This course had its origins in a graduate assignment I had back in the early 1990s. My intimidating professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Design provided only two requirements for our final paper: 1) that it be “interesting to him” and 2) that it be no longer than three pages.
I was relieved that he approved my topic of “how do local public art agencies evaluate their projects,” but was concerned about the page limitations. I needn’t have worried, since after reviewing as many of the agencies as I could in the pre-internet era, I did not find much.
At a presentation on public art in Arlington, VA, nearly 20 years later, a question from the audience made me think about my project again. I imagined that as the public art field had matured, surely there had been efforts to institutionalize some evaluative practices, but when I started making inquiries I realized that this was still a relatively unexplored topic.
Since Angela Adams and Liesel Fenner had both been kind enough to speak in my urban design policy class over the years, I approached them with the idea of conducting a graduate studio that would try to take on this topic. It’s a great testament to their openness to inquiry and commitment to the field that they very actively participated in the studio and contributed many hours and many insights.
Recognizing the complexity of the topic and the limitations of the three-month semester, and not having any idea about what we would find, we titled the course, “Exploring Evaluation for Public Art: Arlington County as Laboratory.”
Our 12 students hailed from five different countries and from three different programs (planning, architecture, and landscape architecture). To my delight, two of them were practicing public artists!
In a period of about six weeks, students got a crash course in public art, the Arlington County program, and various methods of evaluation. Students summarized whatever relevant studies we could lay our hands on (mostly from the UK). Although we were helped immensely by the writing of Harriet Senie, Katherine Gressel, and Animating Democracy’s new social impact website, we found little in the way of local government policy in the U.S. that might help guide our efforts.
We settled on a strategy of divide and conquer. Students formed four teams and adopted distinct methodologies to examine particular aspects of the outcome or process.
Guided by some of the goals in Arlington’s Public Art Master Plan, the studio developed some indicators for measuring past and future success. Since we knew that “before” snapshots were often missing in evaluation attempts and that public opinion often evolves over time, we tried develop studies that collected baseline data and that would allow Arlington to measure change as projects moved forward.
For example, one team took on the task of documenting existing attitudes and expectations for the future public art piece along Four Mile Run Park in the vicinity of the Water Pollution Control Plant. To achieve this, the group polled users of the park, members of the Advisory Coordination Group, and plant employees, and compared the results.
Two teams looked at the recently opened Long Bridge Park, which incorporated a piece by Doug Hollis. The first interviewed members of the multi-disciplinary design team to assess how the dynamic among members affected the process and the final result. The second developed a post-occupancy evaluation (POE) polling users of the park about their views of Wave Arbor and assessing whether the stated visual and functional objectives were met. The survey captured impressions of this new sculpture and examined its perceived value as an iconic feature of the park.
A final student team designed a survey for artists who had created works in Arlington, polling them on their processes of site analysis and community engagement; the results inspired students to make some suggestions on how the county’s standard public art contract could be modified.
I had thought that given the constraints of the semester, we may have had to be content with simply setting up the studies, but students insisted on getting out into the field. Although some of the results are still preliminary, the data received so far has been quite interesting.
At the end of the term, we produced four reports (totaling more than 50 pages!), which we hope provide models for continuing use by Arlington County and fodder for discussion in the public art community.
Has this type of project been undertaken at a higher education institution near you? If not, is this something you would consider doing?