Growing interest in capturing impact of many types of programs has resulted in escalating discourse and developing practice-based theory about the social impacts of the arts. This current focus on understanding what difference we make builds on, and goes beyond Robert Putnam’s theory, which connected the power of arts and culture in creating social capital.
Across the board, researchers are exercising leadership in this area. For example:
- Alan Brown, in An Architecture of Value, has drawn out and interpreted key concepts from the RAND Corporation’s Gifts of the Muse report to advance a framework of public value centered in and building from the arts experience.
- Clayton Lord and Alan Brown, working with theater partners across the country, have devised indicators and scales to measure the intrinsic impact of experiencing theater.
- In the media arts, American University’s Center for Social Media has reviewed state of the art methodologies for the strategic design and evaluation of social issue documentary films in its Designing for Impact.
- Mark Stern and Susan Seifert at the Social Impact of the Arts Project (SIAP) have developed cultural clustering as both a methodology and a concept. The method involves integrating data on cultural assets into a geographic information system to produce a Cultural Asset Index that can be used to identify census block groups with the highest density of these assets. SIAP is developing a Creative Assets Mapping Database as a community and economic development tool.
- The Knight Foundation and Artplace are working to create vibrancy measures for communities, while the National Endowment for the Arts is looking for indicators to assess the impact of Our Town and other grant programs.
Animating Democracy, a program of Americans for the Arts, has been working to bring together these strands of thinking in the Impact section of our website; particularly, when artists are intentional and art is integrated with practices of civic engagement and social activism as catalysts, conveners, forums, and forms for change.
However, we’re equally interested in the creation of “artistic capital” (how creative skills contribute to social innovation and activism) and understanding “artistic effects” (how artistic investigation is advanced in work that is intentionally focused on contributing to social and civic change).
We have devised a continuum to illuminate how arts and cultural programs and experiences can play vital roles in effecting social outcomes that lead to change:
Even having been immersed in this impact work, when Animating Democracy asked bloggers the question, “(how) can we validate the benefit of the arts and culture in terms of social impact?“, I was surprised by the new and innovative ways that people in and out of the sector are thinking about evaluation.
Although talking about social impact with funders and community leaders continues to be important, discussions about measuring and describing the social impact of the arts have moved beyond that as the primary driver for evaluation work.
Many perspectives on this topic will be explored throughout this week’s Blog Salon by artists like Marty Pottenger and Rachel Grossman who have drawn from their own work the importance of broader, perhaps more relevant, definitions of evaluation.
Voices outside of the field—such as those of Marc Maxson and Mark Stern—provide examples of experimentation and new thinking from the social sector that could have huge implications for the arts.
Many of the bloggers touch on the challenges of evaluating social impact, whether it is Chris Dwyer speaking about considering the long view or John Bare’s question of how you “forecast impact when the arts are deployed in service of social change”.
Jason Yoon and CJ, as well as Rebecca Yenawine speak specifically to the need to democratize evaluation.
Threaded through many of the blog posts, in fact, is the concept that equity should be an ethical underpinning for evaluation design and process—in addition to being central to the arts for change work itself.
Please stay tuned to ARTSblog all this week for these posts and others by veteran artists, expert evaluators, and innovative practitioners.
We’re looking forward to engaging with you about the value of evaluative thinking around arts for change work and hearing your responses to the interesting directions they’ve begun to investigate.