Doing Research with Community Partners
Artisans and musicians participate in the Great Lakes Folk Festival in East Lansing every August.
Ed Mahoney is a huge advocate for outreach partnerships. "The best way to
form relationships with clients," he said, "is to do research with them. Data requires very strong partnerships with different constituent groups. You can reach more people through partnerships, and you can pay your partners back with better research."
"If Michigan wants to develop a cultural economy in the future, one way is to promote art education for children."
Mahoney has a long history of partnerships. Hired by former MSU extension director and MSU president Gordon Guyer in 1983 as an MSU Extension specialist, Mahoney has developed applied-research relationships with 15-20 agencies, some of which have lasted for over 20 years. Most of his work with partners has been done via mutually beneficial surveys; client organizations get data to improve their services and Mahoney gets both access to the organization's membership and his own data for analysis (about 25-30% of the survey questions pertain directly to his own academic research).
One of his most recent projects is the Cultural and Economic Development Online Tool (CEDOT). The goal is to gather information annually in order to understand the economic significance of culture for residents and tourists by asking such questions as: How are people coming to Michigan? Are Michigan artists selling more art? Are people coming to concerts? Festivals? Libraries?
"Culture is such a broad term," Mahoney said. In evaluating and building Michigan's cultural tourism, "we have to define the Michigan market first." A preliminary survey, conducted in November 2006, was designed to find exactly that—data on participation in arts and cultural activities, market segments, cultural consumerism, and cultural tourism.
Mahoney, along with Betty Boone, director of Michigan's Office of Cultural Economic
Development, has also been examining the impacts of arts education in schools on later exposure to art, cultural consumption, and cultural tourism. "If Michigan wants to develop a cultural economy in the future, one way is to promote art education for children," Mahoney said. Exposure, he explained, makes people into cultural consumers and also influences whether they are members of arts associations, volunteers, and donors. A long-term impact of arts education is that it creates more opportunities—"not just more consumers, but more people who actually
help supply the product."
Boone uses the collaboratively collected data to argue in support of arts education; together, she and Mahoney are, as he explained, "translating it right into dollars and cents."
Now, as he's nearing retirement, Mahoney fears that young faculty will prioritize other forms of research. "If you take enough time to develop and maintain relationships, outreach research can develop a lot of money," he said. Mahoney estimated that he has brought in around $750,000 in donations and over $400,000 in contracts and grants, but the amount of time taken to develop such relationships is quite significant and often does not achieve the same level of recognition that other kinds of research might attain. To make the partnerships truly worthwhile, "You have to commit to engaging partners from the beginning"—a risk Mahoney is not sure many young scholars are willing to take. However, having adopted that strategy himself, Mahoney is a testament to the impacts such long-term investments can have. "Clients immediately see the significance of what you've done," he said, "and are capable of putting it into practical action."