Some of the same values that underpin arts-based civic engagement are important to consider in evaluating it. This section highlights the importance of:
Context can influence success. Artists and cultural organizers who are skilled in arts-based civic engagement consider context in designing and assessing the impact of their work. Factors that can influence the effects of arts and cultural programs aiming for social change include:
- people involved
- resources available
- artistic capacities
- cultural norms
- belief systems
- political environment
As Stern and Seifert point out, “In some cases an environment might provide particularly fertile ground for a particular intervention. Efforts to engage a community over issues of race, for example, are more likely to bear fruit in a community that has already begun such a discussion than in one where it has been suppressed.” Evaluation efforts need to consider contextual factors.
Documenting and assessing contextual variables will help others to determine the relevance of a particular project or approach to another community or situation. Contextual variables that are important to attend to in describing findings include: size and nature of community; demographics of community; cohesion/polarization within the community; history of/related community arts initiatives; and position/history of sponsoring partner(s).
No story without numbers and no numbers without story. So goes one familiar evaluation adage. In a nutshell, this captures the value of striking the right balance of quantitative and qualitative evidence based on the change you want to understand.
Cultural practitioners already know the power of story in giving voice to and humanizing issues, encouraging participation by linking the personal to the public, and providing deep documentation of arts and social change activity and effects. Although, funders and civic leaders may demand “metrics” (or quantifiable measures of change), many can also readily cite the one story told when the board finally “got it” or a city councilor truly understood the impact of the work.
Qualitative data is therefore very valuable. To enhance the credibility of what is often considered subjective or sketchy data, the job is to learn systematic ways to gather and analyze qualitative evidence. Qualitative information can also be quantified, increasing its value among those who like metrics. Ethnographic and other evaluation approaches offer consistent methods to collect, organize, and interpret information.
It is still important to determine what change can and should be quantified to offer concrete evidence of social impact. Researchers and evaluators advise that an assessment is most helpful and convincing when qualitative and quantitative measures are mutually supportive.
Participation is a fundamental value of arts-based civic engagement work. Principles of democracy and equity, and a valuing of stakeholders’ knowledge and experience guide cultural workers to engage stakeholders in all facets of the projects they devise.
In the same spirit, people who do this work place high value on involving partners and participants—those closest to the issues involved—in defining success and establishing evaluation processes that are meaningful and useful to them. They are sensitive to not impose evaluation on program participants. They involve stakeholders in designing evaluation processes that are respectful and appropriate to cultural and community norms, and engaging stakeholders in conducting evaluation and interpreting and reporting findings. Participating in evaluation can animate the process of developing and implementing arts and social change projects from beginning to end. Participatory action research is a widely applied methodology that supports these values. Find out more about the Principles of Participatory Evaluation here.