I recently resigned from a public art program in Detroit that was housed inside a small arts college. During my time there, evaluation became a big part of my job. It was critical to track, define, and report for the future of the program to serve as a baseline for success for the arts institution. Before this, my idea of success was primarily based from the perspective of the studio artist.
The projects that were created in the neighborhoods of Detroit were much more complex because each project was so very different from one another, involved different people from diverse backgrounds, and had community defined goals and artist selection.
When I set out to create a plan of evaluation I realized this was going to be a complex task.
My first obstacle was simply trying to figure out what to call the projects. A seemingly simple thing turned into more than I expected.
I started to compile a list of all the different names that artists and organizations are using to define public art which involves the people around the project in some way.
• Social Aesthetics
• Relational Aesthetics
• Social Justice Art
• Community Art
• Social Sculpture
• New Genre Public Art
• Tactical Media
• Cultural Activism
• Social Practice
• Participatory Art
Looking at this list only made more questions about useful evaluation and the purpose behind evaluation. Thankfully, I found a partner to help me in a not so obvious place.
I had formed a working relationship with the University of Michigan School of Social Work to provide a place for social work graduate students to do meaningful work in the Detroit communities as part of their capstone studies. My social work intern, Kaity Nicastri, and I started a dialog about evaluation and our joint vision was developed over time.
Our partnership was a turning point for me when it came to my depth of thinking and understanding evaluation. The experience planted a seed in me about evaluation that is still growing.
A piece of public art that wants to involve a community can do so in many ways, big and small. All of these kinds of projects, no matter what you call them, are very dependent on the context in which it is created. They have a complex social, cultural, political, and economic system at play. Just because a project is thriving in one area of the city doesn’t mean that you can just replicate that project and get the same results.
The projects themselves can appear differently to those who have not been engaged in the project directly. Visually a project can look very deceiving. It could be small and insignificant but the dialogue around that project can be big and could have started other projects and have had a domino effect on the community.
Just as true, a large visually stunning project can ultimately have no real lasting impact on a community.
Community change takes time, patience, community organizing, authentic engagement, careful listening, and hope.
What do you do when those things don’t happen fast enough to document on your evaluation? This is where things really get interesting for me.
Since timing is critical for all evaluation. The story and the shapeshifting behind each project is where the true authentic evaluation exists.
I think the more dialog we have the closer we will get to verbalize this kind of evaluation.
What do you think?