Maurizio: Hello and welcome to this third episode of, “AT THE MIC”, a podcast brought to you by Arts Consultants Canada, l’association des Consultants canadiens en arts.
This is Maurizio Ortolani, ACCA member and producer of this podcast series, doing the introduction duties for Victoria Steele. In this episode Victoria joins our guest Kelly Hill in a conversation about how research is a vital link to good decision making and advocacy in the arts and culture sector.
ACCA acknowledges the support of the Canada Council for the Arts for this podcast series. / Nous remercions le Conseil des Arts du Canada pour son soutien à cette série de balados.
Based in Hamilton, Kelly Hill has provided research insights into the Canadian arts community for 25 years. His company, Hill Strategies Research, is probably best known for its statistical work. However, Kelly also conducts qualitative research, such as a recent story project on resilience within the cultural sector during the pandemic.
Kelly has a unique perspective on the arts thanks to the over 400 research projects that he has undertaken. With a thorough knowledge of arts information sources, Kelly has produced many benchmark studies of the arts sector. He has a strong interest in projects that illuminate the well-being of artists and arts organizations.
His statistically focused newsletter, available at statsinsights.ca, provides data and insights into artists and arts workers, public engagement, impacts of the arts, and current challenges with an eye to important issues such as accessibility, decolonization, equity, diversity, inclusion, and sustainability.
Victoria Steele is a bilingual management consultant based in Ottawa with 40 years’ experience in arts presenting, community engagement and advocacy. She is passionate about the power of the arts to connect communities and works with clients and stakeholders to develop strategies, realize innovative projects, and mentor careers. She has worked with arts organizations and festivals across Canada - mainstream, independent, indigenous, culturally diverse and francophone.
Victoria is best known as a former Managing Director of Theatre at the National Arts Centre for 19 years and general manager of Ontario theatre companies. With a passion for new work, she partnered with artistic directors to program over 50 world premieres. She served as Executive Director of Arts Network Ottawa and chaired the Ottawa Cultural Alliance as it developed the 2019–2022 Ottawa Cultural Roadmap. Victoria also currently teaches cultural management at UNB and is the Chair of Arts Consultants Canada and Treasurer of Cultural Human Resources Council.
And now, without further ado, here is Victoria Steele in conversation with Kelly Hill.
Victoria: Bojour Kelly. I am so pleased that you agreed to join us.
You’ve become a bit of a guru in arts research in Canada, and like me, you love working in both official languages. So today we agreed to speak in English, but I would like listeners to know that we are both bilingual. So, Kelly, there’s almost nobody like you. How did you get into this field?
Kelly: Merci Victoria. I have a background in social sciences. I’ve got a bachelor’s degree focused on economics and a master’s degree in political science, and I always wanted to apply that to interesting fields, fields that I found interesting and worthwhile. So, at one point, 26 years ago, almost now, a job came up that was just ideally suited for me, and I was ideally suited for the job, and that was at the Ontario Arts Council.
So, I started as a researcher at the Ontario Arts Council. That’s when I started applying my research, my social science skills to the arts specifically. And then after almost six years there, I transformed my career into entrepreneurship and started Hill Strategies Research because I knew that there was a need for the kind of detailed information that I wasn’t seeing out there from other sources.
Victoria: And I have to say on behalf of your colleagues, we’re so glad you did.
Kelly: Thank you.
Victoria: Did you have a particular artistic passion?
Kelly: I almost hate to say no. But the answer is more no than yes. I never really played an instrument to any extent. I dabbled in tiny little bits of playing instruments. I’ve always loved writing. So, I guess if I had had one thing, it would be writing. I had at one point thought, not that I would become a poet, but that I might write poetry on an ongoing basis. But I didn’t. I haven’t really kept that up. I still do write a little bit for fun. I’ve considered myself a writer for a long time now, so I’ve applied those writing skills to more technical kind of writing than the creative form of writing.
Victoria: Well, you do write great reports and I don’t find that they’re overly technical sounding. In fact, for me, you bring research to life. You make it really useful and pertinent. So maybe you could talk a bit about what areas of research you specialize in.
Kelly: Thank you very much for that. It’s something I’ve worked hard at for 26 years in trying to provide information that isn’t overly technical but is technical enough that people get the gist of what the findings are, but also how we got to the findings. And that’s a real balancing act. So, trying to provide enough detail but not too much detail so that you’re not losing people.
Victoria: Your research is mostly in arts and culture.
Kelly: Completely, for the last 26 years, I’ve only worked in the arts, let’s say. Arts and culture has been my passion in terms of research. And when I started my business 20 years ago, I was not sure that that would sustain me and sustain the business. But here I am 20 years later still working in the arts and culture exclusively.
Victoria: And you really are quite unique. There are not many other people out there like you. Because you work in both languages, you’re really able to dig deep into what’s going on everywhere in Canada. I find that really useful in terms of my work. Maybe you can talk a little bit about the difference between being a researcher, which is sort of how you describe yourself, and being a consultant.
Kelly: The difference for me is about the recommendations at the end of the game. Some of the research effort that would take place would be similar between a consulting project and a research project, but a pure research project would be more along the lines of making sure that we have the most robust qualitative/quantitative methods possible to achieve the goals of the research. So, I’m always talking to clients about what do you want to know? What do you need to know? What’s our bottom line here? That’s a conversation that I have really regularly with clients about winnowing things down into what is really necessary for the project. And usually with my projects, I’m not getting to a point of saying, well, as an organization or as a government agency, you need to do X, Y, and Z to move your organization forward. It’s more benchmarking and providing information that allows them to say, oh, okay, this is interesting. This might mean that we should go down this direction. And then in some cases for government agencies, it would be a political decision-making process as to what avenues they would take, what approaches they would take.
Victoria: And because you kind of have everything that comes out of Stats Can in your head, you’re in a position though that you will suggest to a client, which, I have hired you at one point, you would suggest to a client, “Hey, what about this piece of information? Have you thought about that?”
So, a client might like me, I might think that I know what I’m looking for and have maybe done an RFP that you’ve responded to and all that, but you’re in a position obviously to offer up a lot of what I would call added value.
Kelly: Thank you. We try to do that, and it’s a fun part of the process, working with clients to understand their needs because, writing it down in a request for proposals is one thing but really, you could take multiple approaches to the same problem. And so, talking to clients is about meeting their real needs, finding out what their real needs are, and sometimes they don’t know before you start that process, they just want to know about the impacts of the arts in British Columbia, for example. And have no idea really how to get there. So, I might propose a multistream process of talking to different people in different ways, through surveys, through interviews, through collecting existing data from Stats Can, and pulling that all together. Collecting existing data from the Canada Revenue Agency and pulling all that together and saying, well, here’s what we know about the arts in BC and about its impacts on people, and here’s what BC arts organizations say about their impacts on BC residents and people elsewhere. So that kind of perspective, that kind of discussion early on in the process really guides what happens later on.
Victoria: You’ve just reminded me, of course I keep thinking you as the data guy, the data mining guy, but you are, much more than that. When we think about research, what is involved with research, there’s methodology like mining data, but there’s also getting out there and talking to people, consultations, surveys, et cetera, et cetera, where you’re, gathering the information which can be so useful. So, to put that whole research project together might involve components of all of those parts, particularly if you were to be taking on, working with government or government agencies and, and you have actually worked with many government agencies at all levels, federal, provincial, municipal, to help them look at their cultural policy and inform decisions.
You’re in a position where the research that you give them is, it needs to be really robust, accurate, because you are, you’re giving them information that’s going to influence their decision making. So, I wonder if you can talk a little bit about who your clients on the government side have been and the kind of research that you’ve done for them.
Kelly: Yes, I’ve had clients at the municipal level, the provincial level, the federal level. At the municipal level, the conversation often tends to be about comparing themselves to other municipalities in ways, how much funding for the arts is available in our community? How does that compare to other communities? What do we provide in terms of other supports to artists and arts organizations, the arts community in general? How does that compare to others? That has often been the focus of what I’ve done at the municipal level.
At the provincial level there can be some of the same comparing between the provinces. there’s also the basic benchmarking of, usually statistical, of how many artists are in our community. This has been a through stream in 26 years of research. In the sector, how big are the arts is a question I get asked all the time in many different ways. How many artists are there, how many arts organizations are there?
And it’s not an easy sector to pin down in that regard. So that makes the choice of methods really important. At the national level, it’s often about benchmarking and understanding the impacts. And, it partly depends on the government of the day and what their needs are in terms of information. Whether it’s the nuts and bolts of the arts community, artist’s incomes, arts organizations, revenues, that sort of information. Arts attendance. How important are the arts in the lives of Canadians? In what different ways? All of these are research topics that I’ve taken on for different levels of government, and in particular those topics would be, aligned more towards the federal government.
Victoria: Yeah, and if we think about the importance of the potential influence of this data and research, you made a reference a moment ago about how some of the research on artists and the arts in Canada is difficult to nail down, I think is the language you use, what do you mean by that?
Kelly: Artists are very entrepreneurial, and a lot of artists are what would be called in the wider community, the wider economics community, micro-businesses. They have a business where it’s just themselves. So those are the hardest types of businesses on which to capture information. And many artists don’t consider themselves a business.
It’s just in the statistics world, they would be considered a business because they’re self-employed. So, once you’re self-employed, you have your own “business”, for statistical purposes, then, small businesses, the really small businesses, the micro-businesses are the hardest ones to capture information on. Because, and there’s a flow in and out of the sector that is pretty, I won’t say regular, but it’s fairly irregular, but it’s fairly substantial from year to year. Over a five year period, whatever, people come in, they try to make a living as an artist, in many cases they’re not able to, so they end up doing something else, possibly consulting, among other things that people would take on at that point.
So, that is not easy. It’s not like going into, say, engineering, and you end up being an engineer and by and large you’re going to be an engineer for much of your career. You might move into management, you might move into different roles. You might own your own business at some point, but generally you’d stay as an engineer longer than you might stay as many artists are able to stay. And that’s one of the challenges overall in the sector that we’ve pointed to statistically, is retention of artists and how do artists make a living and can they make a living, have been questions for 25 years.
Victoria: And actually thinking about some of the research projects you undertook during the pandemic, you actually undertook a really, really important piece of research, on behalf of self-employed indie artists, during the pandemic. Maybe you’d like to speak a bit on that.
Kelly: I’d like to speak about two specific projects that I did on behalf of independent artists during the pandemic. One is the, “I Lost My Gig” project and working with them on finding out how badly the pandemic and it’s associated lockdowns, influenced artists livelihoods. And the answer was, it would be hard to overstate how much the lockdowns affected artists livelihoods, a loss of near nearly all of their gigs in many cases.
Performing artists have been incredibly impacted by the pandemic and continue to be, in many ways. The performing arts, we’ve seen statistically, is one of the sectors that has been slowest to respond, the slowest to get back after the lockdown and the most severe aspects of the pandemic.
But the second project that I want to talk about is another one that was really for independent artists, and that was a survey of workplace sexual harassment in the arts. And many of us have often thought of the art sector as, I did anyways, I won’t speak for everyone else, but I have often thought of the art sector as a fairly progressive sector, As one where women tend to hold senior positions probably more often than in other sectors. As one that is fairly open to new people coming into it and finding their role. So, it has been troubling to see the rate, for example, sexual harassment in the arts and this was a specifically performing arts and film workers.
We did a survey where we received 1,102 responses from individual artists, individual arts workers, and the rates of sexual harassment in the workplace in those sectors was really shocking and really stunning to us. So, I think that’s really important as well. And to come back to something that we’ve talked about in terms of the recommendations or not consulting versus research. The end result of this research into workplace sexual harassment wasn’t that we made a series of recommendations to improve life for artists, that was the role of my client, basically, to do that, nd the client was after me too in this case. There were some clear messages that came from it.
They want a reporting mechanism . There should be more checks and balances in the sector. So, there were some elements of that in there that basically came from the artists themselves and they said, here’s what we want. So we repeated some of those messages that we heard from artists. But it’s the role of the client in this case to move it forward and to take that information and say, okay, we have a baseline now for what we know of the situation of sexual harassment in the arts. How can we make this better? Let’s work to make this better.
Victoria: Those are really outstanding and powerful examples, Kelly, of how your research can directly lead to informed advocacy and change. And that work is usually done in collaboration with a service organization or collective of service organizations of some kind. So, we talked about how you help governments to make decisions now we’re starting to talk about how the sector can advocate for change. And I just can’t say how much I appreciate what you’ve just spoken to. You and I got to know each other actually when I was chair of the Ottawa Cultural Alliance, which was an association of service organizations in the cultural sector in Ottawa who were looking to, develop a sector led cultural roadmap because our municipality was behind.
Long story, you were unbelievable in terms of the way you worked with our team and, and we had some other consultants, so we had a team. And often you would work in a team with other consultants. You bring your set of skills, they bring their set of skills. The team that you were a part of really helped us get some of those basic facts that could help tell the story of where are their issues and where do we need to go from here? Maybe you can talk some more about how arts service organizations, you gave us a couple of examples, but you’ve worked with so many, can actually use your data and your other forms of research for advocacy purposes.
Kelly: The use of my research for advocacy purposes is one of the key things that has happened for 20 years now. Organizations have taken the information that we’ve mined to say, all right, this is really important. This is a particular challenge in the art sector. This is something that’s really important, whether it’s the situation of artists is something that has been an ongoing challenge for 25 years since I’ve started working in the sector. To know that organizations, once they know what the situation is, often how bad it is for individual artists in terms of an income standpoint, then they can work to make change and to try to provide better livelihoods, better conditions for artists’ livelihoods in their local communities. So that, that is a key element of it.
I could give an example of another pandemic era project that was a very positive type of project. Many have been challeged, the pandemic has been challenging for many artists and arts organizations, that we know, that I have helped to document. But also there has been a lot of innovation that has gone on during this time and the art sector has been at the forefront of many of these innovations, as has been the case pre pandemic. But this was really a chance for us to put our fingers on it and put our fingers on a good news story rather than necessarily focusing on the bad things. Which we’re not sugarcoating, it has had really troubling impacts for a lot of the art sector. But there’s also been a spirit of innovation that has happened during this time that has taken place within arts organizations, from individual artists. And so, the Creative City Network of Canada, an art service organization largely representing municipalities, has wanted to identify and highlight those positive stories. Not being pollyannish, but just saying, with the gut feeling that the art sector has been at the forefront of innovation in many ways. We wanted to put our fingers on how that has happened so that they could better talk to their members about how that has happened in their community so that their members could better talk to their, elected officials locally so that they, the Creative City Network and its partners could better talk to provincial levels of government, federal level of government and say, look, this is happening, this has happened, and here’s ways that this could be supported in the future. Because some of the innovation funding was related specifically to the pandemic, but the innovation doesn’t stop at the end of the pandemic, whenever that might be, or whenever that has already happened. Possibly, depending on one’s perspective.
So, moving forward, how do we keep this going? How do we keep supporting individuals and organizations who are innovating in an interesting way?
Victoria: Yeah, I’ve heard very good things actually about the results of that research. just because I’m involved with CHRC. I know that they’re helping to spread the good word on this. And it’s interesting because the word innovation is one that, I know Canada Council’s worked really hard to sort of, define it because sometimes it scares people off.
Innovation doesn’t mean it needs to be new technology. Innovation can mean just a new way of doing things. How did you harvest those practices, those new innovative practices for the sharing?
Kelly: We identified some of those innovative practices initially through a survey. So, there was a survey of the arts culture and heritage community in Canada. People were encouraged to submit a brief blurb about what they’ve done during the pandemic that they consider innovative. And innovation is not just doing something that is brand new for the whole world. It’s doing something that’s new for your organization. It could be technology, it could be process innovation. It could be doing things in a new way.
If you’re a performing arts organization, you’re still going to be a performing arts organization. But how you’ve done that might be different. If you are a media arts organization serving individual members, how you do that had to change during the pandemic because people couldn’t drop in borrow filmmaking equipment and then bring it back in quite the same way. That could still happen to some extent, but there were, there were also people who went out into their communities and said, how are we going to make our processes better for more people? How are we going to work with a more diverse range of stakeholders effectively? How do we think about our future going forward? Not just how do we get ourselves through however long the pandemic last? So that has been a really important element of it as well. Technology and processes for sure have been important.
Victoria: Yeah. And I really look forward to reading more about it, because I know this, this is being shared across the country now. So, we’ve been talking about how you’ve helped support government agency decision making and how you’ve maybe support sector organizations, service organizations. But as an individual arts organization, how can they use data and research that you might provide? As we talked the other day, you didn’t know. But because I’m a bit of a data junkie, not to your extent by any means, I look to you to help me build the case for support for PAL Ottawa’s new affordable Housing for Artists and Arts Workers Initiative. Because I went in there and I said who’s going to give me the info that’s going to help me build the argument for the stakeholders we needed to talk to. You didn’t know I did that, but I, but I did. Maybe you can talk a little bit about how your research can help individual arts organizations do their own planning and maybe give us a couple of examples.
Kelly: If you are someone who runs a performing arts space in Canada, you might be curious to know what the situation of in general of performing arts spaces is. And on this past Tuesday, I published, a survey based report and analysis of the state of publicly owned arts and culture spaces in Canada. That could help an organization think about its place. Think about, okay, what is the quality of my facility? What is the quality of the accessibility of my facility? How does it relate to other facilities? Am I doing better or worse than other facilities in my province, in my country, et cetera, et cetera, of the different same kind of facility than an art gallery be it or a performing arts space, et cetera.
So that is just one example from my newish project, Stats Insights.ca, where I provide on a weekly basis, I provide some kind of analysis of existing information, and usually that’s Statistics Canada information that I will take and mine for its arts content. And that is something I have done to some degree for 20 years now. But how I do it has, has changed recently. It’s now on a subscription basis. So many arts organizations might subscribe to find out more about the economic impact of the arts, and that might help them make the case to their funders better. They might be able to put it into their funding applications, for example. They might want to know about the local arts and culture workforce, trends. About the vacancy rate in jobs in the arts from a more global basis than their own organization. But if that’s something that they’re struggling with, they might at least like to know, okay, we’re not alone in this. This is a sector-wide problem.
So, a solution to a sector wide problem might be different than a solution to a one organization problem. It’s just us. We have a job vacancy rate that is way too high. We can’t find people to do the jobs that we need them to do. Is this just us? If it’s not just you, then the, the solution is probably different. So that is a way that individuals can subscribe to the information, find out more about what’s going on. Sometimes it’ll be a bit of a bird’s eye view for them. It won’t relate exactly to their situation, but they could position their own situation within that bird’s eye view. And think about, for example, their, their environmental practices. What are they doing? What are other arts and heritage organizations doing? What could be done in that area that might just give them some ideas from the types of questions that are asked in that kind of survey. Oh, we don’t have that kind of practice. Maybe we should consider doing that. It’s more than just recycling, obviously, reacting to climate change and trying to prevent further climate change. So, they might be able to think of innovations for themselves in that area.
Victoria: That’s a really good point. When I’m working with my students and, and clients to a certain extent as well we talk all the time about how we are part of an ecosystem. Some of these issues are systemic or sector wide and by understanding what’s going on in that context, if you’re very local, it’s going to be your local context, some of it may be true countrywide, but then you can start to see, oh, not just here’s a gap we maybe could fill, say as an organization trying to be strategic, but again, opportunities to seize. That’s very, very interesting. Personally, I’m glad that you’re making more and more of your research available for, if I would say, Monsieur et Madame, the people who are working in the arts that are not necessarily data geeks or, government researcher types. I really feel that this kind of information, obviously I’m biased, I like your work, really helps us to make strong, strong arguments of the case for support, from everyone.
I believe that the arts build strong community. You’ve done quite a bit of research that actually gets to some of the, if I would call it, qualitative views, not just quantitative. Maybe just in closing, we could talk a little bit about, qualitative and how important that is. And maybe then you could give us some other ideas of things you’re working on now.
Kelly: I think the qualitative work is really important. It allows people to tell their stories in their own voices for one thing, and that is hugely important in a survey environment. In a more quantitative environment, we’re often pigeonholing people into, let’s call them boxes and that is only as good as the boxes you create, and you can work as hard as possible to make them as inclusive as possible and to do what you can. But there’s still a bit of boxing in, whereas the qualitative information, there’s no boxing in. If you’re doing interviews, there’s a bit of guiding towards certain research goals, but if you are doing, say, open-ended survey questions, it allows people to talk about what’s really important to them, talk about their experiences in a way that is off the cuff, and that then provides you as a researcher with a lot of thought of fodder, a lot of information, a lot of things that you could transmit to the world, in your reporting.
The biggest part of my work right now is continuing the Statistical Insights on the Arts series at statsinsights.ca, providing weekly glimpses of arts and culture data. That is a huge part of my work.
One of the other projects, the main other project that I’m working on right now is actually a French language project for Quebec with ????, which is a part of the Association of Publishers of Quebec to give their name in English. And I’m working with them, it’s a bilingual project really, but my work with them is in French and the reporting will be in French. But the research is in English and is about book marketing outside of Quebec and the book market outside of Quebec. The ins and outs and tricks of that and there are many tricks, if you want to say it, but there’s many specific elements of a book market both inside Quebec and outside Quebec, but they’re really experts in what’s going on in Quebec. But they don’t know as much about who best to contact outside of Quebec? How to get in touch with them and what their avenues might be. So that is something that I’m looking at for them that should be wrapping up in the new year.
Victoria: Another thought is, of course, some people might be listening to this and saying, oh yeah, this guy’s great, but where do I get the money to hire him and that’s always a challenge. And, and we do know that because you have such a great track record with funders when they see your name on an application they think at least this guy knows what he’s doing. Do you have any thoughts or suggestions about, where people find the funds to be able to hire someone like you?
Kelly: I think people find the funds all over the place. Government agencies are certainly important. But not the only places. Some organizations have received pandemic specific funding over the last couple of years, and they might put a bit of that into research and thinking about the future and improving their practices over the long term.
I don’t have a magic bullet for this. The issue of getting funding to fund important research in the sector is not an easy challenge to overcome for a lot of organizations. So, I wouldn’t want to sugar-coat how challenging that can be, but if the will is there, start a discussion and see what the opportunities might be.
And usually, my clients know best who they could go to on their local basis or their provincial basis or whatever their jurisdiction might be, to apply for some grant funding and to see what happens.
Victoria: I know municipalities themselves have enough of a challenge to find funds to do their own research. I guess you’re right. The pandemic did offer some opportunities to do some additional research that wasn’t perhaps planned, but was ended up being very, very informative.
We could probably keep talking for a long time, but I think that we’re at the end and I just want to say, you know how much I’ve enjoyed working with you before on projects and I really hope I get a chance to do so again really soon. Merci beaucoup Kelly.
Kelly: Merci Victoria. Thank you very much.
Maurizio: And that wraps up our third edition of AT THE MIC, a podcast of Arts Consultants Canada. For information on ACCA and our members, please check us out online at artsconsultants.ca. To send us feedback or questions on anything you hear in this podcast series, please email us at [email protected]
_ and remember to check our show notes in this podcast for links mentioned during the program.
Et noter bien que quelques épisodes seront en français et nous offrons accès à un service de traduction de ne rien manquer!
Thank you so much for joining us on AT THE MIC. Remember to subscribe to this podcast at Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you find your favourite podcasts. Until next time, and again thanks for listening. À la prochain.