Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Determining Impact

The Arts Council reports to five sets of stake-holders: The IRS, because we are an independent non-profit of a size that requires us to fill out a Form 990 every year; The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), because we are one of the 56 state or regional partners that receive the bulk of its federal funds through this small independent agency; the Governor, because his annual budget process is the starting point for determining what our state appropriation will be; the Legislature--particularly the House and Senate Appropriations and Institutions committees--because they tend to be the ending point for determining our annual state appropriation; and our members, represented by the Board of Trustees, who set policy, adopt our mission and strategic plan, approve our annual budget, and provide executive oversight.

The general public is also a stakeholder, but for the sake of argument, I would suggest that their interest tends to be covered by a combination the IRS, the Legislature, and the Membership.

From time to time, there are additional stakeholders. Some are collaborators like other statewide nonprofits (Historical Society, Preservation Trust, and the Vt. Council on Rural Development) who work with us on Cultural Facilities and the Creative Economy. Others are funders--foundations, corporations, or federal agencies (other than the NEA) who have funded more specific projects like the Millenium Arts Partnership, Palettes, Art Fits Vermont, and the Cream of Vermont music sampler. And a few are state partners, like the Tourism Dept. or the Agency of Agriculture with whom we (have) work(ed) on projects like Cultural Heritage Tourism and the Big E.

All of these stakeholders are interested in impact. Why? Because it is not enough to keep busy doing work that you know is important. THEY have to know it's important, too. And the only way to do that is to evaluate the program, project, or service; provide evidence that backs up the claims that you (hopefully) made at the start of the work; and make it all so clear and compelling that, of course, you will receive more funding to do more programs and services the next year.

Okay, so we all know what we are supposed to do: show the value--no, PROVE the value of investing funds and experts' time in supporting arts education, showcasing the arts in all their forms, and helping artists and organizations to market and promote their own goods and services. Using labels like "value added," "authentic," "rooted in traditions" and many more, we tend to talk about the arts in terms of its impact on tourism, economic development, community development, and individual learning and personal growth.

But the dirty little secret is this: no amount of evaluation, of measuring impacts of the arts in terms of economic development or increased tourism, or telling the sweet stories about how little Johnnie suddenly turned his life around in seventh grade when he discovered acting is going to change the mind of anyone who hasn't lived through the "transformational moment" that occurs when one experiences great art in person.

The best we can do is tell stories about how people (elsewhere, usually) have adopted an arts-based plan or project and transformed a community. I can tell you about, for instance, the Police Poetry and Photo Calendar project in Portland, ME but unless you knew some of the folks personally who participated and you are a mayor or police chief yourself, you're highly unlikely to advocate for such a project for your own town. YOU have to be the catalyst; YOU have to take a leadership role; YOU have to be the one to pick up the phone and make the phone call. If you don't "get it" you won't make the phone call. And your excuse will be something like, "well that's all well and good for Portland ME, but we're not in Portland ME."

Yeah yeah yeah.

Once a person has experienced the arts it is impossible to look upon world events--or even local events--without wondering how much better things might have been had we only taken time to experience them the way an artist might. My personal fantasy is to wonder what might have happened if our most recent President had paused with a group of collaborating artists and considered how best to respond to the crimes that took place on 9/11.

In this blog, I once referred to Liz Lerman as having said (and I must paraphrase), "it's clear that the Bush administration never learned the lessons we all learn right away in the theater: rehearsals are not just a tool to establish blocking assignments and lighting cues, but to work out problems that will arise to thwart the progress of the play. If they had only rehearsed their script, the Bush administration would have quickly realized their play had no ending..."

The challenge ultimately, is not what words can we think of that attempt to convey the impact of art on our lives because, with the exception of skilled poets and novelists in whose hands words become, themselves, works of art, words are inadequate to the task.

We must instead expose people to the impact of the arts. Often.

Help us make our many conversations and reports about "impact" and "value" easier. Invite someone to a show this summer. If he/she is on your local select board, school board, zoning commission, or a member of the legislature, invite him/her twice. Not only will you and I be glad you did, so will he/she.

There is still time and there is a lot to choose from.

Stay dry, and enjoy these next six weeks!


Seth said...

I notice that among the many "constituencies" enumerated herein for the Arts Council, artists (as such) are not included. That probably explains why the Arts Council wastes its time and public monies with such activities as constructing world record jigsaw puzzles.

Schubart said...

Sadly, the pictures seem to indicate that Vermonters were not enthralled by the "great art" in the puzzle palooza.... a terrible waste of money in the service of "art." Great art engages people, not politically expedient projects.

Mona said...

I am an artist.
I am in the field of substance abuse prevention.
I am in recovery.
This Artfits project was a first in many ways for me both personally, and professionally.
I initiated a community project because I believe in Art, and I believe Art can play an active role in prevention and recovery. I have never place my art in a gallery, but many say they love my art. I have never sold any of my art for more than $200, yet I have priceless memories of my art touching the hearts of others.
Because of the puzzle project, I took a leap of faith and asked the community to join me in painting 30 pieces, as a colaboratation of people of all walks, and all ages. Four people sat down at the table, and it was a 12 year old that came up with the idea. "How about having lots of people on it?" Another person suggested the town seal. (The Simpsons were voted OFF the project).
Week after week, meeting on Mondays after school, people came - painted, and left. Different ages, different abilities. But all believed in the idea of using Art to join the prevention and recovery communities.
And so it has - because we will continue to work together to create. Art, Music, Drama. We know it matters to Springfield, just by the number of people who have said to us, "Good Job!".
To those who thought it was a waste of time - perhaps if you'd thought more about GIVING it away, or paying it forward, you would have seen it as we did - a perfect opportunity to engage in something positive, and joyful.
Thank you Vt Arts Council.
Mona, in Springfield, VT

Seth said...

I am glad that people had a positive experience making pieces for the big puzzle. It’s fun to make things, and the human contact involved in a collaborative project can be quite healthy. It’s a real plus if such activity can be turned to support another worthy end, such as prevention/recovery. My question is, what does this have to do with fostering the growth of knowledgeable and appreciative audiences for art in Vermont, supporting the institutions that are necessary to so many forms of art, and promulgating the work of Vermont artists? The answer is, nothing.