Talks + workshops

Evaluating Public Art

Format: Presentation
Location: London Launch of the Manifesto of Possibilities, Wellcome Trust Conference Centre, London
Date: 31 January 2008

slide show: google image search 'evaluation'

What do we mean by evaluation?
There is something scientific, corporate and militaristic about the language of evaluation. Some other related terms may include:
Conflict management
Estimate of value
Investigative journalism
Ethnography / anthropology
Quantitative / qualitative

Why do we evaluate?
By having to justify money spent, artists and those involved in managing, curating and facilitating public art have voiced their concerns that it is not that easy to measure and evaluate. It’s notoriously difficult to scientifically summarise art using tables, pie charts, clip boards and questionnaires. Such formats try to order and classify an idea of art as an open ended, unmeasurable experience (an interesting exercise, perhaps, if it’s done in an ironic way to highlight this absurdity). While it may be awkward to evaluate art in terms of quantitive measurable outcomes, however, as a practice, art is constantly being critiqued, interpreted and re-valued by its producers and consumers. In art, there is rarely any perfect outcome and often, this is not the point of doing art anyway.

But no matter how we value art, we cannot ignore the fact that public art is taking place in a specific economic and political context that since the early 1980s has placed emphasis on measuring the impact of the arts in order to justify its continued funding. There is deep seated doubt and insecurity in supporting and trusting art and so a culture of evaluation has grown in an equally paranoid and unhelpful way that panders to funders needs.

It is rare for ‘evaluation’ to be carried out without the instruction from a funder, implying the term and practice of evaluation is a necessity rather than a choice. Without being asked, artists, participants and audiences reflect, analyse, reject, contest, laugh, and ignore art as an informal, unwritten form of evaluation. Can we think of evaluating public art with the same criteria and motivations we would use in evaluating self-funded / unofficial interventions – ie not to tick boxes with an economic imperitive but with a genuine interest in how the project works or fails and informs our next experiment in the field? Can evaluation be at base a form of critical awareness of what is happening?

How do we evaluate?
Due to this reluctance to quantify art’s existence, there is an aversion to check lists and box ticking.
Public art does not happen in isolation, there maybe a number of funders and reasons why it is happening, the context in which it takes place will effect what’s happening and in turn the art may affect that context. I would argue it is an important part of such a project to be aware of and understand better who all these agencies are, why they are investing in public art and if their aims and ambitions for public art are indeed met at all in the process. It is also important to trace what happens after money and attentions shift elsewhere.

Some key questions to ask ourselves when we embark on evaluation might be:

I would like to advocate for not ignoring the aims attached to funding and the fact that art may not even be mentioned in those aims. Is it significant that art is not mentioned but reducing crime rates and capacity building are? Can we reflect, through evaluation perhaps, that art is having less to do with the funding of art, or should we ignore this and keep leaping through those hoops just to get a bit of money to siphon off into what some artists might consider the ‘real’ art?
If artists and organisations refuse to continue to jump through hoops and reveal that, shock horror, art is unable to meet these objectives (at least not directly and not as a priority) what would happen next? Are we perpetuating the myth of the artist as a social healer by continuing to distort the truth on applications and in evaluations?

To what extent are projects made to seem like they reached all the aims even if they didn’t, with any potential problems being brushed under the carpet? If we insist on pointing these out are we shooting ourselves in the foot and risking money not being spent on art in the future? The recent McMaster report seems to reflect this crisis. Its call for recognising artistic excellence, risk-taking and innovation as the targets of success, could be a reaction to the realisation that art can’t be measured so easily in terms of asset management, capacity building and social inclusion.

Rather than adapt policy appropriately however, the McMaster’s report could be the swan song for art funding. Public and private sectors are constantly finding new ways to use and understand art in terms of financial benefits through the creative industries and so unless we challenge these wider expectations of art’s value, McMaster’s report could be the nail in the coffin for art funding. Public and private sectors who require art to have a specific function in order to fund it, now have an excuse to reduce funding even further as we give them the evidence that forcing art to be useful was pretty useless after all.



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