Odd Jobs

Dr. Melissa Menzer (credit: Carrie Holbo Photography)

What do the Sundance Film Festival, "The Color Purple" author Alice Walker and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial have in common?

All received funding from the National Endowment for the Arts, the largest arts funder in the United States. Last year, NEA supported more than 2,200 grants totaling $116 million for arts projects in theater, music, visual arts and arts education, as well as for research on how art affects American life. In charge of vetting NEA's research proposals is developmental psychologist Melissa Menzer, PhD, a program analyst in the Office of Research and Analysis.

For Menzer, who studied studio arts along with psychology as an undergraduate before earning her doctorate in human development at the University of Maryland, College Park, working at NEA offers a perfect blend of her personal interests and research expertise. "I wanted to do research and be involved in research that could potentially have a public benefit," she says. "Given my background in the arts and strong research training, NEA's research office was the ideal fit for me."

Her job

Running NEA's research grants program — "Research: Art Works" — involves several tasks, including walking grant hopefuls through the application process, advising them on their proposals and organizing experts to critique applications and recommend who should get funding. Recent grantees have included fellow psychologists, such as Eleanor Brown, PhD, of West Chester University, who is using her NEA funds to look at how arts enrichment programs affect children's cortisol levels. Outside of managing the grants program, Menzer is also analyzing data and writing research reports using national surveys such as the Survey of Public Participation in the Arts. This is a study NEA conducts periodically to inform city planners and other arts stakeholders on how frequently people are attending movies, theater and other arts events, and how they learn and share art.

Extending the arts' reach

Menzer is also part of a government-wide effort to find new ways the arts can improve people's lives. The NEA's Interagency Task Force on the Arts and Human Development brings together representatives from 17 federal departments, agencies and divisions, including the Department of Education and the National Institutes of Health, to share ideas and identify gaps in research on how art affects health, well-being and educational outcomes.

As part of the NEA's contribution to the task force, Menzer is leading a literature review on how the arts affect children's early development and where more research is needed. "There is still so much we don't know about how the arts affect cognitive functioning, social and emotional well-being and physiological development, and whether these relationships vary across different developmental periods and whether certain environmental or biological contexts alter these links," she says.

Better data on the arts

This past spring, Menzer also won a slot as a scholar representing NEA for the National Children's Study, a large-scale National Institute for Child Health and Human Development-funded look at how children's environments — from the water they drink to family dynamics and education — affect their growth and development. It will cover the period from before birth to age 21. For NEA's part, Menzer will write and submit questions on children's exposure to music.

"It is rare and quite an honor to be able to be involved in the design of a large-scale longitudinal study such as this, and the fact that it's proposed to be a 21-year study is even more exciting," she says.

Next year, she'll also add NEA's touch to another well-known data set: She and colleagues are drafting an arts section for the 2014 wave of the Health and Retirement Study, the longitudinal study of aging and retirement conducted by the National Institute on Aging. NEA's questions will address arts participation among people 50 and older, including how participation affects cognitive decline and psychological well-being.

Her favorite part of the job? Keeping abreast of what local and national artists are working on and developments in arts research across the United States. "It's thrilling to be able to hear about some of the cutting-edge research that people are doing from different fields such as psychology, economics, education and medicine, to name a few," she says.