In reading people’s Blog Salon posts I am glad to see innovative approaches to assessing the impact of public art, how inviting people to tell stories can be used as an assessment tool, and how one can look at arts impact on well-being and social cohesion.
I am even more convinced that it is important that the evaluation process be one that is engaging and inclusive of arts richness rather then an empty distillation of findings that caters to a potential funders need to assess impact.
This process must be more then about giving funders what they want or about being able to tell whether one program, artist or project is better than another, but rather, to help us understand arts role in our communities and on the individual so that we might advocate for a change in the way investment takes place.
If art is in fact offering a space for developing social understanding, for connecting and building relationships, and for developing greater cohesion, part of the story that needs to be told is about how and why this is a valuable counterbalance to a society whose bureaucracies emphasize productivity, economic success, and competition without fostering the larger social fabric of communities.
One possible way to frame evaluation is to make clear the problems that art addresses.
One compelling piece of data in Baltimore is the dropout rate, which hovers around 50 percent (depending on who you ask and how you count).
When comparing this number to how youth rate their school climate through the Baltimore City School Climate Survey, it seems that about half of youth in schools experience negative social climate (about the same rate as they are dropping out). Though these two figures are not proven to be causal it does seem likely that a poor social climate plays a role in kids dropping out.
One could also look at our cities budgets and see them as representative of our value systems on a larger scale. In Baltimore our city spends 24 percent of its budget on safety, 6 percent on “stronger neighborhoods,” and 13 percent on schools.
To invest in art in our systems, in schools, public spaces, or in community spaces requires a significant paradigm shift towards acknowledging the importance of our essential joy, our bond and connections with others and our communities.
Assessment needs to not just define effectiveness but build a compelling picture of this greater need for balance and promote the positive solutions to social challenges that art can offer.