Art That Counts

Don’t Just Show Me The Money – The Value of Art as Experience

By | Art & Social Change, Art That Counts | 10 Comments

In a single visual, this is pretty much everything that’s wrong to me about how we talk about about the impact of art and arts organizations. Granted, I myself have highlighted efforts that quantify the impact of art in this way, mainly because it so dominates the research of what makes art powerful and, in the eyes of funders, worthy.

But I’ve also written a lot in this space about finding a better way.

Economic impact is pretty low-hanging fruit in terms of data related to arts and impact. Money and jobs are easily quantifiable and pretty clearly Good Things the arts should line up to take credit for. But is it why we make art? Why we subscribe to theater seasons, attend art museums or listen to music? As Ben Cameron of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation asks in the foreward to Counting New Beans: Intrinsic Impact and the Value of Art:

…do artists really create work to leverage additional dollars for the local economy? Do audiences really go to the theater to drive local SAT scores higher?

It’s obvious that we do not, and reports like Counting New Beans do the hard work of establishing why people seek out arts experiences and what they gain by doing so. The study summarized in Counting New Beans looked at 18 theaters in 6 regions and, instead of focusing on their work’s extrinsic values—like the economic indicators above—established categories of intrinsic value and researched those.

This distinction between extrinsic and intrinsic isn’t new; Gifts of the Muse (PDF full report) attempted to provide what Ian David Moss calls a “grand unifying theory” of the benefit of arts back in 2004, exploring instrumental/extrinsic and intrinsic benefits as they had been discussed and researched to date. The research outlined in Counting New Beans builds upon this, quantifying audience experience in areas like:

  • Anticipation (“How much were you looking forward to this performance?”)
  • Captivation (“How absorbed were you…?”)
  • Post-performance Engagement (“Did you leave the performance with questions you would have liked to have asked the actors, director or playwright?”)

These are intrinsic values, the transformative emotional, social and intellectual experiences that result when we view art. They’re hard to get at and quantify because audience members aren’t always able to articulate their experience (i.e., great art may render someone speechless, which is an amazing feat as an artist and a contraindicated one as a researcher).

These values can be difficult to summarize in a single measure of impact, unlike the dollar signs above. Some works are connected to emotionally vs. intellectually, some works are calls to action, others result in a sense of familiarity or connection. As a result, some of the survey tools used produce both qualitative data about how audience members were impacted (e.g., “How did you feel after this performance?”) and quantitative data about the degree of impact ( e.g., weighing the emotional impact of a performance on a scale of 1-5). The resulting qualitative data lets arts organizations know if the audience left feeling sad or hopeful, while the quantitative data establishes how deeply the work made the audience feel or empathize (regardless of the exact feeling).

While Counting New Beans focused on live theater performances (and my examples above followed suit), the study of intrinsic impact isn’t limited to theaters. A multidisciplinary study in Liverpool included theaters, museums, an orchestra, and other arts groups. I’d be grateful to hear from any local groups using intrinsic values data, either in describing their work or in assessing grantees. As I try to argue above, I think it’s a stronger depiction of the benefits of arts in our lives and provides arts organizations clearer and more actionable feedback than simple economic indicators.

#SaveBmore — Listen first, Listen hard

By | #SaveBmore, Art & Social Change, Art That Counts | 7 Comments

For the past few weeks, ChangeEngine’s #SaveBmore campaign has been asking what solutions could transform Baltimore into a thriving place for ALL its citizens rather than the usual tech evangelism or luxury development gospel we usually hear. As much as I’ve enjoyed reading and considering all the posts, here and on Facebook and Twitter, that have been part of the campaign, I had a lot of pause about how to best contribute. Surprisingly, the stumbling block wasn’t the focus of my articles here—art and its measurable impact—but approaching the question at all. What am I attempting to save Baltimore from or for? How do we prioritize the city’s issues with crime, education, its budget? Also, in highlighting some potential solutions, which perspectives aren’t being heard, which problems aren’t being addressed?

Stop, Collaborate and Listen

Photo by George Kelly via Flickr

I thought then not about how art or creative placemaking can #SaveBmore, but what skills those practitioners have honed that could benefit everyone looking to improve this city and, along with it, the sense of community within Baltimore. One of the things I most respect about creative placemaking is that it’s not about dropping art on an unsuspecting neighborhood or community; it’s about engage groups and listening to them.

To say that a person feels listened to means a lot more than just their ideas get heard. It’s a sign of respect. It makes people feel valued.”
— DEBORAH TANNEN, author and Professor of Linguistics, Georgetown University

With all this in mind, I sent out a request to a group of Baltimore artists who often work collaboratively and whose work I’m familiar with and respect. Specifically, I introduced the idea of #SaveBmore and asked what their work had taught them about listening.

Community Engagement/Empowerment


I cannot do this job alone

In order to create exhibitions that are relevant to the communities I am working with, I need to listen. I cannot just listen, I need to collaborate with others in order to implement their ideas to create a meaningful exhibition. Impactful exhibitions allow for that dialogue to continue after the exhibition is over with in order to build stronger and more unified communities. As a curator, I cannot do this job alone.
MICHELLE GOMEZ, artist, curator

Share wealth resources space information etc

I am struck by the term save bmore. To save means to rescue or protect. It reminds me of colonization when Europeans came into indigenous countries save the savages from themselves. Not. It should be called sharebmore. Share wealth, resources, space, information etc.
There is a divide in bmore between haves and have nots and until we address the real issues of racism, classism, poverty gentrification we are just spinning our wheels with our head in the sand.

Idealism & vision alone cannot solve the problem

By being involved in the Baltimore theatre scene, I’ve come to realize the beautiful multiplicity of artistic voices this city has. Theatre is also such a wonderful example of collaboration. You need the designers, actors, director, crew and company to all work together, and though it’s a creative process, logistics are KEY (which is why We LOVE Stage Managers). Idealism and vision alone cannot solve the problem. Theatre cannot exist without its audience; so on a larger scale, what sort of Baltimore do we want to “stage” and produce for people to view?
SARAH WEISSMAN, Marketing Director at Glass Mind Theatre & theatre artist

I love the diversity of opinions and discourse in these responses and know there are more voices out there to be heard; I invite you to comment about your experiences with collaboration and problem solving and what lessons you’ve learned about listening along the way–as well as your overall response or solutions for #SaveBmore.

Additionally, the work of listening is actually hard work, and I don’t recommend it without acknowledging that. We live in a culture that says “The squeaky wheel gets the grease” and applauds action, speaking out and rarely the individual or group who pauses to take things in. It’s a common communication struggle—in collaboration, in the workplace and in our personal relationships—that people are either interrupting or busy thinking about what they want to say next and not actively listening. However, I think we do better when considering these larger issues—if not always—to pause more and persuade less. Listen to what is being said, but also what is unsaid, who is not speaking or present. Improving or even saving Charm City cannot be done alone, as so aptly expressed by Michelle Gomez, and, therefore, requires listening.

Baltimore’s Fly is Undone — The Power of Whimsy, Zippers and Hopscotch

By | Art & Social Change, Art That Counts | 22 Comments

Look closely…



Photo by Graham Coreil-Allen via Flickr

… and you’ll note a variety of footprints playing the classic game of hopscotch–a worker’s boot, a businessman’s shoe, a bare footprint and, most inspired of all, a bird’s track headed in the direction of Camden Yards and M&T Bank Stadium.

Two Baltimore intersections have had their standard striped crosswalks replaced, quite literally, by street art—in this case, a game of hopscotch and a super-sized zipper. These new whimsical crosswalks, by Graham Coreil-Allen and Paul Bertholet respectively, were commissioned by the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts for the Bromo Tower A&E District.

The hopscotch design can be found at Eutaw and Lombard streets and the zipper at Eutaw and Fayette. A third design will be added in the spring to an intersection adjacent to the Hippodrome and Everyman Theatre.

Seeing images of both crosswalks shared across social media and the surprising degree of media coverage—yes, locally, but also from NPR, Fast Company and The Atlantic—made me think back to interviewing Will Backstrom about PNC’s Transformative Art Project grants. Backstrom acknowledged that PNC’s use of metrics to evaluate those projects was limited mainly to anecdotal data and “buzz.” It’s unclear what role data and analysis had in BOPA’s choice of this project or the winning designs, but if positive buzz for the city was one hoped-for outcome, this project is an early success. It has been amazingly gratifying to read about my city as “Something Cool” and “Fun” in the national press, with nary a mention of “The Wire” (until now, whoops!).

I would love to see some on-the-ground monitoring by BOPA of pedestrian reactions to these installations. Nothing as formal as interviews or surveys, just a method of capturing the reaction folks have when they encounter the unexpected. Regardless, congrats to the artists and BOPA for a project that has already delighted residents and given the city some valuable positive press.

Project Row Houses

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While I love art for art’s sake, I also love an art project that crosses boundaries and tries to improve peoples’ lives in ways beyond aesthetics, inspiration and giving “voice.” It was a conversation around those topics that led to this column because, while all those goals are worthwhile, they are notoriously hard to measure in terms of impact and long-term effect.

But, put a roof over someone’s head, provide resources for single mothers, open a neighborhood laundromat…those things have visible, measurable impact. For example, one of my favorite charities, Habitat for Humanity, has made a strong position of the impact of home ownership among low-income families, identifying increases in the homeowner’s sense of stability and benefits to their children’s educational performance and self esteem. Habitat’s mission statement, however, is laser focused on solving the global housing crisis. It is not, obviously, a community arts program.

Project Row Houses (PRH) in Houston, however, is a neighborhood-based nonprofit art and cultural organization that just happens to have also reclaimed six blocks in the city’s Third Ward. Starting in 1993, the group renovated the exterior of 22 Depression-era row houses. Today, PRH has 40 properties and has spun off a sister organization, Row House Community Development Corporation (RHCDC), which has been providing low-income rental housing in the Third Ward since 2003.

According to the 2010 census, about a quarter of the Third Ward’s residents live at or below the poverty level; more than 50 percent are children. It was, in fact, one of those kids that inspired the entire project.

PRH founder Rick Lowe moved to Houston in the mid-’80s to pursue his art career. He shared the inspiration behind PRH with The New York Times in 2006:

In 1990, “a group of high school students came over to my studio,” he recalled. “I was doing big, billboard-size paintings and cutout sculptures dealing with social issues, and one of the students told me that, sure, the work reflected what was going on in his community, but it wasn’t what the community needed. If I was an artist, he said, why didn’t I come up with some kind of creative solution to issues instead of just telling people like him what they already knew. That was the defining moment that pushed me out of the studio.”

He tried to think afresh what it meant to be a truly political artist, beyond devising the familiar agitprop, gallery decoration and plop-art-style public sculpture. He considered what the German artist Joseph Beuys once described as “the enlarged conception of Art,” which includes, as Beuys put it, “every human action.” Life itself might be a work of art, Mr. Lowe realized: art can be the way people live.

The resulting project, which started out only a block and a half in size, split the properties between residential homes and spaces dedicated to art, photography and literary projects. Today, there are a dozen artist exhibition and/or residency spaces and nearly 270 local and national artists have visited the community for periods of five to six months. It’s an amazing flow of creativity and, accordingly, the project has received much national attention and funding from The Ford (2004) and Kresge (2010, 2012) foundations. This month, Lowe was appointed to the National Council for the Arts.

Those accomplishments, though, seem to be so small in comparison to this: One of PRH’s programs involves seven homes set aside specifically for young, single mothers. Along with a rent subsidy, they receive mentorship and educational workshops. According to PRH’s web site, “To-date, over fifty (50) participants have “graduated” from the program. Some are still pursuing their degree; others are professional artists, college professors, accountants, pharmacists, interior designers, teachers, bankers, business professionals and lawyers.” One of the first mothers to participate in the program was Assata Richards. She went on to teach sociology at the University of Pittsburgh and has since returned to Houston; today, she manages the program that helped her succeed and is running to represent District D in Houston’s City Council. Richards perfectly sums up PRH success as an art project to the NYT:

“I had heard Rick was an artist when I got there,” she said, “but I thought, what kind of art does he do? Then I realized we were his art. We came into these houses, and they did something to us. This became a place of transformation. That’s what art does. It transforms you. And Rick also treated us like artists. He would ask, ‘What’s your vision for yourself?’ You understood that you were supposed to be making something new, and that something was yourself.”

View the trailer for the Third Ward/PRH documentary:

Numbers Dire and Inspiring

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September is Suicide Prevention Month, which seems like an unlikely tie-in for my series of columns about art and metrics. But, the data on suicide is dire. In the United States alone:

  • Suicide is the tenth leading cause of death.
  • More people die of suicide than in car accidents.
  • Military veterans have double the rate of suicide as nonveterans.
  • The suicide rate of LGBTQ youth and adults is three times the national average.

And, of course, there is a solid connection between art and suicide; enough of my favorite artists—visual and written—took their own lives. But I’m not interested in being that sort of ghoulish, especially when, instead, I can talk about work that looks to alleviate the loneliness of depression and fund suicide prevention. Honestly, I can’t believe it took this sort of in-your-face connection to bring me around to exploring the metrics and results of popular art project PostSecret. Its creator didn’t start it to be about suicide specifically, but, by it’s very nature, it led people to share thoughts about loneliness, depression, suicide and gave a sort of release valve to those feelings.

If you’re not familiar…well, why ruin the sense of discovery. Check out the slideshow I made below to learn about the project, its influence and the connection to Suicide Prevention Month.

Expecting Too Much of Creative Placemaking?

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As is probably clear by now, I’m deeply curious and often delighted by creative placemaking. When it comes to evaluation of creative placemaking, however, I’m stumped or underwhelmed, and I’m not alone. Over a year ago, Ian David Moss wrote “Creative Placemaking Has An Outcomes Problem” and Ellen Berkovitch wrote a summary of arguments in “Can Creative Placemaking Be Proven?

Personally, I’m on the fence if the problem is in outcomes or expectations…

Outcomes: We’re not measuring (enough)

In some instances, funders and project organizers are content with anecdotal evidence or uncertain how to establish quantitative data for their projects. Metrics and analysis isn’t an important part of the project from conception, the effort to accomplish something is good enough.

Outcomes: We’re not measuring the right things

More recently, it’s been popular to tie artistic projects specifically to economic indicators — attempting to prove that an arts festival or mural project has increased home values or brought more jobs into a neighborhood. While these are valuable things if/when they can be proven, I don’t believe the value in an art project is in raising home values any more than I believe the purpose of a painting is to match my couch.

Expectations: Vibrancy Indicators & Causation

Creative placemaking grants from both ArtPlace America and the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) are both assessed after the fact using community indicators. To simplify things, I’ll just talk about ArtPlace’s use of Vibrancy Indicators (the specifics of each program’s indicators are different; the general use and intent is similar enough).

ArtPlace Vibrancy Indicators

ArtPlace Vibrancy Indicators

Indicators aren’t meant to be the equivalent of a project’s goals … which is good, because if you were handed $280,000 (the average size of an ArtPlace grant) to increase the jobs or even the walkability of a neighborhood, it’s unlikely that creative placemaking would be the tool you turned to. However, indicators are taking the place of evaluation and, as a result, projects aren’t assessed based on their unique goals and audiences. Again, this seems to hinder our ability to assess which projects are successful and which are not and the thoughtful analysis of those results.

In looking at these broad areas, the funders are evaluating changes at a neighborhood or city level that may or may not be attributable to the actual funded creative placemaking activity. These sort of changes (e.g., increases in an area’s population, restaurants or artspaces) are the result of a variety of causes and are very worthwhile to track (see Vital Signs data) but can’t necessarily provide any clarity about whether one creative placemaking project was more successful than another — let alone why.

Finally, if the end goal for funders (and creative placemakers!) is to move the dial on some of these indicators, it would be far more encouraging to engage in long-term funding of specific projects and their evaluation and refinement. While a one-year project can positively impact a neighborhood’s walkscore, it can deteriorate into a detriment three years later if there’s no capacity to maintain it.

Scott Burkholder has written about funders questioning the impact of The Baltimore Love Project:

One of my “fondest” memories made during the project was sitting in a prolific Baltimore foundation’s offices. It was one of my first pitches to a significant investor. He had the means to pay for the entire project. Trial by fire was an understatement. Despite our passion, we were not prepared to articulate a change that was of interest to him. He pretty much asked us how many kids would graduate from high school and go to college as a result of our work. We not only didn’t know the answer, we had no response.

Seeing kids graduate from high school and enter college is an extremely worthwhile goal, but it’s not something that happens with only a year of effort (as of the publication of this article, my own kid will be a mere 275 days away from this achievement, so I can say this with some authority). There are twenty Baltimore Love Project murals total — and five of those are at area schools. Will an incoming freshman be inspired by the mural at her school? Will she go to college and get an art education degree? Will she return to Baltimore and teach, having her own hand in inspiring countless graduates?

It’s all possible, but a program evaluation that occurs as a brief requirement at a project’s end can never hope to track such a thing and expecting a project to deliver on those terms is unreasonable. (I should clarify here that the Baltimore Love Project is not specifically a creative placemaking endeavor, but their experience is not a unique one.)

I think creative placemaking projects have their impact, but we’re not doing the proper work yet to best highlight those impacts. The issue isn’t just with the outcomes, but also with our expectations for the projects and the data both.

Close Encounters of the Creative Kind

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In a previous column, I explored a bit of the what and why of creative placemaking.  But what about the placemaking that’s happening here and now in Baltimore?

Earlier this summer, as I walked around Highlandtown with a group of friends, I stumbled upon two remarkable things…

The first was the Maryland Traditions Folklife Festival was wrapping up as we approached the Creative Alliance. The street was filled with music and smiling faces of all ages. Even though it wasn’t our destination, it was a kind of random joy, the sort you experience just from discovering the cool things going on in your city and the people enjoying them.

Further down the block, we discovered new benches and yarnbombed trees at the intersection of Conkling and Eastern. What had previously just been a street — fairly unremarkable — was now an inviting and creative space.

Yarn-bombed tree in  in Yellow Springs, Ohio

Yarn-bombed tree by the Jafagirls. Yellow Springs, Ohio.

Both of these encounters touch upon the strength of creative placemaking: Spaces are transformed and, as a result, they pique your curiosity, invite you in and just plain make you notice them. For residents, the process not only improves your immediate area, it also forges a sense of place and identity.

The public space at Conkling and Eastern is one of the neighborhood improvements that’s come out of a creative placemaking workshop held last May by the Southeast Community Development Corporation, the Creative Alliance and Banner Neighborhoods and facilitated by Deborah Patterson of ARTblocks. The workshop involved a wide cross-section of the community, including residents and area merchants, and resulted in a list of short-term and long-term goals for the community and the Southeast CDC. Creative placemaking is just one of the tools the CDC is using to promote and improve the community, but it’s a significant one because it allows so many voices to be heard and for residents to not only benefit from, but also participate, in the process.

That focus on improvements generated and determined at a grassroots level is the work of Deborah Patterson and ARTblocks and is informed in the placemaking process developed by Project for Public Spaces. I admire the work Patterson is doing because, while the process is consistent (i.e., public workshops soliciting community opinion on issues and solutions), the end result is awesomely varied:

  • A living chair in Druid Hill Park
  • A ceramic mural in Pimlico
  • A guerilla crosswalk in Hampden
  • Elephants in Mondawmin (coming soon!)
  • A mosaic mural on the facade of Westside Elementary (coming soon!)

Photos courtesy of Druid Hill Farmers Market (leftmost) and ARTblocks.

I also appreciate that ARTBlocks projects are happening all across the city, not confined only to designated arts districts. While I’m also excited for the developments in those areas (like the Bromo Tower crosswalks and Europe-Baltimore collaborative placemaking project Transit), I also applaud efforts by ARTblocks and The Baltimore Love Project to make all neighborhoods surprisingly and delightfully artful.

So much of what’s happening in Baltimore is relatively recent, so it’s difficult to quantify the impact of these projects. Next, I’ll be diving back into the numbers, though, and exploring the challenges of communicating the impact of creative placemaking.

Artscape: An Infographic

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It’s mid-July in Baltimore, which means a lot of the arts and entertainment-minded folks of the city have only one thing on their minds: Artscape. Artscape is the largest free arts festival in the country—so, yeah, I pretty much think it’s a gift. (Yes, I know our tax dollars pay for it, but I also know that it’s a far more awesome weekend than I can afford on my individual contribution to its organization!)

In honor of Artscape—which introduced me to the Baltimore Rock Opera Society, let me see Clutch for (again!) free, which surprises and amuses me with so much creativity—I created this infographic, summarizing the event’s offerings, scope and impact. And some grudging acceptance about how hot it’s going to be out there this weekend.

Have a lovely Artscape, Baltimore!


Creative What?

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Since this column started, one of the topics I’ve read the most about and wanted to eventually cover has been creative placemaking. Those two words, placed together just so, were so full of intrigue to me and seem to provide an umbrella under which all my other public and community art interests are sheltered. I was introduced to the phrase “creative placemaking” when I met Deborah Patterson of ArtBlocks at CreateBaltimore in 2011. Because our meeting was a brief one—pretty much throwing our business cards at each other and saying we liked what the other was saying in the last session while running off to a new session—it didn’t really provide me any context for the phrase. And then, as so often happens, I suddenly was encountering the phrase everywhere (this is called the “Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon,” by the way—you’re welcome!).

Eventually, I dove into some research and discovered the National Endowment for the Arts‘s (NEA) basic definition of what creative placemaking is:

In creative placemaking, partners from public, private, nonprofit, and community sectors strategically shape the physical and social character of a neighborhood, town, tribe, city, or region around arts and cultural activities.

In order to be or appear inclusive, prepositional phrases have been hitched all over the place to this definition, and I find it all quite gets in the way of understanding what it’s all about. Breaking out the red marker, the definition can be whittled down to this:

In creative placemaking, partners strategically shape the physical and social character of a neighborhood around arts and cultural activities.

The NEA’s definition matters a lot to people not just because of their role in influencing thought, but also because they have a grant program specific to creative placemaking. The Our Town grants were launched in 2011, and, over the last two years, have provided $11.58 million in funding in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. However, even in its simplified form, this definition is too wordy for a tweet and still manages to lack specificity. ArtBlocks’ mission statement cuts through all that and includes a definition that is tweetable and understandable:

Our mission is to provide communities with creative placemaking, a grassroots, bottom-up design tool used to identify their goals for their public spaces.

I gravitate toward this definition because:

  1. It identifies that placemaking is a tool. In the NEA definition, creative placemaking just sort of is. It might be a collection of strategies, but that’s not super clear.
  2. It creates a sense of ownership: Creative placemaking is for communities, their goals and their spaces. The NEA definition names a lot of players and a lot of places, but it doesn’t establish that the power in creative placemaking is bottom-up and is within the communities themselves.
  3. As is evidenced in the very existence of this blog, I’ll always choose concrete—and hopefully measurable—goals over “strategically shap[ing] the physical and social character” of anything.

Of course, there isn’t a shortage of definitions for creative placemaking and just because I found one close to home doesn’t mean I stopped collecting them. The Project for Public Spaces (PPS) is the grand-daddy of creative placemaking organizations; they’ve been at it since before I was born and play an active role not just in projects that have a placemaking approach, but also in terms of promoting placemaking and providing resources and training for individuals and other agencies. Back in 2006, they asked for individual’s definitions of placemaking and the resulting list represents a variety of perspectives, some frustratingly broad, others inspirational. My favorite states:

[Placemaking is] the art and science of developing public spaces that attract people, build community by bringing people together, and create local identity.

The latter portion of this definition reminds me of some other ChangeEngine posts on branding cities and Baltimore specifically and works for me when I tie it back to ArtBlocks’ emphasis on communities (or neighborhoods or tribes or cities) having the power to create and emphasize their own identity. Unlike so many efforts that focus on bringing in tourists, creative placemaking has the opportunity to be about the community itself and have a result that may or may not be meaningful or attractive to outsiders. It certainly can, but it needn’t be; it doesn’t have to justify itself based on the number of hotel beds filled, for example. (Which isn’t to say creative placemaking doesn’t have to justify itself at all; more on that soon!)

In addition, while I don’t look to diminish the impact of the NEA’s funding—Station North was a recipient of one of the inaugural grants, afterall—it’s certainly not the only way for creative placemaking to occur. PPS specifically highlights and encourages a “lighter, quicker, cheaper” approach to placemaking:

Whether you want to move your office outside, organize a citywide cooking festival, or start small by making a concerted effort to engage directly with your neighbors every day, know that your own actions are an essential component of your neighborhood’s sense of place, by virtue of the fact that you live there. […] Great places are not created in one fell swoop, but through many creative acts of citizenship: individuals taking it upon themselves to add their own ideas and talents to the life of their neighborhood’s public spaces.

While creative placemaking may seem like a fad or be dismissed as something frivolous, definitions like those provided by ArtsBlocks and calls to action like those issued by PPS remind me that place matters. The sense of ownership and identity related to place are strong motivators; you hear it in the arguments between sports fans — we’re seeing it in the images from Gezi Park.

This post, of course, is just scratching the surface of creative placemaking. Future installments will focus on specific placemaking projects and successes in Baltimore and also rumblings about the role of outcomes and evaluation in creative placemaking. And, for those of you reading who still question if creative placemaking is useful or effective, I leave you with these words from architect Jody Brown and encourage you to click through and enjoy the photos and the rest of this piece:

Thank you public plaza, for giving pigeons a place to poop.

Thank you public plaza, for flooding whenever it’s humid.

Thank you public plaza, for that patch of green in that concrete planter over there. I had almost forgotten about nature.


The Power of Story

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I was heavily involved and invested in museums for the first decade of my career — as a staff member, a fellow, an intern, a volunteer and a museum studies student. So it was a delight to attend the annual meeting of the American Alliance of Museums in Baltimore this week, greeting the people in the field that I follow avidly via Twitter and blogs and the icons of the museum world to the city of which I’m such a fan.

AAM Schedule (photo by Michelle Gomez)
Photograph of AAM program/schedule courtesy of Michelle Gomez and via Instagram.

The theme of this year’s conference was “The Power of Story.” And while that might not seem that relevant to data and evaluation on first glance, it’s data that gives power to our stories. Inside museums, evaluation and measurement are done in some ways that might be familiar to the casual visitor (e.g., visitor surveys, comment cards, program evaluations), but also some that might be unexpected or go unnoticed, as a profile from the Wall Street Journal illustrates:

Matt Sikora doesn’t look at the Rembrandts and Rodins at the Detroit Institute of Arts. His eyes are trained on the people looking at them. Mr. Sikora watches where visitors stop, whether they talk or read, how much time they spend. He records his observations in a handheld computer, often viewing his subjects through the display cases or tiptoeing behind them to stay out of their line of sight. “Teenage daughter was with, but did not interact, sat on bench, then left,” read his notes of one visit.

It’s not uncommon for museum evaluators to shadow visitors in the galleries, learning from their movements what areas or objects are engaging and for how long. In addition, before an exhibition opens to the general public, many elements, including label text and interactive gallery displays, are prototyped and tested. Through these evaluations, exhibit designers, curators and museum educators learn more about visitors’ reactions to exhibits: which elements are engaging, confusing or overlooked. In addition, some evaluation tools also provide information about what visitors take away from their time in the gallery — what was learned, what inspired them, what connections they made and, hopefully, what will draw them back again.

What was so empowering about this year’s conference was being able to evaluate those tools themselves, and to learn. Surprisingly, technology is not always the answer. Visitor evaluation consultants and staff members from the Brooklyn Museum and Monticello shared various scenarios where their attempts to survey visitors went awry because technology got in the way or skewed results, the target audience was elusive or just straight-out avoided their polling attempts. It just goes to show that even bad data can teach you something, even if it’s not what we set out to learn!

Even more surprising was the lesson that data doesn’t necessarily persuade, no matter how clear or comprehensive. Often, beliefs trump facts. As Stephen Bitgood, Professor Emeritus of Psychology at Jacksonville State University and Founder of the Visitor Studies Association, said, “When strong belief is pitted against reason and fact, belief triumphs over reason and fact every time.” Despite our expectation that data should persuade, prove and set people on the right course, it simply doesn’t override gut instinct, what people feel or believe to be true. Again and again, presenters told tales of data being met with questions or disbelief. Unfortunately, no solutions were presented to either circumvent or resolve this issue, but I am filing this under “knowing is half the battle” and keeping it in mind when data is presented as all-powerful or all-knowing.

Display at AAM2013 (photo by Mariel Smith)Display at AAM2013 (photo by Lindsay Smilow)
Photographs of AAM display, top to bottom, courtesy of Mariel Smith via Instagram
and Lindsay Smilow via Instagram.

So evaluation and measurement can fail or go awry. Testing our tools and techniques in small batches prior to rolling out the full survey or other strategy gives us an opportunity to see it in action and identify areas to fix or improve. If evaluation and measurement are treated as afterthoughts, as so often is the case, these tests are even less likely to occur and, as a result, the final data may prove useless, further cementing the idea that evaluation itself is a useless activity. It’s a difficult cycle to break out of, but worth identifying and tackling so that we can truly tell a more powerful story.