A question of evaluation (MCV5)

It ain’t what you do it’s the way that you do it

It had been a wonderful performance, the culmination of a year long community project in a small town. The theatre was packed and the applause had rung loud and long. The work itself was serious, moving and thought provoking: a real artistic achievement. All that remained was a few ‘thank yous’ to some those who’d made it happen before we could all spill out into the warm summer evening to share our impressions. Supper tables and beer gardens beckoned.

Then the director said his final words from the stage:

‘As you go out, you’ll find some evaluation forms. I know it’s tedious but please fill one in, even it’s just a few words about what you thought of the show. It’s really important, because it’s what helps us continue to do this kind of work.’

There was a collective groan, though it was good humoured because people had evidently loved the show and appreciated the care that had gone into making it. We filed out of the little theatre. I’ve no idea how many evaluation forms were completed.

The incident is worth mentioning for two reasons. First, the damage that is caused to an audience’s experience by making them aware of of things that have no relevance to what they’ve just shared. At this stage, an evaluation is in the interest only of arts administrators and government officials. To raise it at the very point when a year’s work is fulfilling its purpose risks spoiling just what it  aims to achieve. It makes people self-conscious in ways that can degrade the quality of the very  experience it seeks to assess.

Has anyone ever been asked to complete an evaluation sheet from the stage of the RSC or the National as the lights come up? Hardly. It’s only community projects, with their crumbs from the funder’s table, which are expected to justify their existence in this way.

The second problem is that in linking the evaluation to the future of this work, the director was signalling that he was asking people not for a considered assessment on the show, but for positive feedback—compliments that could be used to justify the company’s next application. The elation of success is rarely a good moment to reflect on what has been done. One must doubt the value or interpretation of any forms that were completed that evening.

I don’t tell this story to criticise anybody involved. I’ve seen it happen too often, in different ways and places, to believe that it was significant in itself. Its importance lies in the fact that many artists working with community groups have been led to believe that such an approach is necessary, even if they don’t think it’s sensible. It’s the community arts world’s version of ‘health and safety gone mad’.

But it needs to stop. It’s damaging to the purpose of the art and all but valueless as a method of learning about the outcomes of the work. And only those at the top—Arts Councils and Culture Departments—can stop it, by changing the requirements they attach to their grants. I won’t hold my breath.

It ain’t what you do it’s the way that you do it
It ain’t what you do it’s the way that you do it
It ain’t what you do it’s the way that you do it
And that’s what gets results

Melvin Oliver and James Young, 1939


  1. i hear you and completely share your sentiment
    and wouldn’t it be great if we could find another way,
    or maybe if the people with the strings could actually just understand the value of what we do…….

    1. We have a responsibility to find effective and constructive ways of engaging in conversations about community arts projects. Conversations which shed light on the experiences that different people have had along the way, that value all the voices of those involved, conversations which inspire change and development in ongoing projects and are the springboard for new work. Conversations which build creative relationships. We could wait for change to come from above, but as you say, I wouldn’t hold my breath, or we can get on with it, employing our creativity to developing evaluations which start conversations and build relationships. Of course we will need to continue to then find ways of capturing that knowledge for funders, but we mustn’t risk our key relationships for the purpose of keeping funders happy, your community is more likely to stay with you than any one funder!

      1. Well put – thanks. I agree completely about the need to take responsibility for – and control of – our own process of reflection. It’s one of the reasons I started the Regular Marvels a couple of years ago, looking for better ways of thinking and writing about this work.

  2. Thanks for your thoughts, The belief that artists are special is key to certain ways of imagining Western art. Those who think of art in that way often find it difficult to see the worth of artistic practices that – while always valuing the skill, creativity and sensibility of artists – also recognise the opportunities in collective and collaborative art work. It’s one reason why the work can be subversive in the best sense of the word: it enacts different values and ways of being, However, it’s hard to be subversive and at the same time valued by those whose ideas one is challenging.

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