Beyond Gamification: Alternative Models for Games in Arts Organizations

In my first post on games and the arts, I wrote that the massive growth of the video games industry in the last 20 years is motivating the integration of game dynamics with all sorts of products and services. While games that take place in the real world have a long history (e.g. sports, board games), new forms are emerging as the lines between our online and offline lives continue to blur. A number of arts organizations are considering mobilizing games in the service of increased ticket sales, improved audience participation, and outreach to new audiences, but these so-called “gamification” efforts typically fail to take advantage of games’ full potential for creativity. This post provides a few paths forward for organizations interested in really delving into this rich world. Good games are hard to make, but done well, they can help arts organizations achieve their missions—and help them rewrite the rules for audience engagement.

Gamification: Scratching the Surface

Gamification refers to any system that uses game design elements in a non-game context, usually to encourage some desired real-world behavior like participation in market research or the achievement of health goals. In essence, gamification takes an act usually valued for its intrinsic qualities—play—and exploits it for an instrumental purpose. Its proponents claim to be able to make a game out of literally anything, a powerful idea that understandably excites arts organizations looking for new, innovative business models. Because instrumentality fundamentally defines gamification, though, these schemes can result in an experience that isn’t really very fun or engaging. For instance, the Brooklyn Museum’s tagging game to crowdsource collection indexes might help it organize its objects, and the Sydney Festival’s scavenger hunt-style mobile app might help its attendees navigate their offerings, but neither use game mechanics as more than a thin veneer over experiences that may (or may not) already successfully engage participants. Ultimately, many uses of gamification are as superficial as credit card rewards programs; cultural critic Ian Bogost has even suggested the name “exploitationware” to critique gamification’s more addictive qualities and removal of any expectation of actual play.

There’s nothing wrong with arts organizations using points and other game rewards as part of a toolkit to boost attendance, reach fundraising goals, or solve a host of other potential problems. However, those sorts of programs don’t take advantage of the intrinsic qualities of games that encourage creativity in players. In The New York Times, Sam Anderson quotes Frank Lantz, the creator of the iPhone game Drop7, describing why gamification doesn’t tap into games’ full potential as works of art in their own right:

He said that real games are far too fragile and complex to be engineered by corporations and that their appeal goes much deeper than reward schedules. “It’s as hard to make a really good game as it is to make a really good movie or opera or hat,” he told me. “Sure, there’s mathematics to it, but it’s also a piece of culture. The type of game you play is also a part of how you think about yourself as a person. There’s no formula that’s going to solve that equation. It’s impossible, because it’s infinitely deep and wonderful.”

Drop 7, photo by Dan Callahan.

Drop 7, photo by Dan Callahan.

Complex, well-executed games intrinsically provide both structure (in the form of rules) and the creative freedom to experiment (as participants explore ways to win through play). As experiences, they are playful, interactive, and also provoke participants to think through unfamiliar systems—a characteristic that runs directly counter to the mindless quality of most gamification efforts and aligns games more closely with challenging artworks. Games can be immersive, aesthetically interesting experiences that investigate many of the same sociological, cultural, political, and formal questions more traditional artists address. By investing in games for their intrinsic rather than instrumental qualities, arts organizations can serve their missions in a fresh way while engaging audiences primed to reflect on more commercial gaming experiences they’re likely already having. Fortunately, the broader culture of gaming provides plenty of fodder for an organization looking for models beyond compulsive point rewards.

New Game Subgenres and What They Can Offer

A number of relatively new subgenres can provide inspiration for game experiences that allow audiences to play as creative agents. Below, I’ve provided a short list of subgenres along with examples of how an arts organization might use them. As with any new project, the target audience should drive an organization’s decisions, since they hold varying levels of appeal for different groups.

  • Role-Playing Games (RPGs) have their modern roots in Dungeons & Dragons, which was first published in 1974. These pen-and-paper games are essentially interactive fiction, in which the players determine the story collaboratively. To do so, players take on different roles and powers defined by the game master as s/he interprets the gaming guide, a set of rules defining the fictional world they inhabit, challenges to overcome, and possible player actions. The game evolves as players take turns, accomplish tasks, and interact with the fictional world. Video games that require players to choose an avatar as part of a fantasy or science fiction story are often based on tabletop RPGs. They have also given rise to the live action role-playing game (LARP), a theatrical variation that takes place outside the home and often involves elaborate costumes and battles with fake weapons.
    • Why an arts organization might create one: By taking on specific roles, audiences can engage with complex histories or present-day cultural landscapes. For instance, players at a museum could become artists in a particular collaborative (like the Bloomsbury Group) and create alternate histories of the artists’ work and lives through gameplay. A theater group could include well-known local performers as roles in the gaming guide—and then invite those performers to participate in the game by acting as the game master. RPGs tend to be most rewarding to play when participants feel welcome to riff on their roles, so organizers need to be willing to cede control of the game narrative to the players.
  • Alternate Reality Games (ARGs) are related to RPGs, and are similarly characterized by a fictional narrative. However, ARGs cultivate a deeper suspension of disbelief because they tend to take place over many weeks, and gameplay is interspersed with more everyday, “real world” activities rather than being governed by a text-based guide. Plots are often cloaked in mystery, and designers tend to run things from “behind the curtain.” In an ARG, instead of turning the page to find out what happens next, players must solve puzzles or find clues hidden in the real world, which then unlock communications from (often virtual) fictional characters that move the plot forward. ILoveBees is one of the most famous examples of this sort of game.
    • Why an arts organization might create one: Among other things, ARGs can take people all over cities to solve puzzles and perform different tasks, scavenger hunt-style. They can be useful if an organization would like audiences to visit partner venues, and demonstrate connections between disparate places or ideas through the ARG narrative. Because of the fictional plot, ARGs are also an opportunity for organizations to tell a story—it just has to be engaging enough that audiences want to discover the next piece.
  • Blended Reality games take integration with the real world a step further. Rather than focusing on the fictional “layer” over reality, in blended reality games, the game world is our world, and play takes place without the intervention of characters or invented plot devices. Games like SFZero (which I have worked on) define themselves more as an “interface” for the player’s city than an alternate reality.
    • Why an arts organization might create one: These sorts of games have similar applications to ARGs, but don’t necessitate the creation of a fictional world. Rather than veiling the gameplay in a custom-made fictional plot, designers use our everyday fictions and symbols to color the game. In Paul Ramirez Jonas’s Key to the City, participants used keys to unlock dozens of doors throughout New York (many of which were at museums), endowing the normally symbolic gift of city keys with real-world consequences. Blended reality games can help arts organizations encourage participants to think critically about their everyday behavior in a more explicit way than an ARG.
  • Augmented Reality Games use the camera, tilt sensor, GPS, and accelerometer features in handheld systems to interact with real world conditions. Players can kick a virtual soccer ball through their iPhone camera, or fight other players for territory using a GPS map of their locations.
    • Why an arts organization might create one: Depending on the audience, arts organizations may prefer to use technology to spur engagement in a game, and the use of smartphones can allow participants to play anywhere, in a much more casual way than most of the other game types listed here. Following the ARstreets graffiti game example, arts organizations could create augmented reality games that allow players to reimagine already-extant murals, change the marquees of concert halls, or design a building for an empty lot. The augmented reality game can be viewed as a genre unto itself, but it’s also possible to integrate augmented reality features into other types of games. For instance, in an alternate reality game, rather than finding physical clues in a gallery, a player could simply hold up his or her phone to the space and reveal a message hidden virtually. Creating a system that works well and offers substance beyond a “cool” tech factor would require a significant investment of resources, though.
  • Serious Games engage with the real world through the lens of a particular pressing problem. As with Jane McGonigal’s World Without Oil, these games often use elements of ARGs and crowdsourcing techniques to engage players to find solutions for in-game problems that hopefully have implications for the real world.
    • Why an arts organization might create one: A film festival presenting a particularly political series of documentaries might like audience members to gain a better understanding of the problems presented by working to solve them. Serious games can be created to find solutions to any problem, but engagement often depends on finding a sufficiently compelling problem and framing it well. Serious games can also cross the line into gamification if their design relies too heavily instrumental tools like adding up points and achievements, and less on intrinsic qualities like player imagination and interactivity. For example, American Public Media’s Budget Hero gamifies balancing the federal budget in a closed, virtual setting and has successfully garnered over 6,000 comments. If those commenters could work collaboratively toward their budgets, or in a more open-ended way, a different, less gamified experience would result.
  • Big Games or Street Games tend to eschew heavy use of technology or fictionalized narratives and (as the names suggest) bring together masses of people to play in public spaces like streets, parks, or malls. Big game designers often borrow heavily from playground games like tag, hide-and-seek, or scavenger hunts, but view the site-specificity of the city environment and act of playing as an adult as potentially transgressive. Because these games usually necessitate the presence of an organizer or referee, they tend to take place in festival format, as exemplified by IndieCade, igfest, and Come Out and Play (which I work on in San Francisco).
    • Why an arts organization might create one: These sorts of games are often cheap to produce, and work nicely with a lo-fi maker/DIY aesthetic. They can help transform socially rigid spaces like galleries, theaters, or offices, but may work less well if a more polished experience is intended.
Come Out and Play New York, photo by Kate Raynes-Goldie.

Come Out and Play New York, photo by Kate Raynes-Goldie.

In addition to how a genre fits with a particular need, arts organizations should also consider playability and the nature of engagement in the game. These qualities define the game’s mood and level of accessibility, and help shape the game to a particular audience.

Playability. Playability might seem like an intrinsic characteristic of any game, but a spectrum exists here as well, as many games prioritize abstract aesthetics and concepts over lived player experience. Penn & Teller’s Desert Bus video game, in which players must drive a bus in real time from Tucson to Las Vegas—a journey that takes eight hours and cannot be paused—intentionally eliminates as much actual play from the game as possible. Many gamified activities also deemphasize play, though in the service of chosen outcomes rather than art. Some ARGs and LARPs focus on the fictional narrative over play.

Nature of engagement. The nature of engagement indicates the sorts of activities a player must undertake to play the game. These can range from the simple and easy to learn, as with Foursquare (just go somewhere and check in), to The Jejune Institute, a months-long ARG that required players to visit multiple sites around San Francisco, listen to a special radio station in Dolores Park, and obtain information from street performers, among other tasks.

Experimenting with Games – SFMOMA’s ArtGameLab and Beyond

ArtGameLab wall text, photo by Rusty Blazenhoff.

ArtGameLab wall text, photo by Rusty Blazenhoff.

SFMOMA’s current ArtGameLab exhibition offers a fantastic sampler of many of these sorts of games in a museum context, created in part to “break down institutional barriers to experimentation by providing new models for presenting multi-vocal, crowd-sourced content.” While a step in the right direction, the art museum’s own “institutional safeguards” prevented a completely untamed game experience (and curator Erica Gangsei certainly recognizes as much). The exhibition lives up to its claim as a “lab,” posing questions about how games can work within a large institution.

Labs are fantastic, but more fully realized game programs are the next step. While participatory art and activities of all kinds are slowly making their way into organizational settings, games represent an even deeper way to embrace contemporary, less hierarchical definitions of art. By offering an alternate set of behavioral rules, games present an opportunity for audiences and institutions to revise those that govern the presentation and consumption of art. Through games, organizations can rewrite what an arts experience really is, and recognize that changing the rules doesn’t have to be so scary.


Around the horn: I’m on a plane edition

  • Narric Rome tells us about where the arts fall in the federal government’s new tourism strategy.
  • After threatening to cap the tax deduction available to donors as a means of raising revenue, the British government has abandoned the plan.
  • Barely two years after changing things up last time, the Kresge Foundation has announced a further evolution of its arts grantmaking. Now, all of its considerable funding will be concentrated under the umbrella of “creative placemaking.”
  • Kickstarter may be the big name when it comes to crowdfunding in the arts, but its $99 million in pledges last year is only a small fraction of the $1.5 billion crowdfunding platforms raised across all causes worldwide in 2011. And this interesting article argues that crowdfunding (the investing kind, not the donating kind) could create unaccustomed competition for venture capitalists. One observer notes that if every American set aside an average of 1% of their liquid net worth to invest in new ventures, the available capital for entrepreneurs would jump by a factor of 10.
  • McKinsey & Co. has published a white paper on social impact bonds, which are currently being piloted in the United Kingdom.
  • Is investing in art an asset class? Not yet, according to Felix Salmon, who picks apart a new “index” of artists’ market value put together by Artnet. It seems to me that the art market is not so different from the real estate market, and that investing in artists is rather like investing in a particular home builder. To make art a real asset class, someone would need to build the equivalent of real estate investment trusts (REITs) that buy up particular artworks and then sell shares in the collection. It would be an interesting experiment, no doubt.
  • The Council on Foundations conference, an event that’s only open to grantmaking institutions, is becoming more transparent, with resources from the event becoming available online. One such resource is this report from Katherine Miller.
  • The Cultural Data Project and Nonprofit Finance Fund are teaming up to offer a new Financial Health Analysis tool to arts nonprofits. When you submit your financials to CDP through the normal process, you’ll be presented with a report detailing your organization’s financial strengths and weaknesses. Congrats to Kim Cook and the other folks at NFF and CDP for what looks to be a useful resource.
  • Next American City’s Diana Lind reports from the CEOs for Cities conference, hosted by the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati.

    It’s a nice unfiltered window into how the urban planning community views/engages with the arts: [T]here was…no one at all who left the reception on the lobby floor to explore the upper galleries (which were free to the public, by the way). It was just me and three security guards whose boredom was palpable….I went back downstairs where people drank beer and talked about how to make a better city. Somehow that disconnect, right there in the space, seemed like a perfect metaphor. Hundreds of people came to a contemporary art museum to talk about engaging the city’s art scene but missed all the art.

  • FSG (the originators of the “Collective Impact” concept) explains how collective impact is like a symphony orchestra:

    “It is Sunday afternoon and the musicians have all convened to play a symphony. Indeed, they’ve even agreed to play a Beethoven symphony. But now imagine the following scenario: they have not actually agreed to which Beethoven symphony. None of them have any sheet music. And there is no conductor! This is the setting of isolated impact: wonderful individual efforts that don’t actually add up to a cohesive whole. A lot of noise, but no symphony…”

  • The NEA has announced its first-ever round of research grants.
  • Don’t miss this sponsored supplement to the summer 2012 issue of the Stanford Social Innovation Review, featuring reflections on evaluation and strategic philanthropy from five major foundations. And Grantmakers for Effective Organizations has just published a manual called “Four Essentials for Evaluation,” one of the readers for which was Jerome Vielman of Houston Arts Alliance.
  • Surprise, surprise: self-publishing is a winner-take-all market too: “a survey of 1,007 self-published writers…found that while a small percentage of authors were bringing in sums of $100,000-plus in 2011, average earnings were just $10,000 a year. This amount, however, is significantly skewed by the top earners, with less than 10% of self-publishing authors earning about 75% of the reported revenue and half of writers earning less than $500.”
  • We’ve had a strong sense for a while that walkable neighborhoods are more valuable, but just how much more valuable? A new study from the Brookings Institution looking at the DC area puts the price premium at up to $1200 per month. This will be something important to take into consideration when thinking about research studying the effects of creative placemaking: how can we disentangle the contribution of arts amenities when those amenities tend to cluster in areas with lots of other things that people find valuable as well?
  • Richard Florida offers a defense of his economic theories against a critique of him on the Forbes website, which serves double-duty as his latest thinking on the composition of creative cities. At the end, he advocates for a both/and approach, encompassing investments in amenities with business-friendly practices. I’m not sure I buy that that’s “been [his] message all along,” but it does make sense – after all, while the “coolness” of a city’s reputation certainly factors in to many people’s relocation decisions, jobs do too.
  • What would it mean to quantify the potential value-add to society of a third grade teacher?
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Public arts funding update: May


The IRS and Treasury Department are finally starting to bring some clarity to program related investments, releasing a rule that represents the first update in 40 years to the language describing how these financial instruments can be used. Unfortunately, the one arts example in the mix describes a 501(c)(4) ”social welfare” organization, rather than the more standard 501(c)(3) nonprofit. This is a little worrisome given that the arts aren’t actually mentioned as one of the categories in the tax code that qualify for tax-exempt status, and 501(c)(4)s are not able to provide a tax deduction to donors.

Elizabeth Quaglieri describes the Obama administration’s Turnaround Arts Initiative, a pilot program spearheaded by the President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities, the Turnaround Arts Initiative provides arts curriculum resources and the attention of celebrity artists to eight struggling “turnaround schools” across the country. The arts materials are designed to be thoroughly integrated into the schools’ turnaround effort, and the whole shebang will be evaluated by Booz Allen Hamilton after a two-year trial.


Obviously, the big news of the month was Kansas getting its arts council back, reported here on Friday. Elsewhere, the news is mostly decent. New Hampshire arts advocates were successful in turning back a threat to the state’s Department of Cultural Resources and public art fund by mobilizing more than 100 business leaders, artists, teachers, economic development officials, and others to attend a public hearing, impressive for a small state. A somewhat controversial plan in Connecticut to replace line item funding for arts organizations with a competitive pool also ended up going nowhere. I have mixed feelings about this one – I get that you don’t want to expose institutions to major financial risk on short notice, but as a general practice I think line items for specific arts organizations are pretty undemocratic (because the organizations with the resources to procure them tend to be on the richer side anyway) and bad policy (because the line items are not subject to any kind of centralized performance review by industry professionals who know what they’re doing).

This is slightly old news, but the New York State Council on the Arts reversed the trend of the past four years and came out of the latest budget process with a $4 million increase, to $35.6 million. NYSCA remains the best-funded state arts council in the nation.


The Washington, DC city council has given preliminary approval to an increase in the budget of the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities from $3.9 million to $11.9 million. That sounds a lot better than it actually is; the increase just partially makes up for a combined loss of over $16 million from the DCCAH and the National Capital Arts and Cultural Affairs program over the past couple of years.


England cut funding to arts groups two years ago, and the Brits apparently aren’t missing it too much. A survey reports that support for public funding for the arts has dropped from 52% to 44% since 2009. Meanwhile, Scotland’s arts council is moving many of its arts groups to short-term, project funding in an effort to get more mileage out of its shrinking budget.

The Australia Council for the Arts has just completed a five-month review process, its first in two decades, and the results are making some waves. The review advocates that the Council reform its “rigid” structure that silos arts grantmaking by discipline, and also put up much more of its funds for competition as opposed to guaranteeing money to specific institutions. Interestingly, it puts this move under the rubric of emphasizing “excellence,” whereas in the United States that word is typically code for the larger, established organizations.

Turkey has become the latest battleground for the arts and government censorship, with conservative Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan taking a hostile stance to Turkey’s theatrical community after performances of a Chilean play sparked controversy in Istanbul. The events led to Istanbul’s Islamist mayor taking over decision-making for the city-funded theater troupe that staged the play. Supporting that move, Erdogan also threatened to cut off state funding to Turkey’s theater companies in response to protests and resignations by artists pushing for freedom of speech. The bad vibes apparently date back at least to a performance of a different play when Erdogan’s daughter found herself the involuntary recipient of an onstage actor’s attention during an improvised scene and subsequently walked out of the show. That incident led to the actor, who claimed he didn’t know that the young woman in the front row wearing a headscarf was Erdogan’s daughter, being suspended and brought before the country’s minister of culture to explain himself.

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Brownback Caves: Kansas Gets Its Arts Funding Back

Well, ain’t this a nice turn of events:

Today, a great victory has been won by everyone in the state of Kansas who loves the arts. The Governor this morning signed the budget, which includes $700,000 for the newly-created Kansas Creative Arts Industries Commission.

Advocates from all corners of the state spoke – and spoke loudly. Our voices have been heard. A big thank you goes to all of you who have helped spread the word through your communities and to your elected officials about the importance of public arts funding in all of our lives.

Congratulations to all on a job well done.

Thank you for your support of the arts in Kansas.

That’s from Kansas Citizens for the Arts, which led what can only be termed a phenomenally successful advocacy campaign to bring arts funding back to Kansas. A campaign that forced a sitting governor to beat a very public retreat from the idea of removing the arts from government in one of the nation’s most conservative states.

The new Kansas Creative Arts Industries Commission represents a merger with the state’s Film Services Commission, and the combined total for the new agency is essentially the same as what the arts commission alone was working with before all the controversy. But even so, arts advocates have occasion to celebrate this year, along with Sarah Fizell and the rest of the folks at KCA. In fact, if anything, this is an even bigger win for the rest of the US than it is for Kansas. For years, conservative ideologues have been trying to kill funding for the arts at the state level, but the threat of losing matching federal funds from the NEA had always held them in check. So finally, one governor follows through and eliminates funding entirely, and he gets lambasted mercilessly for it all year and has to reverse his stance in the very next budget. What does that say to the next governor who might be thinking about following Brownback’s lead?

It says you don’t want to mess with arts funding.


San Antonio, Twin Cities, & New York

As conference season heats up, I have a few panels and such coming up to share with you all:

June 8-10
Americans for the Arts Convention
Grand Hyatt San Antonio
600 E. Market Street
San Antonio, TX
Info and registration
(I’ll be speaking as part of the session entitled “From Nice to Necessary: Local Arts Funding and Collective Impact” on Saturday the 9th from 11am-12:30pm, along with ArtsWave’s Mary McCullough-Hudson and The Boston Foundation’s Javier Torres.)

June 13-16
Chorus America Conference
Radisson Plaza Hotel Minneapolis
35 South 7th Street
Minneapolis, MN
Info and registration
(I’m moderating a session called “Audience = Participants: The Arts’ Search for Relevance and How Choruses Can Help” from 3:30-4:45pm on Friday the 15th. Alan Brown and Sunil Iyengar will be on the panel with me. This will be my first time moderating a panel since college, I think – let’s see if I’ve gotten any better at it in 10+ years!)

C4 and Fireworks Ensemble Present Sparks Fly

Finally, C4, the collaborative chorus that I founded in 2005, has its final concerts of the season in New York City this week. This edition is a co-presentation with Fireworks Ensemble, an “amplified chamber band,” and features four new pieces ranging from a proggy setting of Victorian poetry to a rock musical Requiem to something that’s perhaps best described as an random word generator on crack. The concerts include our debut at (Le) Poisson Rouge on May 30, though I’ll be singing only in the June 2 performance. More information and tickets are available here.


Understanding Through Tangential Questioning: Art, Dance Your Ph.D., and the Large Hadron Collider

The Large Hadron Collider/ATLAS at CERN, image by Image Editor

The Large Hadron Collider/ATLAS at CERN, image by Image Editor

(Shane Crerar received a BSc. in chemistry in 2000, and a BFA in sculpture in 2010.  He lives in Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada and is employed by the city where he works as an arts administrator, dealing with public art, collections, film, and community arts organizations.)

Dance and theater make no sense to me.  I was formerly a chemist, and I cannot count how many times I watched someone’s expression go blank  and heard back “I hate chemistry” or some other adverse reaction to math and science when I told them what I do.  I imagine that dance and theater are as incomprehensible to me as chemistry is to, well…everyone else.  It can be a matter of taste: some people love pineapple.  I hate it.  Some people hate licorice.  I love it.  Some people love dance, and maybe I just miss the reference point.  Some people find it hard to relate mathematics to “real world” examples, while I find the relationship between dance and reality overly strained and contrived.  But on the other hand, I’m fascinated by “Dance Your Ph.D.

Dance Your Ph.D. works for me. I’m not sure if the original intent was to market science through dance, or to market art to scientists, or maybe it is based on a meme of ridiculous interpretive dance. But it works. A Ph.D. thesis represents a huge investment of time and energy, but it also represents an incomprehensible tome that is rarely read, in full, by more than a handful of people. “Dance Your Ph.D.” provides an alternate way to present years of work as a “real world” phenomenon.

I think there is a common perception that science and art shall not mix. Having been involved in the culture of both, it seems to me that the general attitude is that the other is incomprehensible mumbo jumbo. Dance Your Ph.D., however, flies in the face of that idea.  The winning entry from 2011 uses a stylized video technique created by stitching together thousands of still images. Perhaps it works for me because although it is literally interpretative dance, it is derived from a thoroughly explored concept. The concept is intimately familiar to the artist, if not the audience.

Art and science have a longstanding relationship, and it does a disservice to both to pretend that isolation from one another is the best approach. For example, there is a long history of illustration in biology. Chemistry uses pictograms with specific rules to convey structures and arrangements of atoms and molecules. Many of these traditional methods have specific rules to most accurately represent ideas, or particular aspects of an idea. These methods of visualization are developed to work within the scientific community, frequently to the exclusion of the lay person. But interesting things begin to happen once those strict rules of representation are relaxed. Most specifically, in Dance Your Ph.D. we see scientists imagine their works through dance.

It is my firm belief that art can be an aid to science. One may often find that a concept cannot be understood clearly until that concept can be communicated. Not only do others benefit from the dissemination of knowledge, but working out how to discuss and communicate an idea can solidify it for oneself. Explaining the concepts in a Ph.D. thesis through dance may actually be of great benefit, not only to people who may become interested in the topics danced, but also to the scientist who is finding a new avenue to communicate her idea.

I think that one of the most significant scientific projects currently in progress is in desperate need of such communication. The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is the most extensive and expensive scientific project in history. It is close to answering a problem that has been at the heart of particle physics research for the past 50 years. It seems to me that the magnitude of the project and the public funds dedicated to this international facility demand that its importance be recognized, if not understood.

Since the conception of the Standard Model of physics, physicists have been trying to find every particle and force it predicts, and the Higgs boson is the missing piece of the puzzle. The Higgs boson is incredibly important because it is the particle that (theoretically) gives matter mass, and the Large Hadron Collider is trying to find it. But how often does one encounter references to the LHC in arts writing? The LHC is not a breakthrough technology. It is one more step along a path that started with the first particle collider in the 1950s. Alongside other scientific achievements like atomic energy, space travel, or even relativity (and its time travel implications), the LHC seems like a little ‘c’ concept. The closest the LHC has come to stirring the collective interest of the world was the discovery of time-traveling neutrinos, which turned out to be an error in data caused by a loose cable.

Despite the relative obscurity of the LHC in popular culture, it has managed to capture the imagination of some artists. Kate Findlay has created a series of quilts based on photographs of the Large Hadron Collider. The development of her project appears to be based on images released in 2008, and the article indicates that she is working towards projects that incorporate aspects of the LHC beyond recreating photographs in quilts. I find this rather poignant. The images of the object inspired her to learn more about it, and as she’s developed her quilts, she’s developed an interest not simply in the imagery, but in the concepts the LHC is exploring. I believe this is important. The interest is not drawn by the fact that it is science, or physics, or technology, but instead starts from imagery.

I feel that science can provide inspiration for art, as the above example demonstrates. I also believe that science shouldn’t be afraid to get involved with art. The Collide@CERN project gives me hope that scientists can engage in the development of artwork. The project is a partnership between CERN (the organization behind the LHC) and Ars Electronica, which is an international festival celebrating art, science and technology. This should be a fantastic partnership because CERN is at the forefront of science, and Ars Electronica is a forum for science-based art. The project involves a two-month residency at CERN followed by a one month residency at Ars Electronica Linz. Throughout the residency, the artist (Julius von Bismark) will have mentors from both CERN and Ars Electronica.  The goal is to develop and create works in the second half of the residency.

It seems rare, indeed, for science to seek out the arts. Projects like Dance Your Ph.D. and Collide@CERN are the exception, not the rule.  To me this seems like a failure of both art and science, as there is ample opportunity for each to enrich the other.


Around the horn: It Gets Better edition


  • Weird, the very day that the Huffington Post published my “debate” with Carla Escoda about arts funding, the New York Times published a “Room for Debate” feature on a very similar topic. Something in the water? Anyway, Sean Bowie has a nice summary if you don’t have time to read all eight entries.
  • The National Governor’s Association, which has been friendly to the arts in the past, has released another study highlighting the economic role of arts and culture in state government.
  • Marisela Treviño Orta has a good take on a bill proposed in the California Assembly that would have placed a tax on live theater tickets. Thanks to advocacy by the LA and SF arts communities, the bill has been withdrawn.


  • Andrew Taylor is leaving his longtime post as the head of the University of Wisconsin’s arts administration program to join the faculty at American University in Washington, DC. Quite a coup for Sherburne Laughlin and company.
  • Anne Corbett is moving on from her role as executive director of CulturalDC (formerly Cultural Development Corporation) to lead a commercial real estate development project in northwest Washington, DC.
  • Congratulations to Mary-Kim Arnold, new arts program officer for the Rhode Island Foundation…
  • …Wayne Martin, new executive director of the North Carolina Arts Council…
  • …and Earl Lewis, new president of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, succeeding Don Randel. Mellon continues its record of hiring its head honchos from academia – Lewis was provost of Emory University and already serving on Mellon’s board.
  • The Center for Effective Philanthropy recently published an interesting analysis of the winding career paths of foundation CEOs.


  • A huge gift from Oregon philanthropist Fred W. Fields will go to the Oregon Community Foundation to support education and the arts.
  • Nina Simon shares some lessons learned from her first year as executive director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History.
  • Liz Lerman has choreographed a performance of Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun for the University of Maryland Symphony Orchestra. The orchestra played from memory and danced around the stage during the piece. While the dancing is about at the level one would expect from classical musicians, there’s enough there to suggest a vision of what might be if people actually pursued this as a serious subgenre. The video and further discussion, from Andrew Taylor, are available at the link.


  • The Animating Democracy project at Americans for the Arts hosted a wonderful blog salon during the first week of May on impact and evaluation of social change in the arts. The posts are well worth sifting through, but some of my highlights included contributions from Rachel GrossmanMark Stern (and again), Chris Dwyer, and former Createquity Writing Fellow Katherine Gressel. And now, just a couple weeks later, the Public Art Network is doing a blog salon on evaluation in public art.
  • Barry Hessenius has another interesting interview, this time with Association of Performing Arts Presenters director Mario Garcia Durham.
  • Nina Simon reports from the 2012 American Association of Museums conference.
  • The Foundation Center’s PhilanTopic blog has a “Flip” (video) chat with Courtney O’Malley, VP of the Starr Foundation, about foundation transparency. It’s an interesting choice of topic (and thus, conversation), given that Starr is probably one of the least open and transparent foundations supporting the arts in its size group.
  • The NEA’s Art Works blog did a week’s worth of posts on art and science (or “artscience”). Here are a few examples. In the last link, the NEA’s Senior Advisor for Program Innovation, Bill O’Brien, notes that the NEA will be encouraging grant applications that involve collaborations with science across all of its programs.


  • The NEA co-organized a convening at the Brookings Institution last week on the topic of “The Arts, New Growth Theory, and Economic Development.” I was fortunate to attend and may share some of my notes later, but in the meantime, audio from the day’s sessions is available here.
  • Great list of data and visualization blogs worth following from stats blogger Nathan Yau. You can find Createquity’s version of this here. Nathan also shares five common statistical fallacies. Have you been guilty of at least one of these in the past week?
  • GiveWell is doing some interesting and important research into strategic cause selection (the merits of supporting international aid over domestic education, e.g.). After some preliminary investigation on what large funders are most likely to support today, they have identified four priority cause areas for future exploration: global health and nutrition, scientific research, something called “meta-research,” and mitigating catastrophic global risks such as climate change and nuclear war. I’m particularly interested in the meta-research cause area, which GiveWell defines as “trying to improve the systematic incentives that academic researchers face, to bring them more in line with producing maximally useful work.” I wonder if they will focus on non-academic research as well. As for arts and culture, GiveWell announces that it will not be a priority; while I’m not surprised at this outcome, I’ll be curious to read their justification for it as promised in a future post.
  • House Republicans have acted on their dislike of the American Community Survey and voted to eliminate it (this has no chance of passing, thankfully). Here is more on the American Community Survey. The politicization of government data collection is a very troubling trend.
  • Child mortality in Africa is going down, down, down – is this a vindication for international aid, free markets, or both?
  • Mark Kramer says we need a flexible paradigm for evaluation, because social problems are complex. I couldn’t agree more. Talking about evaluation in blog format is hard because the conversation requires a lot of subtlety and nuance. There isn’t one right way to do it, but at the same time there are countless wrong and/or dumb ways to do it.
  • The online education revolution is only in its infancy: Harvard and MIT have just committed $60 million toward a new online course platform called EdX.
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Cool jobs of the month

Director, Bolz Center for Arts Administration, University of Wisconsin

[From outgoing director Andrew Taylor:] If you’re passionate about arts and cultural management and leadership. If you’re able not only to do the work, but teach the work to brilliant business-focused professionals. If you bring a vital network of cultural professionals and can plug into an existing global network quickly and effectively. If you want to discover, design, and develop next practice for our field. Consider this job.

Deadline: May 17, 2012.

Managing Director, Free Music Archive, WFMU

Oversees the creation, acquisition, licensing and curation of audio material for The Free Music Archive. Produces editorial content and oversees user-generated editorial aspects of the site. Maintains relationships with software developers, musicians, and curatorial organizations who are active participants in the Free Music Archive.

Deadline: May 15, 2012.

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Why Teaching Artists Will Lead the Charge in Audience Engagement

As a self-proclaimed enthusiast in audience engagement, I felt compelled to respond to Michael Kaiser’s Engaging Audiences article in the Huffington Post last month. Rather than debate point-by-point Kaiser’s position that audience engagement is possibly new window dressing for an old issue or that arts organizations are using this jargon to target selected audiences, I’d like to put forth my own perspective of audience engagement, supported by others in the field, and declare that teaching artists should be leading this charge. I believe if we can utilize the expertise of teaching artists in strategic decisions and core programming within arts organizations, we will make serious inroads to connecting more authentically with our communities and audiences.

Alan Brown and Rebecca Ratzkin in a recent report, Making Sense of Audience Engagement, define audience engagement as:

A guiding philosophy in the creation and delivery of arts experiences in which the paramount concern is maximizing impact on the participant.  Others refer to this vein of work as “enrichment program­ming” or “adult education.”

In their view, an audience engagement philosophy:

  • Encourages each audience member to be a co-creator of meaning
  • Respects the many pathways that people take through the art form
  • Appreciates that not everyone relates to art on an intellectual basis
  • Integrates ‘engagement thinking’ into artistic planning
  • Values audience feedback as a means of engagement

As Richard Evans notes in his response to Michael Kaiser’s blog, many who are truly entrenched and committed to audience engagement do not even use the term. They “describe the pursuit of broader reciprocal relationships with community members – expressive relationships created through, and embodied in, art.”

This notion is reflected in Nina Simon’s book The Participatory Museum, which is all about audience engagement, yet doesn’t regularly use the term (if at all):

I define a participatory cultural institution as a place where visitors can create, share, and connect with each other around content. Create means that visitors contribute their own ideas, objects, and creative expression to the institution and to each other. Share means that people discuss, take home, remix, and redistribute both what they see and what they make during their visit. Connect means that visitors socialize with other people—staff and visitors—who share their particular interests.

So if audience engagement is about utilizing the work of art to facilitate authentic, personally-relevant connections with others and the work of art itself, it seems we have an army of individuals waiting in the wings to be asked to the party. Teaching artists, still frighteningly in the margins of our quest to reinvent arts institutions, are experts in audience engagement. They do the following things exceedingly well:

  • Teach cognitive skills needed to think artistically and creatively
  • Teach aesthetic education, or the ability to make sense of art, not skills-based art-making
  • Understand how to create questions and activities that are relevant to diverse ages and levels of arts education
  • Work across the community, from performing and presenting works for discerning adult audiences as well as in schools in rural and low-income neighborhoods
  • Understand that what they do is spiritual in nature, and help create a link to individuals’ higher selves.

This is a distinct discipline from learning one’s art form to produce finished works of art. A teaching artist is not just an artist or an art teacher; they study and are inherently interested in how others experience art. They are able to craft lesson plans, events, and performances that help facilitate deeper intrinsically-motivated experiences for all types of audiences.

Historically, teaching artists have been relegated to education departments across the nation. In Eric Booth’s The History of Teaching Artistry, the “first national marker of (a) teaching artist commitment was the 1970 launch of a modest Artists-in-Schools Program at the recently established National Endowment for the Arts.” Since then, educational departments and professional development for artists working in public schools have grown tremendously. There is now a generation or two of experienced, highly-professionalized teaching artists who are clawing their way into artistic conversations at large institutions and creating their own non-profits to work with adult audiences.

Programs such as Carnegie Hall’s songwriting program for homeless shelters, led by master teaching artist and composer Tom Cabaniss, are rich with experiences for participants that deepen their relationship with music and each other. (It’s not surprising that Sarah Johnson, director of the Weill Music Institute at Carnegie Hall, began her career as a teaching artist.) Classical Jam, a young ensemble led by NY Philharmonic teaching artist Wendy Law, performs orchestral works with the audience as performer – in this video the connection between the school audience and performers during the performance is palpable.

The point here is not that teaching artist work exists – it certainly does and has been around for at least a couple of decades. The point is that teaching artists can offer the kind of thinking needed for core artistic decisions and even market strategy to help develop truly innovative programming. Designing the experience with a work of art is now as important as the work of art itself, and we need new kinds of talent making key decisions if arts organizations are to survive.

In August, the Seanse Art Center in Oslo, Norway will hold The World’s First International Teaching Artist Conference. With teaching artists from all over the world convening to discuss this still-emerging discipline, I am eager to see how they view teaching artists’ role in the equally adolescent field of audience engagement.

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Creative Placemaking Has an Outcomes Problem

Art Cars Attack, photo by M Glasgow

Art Cars Attack, photo by M Glasgow

(Note: a follow-up to this post, “In Defense of Logic Models,” is now available here)

“I feel like whenever I talk to artists these days, I should be apologizing,” says Kevin Stolarick, Research Director for the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management. To most in the arts community, Stolarick is better known as Richard Florida’s longtime right-hand man and research collaborator on his bestselling book, The Rise of the Creative Class. Stolarick, who first met Florida just after the academic had cashed the first check for the advance from Basic Books, proceeds to recount how the book’s success led to an explosion of interest from mayors all around the country wanting to redefine their cities as welcoming meccas for Florida’s new Starbucks-drinking, jeans-wearing idea people. Unfortunately, the mayors’ collective interpretation of the lessons from Florida’s book boiled down to, “all we need is to get us some gays and artists and a bike path or two, and our problems will be solved! The problem,” Stolarick tells us, a decade after The Rise of the Creative Class’s publication, “is that it’s a trap.”

This scene is unfolding in a basement auditorium in lower Manhattan, the site of a panel and presentation hosted by the Municipal Art Society of New York to give audiences the first public preview of the ArtPlace vibrancy indicators. ArtPlace, as many readers know, is a private-sector partnership among nearly a dozen leading foundations to support “creative placemaking,” a term invented by officials at the National Endowment for the Arts. Spearheaded by leadership from the NEA, the creation of ArtPlace is perhaps this Endowment’s, and by extension the Obama administration’s, signature achievement in the arts—despite the fact that it doesn’t distribute a cent of government money.

Stolarick’s presence at the event was appropriate, for in many ways it was The Rise of the Creative Class that made the current creative placemaking movement possible. For a time it was the kind of book that smart people buy for all of the other smart people they know – a genuine ideavirus. Florida, more than anyone else, was responsible for conflating creativity, innovation, and artistry in the popular imagination, and among the measures that he and Stolarick developed for the book was a “Bohemian index” associating the concentration of artists in a given metropolitan area with population and employment growth. Though the empirical claims in the book turned out to be built on shaky foundations, they were intuitive (and well-argued) enough that municipal leaders started taking notice. In fact, Carol Coletta, the current director of ArtPlace, was one of the first people to invite Florida to help put his ideas into practice in a real city context as co-organizer of 2003’s Memphis Manifesto Summit. Florida, Stolarick, and their associates became the first widely acknowledged spokespeople for the idea that a vibrant set of opportunities and amenities for creative expression could lead to regional economic prosperity.

But Florida wasn’t the only one drawing public attention to the economic power of the arts over the previous decade. Separately, the Social Impact of the Arts Project at the University of Pennsylvania has been studying the relationship between concentrations of cultural resources and various social and economic outcomes since 1994. As then-Associate Director of the Rockefeller Foundation, Joan Shigekawa commissioned a groundbreaking collaboration between SIAP and The Reinvestment Fund to study the dynamics of culture and urban revitalization, work whose influence can be seen clearly in much of the policy that Shigekawa has since helped develop as Senior Deputy Chairman of the NEA.

SIAP, which is led by Mark Stern and Susan Seifert, cites The Rise of the Creative Class frequently in its publications dating from that period, usually to position its approach in opposition to Florida’s. In fact, in 2008 SIAP published one of the most hilariously brutal program evaluations I’ve ever read, following the attempts of Florida’s Creative Class Group (CCG) to turn around three Knight Foundation communities by inspiring volunteer “catalysts” to drive toward the “4 T’s” of economic development (technology, talent, tolerance, and territorial assets). In that evaluation, Stern and Seifert offer a single overarching criticism: CCG forgot about its outcomes. Much like South Park’s Underpants Gnomes, the project team had a clear idea of what it was putting in to the process and what it hoped to get out of it, but a much vaguer sense of how it was going to get from Phase 1 to Phase 3.

South Park’s Underpants Gnomes, image courtesy Wikipedia

Which brings me to my central point: despite all of the attention paid to this issue in the past year and a half, despite all of the new money that has been committed to the cause, creative placemaking still has an outcomes problem. As a field, we have not yet learned the lessons of the Underpants Gnomes. And until we do, I’m worried that we risk repeating Stolarick’s apology to practitioners a decade hence.

Leaving the dots unconnected

“When times were good,” Kevin Stolarick explains at the ArtPlace vibrancy indicators convening, it was easy for city councils, funders, and others to buy into the ideas in Florida’s book on the strength of his celebrity and qualitative arguments. But now that cities are facing more economic pressure, Stolarick continues, “they’re saying, ‘we need proof – and that’s going to take more than Richard Florida’s next book.’”

“Proof” is a word that seems to give creative placemakers hives these days. Less than two weeks prior to the ArtPlace event, I had participated in a webinar given by the NEA to introduce its Our Town Community Indicators Study. Our Town is the Endowment’s public-sector counterpart to ArtPlace – likewise the brainchild of Rocco Landesman, it granted some $6.6 million to communities for creative placemaking projects across the country in its inaugural round last year. The Community Indicators Study is a multiyear data collection effort whose chief purpose is to “advance public understanding of how creative placemaking strategies can strengthen communities.” Yet when, prompted by researchers who were listening in on the call, the NEA’s Chief of Staff, Jamie Bennett, asked the Deputy Director of NEA’s Office of Research and Analysis about causation vs. correlation, this is the exchange that resulted:

Bennett: …Are you going to in some way be able through this project to prove [for example] that arts had a direct impact in causing the crime rate to go down?

Shewfelt: A lot of the language I’ve used today has been very carefully chosen to avoid suggesting that we are trying to design a way to specifically address the causal relationship between creative placemaking and the outcomes we’re interested in.

As a matter of fact, the NEA has chosen to forgo a traditional evaluation of the Our Town grant program in favor of developing the aforementioned indicator system. The project will no doubt result in a lot of great data, but essentially no mechanism for connecting the Endowment’s investments in Our Town projects to the indicators one sees. A project could be entirely successful on its own terms but fail to move the needle in a meaningful way in its city or neighborhood. Or it could be caught up in a wave of transformation sweeping the entire community, and wrongly attribute that wave to its own efforts. There’s simply no way for us to tell. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but we can’t accomplish the goal of “advancing understanding of how creative placemaking strategies can strengthen communities” without digging more deeply into the causal relationships that the NEA would prefer to avoid.

The vibrancy indicators that were the subject of the ArtPlace convening face a similar quandary. The purpose of the indicators is to help ArtPlace “understand the impact of [its] investments.” And what is that desired impact? During a webinar delivered to prospective applicants last fall, Coletta declared that “with ArtPlace, we aim to do nothing less than transform economic development in America…to awaken leaders who care about the future of their communities to the fact that they’re sitting on a pile of assets that can help them achieve their ambitions…and that asset is art.”

ArtPlace Theory of Change

ArtPlace Theory of Change

ArtPlace’s investments all have a singular focus on “vibrancy,” a concept defined in its guidelines as “attracting people, activities and value to a place and increasing the desire and the economic opportunity to thrive in a place.” While that was as specific as things got during ArtPlace’s first two rounds of grantmaking, the indicators project, which examines factors as diverse as cell phone use, population density, and home values, will go a long way toward concretizing ArtPlace’s primary lever of community transformation. Even so, ArtPlace doesn’t seem any more eager than the NEA to connect the activities of its grant recipients to the broader vibrancy indicators directly. Though the projects themselves are supposed to have a “transformative” impact on vibrancy, ArtPlace isn’t requiring its grantees to collect any data on how that impact is achieved. Furthermore, ArtPlace’s guidelines state clearly that the consortium has no plans to invest in research on creative placemaking beyond the vibrancy indicators themselves, despite its advocacy goals and a desire to “share the lessons [grantees] are learning to other communities across the U.S.”

To be clear, I don’t mean to question the value of research of the type ArtPlace and Our Town are leading. Efforts such as these, Fractured Atlas’s Archipelago data aggregation and visualization platform, Americans for the Arts’s National and Local Arts Index, Western States Arts Federation’s Creative Vitality Index, and others help to draw a clear picture of a community’s overall cultural and creative health and can serve as an essential tool within a broader research portfolio. But in order for those tools to really come alive in a grantmaking context, they have to be grounded in a clear and rigorous conceptual frame for the how the specific funded activities are going to make a difference, and then integrated into the actual process for selecting grant recipients. And that’s the part still missing from the vast majority of these efforts. In an upcoming article for the Grantmakers in the Arts Reader, Anne Gadwa Nicodemus (who co-authored the original Creative Placemaking white paper for the NEA with her mentor, Ann Markusen) writes, “it’s probably unreasonable to expect that a modest, one-year Our Town grant will move the needle, at least quickly….Because the geographic scale, time horizons, and desired outcomes vary across creative placemaking efforts, one-size-fits-all indicator systems may prove inappropriate.”

Without a clear and detailed theory of how and why creative placemaking is effective, policy and philanthropy to support creative placemaking is hobbled. Attempting to predict and judge impact based on indicator systems alone carries with it at least four problems:

  • It doesn’t give a clear road map for project selection that will identify investments most likely to make a difference. Without previous research demonstrating causal interactions between grants given and differences made, it’s hard to know what effect a new grant will have – much less how to compare the potential effects of hundreds or (in ArtPlace’s case) thousands of competing investment opportunities.
  • It doesn’t give us the tools to go back and analyze why certain projects did and didn’t work. Maybe a public artwork succeeds in drawing people to a neighborhood, but real estate values stay stagnant. Maybe development along a transit corridor was executed on schedule, but ridership is lower than expected. Broad, sector-level indicators will only tell us that the project didn’t work – not why.
  • It doesn’t acknowledge the complex nature of economic ecosystems and the indirect role that arts projects play in them. Many economists agree that talented, highly educated individuals are key to community prosperity. But numerous considerations likely play into their decision to (re)locate in a particular place. When are the arts truly catalytic for a community, and when are they merely icing on the cake? Indicator systems would have no way of telling us on their own.
  • It provides little insight on how to pursue arts-led economic development while avoiding the thorny problems of gentrification. Any thinking around policy interventions must acknowledge the possibility of negative impacts as well as positive ones. In the case of creative placemaking, an attendant worry is that longtime residents of transformed neighborhoods won’t have asked for the change, and may be adversely affected by it. To date, there is little shared understanding of how creative placemaking projects that benefit all community residents are distinguished from those that simply replace poorer residents with wealthier ones.

In her Reader article, Nicodemus writes that

The answer to the question “What is creative placemaking, really?” is that funders and practitioners are making it up in real time. We’ve entered an exciting period of experimentation, which makes sharing information absolutely critical.

In the interest of sharing information, then, I will report out below on some lessons I’ve learned from my own research on the topic over the past five years, as well as from a collaboration with ArtsWave, a funder supporting vibrancy through the arts in the Greater Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky region.

Toward a unified theory of creative placemaking: Filling in the blanks

The major deficiency of the Underpants Gnomes’ business plan was that they attempted to connect their activity (stealing underpants) with their intended impact (profit), without really considering the steps in between. To take an extreme example, if I start an organization called “Artists for World Peace” (there is such an organization, by the way), get some artists together to stand in solidarity, and put on a show, it would be unrealistic of me to expect world peace as the next logical result.

Yet most studies of the connection between the arts and economic development have attempted to measure the direct relationship between arts activities (whether single or in the aggregate) and economic outcomes. For example, the Social Impact of the Arts Project examined the correlation between cultural assets and poverty decline in Philadelphia, and a groundbreaking study by Steve Sheppard compared employment levels and real estate values in North Adams, MA before and after the opening of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. These research efforts have done much to shape our collective understanding of urban revitalization through the arts. But they share in common an unfortunate tendency to gloss over the details of exactly how creative activities are responsible for making neighborhoods and communities more attractive, and therefore, more valuable. This gap is especially problematic when one tries to apply the lessons of these studies to a policy or grantmaking context, where the details of how projects are implemented can make all the difference in whether a particular intervention is successful or not.

When I was in graduate school, before I came into contact with any of the research above, I created a simple model of arts-led gentrification to illustrate the specific case of a neighborhood lent a young, “hip” reputation by newly relocated artists. This model is different from others I’ve seen in a few ways. First, it casts neighborhood development as an iterative process, starting with tourism on the local level among artists. In other words, the people who are going to be checking out the happenings in a struggling outpost of the city are not, by and large, yuppies – they are other artists who are colleagues of the ones living in that neighborhood. Second, it emphasizes the role of bars and restaurants as attractors for other neighborhood visitors (including yuppies), whose viability is only made possible by the modest foot traffic generated by arts activities. And finally, it places at the beginning of the process not just arts activities, but specific kinds of arts activities: visible, storefront spaces like galleries and performance venues that signal the presence of art and draw visitors to a particular location.

The Artist Colonization Process

Three years later, some of the thinking reflected above found its way into my grantmaking strategy work with ArtsWave, an local arts agency based in Cincinnati, OH. First, some background: in late 2008, ArtsWave had commissioned a research initiative designed to develop an inclusive public conversation about the arts in the region. Based on hundreds of conversations, interviews, and focus groups with area residents, two key “ripple effect” benefits emerged as especially valued by citizens:

  1. that the arts create a vibrant, thriving economy: neighborhoods are more lively, communities are revitalized, tourists are attracted to the area, etc…and
  2. that the arts create a more connected community: diverse groups share common experiences, hear new perspectives, understand each other better.

To its immense credit, ArtsWave didn’t just sit on these results and continue in the status quo. Instead, the 83-year-old united arts fund underwent a total transformation, taking on a new name and organizational identity, and most importantly, adopting these two themes as the new goals for its grantmaking.

My task, starting in January 2011, was to assist ArtsWave in creating a new framework for funding arts & culture activities based upon the ability of organizations to create vibrancy and connect people in the region. With the help of a volunteer task force consisting of ArtsWave board members, staff, community leaders, and grantee organizations, we worked backwards from the idea of “vibrancy” and ended up with an extraordinarily complex theory of change. Here’s the part that specifically deals with cultural clusters and neighborhood economic development:

Excerpt from ArtsWave theory of change: cultural clusters

Excerpt from ArtsWave theory of change: cultural clusters

Some elements of this model will certainly look familiar, though with some new wrinkles added: evening and weekend hours for storefronts, for example, as well as decreased crime and improved physical spaces (in general, not just arts spaces). ArtsWave, however, extended the concept to apply to regional economic development as well:

Excerpt from ArtsWave theory of change: regional development

Excerpt from ArtsWave theory of change: regional development

Note here that the principal lever for the regional development model is that the Greater Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky region is “differentiated” through the arts. That is to say, it attracts people from outside of the region because it gains a (deserved) reputation for being a more interesting place to be than its peer cities. And what helps differentiate Cincinnati is something we call “extraordinary cultural experiences.” We attach a very specific definition to “extraordinary,” focusing on its literal meaning of “out of the ordinary.” For ArtsWave’s purposes, experiences are extraordinary if they are associated with one of the following:

  • Events or productions with a national or international profile
  • Events or productions that feature something uniquely special about the region
  • Events or productions that feature innovative programming or presentation

Not only do experiences meeting the above criteria help to differentiate the Greater Cincinnati region in the eyes of tourists or prospective residents, they also contribute directly to ArtsWave’s notion of “vibrancy” (the green arrow in the diagram).

What this approach does is explicitly connect the activities of grantees to the broader community change that ArtsWave hopes to create. A key innovation that came out of this process was the distinction between “Sector Outcomes” (in blue) and “Grantee Outcomes” (in purple). We defined grantee outcomes as the farthest point out in the model to which individual organizations could reasonably be held accountable—and those outcomes feed back into the evaluation and selection process at the grant application stage. All other outcomes, the sector outcomes, are a reflection on ArtsWave’s overall strategy, rather than on any one particular investment. This allows us to “aggregate” impact from the level of the individual project to the level of the broader context.

The beauty of designing a model like this is that it allows each assumption embedded in each link on the causal chain to be tested, if necessary. Of course, it would be impractical to do so for every investment a grantmaker might make. But that isn’t necessary. In order to provide the kind of evidence that mayors and other officials are looking for, you only need a few examples to demonstrate replicability. But we have to be sure that those examples really do show the effects of intentional creative placemaking strategy, rather than just a lucky coincidence.

Where We Go From Here

Despite the challenges I discuss in the first part of this article, I’m heartened to see creative placemaking funders taking some positive steps toward a more rigorous theoretical foundation for their work. In particular, ArtPlace is beginning to move in this direction with a list of ten signals grantees can use to judge whether their projects are making a difference. The challenge will be to unpack those relationships with the same rigor as is currently applied to collecting data.

Meanwhile, we would love feedback on the models we have created to describe economic development through the arts. While we are hopeful they can help to move the conversation towards a deeper consideration of the complex mechanisms involved in creating place-based vibrancy, we readily acknowledge that they aren’t perfect. Do they accurately reflect creative placemaking goals and processes? Which aspects of the model are best backed up by existing research and which are shakiest? Which seem intuitively right but have not been studied in depth? What are we leaving out?

If you have comments, questions, or resources to offer, please leave a comment here or get in touch at And in the meantime, Fractured Atlas will be eagerly researching how emerging evaluation methods in other sectors, such as outcome mapping, most significant change technique, and complexity science, can potentially be applied to the arts.