Measuring impact

Evaluating the impact of public art is the Achilles heel of artists and public art administrators worldwide.  Instinctively we know that public art is a catalyst for economic development, that it increases the appeal and safety of one’s environment, and that it delivers unexpected surprise and wonder to our shared places. Certain forms like social practice work can also help open up difficult conversations or raise awareness of social issues like gender inequality and workers' rights.  

The influx of new funding programs such as ArtPlace America and NEA’s Our Town grant suggests funders also value the role of art and creative placemaking.  But we are all left scratching our heads when we’re asked to present both qualitative and quantitative data in support of our hunches.  And when our projects are temporary in nature, serve a small community, or do not have tangible “products” or artworks, we are left at a further disadvantage.

Much has been written about the dearth of quantitative data and the inherent challenges in public art evaluation. We won’t tread into those murky waters and instead recommend Katherine Gressel’s, January 2012 blog “Public Art and The Challenge of Evaluation” as a primer. 

Some are of the opinion that even if significant time were spent on justifying public art’s existence by “proving” its practical usefulness, this would still be a losing battle that could lead to the withdrawal of support for public art.

We offer here instead three ways our friends in the field are sharing the impact of public art and we ask you to contribute your examples. 



Moving image and video surrounds us. From animated gifs to the influx of videos on our social media feeds, moving image has replaced the static image as the new documentation norm. Sometimes the video itself can be the artwork as is the case with Francis Alÿs’ When Faith Moves Mountains. Video is especially effective for sharing the impact of social practice works and A Blade of Grass’ FIELDWORKS: Season One featuring eight artists and their works proves that "seeing is believing". You can watch the entire season online or join us April 11, 6:30-7:30 at MassArt for a screening. Register here.



Excerpt from  Faces of Dudley 2015.

Excerpt from Faces of Dudley 2015.

Post-event catalogues or summary books that include on-the-ground essays can be effective in telling the story. Examples include project catalogues like the recently released Mierle Laderman Ukeles - Seven Work Ballets documenting her large-scale collaborative performances involving workers, trucks, barges and tons of recyclables, and our own Faces of Dudley 2015 due out next month with three essays by Now and There, Cedric Douglas and Tracy Wiggins. (Check out a sneak peak of Douglas’ essay here.) Lastly, Living As Form, CreativeTime’s survey of more than 100 of their projects, includes a selection of commissioned essays from noted critics and theorists who give anecdotes to round out the still images.


3. GIS data

Data usage map showing the "reach" of Downtown Crossing, Boston visitors.

Data usage map showing the "reach" of Downtown Crossing, Boston visitors.

While it’s not yet a perfect science, many organizations are beginning to see the enormous untapped resources available in mobile device data that is "scrubbed" of personal information, analyzed and then layered onto specific locations by computer-based Geographic Information Systems (GIS). The opportunities present within GIS data are endless and include: correlations with other geographic zones to help identify where visitors are coming from, daily and hourly shifts in activity type, the ability to sort all data by gender or age, and data density to understand where crowds congregate.

Now and There is currently looking at data density gathered by Boston's own Supernormal in fall 2015 as a way to select locations for our upcoming summer project. During the project, we can use data to help us understand where our participants are coming from and extrapolate audience geography for funder reports without the need for intrusive zip code questioning. In other words, we can step back and let people enjoy the work!

When combined with traditional on-site data collection, printed essays, and video, GIS mapping of mobile device data can be a powerful narrative tool for showing qualitative and quantitative data. (For more on measuring impact with GIS check out Jennifer J. Helzer's "MapGIS ‐ Measuring Art Participation with GIS", one of a series of research papers funded through the NEA’s Research: Art Works Grants Final Papers page.)


Now it's your turn. What forms of narrative and data analysis have been useful to you? Are there models from other fields that we can borrow from? And do you think that organizations and artists even need to prove their existence or measure impact? Comment below or join the conversation anytime on Facebook and Twitter