Measurement, assessment, evaluation: big, complex words that many people associate with stress, fear, or annoyance. But measuring the impact of your art-related work doesn’t have to be a necessary evil that rears its ugly head when you’re rushing to get grant paperwork out the door. In fact, evaluation can be an integral part of the creative process. Ask Noël Raymond.

She’s co-artistic director of Minneapolis’s community-based Pillsbury House + Theatre (PH+T). My company, Metris Arts Consulting, recently collaborated with PH+T to develop fresh, creative, even enjoyable ways to evaluate the impact of their public art programming.

According to Raymond, the essence of evaluation is “the rigorous process of asking hard questions and staring them in the face, seldom being able to answer them fully but beginning to see nuanced angles and layers in them that lead to deeper, richer, knottier questions.” She found that the evaluation tactics we developed together were “much like the creative process involved in making theater—I never would have imagined that evaluation practice mirrored creative practice.”

Each of the three Minnesota examples in this article infuses evaluation efforts with creativity, and vice versa. As a researcher supporting these projects, I found that there’s no magic one-size-fits-all approach to evaluation. Although it’s challenging, evaluation is well worth doing, and creativity can make it stronger, more engaging, and fun.


Pillsbury House Theatre: Data Is Art, Art Is Data

Two of PH+T’s public art programs, Arts on Chicago and Art Blocks, support neighborhood-based artists who engage in a range of projects, including a stilting club, artistic bike racks, puppet shows, and photographic portraits of neighbors displayed in local businesses. PH+T had seen some of the results of their work and heard stories about its impact—how conversations had been sparked by it, how community members had discovered new resources in their neighborhoods, and more—but they wanted to dig deeper to see if their anecdotal data was substantiated.

But how do you measure this? We sifted through data PH+T had already gathered, including information that participating artists provided on all the connections they made during their projects: with community members, other arts professionals, business owners, and so on. Using this data, we worked with a social network analyst, a specialist in graphing and analyzing different kinds of human connectivity, to visually illustrate which artists contributed most to bringing together disparate community members.

The Art Blocks artists gather monthly for dinner. At their May 2015 dinner, they pondered our social network analysis and then drew their own personal maps of what a healthy, thriving community looks like.

We also integrated participating artist Peter Haakon Thompson’s The A Project into a door-to-door survey. We canvassed parts of the four neighborhoods PH+T serves and, following the lines of Thompson’s project, invited the residents who responded to our questions to display a red A in their window if they felt more connected to the neighborhood because of arts offerings (A stands for art). PH+T plans to monitor the percentage of households that display the A and track the variation between blocks with PH+T arts activities and those without.

 

Public Art Program, City of Minneapolis: Through the Looking Glass

The City of Minneapolis’s public art program commissions new work and maintains over 60 pieces. Mary Altman, the program’s administrator, recently spiced up a community survey as artists Ben Janssens and Marjorie Pitz designed their bird-inspired sculptures, destined for three locations in Minneapolis.

Would the proposed artwork help achieve the public art program’s goals of enhancing the identity of the communities they were in and inspiring good urban design? Interested community members had the opportunity to give feedback on the designs at public meetings. But Altman wanted to harvest pedestrians’ perceptions of how the proposed sculptures would contribute to the environment––and she came up with a lively and unusual way to do that.

Altman asked Janssens to design and fabricate a hand-held “looking glass” tool made of wood and clear Plexiglas, with an image of the sculpture on it. Residents could look through the looking glass at the proposed site, “seeing” the sculpture in place. The tool attracted a diverse group of people to the survey in all three locations, and prompted a lot of comment on the design.

 

PlaceBase Productions: Stuffing the Ballot Box

PlaceBase Productions collects community members’ stories to create theater pieces in rural Minnesota. They also make data collection an integral part of the performances, which has resulted in high survey participation rates and robust data samples.

Paddling Theatre: From Granite Falls to Yellow Medicine told the dramatic real-life story of how ruffians from Granite Falls stole the county seat from Yellow Medicine City. Arriving at the final scene, the cast asked audience members to vote on which town they thought should have been granted the county seat. Audience members cast their votes on “ballots” that also included questions about their response to the show and a request for demographic information. The cast read the results of the county-seat vote at the celebration that marked the end of the show.

Then, several weeks after the show, PlaceBase gathered the cast to share other results from the ballots. The actors reflected on the positive audience experiences and felt empowered to keep creating art in their community.

From these examples, you can see how creativity can improve evaluation efforts and evaluation can influence the creative process. Although there’s no one magic way to evaluate public artwork, it’s important that you continue to ask the “deeper, richer, knottier questions,” because the answers will make your work better.