IAC Homecoming – Evaluating the Arts

               Katlin for Blog

Article by Katlin Suiter,  a first-year student in the MAAA-MPA dual program at SPEA. Coming from our BSAM program, she continues her passion towards being a successful arts administrator. Currently, she works as the Programming and Outreach Graduate Assistant for Traditional Arts Indiana.

            When thinking of a vibrant, growing art scene, most people think of places such as cutting-edge San Francisco, hipster Seattle, or chic New York City. The mind doesn’t naturally think of the Midwest, let alone Indiana which is most commonly known for corn, NASCAR, and as of recently Vice President Mike Pence. The first weekend of October (October 4-6th), the Indiana Arts Commission hosted the “Indiana Arts Homecoming” which brought together some of Indiana’s most creative arts leaders. These leaders—artists, arts organizations, arts educators, arts supporters, and arts researchers—came together over the weekend to discuss the importance of art-inspired community engagement, as well as tackle larger issues that arise within their designated fields.

IAC Homecoming Conference

            This year’s theme, “Community Engagement: Ideas, Stories and Change That Matters”, highlighted current Hoosier-initiated projects across the state. Additionally, it emphasized ways arts practitioners, educators, and advocates, can utilize the arts as a way to build relationships and transform communities. The sessions were separated into four different sectors: Design, Prepare, Spotlight, and Change.

            I was given the opportunity to attend a noon breakout session titled “Assessing Impact and Learning as We Go: Evaluation In All Its Glory”. This session covered the many tools organizations can use to define and evaluate their success, as well as report their efforts to grant-giving organizations. The class was taught by Sara Peterson, a management consultant who assists a range of organizations for planning and facilitation, evaluation, and organizational assessment.

            Coming from an educational background of performance measurement and program evaluation, I went into this session expecting the majority of the content to be a review. In the midst of reviewing logic models and SWOT analyses (strategic planning tools we are all too familiar with, and probably tired of hearing about), multiple individuals consistently brought up measuring qualitative metrics, and assessing individual economic impact. “If someone’s life is radically changed by my program, can I used that as data to support my cause?” “What if people consistently comment on how my organization benefits them emotionally? How do I measure that?” “To what degree can you measure intrinsic change in an individual?”

The Role of the Art Organization in Evaluation

            I was shocked that so many arts organizations have taken it upon themselves to attempt to conduct their own economic impact studies. Despite our best efforts and the allocation of resources to our best ability, most local arts organizations do not have the expertise or tools required to evaluate community impact holistically. Of course they can contribute to a community and act as individual economic drivers, but there are simply too many external factors and not enough time and resources for small-to-middle sized arts organizations to consider. This begs the question: What can arts organizations evaluate, and who is capable of conducting economic impact studies for art organizations?

            Arts Organizations CAN evaluate programming/projects. Not only can they evaluate their own programming, but they should evaluate their programming. Program evaluation allows organizations to determine if their audience is given an experience that they not only enjoy, but an experience they are learning from. Program evaluation is a mix of both qualitative and quantitative data, and it tends to give information about target audiences. These studies do not typically explore in depth factors outside of an arts organization, but instead they focus on the behavior and thoughts of individuals who engage in certain programs or projects.

            Arts Organizations CAN evaluate internal performance. Arts organizations differ in their values across the board. Some value efficiency, some value accountability, and others might value equity. Regardless of an arts organization’s values, individual performance relating to these values can be measured. These particular studies tend to be conducted internally, looking at data that has been compiled throughout an organization’s existence (that is, of course, if an organization values proper documentation and/or public opinion) or looking to the community to provide an outside perspective.

            Now just because arts organizations themselves are limited in their abilities, does not mean individual economic impact studies cannot be done. For example, Americans for the Arts conduct individual economic impact studies for smaller, local arts organizations. These studies are detrimental when applying for public funding, or public/private grants. In addition to organizations who advocate and research the economic impact for their arts as their mission, consulting is another resource for smaller organizations. Consulting agencies are an excellent way organizations can achieve tasks (such as individual economic impact studies) without having the resources, skills, and time on hand.

            In short, economic impact studies are complex, intricate research endeavors that small-middle sized arts organizations simply can’t explore on their own terms. They require expertise, time, and resources that arts organizations need to invest in other areas that go directly back into their mission. Of course as an arts organization grows, economic impact should be measured, but it should be left to those who are able and qualified to conduct such intense research.

Concluding Thoughts

Overall, the IAC Homecoming Conference gave advocates of the arts an opportunity to come together to discuss contemporary issues in the field, as well as effective ways to address those issues. The collaborative, open atmosphere allowed for individuals to exchange ideas and work together to make stronger organizations, resulting in a meaningful impact. This was the first of what I hope to be many IAC Homecomings. This annual convening presents a wonderful opportunity for us to not only increase engagement in our communities and collaboration in our networks, but also to celebrate our identity as Hoosiers in accordance with our passion for the arts.

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