The data was in development when we began the project—The Canada Council was just beginning to undertake analysis—so we began our visual research without it
- The programs featured in this survey were largely broad-based, with most of them designed to appeal to as many different societal groups as possible. In early prototypes, this made our charts really flat – they weren’t telling us a story worth retelling
Our breakthrough on this was making the social impact goals the focal point, which gave us an angle we could visualize.
The social impact goals were as follows:
…and here’s one of the charts, showing how these social impact areas play out when visualized as clusters:
As you can see, the data now gives us a better insight into the impact of dance organizations on a wide range of groups, including at-risk youth, LGBTTQ, recent immigrants and people with disabilities.
There are small icons below each cluster, which tell us the top three methods used: classes, workshops, community arts events, cultural festivities or arts education school programs.
Here’s the legend for the icons:
It was a huge privilege to work on these data with the Canada Council – when put together and deciphered, these individual data points tell the story of our engagement with dance as a nation. One arts industry pain-point (historically at least) has been the difficulty of finding accurate measureable information around impact, but it’s vital for organizations wanting to make a case for better support, find new donors or create new partnerships with venues, programmers, sponsors or educational facilities. In other words, it’s not just what the country does for the art form (through funding, buying tickets, making donations), but what the art form can do for the country. It’s a two-way street, a relationship.
I think that data-driven projects like this offer more than simply highlighting the benefits of an art form – they can actually change the artistic landscape and the way we engage with art in some game-changing ways.