Author: Annalee Yassi, July 3 2015 - Community-based arts have been promoted in many sectors of society to integrate and celebrate imaginative thinking - to help people find new ways to see and be in the world - and to promote social change. But many are asking: how and/or to what extent are such community-based arts initiatives bringing about social benefits? What are these benefits? And how can these be documented? While the influence of arts as a catalyst to social change is widely known in general terms, arts practitioners are increasingly asked to substantiate, beyond anecdotal evidence, how investments in their particular arts-based community project lead to positive change.
Artists involved in community-based arts are often resistant to the "funder’s way of evaluating". Many art for social change (ASC) practitioners passionately articulate the need to resist the dominant reductionist process of evaluation. Many express concern that the beauty and complexity of the arts would be lost if put through a traditional evaluation lens - and some argue that ASC projects should be valued based on the art itself, and not as an instrument for changing social outcomes.
But how do we know whether what we are doing has a positive social impact? How do we know that we are not unintentionally hurting someone? Or just wasting public funds that could be better spent elsewhere? Most people would agree that making grand presumptions about the positive impacts of one’s work without the tools of accountability is arrogant and irresponsible.
There are many existing tools and frameworks for evaluating community-based projects, as well as for evaluating the quality of art-based research. There are many different methods. At one end of the spectrum, there are longitudinal quantitative evaluations - in other words, the same large groups of participants are followed over a period of time to "measure" changes in any of a variety of pre-defined attributes (personal growth, social inclusion, social engagement or a long list of other outcomes), sometimes using questionnaires that have been previously validated or tested in practice. At the other end of the spectrum, there are a myriad of innovative methods for analyzing change based on various theories of how social change is achieved - and even a larger variety of techniques that can be used depending on the theory that drives the ASC project - many using the arts themselves in the gathering of information. Our ASC! Project evaluation pod is attempting to develop tools and approaches to help ASC groups sensitively, yet rigorously, assess the particular impact of their initiative - recognizing that every context and every project is different.
Fundamentally, the starting point is being clear about for whom, of what, and for what purpose the evaluation is being conducted. Artists have historically been agents of transformative social change. Working collaboratively, sharing our experience and insights, artists today can take up this challenge, as long as we dare to think critically. Let’s do this - together!
*** Please send any examples you have, or know about, of evaluations of ASC projects that you think have been done well, or in a particularly creative and interesting way. Please send them to Stephanie Parent, firstname.lastname@example.org The ASC! research project is creating a web-resource with tools and examples of evaluations of ASC projects. Full credit will be provided. Much appreciated!
Image credit: Corrina Keeling