Never mind the outcome behind the curtain

Ian David Moss offers a fantastic overview and critique of ‘creative placemaking’ efforts now bubbling through the NEA, ArtPlace, and other initiatives. He suggests that the renewed focus on building vibrancy and community through artistic pursuits is missing a few rather essential pieces — mostly the clear description of a desired outcome, and a tested model or evaluative process to determine whether and why such efforts attain that outcome. If you can’t describe what (specifically) you want, and you can’t select or evaluate potential investments for their relative impact on that specific thing, how can you move forward in productive ways?

I won’t further summarize the post, as it’s better just to read it. But two points struck me as I was reading:

  1. Moss’ concerns about finding correlation rather than causality may be asking more than can be delivered. Community revitalization is a desperately complex, multi-factor evolution. So if we can even get strong correlations between types of creative work and types of results, we’ll be doing well.
  2. I’m wondering if the ‘outcome problem’ is really just an ‘outcome bait-and-switch,’ as are so many other advocacy efforts for the arts. These funders and initiatives certainly long for more vibrant and robust communities, cities, and regions. And they also believe deeply in the role of artistic effort and expression in sparking that vitality. But the true outcome (not for all, but for many) is essentially the same as ever: to get more resources, opportunity, and credential to artists and arts organizations. ‘Creative placemaking’ is the current language with promise to do that (much as ‘creative class’ once was, or ‘educational reform,’ or ‘pro-social behavior,’ or ‘social cohesion’).

The challenge the arts have always had with advancing broad, public goals (like economic impact, or community vitality, or now creative placemaking) is this: The clearer the public outcome and the better the analysis, the more we are forced to explore ALL possible investments that could advance the goal — arts, non-arts, professional, amateur, public, private, and on and on. And somewhere in there we become less interested in finding the best tool for the job, and more interested in finding new uses for the tool we love the most.

I happen to believe that expressive activity has real potential to activate and energize all aspects of social and community life. And I believe that getting resources and attention to creative people is an intrinsic good with public benefit. But I also believe that if you make claims for public resource, attention, and favor, you have a burden of proof not only to use evidence to reinforce your claim, but also to be relentless about ongoing evaluation and reassessment to ensure you are living up to your promises in service to the public trust.


  1. says

    Some great points here, Andrew. I’d tweak slightly your summary of my post: I’m not saying that creative placemaking funders don’t have an idea of what they want – the indicator systems that both NEA and ArtPlace are developing do a good job of putting definition around that – I’m saying that they haven’t (yet) filled in the missing steps between the work of their grantees and the broader community change they hope to see. Those pesky middle steps are the ones that so often get lost, and that problem isn’t unique to the arts by the way!

    I won’t pretend that building a case for causal impact will be easy. But I think it’s easier than a lot of people make it out to be. Much of what we need is already there. We have data – lots of it – and the indicator projects will lead to even more. We have lots of examples of potential investments to analyze. What we don’t have yet, though, is a clear sense of the most important assumptions embedded in creative placemaking work (and the funding of that work). If you had to boil down my article into one sentence, it would be that creative placemakers need to develop a research agenda that identifies, names, and tests the assumptions common to all or most creative placemaking projects. And if you have room for a second sentence, grantmakers should then take the lessons learned from that research and connect them to the actual grantmaking process.

    You wrote, “I also believe that if you make claims for public resource, attention, and favor, you have a burden of proof not only to use evidence to reinforce your claim, but also to be relentless about ongoing evaluation and reassessment to ensure you are living up to your promises in service to the public trust.” I completely agree, and make no apologies for it. If we’re not confident that we can, in fact, serve the public trust, then we need to stop telling people that we do. We can’t keep putting something out there and expect to counter skepticism through the sheer fervor of our beliefs. We can’t have it both ways.

    • says

      Thanks Ian for the tweaks. So, as I understand it, the ‘outcome problem’ you identify is the logic model and the resulting research between the means and the ends.

      And oh how I wish your last two sentences were true. As it turns out, we CAN keep putting something out there…through the sheer fervor of our beliefs. And, in fact, that defines our current state of politics these days.

      We can continue to hope it will be otherwise. Thanks again. Great stuff.

      • says

        OK, fair enough :) Without fervor plus LARGE NUMBERS (or, better yet, large dollars), though, I doubt we’ll get very far! At least that’s what we’ve seen in the arts over the past few decades.

  2. says

    Ian and Andrew, fascinating stuff. I was in Toronto recently presenting the intrinsic impact research to a bunch of arts service organizations and the like, and was told about an attempt that is being made up that way to use some of the tenets of intrinsic impact on a more community-based level. I think that’s a fascinating and difficult endeavor, and I can’t wait for them to come out with more information about it. On that same trip, I had the pleasure of hearing Tim Jones, the founder of Artscape, trying out some new material about rebooting advocacy in conjunction with creative placemaking. I know he’s writing it up and refining it, but one of the big arguments he makes is that right now creative placemaking (as Andrew suggests above) is primarily centered around instrumental benefits, while a lot of the energy within the field around value is pushing more for intrinsic benefits. He encourages us to unify them, to speak about them on four different vectors: cultural, instrumental, environmental and financial. That’s a very complicated set of efforts to toss off so quickly, but I also think it’s important to consider–the NEA, following models in Australia and England, is moving toward integrating impact assessment tools into its evaluative (and presenting) measurements not just around creative placemaking but around artmaking in general. In a way, as you both have pointed out, creative placemaking is simply the latest dress being tried on from the same closet, and continues to suffer from a certain lack of specificity despite all efforts.

    Margy Waller was in town a few days ago and I got to sit down with her (and meet her in person for the first time!). We spoke about a lot of things, including her work on the Arts Ripple idea and how that translates into practical energy within communities. I was particularly interested in whether efforts like Arts Ripple and other creative placemaking ideas are or should be mostly directed at revitalization of community spirit for those living in the community through art (an essentially intrinsic goal), or at making a community appealing and “unscary” enough that outside people will come in and spend their dollars there (an essentially extrinsic, or instrumental, goal). As Tim points out, these aren’t mutually exclusive, but one is certainly more in line with our touchy-feely sentiment as artists, whereas the other is certainly more in line with the evaluative strictures often placed on funding and success metrics around such projects.

    All of these themes intertwine not just around creative placemaking, of course, but around the Big Value conversations that have been driving us for the last few years. Crises of meaning are, by definition, crises of value–whether that meaning is of the form itself or of piles of money flowing into a community through or for art.

  3. says

    Andrew and Clay raise provocative points in reaction to Ian’s commentary on measuring the impact of creative placemaking.

    Upfront disclosure. It was my recommendation that ArtsWave commission the Ripple Effects research in order to learn more about public thinking on the arts – since a goal of the pending organizational change was to build broad support for public funding of the arts. I managed the research for ArtsWave and led the work of repositioning the organization’s brand and communications strategy based on the results. Now, I am a senior fellow with Topos Partnership, the national group that designed and implemented the Ripple Effects research.

    For the past two years, I’ve been speaking at meetings and conferences around the country about the research results, and how ArtsWave and others have used it to shift the conversation about the arts – all with an eye toward the long-term goal of changing the national conversation. We want the arts to be less vulnerable in public policy debates and we want the public to consider the arts a priority investment for public funding.

    Consequently, it’s interesting that this conversation about creative placemaking is now so focused on developing proof, since we found that the public already believes that the arts create special places with neighborhood and economic vibrancy. They “know” it and see this as a common sense concept.

    To understand this, it’s important to elaborate a bit on Ian’s description of the Ripple Effects research.

    The research was designed specifically to uncover a strategic communications approach to building broad support for the arts as a public good. The research methodology utilizes framing science – and is intended to find more than what people think; it’s designed to find out how the public thinks about an issue. The survey methods used reveal an idea, something that the majority of people already believe – importantly, not something we have to persuade them to believe. (If you’re interested, the report also reveals traps and barriers in our current advocacy, and a number of tested ideas that did not work.)

    What did the research on communicating about the arts show us? People already believe that the arts – our music, dance, galleries, festivals, museums, theatre and more – create vibrant exciting places, neighborhoods that are unique, busy, and vital. These are places people want to be – places they want to live, work, visit, and invest. Highlighting images and stories about this impact can change the landscape of understanding and build shared responsibility for the arts.

    So, do we even need to focus on proving how the arts can create these places? After all, the public already believes it: based on their own experience, the statement makes common sense. So, how will this outcomes research help?

    Ian points out that we can make better investments if we know more about what works and why. We can learn from developing a theory and testing it – to the best of our ability. Agreed. This is the reason to do research that may have little to do with our public advocacy. But still….

    • Proving causality will be difficult. (Agreeing with Andrew.) It’s expensive and hard and there are so many factors that isolating the arts impact may prove impractical. As a researcher, I’d love for this to be otherwise. But happily, the Ripple Effects research shows we don’t need the gold standard of causal proof for the public to willingly support our efforts.
    • Arts organizations are going to struggle with becoming research organizations. And that’s what is required of them in this developing model. They have to make an informed guess about where they fit into the theory and choose a measure to show the impact of their art on the goal. This is very hard to do well. (If you have any doubts – go check out the Brookings-NEA researchers event and watch economists struggle.)
    • We will struggle to keep the true goal in our sights. It will be hard not to fall victim to the interests of the few, as we focus on community impact. While more public funding may be a hoped-for, long-term outcome of shifting focus, it’s not going to happen right away. In the interim, there may be winners and losers as the funding focus changes. Those who are threatened by this will be loudly objecting. It can be hard to stand firm in the face of criticism from our friends, especially when they are also donors. But, if we succumb to the wishes of the powerful few (and especially if we try to hide that fact), our credibility will be shot.

    These challenges shouldn’t get in the way of investing in creative placemaking though, because it is what the public loves about the arts. (And it means that efforts like the one at ArtsWave are critical for learning more about impact evaluation.)

    Since it’s consistent with what people already believe, it’s not bait and switch at all. When we fund and highlight what people love about the arts, it can become the way they more naturally think about the arts. And this is what we need, because while they believe the arts can change places, it’s not their natural way of thinking about the arts.

    Today, the dominant way that people think of the arts is as consumers: Art is a nonessential nicety and an individual option, something that arts lovers choose to do with their own money. (How many times have you read that opinion in the comments to an article about public funding of the arts?)

    If we share a collective narrative about the role of arts in creating places we love, the public will come to more automatically think of the arts as the investment that creates a ripple effect of benefits for the whole community, even people who aren’t active “goers.” Creative placemaking can become a dominant idea about the arts over time precisely because people already believe in it.

    When we are asking for broad support of public funding, we want people to view the arts through a citizen lens. This will happen over time if we consistently share a common narrative, painting the picture of arts ripple effects at every opportunity with credible messengers who have big megaphones.

    Andrew referenced the danger of outcome bait and switch. It’s a real risk. This seems to me to be a goal problem.

    The true goal of changing the way we present the arts to the public — the purpose of sharing the communications strategies in the Ripple Effects research – is to build broader support for public funding. But the true goal of changing our investment strategy has to be real impact in our communities. And we should measure that impact to the best of our ability so that we can do it better over time.

    These goals are inextricably tied together. Importantly, we can’t just talk about the role of arts in creating vibrancy and community. We have to do it or we lose all credibility with the public.

    When we invest in creating community through the arts, it has the benefit of offering both outcomes that Clay cites: creating stronger communities as people interact and get to know each other better, and making places more attractive and exciting. Since these are the two benefits people treasure from the arts, we will naturally be creating stronger support for consideration of the arts as a public good. This is the Big Value revealed by the Ripple Effects research.