Clayton Lord

In four days, I have spoken to over 500 people in Boston, New York, DC (which was Livestreamed), and Philadelphia about Counting New Beans and it has been an amazing set of conversations.

Artistic directors, marketers, development people, funders, government representatives—everyone has engaged in a thoughtful and provocative conversation about impact assessment and it’s role in the field.

But I think of all the points raised over the last week, the one that has resonated most with me is around the value and rightness or wrongness of setting artistic goals and then measuring to them.

In Philadelphia, one artistic director admitted to being scared at the implications of being able to measure impact. Alan Brown, speaking from the stage, related a story of an artistic leader in Australia, who upon hearing about impact assessment said, “Great, I’m going to get a 3.5 on spiritual fulfillment this year, and you’re going to expect me to get a 3.6 next year.”

And, just a few minutes ago, I got an extremely well-articulated (and overall very positive and flattering) email from Jason Loewith, executive director of National New Play Network that included a very interesting fleshing out of the fear an artistic leader might have of an outside force, like say a funder, trying to exert control over artistic product through impact assessment.

To this all, I say absolutely, we should we watchful and wary of such implications for the work. If impact assessment ends up being used as a stick with which, without context, to make an artistic leader change or to take an artistic leader to task, that is a problem.

But, I also really believe that artistic impact assessment has the great possibility of allowing and encouraging artistic leaders to consciously set goals for productions around the impacts he or she hopes a production will achieve and then measuring impact success against those particular goals—a process that sounds a lot like how all other parts of the organization are asked to work, whether you are talking about individual giving goals, percentage of single-ticket-buyer goals, staff efficiency goals, or whatever.

I believe that a resistance to this work that stems from feeling like artistic vision shouldn’t be accountable to external measurements of success is problematic, even while understanding that those external metrics really need to be set by the artistic leaders themselves in a process that encourages artistic freedom, not stifles it.

I can see a role for a foundation or a board to ask for those impact goals in advance and then to ask for reporting on the work to be done in the context of whether those goals were achieved or not—not as a way of punishing “failure” (should lower than expected scores appear), but as a way of starting a conversation about the impact of the art, where things like pre- and post-engagement could have been augmented to affect impact, and what steps might be taken in the future based on the impact of the work as related to the goal—set by the artistic staff. Like all metrics, the person in charge of getting there has to own the number—but also like all departments within an organization, metrics are not the enemy.

Arts organizations, no matter how much they may argue otherwise, do not exist simply for the art’s sake. 501(c)3 organizations are given their nonprofit status on the promise that they are affecting a social good, creating public value, bettering society.

It seems to me not unreasonable, then, to hold the art itself up to a lens and understand whether it is, you know, doing that—and to ask the artistic leadership, who are the arbiters of the work and the ones who think most deeply and consciously about each particular work’s role in the artistic journey of the audience, to be the guides for assessing that impact.

(Editor’s note: For more information, Clayton’s tour schedule, or to order the book, visit Theatre Bay Area.)

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Alec Baldwin and Nigel Lythgoe talk about the state of the arts in America at Arts Advocacy Day 2012. The acclaimed actor and famed producer discuss arts education and what inspires them.