Last week, at the Opportunity Agenda’s Creative Change Retreat at Sundance, dozens of artists and social entrepreneurs—people who recognize a social problem and use entrepreneurial principles to create social change—gathered to talk about their work. I was asked to share some thoughts about how best to assess programs with complex goals and ideals, layered meaning and, often, a complicated set of stakeholders with differing ideas of what success looks like.
For the past several years, I’ve been researching artists’ “hybrid work”—the intersection of art and such fields as community development, education, health, and the environment. Artists pursuing hybrid work frequently push the envelope—creating new ways of taking on problems and building from community assets. For example, Theaster Gates, an artist and urban planner, is rehabilitating dilapidated buildings in an economically challenged section of Dorchester Avenue in the Greater Grand Crossing neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side. Guided by ideas of redemption and reclamation, Gates is creating beautiful, meaningful, and environmentally sustainable buildings that bring value to the neighborhood, the people in it—including those he hires to help build the structures—and the recycled materials that he uses. Now community hubs, the spaces Gates creates testify to what is possible in a place and from people and materials that have been marginalized.
So, is this a construction project? An employment initiative? A community building activity? Art? I’d say it’s all of these, and that in its totality—with its aesthetic qualities and inclusion of local human and material resources—it also creates a meaningful space and contributes positively to the neighborhood’s identity.
So, will the criteria most frequently used to assess new construction, employment initiatives or art suffice? The answer is no. Ideally, stakeholders from different perspectives might come together, try to understand the value of the work in its totality, and then develop new criteria more suitable to the initiative as a whole. Rarely, though, are the key stakeholders or the appropriate research tools for creating new criteria and metrics for evaluation in place. That means that the artist or team doing the hybrid work must figure out how to satisfy the project’s diverse stakeholders—trying to frame the work in the terms that different stakeholders, with their varied interests, will likely interpret it. In the case of Dorchester Projects and similar work, this would mean potentially satisfying the discrete criteria of art critics, people in traditional community development concerned with physical construction and people in the employment training field, among others.
But does the hybrid work’s full meaning and value come to light when evaluation practices are fragmented in this way? Recent efforts by the National Endowment for the Arts and other agencies, such as the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Department of Health and Human Service, are encouraging signs that at the federal level there is recognition that hybrid approaches to the conditions of cities and neighborhoods are important and worth exploring. However, in my opinion, such hybrid strategies call for new ways to assess progress and success in revitalizing our cities and neighborhoods. For example, getting to the point where people from different agencies and sectors can communicate effectively and devise strategic programs together that integrate and reinforce community improvement efforts may itself be a measure of success. Pilot programs to try out more integrated and potentially more effective approaches to community revitalization may be needed and old expectations about how long projects take or the appropriate scale at which projects should proceed may need to be re-calibrated.
Do we have the vision, skills, and patience to think in new ways about meaningful comprehensive community revitalization and the metrics we use to hold ourselves accountable at local and national levels? We stick to old ways of thinking at our own peril.