Wednesday, September 5, 2012

On Assessment

“The Arts Council should do something fun, cheap, and available to any man, woman, and child that wants to participate.  I’m recommending we do a project with an artist’s palette; send them all over the state to any community that wants a bunch.  Let everyone decide for him or herself how they want to decorate their palette.  It’ll be fun, and it will do more to raise awareness about our work than anything else we could possibly do.”

“But will it work?  How are we going to know if it does everything you claim it will do?”

“Trust me, it will work.”

“How do you know?”

“I just do.  That’s how.”

[The above conversation took place between two Council trustees at our Annual Meeting in the summer of 2005.  The argument was regarding whether to undertake what became “The Palettes Project.”]

*     *     *     *     *

For the sixth time since arriving in Vermont I am working on the Arts Council’s Partnership Application to the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA).  It is, in the truest sense of the word, a labor of love. 

When else does one have the opportunity to cram what could easily amount to a 150-page discourse on programs and services offered to artists, arts organizations, schools, and communities  into a mere 11 pages?  When else do we in this very limited field (there are only about 60 state, territorial, and regional arts councils in the USA) get to brag to our peers about the incredible work that, in some small but meaningful way, we have helped bring into existence within the borders of our small state?

Writing these applications is joyful.  It gives me a “5-hour energy boost” that lasts for months. It makes me incredibly grateful for the outstanding staff that works with me at the Council.  Their labors and those of our constituents nurture Vermont’s creative workers; engage our children in positive, collaborative pursuits; identify and preserve our most precious cultural landscapes; and in countless other ways improve Vermont’s quality of life.

There is, however, one aspect of applying for a grant (not just from the NEA) that has always perplexed me.  It is the inevitable question about evaluation/measurement/assessment.

While it is important for any non-profit, public-benefit corporation to be able to articulate why its work is worthy of public support (including tax-deductible contributions from private citizens), the degree to which “accountability” has crept into our daily lives is a diversion from the real arguments in favor of supporting the arts.

As a result of the conversation recreated above, the Palettes Project was approved unanimously by the Council’s trustees, all of whom trusted the gut instinct of a very experienced trustee (and their own) over the “cost/benefit-” or “risk/reward-”based arguments that staff was asked to present. And yes, it accomplished everything the trustee expected and much, much more.

How many times are we asked, sometimes in multiple ways, how we will know that our programs and services are successful?  For many of the things we do, the answer is quite easy.  We ask for reports from grantees and people who have participated in our Breaking into Business Workshops, and they simply tell us how great (or not!) the program or service has been.

But for the bulk of the money we spend on creation grants, operating support grants to organizations, project grants and arts education grants, the answer is often far more difficult to articulate.  We get a lot of responses like, “the smiles on the faces of the kids as they left the auditorium, were priceless.”  And, oddly enough, I completely know what the grantee is telling me when I read a statement like that.

The truth is really that there are no metrics  to help us ascertain the degree to which a visit to the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts had an impact on the development of a 5th-grader from Island Pond.  Nor is there a measurement tool that captures the unique causal relationship between the economic vigor of a community and the degree to which that community embraces its arts sector.  Perhaps some university-backed psychologist with a $500,000 grant to do a longitudinal study in these areas might reveal something concrete that most of us already know instinctively.  But to arrive at the positive conclusions about the impact of such activities on people’s and communities’ lives is something that ALL of us working in the arts know.  We have experienced it.  But getting concrete, incontrovertible, third-party evidence at a price we can all afford is, in my experience,a waste of money.

I have borne witness to literally hundreds of so-called “economic impact studies” (which, more often than not, are about activity not impact); served on dozens of panels that expound on the value of collaborations, of marketing, of professional development; participated , collaborated, and advocated for public and private arts support, using every argument in the book, from Cultural Heritage Tourism to the Creative Economy; and written literally a thousand blog pages urging people to value and support the arts.  But it all comes down to a series of simple statements.  Feel free to add your own:

We support the arts because they inspire us to lead a better life.
We support the arts because they reflect profoundly on the human condition.
We support the arts because they provide the emotional, subjective anchors that are at the root of community.
We support the arts because they engage our young people and allow our elders to share their wisdom.
We support the arts because they allow people from different backgrounds to gain respect for, and insight about, each other.

We support the arts because they allow us to work, to play, to rest, and to recover.  Homo sapiens have known this for 40,000 years or more.  We don’t need a longitudinal study of any kind to tell us this.

The bottom line is that I am completely satisfied that the programs and services we provide to Vermont’s arts sector and the programs and services the Vermont arts sector provides to the general public are neither more nor less exemplary than those provided by every other State Arts Council and their arts sectors.  We all have been doing this for a long time, and shall continue to as long as people can dance, speak, sing, hold a brush or camera, and write.   It’s important work, and it matters. How do I know?

I just do. That’s how.


Margaret said...

I hope this is read all over-not just here at home.
Thanks Alex for another good summation of "why art matters"!

Anonymous said...

What a refreshing and honest statement to read--especially coming from an "official" channel. Thank you, Alex Aldrich (and the Vermont Arts Council)!

As someone rather new to grants administration in the arts, I am frequently perplexed by these questions of outcomes measurement and other impact metrics. It feels like a corporate/private business mindset creeping in like an invasive species. And yet, where can one find true corporate accountability these days?

We support the arts because they are vital to humanity. I enthusiastically support Aldrich's list of rationales for supporting the arts. Add to it: We support the arts because creativity is our greatest hope for addressing the onslaught of new and complicated challenges we face as a species and as a planet.