Over the last several years, as I’ve undertaken a program of retraining to support a social scientific approach to research on arts entrepreneurship and evaluation, the importance of “the research question” has been emphasized – drilled into me – by colleagues, teachers, editors, and even my teenaged reviewers at home. Although the methodology for answering research questions is different for artists than for social scientists, they ask research questions too. In a recent conference call with Polly Carl, David Dower, and Aaron Landsman, David recounted founding mother of the regional theatre movement Zelda Fichandler’s response to his query about why she left Arena Stage to head the acting program at NYU (where, coincidentally, I was a design student at the time). He relayed that she said, in effect, that she wakes up every morning with questions she wants to answer and needs to be in the right institution for answering them. “So the day she woke up and found that her line of inquiry could no longer be pursued in the context of a producing, subscriber-based theater, she changed her context to one that aided and abetted her inquiry. It wasn’t that Arena had stopped being a good theater, it was that her questions had evolved to the point of needing a new context.”
The call was initiated by Polly’s question, “how do we bring artists in to a better process and be more involved in developing that process?” and revolved, in part, around the creative process Aaron undertook with collaborators Mallory Catlett and Jim Lindsay to create City Council Meeting. Aaron wrote in a follow-up, “We wanted to see if a work about the forms through which we govern ourselves could yield something people wanted to see or participate in.” The content – driven by the artistic inquiry – was and continues to be open-ended. Keeping the content open-ended, “allowed for people from across the political spectrum to at least get in the room with us,” Aaron continued.
Artists and researchers aren’t the only ones asking questions. Evaluation questions are important too, and so is their timing. As institutions – and their projects – are built to answer the important questions of our day, evaluators may ask “are we doing what we set out to do?” or “are we impacting the people we thought we would be impacting?” but these questions imply knowing where you’re going before you start. Artists and, hopefully, the arts institutions that support them, ask open-ended questions that may not begin with a fixed end in mind. What, then are the appropriate evaluation questions? Perhaps “Are people engaged in the moment?” “Are we proceeding without harm?” “Is our process respectful of diverse viewpoints?” Or, perhaps the question is even more open-ended: “Where do we think we’re heading?” The answer to which could very well be, “Let’s try this and see where it takes us” in a grounded theory approach to both artmaking and evaluation.