Evaluation is intrinsic to creativity. Artists evaluate their work all the time, on many different levels and against many different criteria. The question only becomes difficult – ethically, politically and methodologically – when the artist is working for ‘the public good’.
Then things do indeed get sticky. Who defines success? Who decides when it is achieved? Normally, in the British arts world, the answer to both those questions is the funder. The piper plays the tune she’s paid to play – or she doesn’t get paid.
But in most socially oriented arts projects, the funder is buying a good on behalf of the public as a whole (taxpayers) to benefit a person or a group who may not recognise the benefit they are expected to get – or want it if they did. The question of who defines success and who decides when it is achieved is far from abstract: it goes to the heart of community-engaged arts practice.
Fifteen years ago, I published a working paper called Defining Values, which was a first attempt to get to grips with these challenges. It concluded with six principles that, if I might write them a little differently today, still seem to me essentially valid.
- Projects intended to produce social benefits should address stated needs or aspirations.
- It is unethical to seek to produce change without the informed consent of those involved.
- The needs and aspirations of individuals or communities are best identified by them, often in partnership with others, such as local authorities, public agencies and arts bodies.
- Partnership requires the agreement of common objectives and commitments (though not all goals need be shared by all partners).
- Those who have identified a goal are best placed to ascertain when it has been met.
- An arts project may not be the most appropriate means of achieving a given goal.
That paper also set out a simple process through which evaluation can be integrated into project planning and delivery that has proven effective in many subsequent programmes.
Why return to this now? The post I wrote a few months ago, in response to the DCMS’s latest attempt to make gold out of lead, has attracted a lot of readers, which suggests that there is still a hunger among artists and arts managers for help with evaluation.
So I’ll write more about this theme over the coming months, both to discuss some of the ideas and to put online some of what I’ve written on evaluation in the past. To get started, here’s a conference paper from 2005, which was published in Sweden the following year: