Will You Help Launch the Evolution of Arts Evaluation?

It is time for us to start getting smarter about the evidence we use to evaluate and advocate for the arts.

What can we as community members, a government, a business, a society who cares about the arts, do to advance the state of the arts? From the neighbor down the street to the city government agency, we can all become more effective advocates if we are equipped with the right tools and the right vocabulary. My mission is to enable us to explain and support the arts, a field which holds a unique power within our communities.

Why should we advocate for the arts?

Arts bind communities, give voice to our causes, and expression to our identities. Regardless of what ideology we support, the arts are a tool of expression and communication that help us better tell the stories of who we are and what we believe. Arts are not a danger; they are simply a language by which we communicate; a language that needs protection. When society is at its lowest points, our culture and our arts are often the strongest forces. In the US, the arts industry contributes over $704 billion dollars and employs over 4.7 million wage and salary workers. Arts have a far-reaching effect on almost every part of our lives. We should advocate for the arts because the arts make immediate and long-term impacts, ranging from economic and political to social and personal. These impacts are strong forces, but are hard to communicate. This is why we must emphasize evaluation.

How do we advocate for the arts?

Historically, we have used stories, case studies, and qualitative evidence to measure and communicate the impact of arts in our communities. Organizations such as Americans for the Arts have created indexes to help us gain a comprehensive picture of the impact the arts have on communities. The data sources used are broadly available or nationally collected sets of metrics from agencies such as the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the US Bureau of the Census, local agencies or individually tailored surveys. Most all conclusions regarding impact tend to be derived from classic economic measures, measures that may not recognizably change during a single grant life cycle. Because of this, an argument centered on only changes in the dollar value of the arts in communities is incomplete and often unpersuasive. It is particularly unpersuasive to the artists and their organizations who are more likely to prioritize aesthetics over economics.

Why not start tailoring the evidence we use to advocate for the arts? We have enough data available to better consolidate arts information and go beyond measuring economic impact. What if our data sources combined with mission data of arts organizations and sentiment data from patrons to comprehensively tell a data-driven story about the arts?

How can we evolve the way we advocate for the arts?

Let’s take a step back and look at how we evaluate impact in other sectors. In the world of business, decisions have become data-driven in ways we could hardly have predicted a few years ago. Business analysts can mine, model, and study business centric data, in order to improve their sales and many other variables, choosing a variety of data sources such as public, commercial and social media data.

How can we bring this way of thinking to the arts? Are there nonprofit arts organizations that use (or can use) some of the same sophisticated analytics and sentiment-monitoring tools that today’s businesses use to measure and predict their impact?

How might arts organizations benefit? What if an opera company or a local symphony orchestra, could more effectively measure who they are, (and are not) reaching, how their audiences feel about a performance, and why certain segments of the population would attend, or even donate?

This approach of evaluation is considerably more in depth than a survey; we are asking organizations to actually test ideas with predictive analytics models and obtain statistics that would permit them to more effectively schedule special events, performances, or to improve the likelihood of an audience’s return for future performances.

Could we create an analytics study before committing to an entire season of Shostakovich?

Could we use data on previous donors to create a targeted donor strategy model? With data and analytics, we as the arts sector could make more effective decision making and fewer costly errors. More importantly, we may be able to provide a more satisfied, evidence based method of feedback for donors, grantmakers, and artists themselves.

How may this affect arts policy?

To create change in how we advocate for the arts, we can manufacture new technology, indexes and metrics, but we must turn to policy to truly lead us forward. Arts policy has traditionally lacked in providing direct and compelling tools for arts advocacy. Arts policy, which can range from legislation to evaluation, has focused on researching the importance of the arts rather than evaluating it. By creating more sophisticated tools to help us monitor and evaluate the impact of the arts, we can deepen policy. First and foremost, federal, state, and local governments can adopt and adapt methods of evaluation that will monitor impact to create evidence-based truths for the arts. It will require us to partner with the organizations such as Americans for the Arts or the National Endowment for the Arts to hold policy roundtables or institutes. However there is also an expanding need for more focused arts policy vocabulary, so that when asked by our citizens and representatives, “What is the role of arts and culture in our communities?” our leaders are equipped with the language and strategy to articulate the importance of the arts. Stronger methods of arts evaluation can impact the type of policy we create around arts evaluation, but it can also help strengthen legislation. For example, by having a more robust view on how the Metropolitan Museum of Art affects the surrounding neighborhoods in Manhattan, from demographics to economics, we can create legislation that protects or promotes diversity of culture and equality within our communities.

How will this change our communities?

By using tools and stronger methods of evaluation, we may be able to prove that arts and culture are necessary, central, and useful to advance the wellbeing and vibrancy of our communities. Our support can help small, local arts businesses take shape and make a name for themselves. We should be able to make a case for why a developer must build an arts collective in the neighborhood rather than a call center or a high rise. Ultimately stronger arts evaluation will help our communities grow; not necessarily in size, but in richness, and in spirit and eventually economic vitality. As I see it, arts and culture can promote and develop meaning in our communities which will make us more connected in an increasingly disconnected society, and lead us to invest.

But, we have to first prove that this meaning and growth actually exists.

It will take the intersection of policy, strategy, and community, but with the right tools, we can make a case for why arts should be a part of the forethought, not an afterthought when building communities.

Will you help launch the evolution of arts evaluation?

How do these ideas sit you? Do you want to help? I’d really like to hear from you! Please share your thoughts and/or feedback in comments.