An Interview with Muna Shami

from MasonARC’s Interview Blog Series: The Impact of Covid-19 on Arts Programing, Practice, and Research


Amber Zhang: Tell me about your background, role, and current project in arts research and programming. How does your work connect to the ecosystem of arts research/policy/practice?

Muna Shami (Director, Kennedy Center Education Research & Evaluation): I serve as the Director of Research and Evaluation at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Our team supports Kennedy Center Education and Kennedy Center Social Impact with program evaluation and conducting research through our programs. It is our intent that the learnings from our work will support the ongoing improvement of program implementation and outcomes and also inform the broader arts and arts education ecosystems, including teachers and practitioners in schools and arts organizations, researchers, and policymakers.

In my brief time in the arts education field, I have found it would beneficial for policymakers, researchers, and practitioners to codevelop a common research agenda that centers children and youth and is structured around priority areas. We could then support one another in implementing equitable and impactful programs as we build an evidence base across the ecosystem. Resources from across the arts education ecosystem could then be leveraged so we are growing a body of knowledge in an even more intentional way.

Amber: Considering the pandemic and current political climate, how do you think the value of arts may change in the future?

Muna: To the degree that the arts are a reflection of society, artists are consistently creating work that reflects their lived experience and context. Turning the lens towards the institutions and funders that support the arts, I am observing a point of reflection. There are conversations happening around the role of arts and cultural institutions, representation and whose voices and stories are centered, and equity of access to the arts and arts education. These conversations are happening in a time when the arts and culture sector is rebuilding after a quite devastating hit from the pandemic. While these are longstanding important conversation in the field, there is an opportunity now to try new approaches and rebuild better.

Amber: What do you think of arts research? What is your role in arts research or practice?

Muna: Kennedy Center Education is structured around five areas of work: education programs and productions, school and community programs, Very Special Arts (VSA) accessibility, digital learning, and research and evaluation. Our work as researchers and evaluators at the Kennedy Center is integrated with the work of the arts programmers. At our best, we engage in an inquiry-driven process with the arts programmers as the content experts, creators, and drivers. The work is iterative and asks practitioners to engage in an ongoing learning process as a way of working and to adjust their practices based on what they are learning through the process.

Amber: What is your perspective on the utility/application of arts research?

Muna: I would love to see more applied arts research! Arts research includes a wide range of research and evaluation studies that vary quite a bit in their rigor. Most prevalent among them – from what I have seen – are program evaluations. Many funders now ask for program evaluations, yet the way that programs are often designed and the funding levels for the evaluation work often do not allow for much more than an evaluation of that particular program. This can make it difficult to then apply what is learned elsewhere. For example, a program evaluation may show improved outcomes – the teachers are learning new skills, the students are growing through the program. Too often, the results are not presented with key elements of program implementation. If a programmer wants to replicate the program and achieve those outcomes, they are often relying on a general program description. On a positive note –research in the field seems moving in this direction and looking at mechanisms of change and greater attention to collecting implementation data. This will support practitioners in using research to inform their practice.

Amber: How do you view the current state of the arts ecosystem? How has the arts ecosystem shifted/changed since COVID-19?

Muna: My colleagues in Kennedy Center Education have been in touch with our extended community throughout the pandemic and we have conducted two needs assessments thus far. We are asking them these questions – and adjusting our support to meet their needs. This has included transforming a lot of programming into the digital space. Kennedy Center Education has launched virtual performances that are reaching students nationally; worked with teaching artists to support them in creating online content to support students; offered professional development online; and held our national convenings virtually.

Amber: What do you think your arts practice/research would look like given the increased calls and efforts for racial justice?

Muna: The arts and culture sector have a critical role to play as we build a more just world. Kennedy Center Education has long centered equity of access to and participation in the arts. A number of our programs were developed explicitly to support this, including Any Given Child, Turnaround Arts, and the Get on the Bus program, and VSA accessibility.

Amber: How do you see arts practice/research/policy moving forward after the pandemic?

Muna: There is increased attention in attending to the social and emotional learning (SEL) of young people and the role that the arts can play with SEL.

Amber: What are your goals and expectations in the use of arts research in practice?

Muna: To build practical knowledge on the impact of the arts and arts education that can be used to improve arts and arts education programming to support children and youth to better understand and express themselves, to better understand and connect with others, and to imagine and co-create new possibilities for themselves, their communities, their nation, and the world.

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