Late last week, the NEA released a re-interpretation of its 2008 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts. In the announcement of the new analysis, the agency writes “For nearly three decades, the periodic survey has focused primarily on live attendance at “benchmark” arts activities which are defined as live attendance at jazz or classical music concerts, opera, plays, ballet, or visits to art museums or galleries.” Stated another way — in the broadest terms for intentional effect — the NEA had been measuring elite attendance at elite events produced by elite institutions. No wonder, then, that there has been discussion of an oversupply of said institutions under the pressure of declining attendance. The shift from measuring attendance to measuring participation is long overdue. When we concern ourselves with both the quality and quantity of participation, we shift the dialogue away from an over-supply of arts institutions to an undersupply of arts experiences. When we re-frame the discussion around participation, arts and democracy go hand-in-hand.
In that vein, I’ve become enamored recently of Americans for the Arts’ Animating Democracy project, and most especially its tools for measuring the social impact of the arts. Their portfolio of tools challenges arts makers (and arts funders, one would hope) to rethink who we make art both for and with and how we evaluate the success of our creative endeavors. The Animating Democracy website talks about the arts in terms of social impact and the support for civic dialogue, among other subsets of social impact. Success on the social impact indicators is measured not only by butts in seats but by more qualitative measures derived from interviews with participants, minutes of meetings, content analysis of media coverage, entrance and exit surveys, and so on. These types of measures are HARD; they take work – far more work than audience head count, but as my colleague Stephani Woodson like to remind me, we measure things because they matter.
In these divisive and meager times, what can matter more than measuring the social impact created by increasing community capacity for civic dialogue? That’s why I signed on to a project recently to collaborate with some very creative colleagues to measure the social impact of the artswork they plan to create in a collaboration between artists and youth. It’s an entrepreneurial joint venture that’s designed not to achieve financial gain, but rather positive social impact. Watch for developments here about At Home in the Desert: Youth Engagement and Place and the measurements of our social impact outcomes. And let’s hope that the NEA, to whom we’ve applied for funding, finds value in the project as well.