Take a survey, boost local art: The Englert’s Katie Roche on why Johnson County is participating in the Americans for the Arts study for the first time

Katie Roche (center) leads a procession from the Englert Theatre to the new FilmScene location at The Chauncey to celebrate Strengthen Grow Evolve. Saturday, April 20, 2018. — Zak Neumann/Little Village

Roughly every five years, Americans for the Arts, a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit founded in 1960, conducts a nationwide impact study on how individual communities are affected economically by the arts programs they foster and support. This year, the sixth of the study, Englert Theatre Development Director Katie Roche made sure that Johnson County would be part of it. The Englert is leaning into the process, folding administration of the Arts & Economic Prosperity study (AEP6) into Roche’s job duties (they also received a grant from the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs that allows for a paid intern to support Roche’s work, Coe College student Alex Tomes).

The information gleaned from this study will help arts organizations like the Englert, and people in Roche’s role both locally and across the country, build talking points and snapshots that show how vital the arts are to local economies, leading to better chances at grant funding and more leverage for lobbyists to drive legislative change. As you attend events in Johnson County this fall, including many of those featured in this issue, please take a moment to fill out the survey if it’s handed to you. It’s a small way to deepen the vibrancy of your community!

Roche spoke to Little Village via email about the survey and its potential impact.

What have you learned of value from previous AEP surveys? In what ways will Johnson County data be valuable to similar communities across the nation?

I’ve used the metrics from prior AEP studies in my work as an arts advocate and encouraged other arts organizations to reference the studies in their advocacy. The economic impact number was a key metric for making the case for the Englert and FilmScene’s Strengthen Grow Evolve campaign by benchmarking how our current economic impact would be expanded by the investments the campaign would make in our facilities and program. In the past I’d used their general formula to calculate impact. With our county-wide participation we’ll have numbers that directly reflect the impact of our local arts community. All of the communities that participate across the country will have added value of that direct impact and the ability to compare themselves to similar communities.

Aside from the impact of the pandemic, what do you see as the biggest shift between now and 2017 that will drive differences in findings between AEP5 and AEP6?

By establishing a benchmark with our participation in AEP6 my hope is that our county will participate in the future AEP7, in order to gain a deeper understanding of how arts and cultural organizations truly impact our economy. This is definitely a challenging time to administer a study, asking organizations that are even more under-resourced than they were before the pandemic to volunteer to take on survey collection at some of their events …

We’ve been met with concerns of not having enough staff or volunteers, feelings that asking people about their spending is challenging during a time where many are experiencing economic crisis, and situations where organizations are just trying to dig back out and re-establish their annual operations and don’t have the capacity to look that far forward. This tool will help all arts orgs to inspire supporters to give generously, can influence government appropriations, and can give our community a sense of pride for the ways in which arts and culture make our communities a great place to live.

What excites you most about this, personally? Do you enjoy nerding out on data or are you interested only in the human impact of the results?

I am someone who can look at a spreadsheet and see a story. I joke that data sings to me, but truly, I’ve seen data inform decisions that change peoples lives and our community for the better. Making informed decisions helps under-resourced organizations to conserve resources in ways where they can have the most impact. I’m most excited to see how we can harness the power of these results to improve funding for the arts and expand service to underserved and marginalized people. Arts access is why I go to work every day because I believe in the power of the arts to transform people’s lives for the better.

This article was originally published in Little Village issue 310.

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