Dispatches from the Evaluation Learning Lab

Posted by Alicia Gregory, Oct 26, 2015 0 comments

In 2014, Animating Democracy, in partnership with the Art x Culture x Social Justice Network (ACSJN) and the Nathan Cummings Foundation launched the Evaluation Learning Lab. The lab builds practical knowledge and resources in three areas as they relate to arts and social change projects and programs:  measuring social impact, evaluating artistic/aesthetic dimensions, and equalizing power in evaluation.

Over the past year, guided by the Lab’s theory of change, we’ve gathered 20 artists, arts practitioners, funders, and evaluators in learning exchanges that combined case studies, presentations and discussion around existing evaluation theories and approaches, analysis of current frameworks, criteria, guidelines, and tools, and development of new tools for ethical practices.

This is urgent and necessary work, especially in a climate where vital arts for change organizations and arts organizations of color struggle with the tired trifecta that is all too prominent in the field: underfunding, understaffing, and overworking. This month’s release of the University of Maryland’s DeVos Institute of Arts Management’s study on the current state of African American and Latino arts organizations painted a bleak picture: “arts organizations of color are struggling, in some cases desperately.” And followed with a bleak suggestion: “funders may need to support a limited number of organizations with larger grants to a smaller cohort that can manage themselves effectively, make the best art, and have the biggest impact on their communities.”

Jason Tseng, Community Engagement Specialist at Fractured Atlas, responded with a powerful critique in both written and comic form, likening the “may the best (wo)man win” attitude of that suggestion to, appropriately, the Hunger Games:

“ …we’ve got a whole bunch of data that shows that Black and Latino organizations are categorically and critically underfunded; that rich people (who are disproportionately white) ignore arts organizations of color; and that because of this racist funding pattern these organizations face monumental challenges to achieve good financial health — and the DeVos Institute suggests that our response should be funding fewer Black and Latino organizations and have them duke it out Hunger Games-style so that only a few remain.”

The work of the Evaluation Learning Lab participants, and the inquiry of the blogs you will read this week, empower those committed to creating and supporting arts and social change work to define relevant frames, outcomes, and measures by which to assess the work. In Maurine Knighton’s opening post, which you will read this afternoon, she writes: “We, as the community of arts and social justice practitioners, have to figure out how to judge our effectiveness, then how to inform those outside our sphere about our experiences.” It is an important suggestion that urges us to take control of our narrative and be our best, most informed advocates.

The core problem of evaluating arts for change work is that too often standard evaluation practices, guidelines, methods, and outcomes are not conducive to the type of change that arts for change work incites—long-term impact that is not easily measurable in metrics, does not easily translate into ill-fitting or dated frameworks. In attempting to force a square into a circle, narratives of the work end up stunted, the long arc is not honored, and the importance, impact, and spirit of the work does not translate to “those outside our sphere,” as Maurine wrote.

Lab participant, artist, and Director of Philanthropy at the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, Risë Wilson, writes--in her post published on Wednesday--of her own experience heading the Laundromat Project, a community-based, non-profit that brings art to low-income neighborhoods throughout New York City. “The LP’s currency was (and is) relationships, self-discovery, and nurturing the agency of our neighbors in ways that do not easily (or willingly) translate to workforce development, higher test scores, or positioning poor people to be better cogs in the capitalist wheel.” Rise lays out several practical suggestions that truly speak to the title of her piece: Power and Agency are Waiting for You: Come Claim What’s Yours.

Risë, Maurine, and 8 others make up the bright chorus of voices from the lab that share their experience, ideas, and visions this week. The common thread through each post is a call to action, to take control of the narrative, to develop and provide the frameworks that will best serve our work. To work together with funders and outside constituents in this way—teasing out the questions and learning from one another in order to work towards the continued health—both financial and artistic—of this vital arts and social change work. 

Please login to post comments.