Opportunity Faculty Fellows: Can the arts and design increase economic mobility and build social capital?

Ken Lambla, Professor

The arts are widely assumed to be a positive influence in the Charlotte region. But how do specific art programs help build social capital and increase economic mobility, especially for communities that have historically lacked access and resources?

Professor Ken Lambla and co-investigator Meg Whalen plan to research those questions with a two-part study that will focus on mapping the local arts ecosystem and identifying measurable ways specific programs create positive outcomes.

“What we’d like to see is an acknowledgment that artists, designers and others can play a role in solving our chronic problems,” Whalen said. “Nationally, there’s a real effort to determine what kind of role the arts can play in civic and community health.”

First, they plan to conduct a survey that will map the arts community in Charlotte, partnering with local artists and individuals to get beyond the major institutions and identify a broader range of programs. The survey will help answer some basic questions, Whalen said: “OK, what do we have? Who’s out here? Do they measure success? How do they describe success?”

Meg Whalen, COA+A director of communications

From there, she and Lambla plan to identify programs that can be followed more closely and looked at in a more analyictal way. One major goal, Whalen said, is to rebut a common refrain they hear when discussing the arts: That success and positive impacts aren’t measurable. 

“The research will define data strategies to measure arts/design impacts beyond institutional operating budgets and attendance numbers to include: educational opportunities, family participation, neighborhood/community cohesion, youth empowerment, transactional capability, and communication through body, voice, and hand,” the researchers wrote in their project description. They have partnered with the Arts & Science Council of Charlotte-Mecklenburg and a community advisory group of 20 people to craft the study.   

Ultimately, they hope to design a research and data program that can be integrated into the Institute for Social Capital, a research unit of the Urban Institute that collects the administrative data of dozens of local government agencies and nonprofits for research to inform community decision-making.

- By Ely Portillo