Shifting Expectations: An Urban Planner’s Reflections on Evaluation of Community-Based Arts

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Resource Details
Maria Rosario Jackson
Americans for the Arts Working Group and Urban Institute
Animating Democracy resource
PDF icon shifting_expectations.pdf232.06 KB

In this 11-page paper based on experience and examples, Jackson lays out in understandable terms a practical and reasonable approach for arts practitioners who are grappling with evaluation of their programs. The piece serves as a reality check for arts practitioners regarding what they can and cannot claim as effects of their programs. Jackson's national perspective and expertise gives credibility to the case for limiting claims of causality, serving arts practitioners who do not want to overstate their effect but do not know how to get around the questions that people (particularly funders) ask about their impact.   Jackson highlights the key issues that arise in measuring arts-based civic engagement programs. She opens with several examples of arts organizations and programs that are improving communities with their work, including the Los Angeles Poverty Department (LAPD), the Tamejavi Festival in the Central Valley region of California, New Orleans' Ashe Cultural Arts Center, and Chicago’s National Museum of Mexican Art. She then describes the purpose of this document – to help practitioners and funders consider how to recalibrate expectations about evaluation and what it can accomplish – and presents three questions that guide her reflections throughout the rest of the paper: How does society value the contributions of this work in communities? How is the work of artists and arts organizations validated and evaluated in the arts field and in the other areas impacted by their work? What challenges and opportunities do artists and arts organizations face in communicating their contributions? Jackson then discusses different perspectives on evaluation and describes the potential benefits of good evaluation, i.e. it can be a great opportunity to reflect on one’s work, learn about how goals might be achieved, and consider how future work might be improved. She goes on to describe four factors to keep in mind in considering the best use of evaluation: Be clear about who the stakeholders in the arts-based initiative are. Include them in thinking through what program success might look like and, by extension, what an evaluation should or should not include. Get clarity about the context and possible constraints within which funders work. Do not make claims or take full responsibility for impacting conditions over which you have no direct control. Do not be tempted to “prove” through quantitative analysis that an arts intervention “caused” a particular outcome. Do not assume that the benchmark data and recurrent measures needed to prove impacts or change as a result of the arts intervention already exist. The next section, about ongoing assessment, recommends developing one’s own sustainable methods or systematically, reliably, and recurrently documenting work and how and why it matters; enlisting the assistance of collaborating agencies to develop documentation systems; integrating data collection function into staff job descriptions; and being proactive about evaluation by integrating it into program plans and budgets. Jackson closes with a section on evaluation and case-making in which she recommends keeping in mind the perceptions of community arts work at the margins of the arts sector; the narrow understanding of cultural participation; the under-acknowledgement of the roles of artists in communities; the notion that arts and culture as a policy area continues to be largely disconnected for other fields such as community development and health; and arguments about the economic impacts of the arts and how they overshadow efforts to make other impacts visible.

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