NEA Grant to Fund Arts-Based Social Mobility Research

An interdisciplinary team from UNC Charlotte has received a $29,000 Research Grant in the Arts from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) for the project “Arts-based social mobility: Exploring cultural capital in Charlotte, NC.”

Led by Associate Professor of Sociology Vaughn Schmutz in the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences, the research team includes Professor of Architecture Ken Lambla, Associate Professor of Art Education Jane Dalton, and Meg Whalen, director of communications and external relations in the College of Arts + Architecture. Nikkeia Lee, managing director of The Possibility Project-Charlotte, joins the team as an independent contractor.

A variety of artists and arts organizations in Charlotte create work and offer programs with the explicit goal of positive social impact. Many such activities aspire to increase the cultural capital of participants through arts education, community-based cultural events, creative placemaking, and other types of arts-based experiences. The UNC Charlotte project will explore how artists and organizations in Charlotte conceptualize and assess the social impact of the arts, what motivates individuals and families to participate in those activities, and how both providers and participants describe those experiences.

“Academically, the project has the potential to expand and refine existing theories about the relationship between arts participation, cultural capital, and social inequality,” Schmutz said. “Little empirical work has been done to understand the beliefs, motivations, and goals of those who create and those who participate in arts-based programs with some type of social impact in mind. More practically, there has been a lot of discussion recently about the lack of economic mobility in Charlotte, but the arts has received limited attention in those conversations.”

“We think this work can potentially enhance and highlight the role that the arts can play in Charlotte’s plans to broaden economic opportunity for all its residents.”

– Vaughn Schmutz

“Arts-based social mobility: Exploring cultural capital in Charlotte, NC,” builds upon a social impact of the arts study initiated by Lambla, Whalen, and Lee and supported by a 2019-2020 Opportunity Research Faculty Fellowship administered by the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute and funded by the Gambrell Foundation. That initiative, Arts Impact Charlotte, was developed in response to the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Opportunity Task Force Report addressing low economic mobility in Charlotte and was carried out in collaboration with a community advisory group. It began with a survey, administered in the fall of 2019. Learn more about Arts Impact Charlotte and see survey results at

Vaughn Schmutz

Schmutz is well-equipped to lead the research team. In addition to his doctoral degree in sociology, he holds a doctoral degree in Arts & Culture Studies and has a long history of interdisciplinary research in the arts. Currently, he is co-editor-in-chief of Poetics: Journal of Empirical Research on Culture, the Media and the Arts. In recent years, he has conducted research in partnership with two organizations in Charlotte that offer free music and visual arts education to low-income students.

Dalton, who teaches art education in the Department of Art & Art History, is a practicing artist and a researcher who uses a range of arts-based, self-study, and phenomenological research methods to capture data that reveals the impact the arts have for transforming teaching and learning. She will implement arts-based research methods as part of the project data collection.

The research team will begin work this summer with the help of three Charlotte Community Scholars, funded through the UNC Charlotte Office of Undergraduate Research, and graduate research assistant Lindsey Miller, a master’s student in the Department of Sociology. Research will continue through August 2021.

Established by Congress in 1965, the NEA is the independent federal agency that supports arts learning, affirms and celebrates America’s rich and diverse cultural heritage, and extends its work to promote equal access to the arts in every community across America. Research Grants in the Arts support research that investigates the value and/or impact of the arts, either as individual components of the U.S. arts ecology or as they interact with each other and/or with other domains of American life. To learn more about the NEA, visit

Image by Daniel Coston: A UNC Charlotte art education student teaches a student.