(As expected, Ann Markusen’s article Fuzzy Concepts, Proxy Data: Why Indicators Won’t Track Creative Placemaking Success has provoked lots of discussion and reaction among the creative placemaking practitioner community. Much of this can be found in the comments to the original post; in particular I recommend John Carnwath’s extensive discussion of the costs and benefits of measurement in the arts. On top of that, we now have official responses from the two major national creative placemaking funders that were the subject of Ann’s critique. ArtPlace posted a detailed rebuttal last week on its website, and below we have an essay penned by National Endowment for the Arts Director of Design Jason Schupbach and Director, Office of Research and Analysis Sunil Iyengar. Enjoy. -IDM)
We continue to be grateful for the level of national discourse that has emerged since the National Endowment for the Arts’ introduction of Our Town, the federal government’s signature investment in creative placemaking. In particular, Createquity has published a number of blog posts that have provided us with valuable feedback. They have also raised insightful questions about the program resources and research needs for an initiative of this size and scale.
So much has been happening at the NEA – and some of the most vibrant conversations have been based in part on incomplete or out-of-date information – that we thought it made sense to run through our accomplishments and goals, now that we are in the second year of Our Town grantmaking. (If, after reading this post, you want to know even more about what is happening across the country, please take a look at the current issue of NEA Arts: “Arts and Culture at the Core: A Look at Creative Placemaking.”)
When Rocco Landesman arrived at the NEA in 2009, he put a name on something he saw happening all across this country, from the Little Haiti neighborhood in Miami, Florida, to the cultural district that sprang up around the Museum of Glass in Tacoma, Washington: cities and towns were using the arts to help shape their social, physical, and economic characters. We were rich in anecdotes, but individual communities and organizations lacked the opportunity to connect with others doing similar work.
Like any good producer, Rocco realized that we could not create a community of practice without a name for our shared endeavor, and so the phrase “creative placemaking” was introduced into our national lexicon. Two efforts quickly followed: a white paper by Ann Markusen and Anne Gadwa Nicodemus that defined this sector of work, and a national convening of 40 experts in the arts, community development, and research. This diverse group launched a conversation about how to measure the presence and impact of the arts in U.S. communities.
The grant program
Both of these efforts helped inform the design of Our Town, which makes grants to partnerships among arts and design organizations and local governments to increase community livability through the arts. By framing the conversation around how communities can use the arts to contribute positively to shared priorities, rather than adopting the more traditional approach of simply stating what the arts organizations would like to do and asking for support to do it, Our Town projects have attracted an impressively diverse range of partners. These have included social service agencies, botanic gardens, schools, religious institutions, scientific organizations, local businesses, and business improvement districts.
Through two rounds, we have now invested more than $11.5 million in Our Town grants to 131 communities in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Along the way, we learned an important lesson: creative placemaking is a big and inclusive tent, and in order to make sense of this emerging sector, we need to look at the specific sub-communities it contains. As grant administrators, we find that it helps to consider Our Town projects in terms of these sub-communities at different points of the award cycle.
From a grant-making point of view, for example, we sort applications into three subsets for review: arts engagement projects, cultural planning and design projects, and projects in non-metro and tribal communities. This is far from a mutually exclusive / completely exhaustive taxonomy, but for our review panels, this division allows Our Town grant applications to be examined in clusters that share similar opportunities, challenges, and access to resources.
Once the grants have been made, and we move into the mode of grants stewardship, it has made more sense for NEA staff to look at the projects based on the specific activities being undertaken. This list is bound to change or grow, but to date, Our Town grants tend to fall into these distinct categories: creating and strengthening artists’ work spaces; asset mapping/cultural district planning; creative industries and entrepreneurship; creating and strengthening cultural facilities; investing in festivals, performances, and other innovative arts programming; reinventing public spaces through creative uses; and the planning and implementation of temporary and permanent public art.
To varying degrees, this taxonomy has subsequently guided our work in evaluating grant projects, conducting national-level research, and creating communities of practice. Let’s take each of these in turn.
At the NEA, every grant program must help achieve one of five outcomes: creation, engagement, learning, research, or livability. The Our Town grants are all measured against livability, and grantees report to us through a final descriptive report form specific to this outcome.
Unlike private endowment-driven funders, the NEA’s budget is allocated annually by Congress. Despite our name, the NEA does not, in fact, have an endowment, and we are mandated to make our grant decisions anew each year. These facts mean that the NEA cannot commit to funding specific projects over long periods of time, as is the practice with many foundations. (Organizations may, of course, re-apply to the agency.) The ability to make a multi-year commitment to a grantee is the moral prerequisite for doing a multi-year evaluation of that project. So we look at each grantee’s project on its own terms and measure it against its contributions to community livability.
These final descriptive reports allow the NEA to make an evaluation of each grant, but they are also a foundational element in fulfilling our other responsibilities, including both our national research into creative placemaking and our work to build communities of practice.
Following publication of the Creative Placemaking white paper, several organizations and individuals approached us, requesting cost-effective solutions for better understanding and communicating the value their work added to their communities. Almost all of these groups were more than adept at documenting their work with images, video, and anecdote, but they lacked easy access to quantitative information.
We felt that we could play a key role in building an infrastructure to address this need. In order to better articulate the concept of livability that underpins the Our Town program, we posited a hypothesis that almost any successful creative placemaking project would make a difference to its community in at least one of four ways: strengthening the infrastructure that supports artists and arts organizations; increasing community attachment; improving quality of life; and/or driving local economies.
These particular dimensions of livability emerged from a review of extant literature, consultations with the field, and an initial review of grant applications. It also grew apparent that these outcomes would be profoundly difficult to measure. So we decided that an appropriate next step would be to develop a framework of arts and livability indicators that would help the field think constructively about how these concepts might be reflected in data already being collected. The indicators are not intended to measure exactly what is happening in creative placemaking projects; they are instead – as the name implies – meant to indicate conditions on the ground that reflect important dimensions of livability and provide insights into relationships that might exist, thus highlighting areas for further research.
By tracking outcomes that are already publicly reported and widely available, we should be able to provide a reasonably reliable indicator of changes to a community’s overall livability. Are all or even some of these changes necessarily due to the presence of creative placemaking activities? Absolutely not–but at least they are the kinds of community-wide outcomes that should matter most to people and groups engaged in creative placemaking. By allowing such outcomes to be tracked easily, the indicators system will bypass the need for elaborate and expensive data collection tools and analytics on a project-by-project basis.
How will we know that the indicators we choose are the right ones? Because they will be based on a series of hypotheses soon to be tested in real communities. For instance, we hypothesize that one indicator of a strengthened arts infrastructure might be an increase in the number of employees at arts organizations. An indicator of community attachment might be the average length that a citizen has lived in a community. An indicator of quality of life might be lower crime rates. And an indicator of a strong local economy might be the number of valid business addresses in a community. Each of these example indicators is based on information already collected and made available by the Census Bureau, the FBI, and the U.S. Postal Service.
We need to test each hypothesis in multiple communities because a single indicator may not work the same way in every place. For instance, at the NEA, we have spent a lot of time internally debating whether “length of commute” is a potential indicator for increased quality of life. Not surprisingly, those of us who live in urban centers think shorter commute times equate with a higher quality of life; and those of us who live in the suburbs and have chosen homes specifically further way from work, feel that longer commute times better correlate with a higher quality of life.
We are working with a team of researchers from the Urban Institute to explore these kinds of nuances for every indicator, testing and validating each hypothesis in multiple use cases and documenting the ways in which a single indicator is and is not an effective proxy. We are also working with and learning from other federal agencies that are similarly building indicator systems from nationally available data sets. It is possible to use an indicators system very effectively, indeed, but it is also all too easy to misuse one – and we want to do everything we can to avoid such pitfalls.
Our team will also assess whether the appropriate data can be accessed at the geographical level of detail we require. Recently, Ann Markusen shared a summary from Arizona State University Professor Emily Talen that was circulated on a listserv for urban planning researchers. This sort of granular investigation into the data available from, in this case, the American Community Survey is exactly the next order of business for our indicators team. So we are, yet again, indebted to Ann.
If we are successful in creating this indicators framework, then the nation’s arts organizations will have free and easy access to a system that helps them begin to visualize and report on some of the things happening alongside their creative placemaking projects. From a social science perspective, will these metrics prove a causal relationship? Again, absolutely not. But for citizens, funders, civic officials, and business leaders, they will provide a good indication of what is happening. And when viewed alongside qualitative data from the projects themselves, the indicators may provide sufficient evidence to satisfy stakeholders who seek assurance of the projects’ overall value. Others may wish to know more, and if so, the indicators and the qualitative data lay the foundation for further research and project-specific evaluation.
We believe this approach will help demystify data for organizations involved in creative placemaking. An organization might be brilliant at developing an outdoor festival that would literally bring art into the center of the public square. It might also excel at documenting the resulting changes it can observe in the surrounding neighborhood. But it may not be skilled at identifying and analyzing data sets, and it may not have the time or the funds to undertake an expensive and exhaustive research project. These organizations are exactly the target audience for our framework, since we will publish – in plain language – the data sets that pass our national validation tests and explain how to extricate only the data that are relevant to, in this case, innovative arts programming.
Communities of practice
Taken together, these quantitative and qualitative impacts will allow the NEA to help connect and support communities of practice in creative placemaking.
We have issued an RFP for help in producing documentation that looks at each of the Our Town grantees and asks: what did you set out to do with your project; how did you go about doing your project; how do you know whether you succeeded; and what would you do differently having been through what you went through?
The field has been clamoring for “how-to” information. By combining the final descriptive reports from the Our Town grants, the indicators framework, and the in-depth documentation of each project, we will be able to play matchmaker.
A community that wants examples of successful, federally funded projects can comb through our analysis of the NEA’s final descriptive reports to learn which other communities have succeeded.
A community that would like to make a major investment in public art will be able to parse the in-depth descriptions of public art projects to see what lessons they can learn.
Even prior to all of those resources being available, we have started trying to create cross-community connections by having Our Town panelists share their insights and experiences in a series of archived webinars. We will do even more of these in the coming months, featuring grantees.
We are really only two years into this work, and are proud of all that we have been able to accomplish. But we are also humbled by the work ahead. The good news is that there continues to be national energy and excitement around creative placemaking, and we are eager for any or all feedback.
We hope that there will continue to be a robust conversation in blogs, on listserves, and throughout the Twittersphere. And we also hope that people will continue to feel free to interact directly with the agency. We are always eager to hear from you at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.