Arts, Culture, and Museums TIG Week: (Mis)Adventures in Arts-Based Evaluation: Reflections on a Pandemic Practice by Maya Lefkowich and Jennica Nichols

We are Jennica Nichols and Maya Lefkowich – arts-based evaluators from Vancouver, Canada. Coming into the New Year, we’ve been reflecting on lessons learned over the last year and wanted to share some with you (and welcome your thoughts too).

After years of dreaming about an arts-based evaluation company, we finally started one. We launched AND implementation, at the end of February 2020. A week later, the world shut down.

We were unprepared. Having carefully curated arts techniques for in-person data collection, our arts practice was derailed by three small words. You’re on mute. Translating arts-based techniques for online evaluation planning and data collection continues to be a comedy of errors.

Lessons Learned

Here are three things we learned don’t work:  

  1. Forcing it. Arts aren’t always the right tools for the context, question, and group. Squeezing an arts method in when it isn’t wanted, useful, or well-resourced guarantees failure.
  2. Digital & asynchronous alternatives. There aren’t good digital or asynchronous variations for every method. Poetry, drawing, narratives, and photography have (mostly) translated. Collage, body mapping, and movement-based techniques have required more effort to transform into digital alternatives – with varying degrees of awkward. Plus, the people factor. If you give homework, most won’t do it.
  3. Double-dipping evaluation and marketing. With budgets tightening, we’ve seen some organizations request arts-based methods to serve as both evaluation and marketing. This doesn’t work. Artmaking as data collection needs space for candid reflections on the good and bad. Yes, we can capture the wisdom of what worked. But, it is important to invite authentic self-expression and ensure that participants control their narratives and how their art is used.

We’ve had the privilege of using and teaching arts-based methods in diverse evaluation settings. Here’s what we’ve found does work:

  1. Offering options. We typically offer clients and collaborators a few options of techniques that could work. For example, drawing and photography exercises both tap into metaphorical thinking, which is useful in exploring unspoken norms and non-text-based wisdom. Weighing the pros and cons, we work with collaborators to find the best choice for the context and community. Where possible, we then create synchronous, asynchronous, online, and in-person variations promote inclusivity.
  2. Embracing s****y art! People always protest, “But I’m not good at art.” Fabulous. Terrible art is ideal for evaluation because the process of making art is more important than the product. We add time limits and clarify that “good art” is not the expectation. This way, no one overthinks it and we can lean into the wisdom of cringy poetry. It’s not like anyone is going to win a Pulitzer Prize from participating in an evaluation.
  3. Balancing vulnerability. Creative techniques (with solid facilitation) allow for a deep dive into a topic. Pairing a more vulnerable technique that requires a person to create on a blank page (e.g., poetry or drawing) with a less vulnerable question about a strength, success, or expectation helps to mitigate risks of diving too deep. Since we’re not art therapists, we keep it light and cathartic.

Our practice is far from perfect. Just like any method, it’s important to be able to identify when something doesn’t work to make space for what does. As evaluators continue to adjust approaches for in-person, online, and hybrid needs, we’re excited to see just how creative evaluation practices can become.

Rad Resources

If you want to connect, share your arts-based misadventure, or have a giggle, please email us. For more tips and resources, check out our blog and beginner arts-based methods course for evaluators.

The American Evaluation Association is hosting Arts, Culture, and Museums (ACM) TIG Week. The contributions all week come from ACA TIG members. Do you have questions, concerns, kudos, or content to extend this AEA365 contribution? Please add them in the comments section for this post on the AEA365 webpage so that we may enrich our community of practice. Would you like to submit an AEA365 Tip? Please send a note of interest to AEA365 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators. The views and opinions expressed on the AEA365 blog are solely those of the original authors and other contributors. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of the American Evaluation Association, and/or any/all contributors to this site.

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