The UK development organisation and membership
body for community and participatory dance
Animated Edition - Issues 1996 - 2001
Valuing dance
Animated, Summer 1998. Francois Matarasso highlights the difficulties of defining success

Most artists working in community situations are more familiar than they'd like to be with the problems of explaining the value of their work. Since participatory arts work is increasingly funded by local authorities and public agencies, rather than Arts Councils or Regional Arts Boards, the issues involved are rarely aesthetic or cultural. These funders want to know how a dance project contributes to their social, economic or educational objectives, and successful partnership depends on finding common ground between their interests and yours.

This uphill competition for funds will only get steeper over the next few years, as the government's emphasis on accountability in public service gains impetus. Everyone in receipt of public funds will find themselves required to provide a much more detailed and serious account of how they deliver best value for money.

For the past three years, Comedia has been trying to develop workable solutions to these problems. As an independent research centre with a broad interest in cultural and urban policy, we start from a belief in the value of the arts and a conviction that successful public policy must take account of the cultural dimensions of people's lives. At the same time, we recognise that British policy-makers and decision-makers still find it difficult to understand and make good use of the arts. Certainly, the demands of social services, health or education often seem more compelling, while their cultural dimension goes largely unnoticed.

Arts organisations will have to address this issue head on if they are to play anything but a marginal role in the new government's agenda - and that agenda is being pursued with such single-mindedness that anything which doesn't connect might as well pack up and go home. One obstacle, however, is that the arts world, from funders to arts organisations, is still catching up with the last government's emphasis on good business practice. There's nothing wrong with this of course: if being more businesslike enables you to be more effective, go for it. But it's vital not to confuse these management ideas with the actual purpose of a dance company or project.

The kind of performance indicators which are starting to be talked about, like those already in use in the arts, focus almost entirely on inputs (what resources were applied) and outputs (what product they bought). They have nothing to say about the only thing that really matters - outcomes, or what happened as a result. Although most existing approaches to evaluation can report how well you did what you said you would do, they can't tell whether it was worth doing in the first place.

Comedia's research has little to say about management performance (there is plenty on that already), concentrating instead on trying to show what impact arts projects and organisations have on those who are involved and on wider society. The arts are about impact (out-comes) or they're about nothing. The first stage was a series of case studies across the UK and abroad focusing on the impact of participation in the arts, because this is where benefits are most often claimed, and where the link between activity and change is easiest to establish. We wanted to be able to show, in a way which would be convincing to non-artists, that the arts were valid in social policy. We also wanted to develop approaches to evaluation which arts workers themselves could use.

The first case studies were completed last year and a report was published in May 1997 with detailed evidence of the impacts of participation in the arts on personal and community development, in terms which relate to current policy objectives including social inclusion, lifelong learning and so on. One of the most telling elements is the findings of a survey of about 500 arts participants which shows, among other things, that 92 per cent make new friends, 80 per cent feel more confident, 79 per cent learn new skills and 77 per cent are happier.

But the detailed findings are of less importance than the fact that the research begins to develop credible methods of demonstrating the impact of arts projects, and not just whether or not they are well run. The approaches used are not very complicated - indeed one of the overriding objectives has been to use ideas which can be integrated into good working practice. A handbook of these and other evaluation approaches is planned, as time and resources allow.

But, as we know, art and culture are a continuum of practice from the village hall to the Coliseum, from school to TV studio. Comedia argues strongly that social impact, and social responsibility, are not confined to practice with a 'community, education or outreach' label on its forehead, but are issues for the whole subsidised sector. We are therefore following up research into the participatory sector with a number of other projects.

One of these is to test the effectiveness of social auditing as a way of addressing what is still too easily referred to as the 'mainstream'. As described by New Economics Foundation, social auditing "is the process whereby an organisation can account for its social performance, report on and improve that performance. It assesses the social impact and ethical behaviour of an organisation in relation to its aims and those of its stakeholders."(1) It is regularly used by organisations such as Body Shop International, Co-operative Retail Services and Traidcraft - Body Shop, for example, publishes a full social statement running to about 160 pages, as well as summary versions, and makes its social accounts available on the Internet. It has also been used by much smaller organisations in the voluntary and charitable sectors, and seems, on the face of it, to be a very appropriate mechanism through which to formalise and develop the dialogue between arts groups and their stakeholders.

This comes back to one of the most important conclusions of this research - namely, the difficulty of defining success. We have argued from the beginning that the only legitimate way of evaluating the social impact of arts activity is to enable all its stakeholders to contribute to the process of defining goals and levels of achievement. It is obvious that the arts cannot be empowering - as they so often aspire to be - without giving people shared control of the definitions of success. If followed through, this change would have a profound impact not only on the relationship of arts organisations to society, but on the arts themselves.

These are exciting times to be involved in the arts at grass roots level. Change is in the air, and there is the opportunity to influence a government which is much more sympathetic to this area of work than its predecessor. But if artists are to claim and defend a central role in society, they will have to be ready to engage in a constructive and open dialogue with those outside the caste. We hope that the research Comedia has been developing will help provide some of the ideas and language for that conversation.

Assessing the impact of your work
Assessing the impact of a dance project, or even a dance organisation, is not very difficult. It requires a clear written statement of the out-comes which are intended (straightforward enough, but often neglected), and then some thinking about how they can best be monitored. The second part is made much easier by the first - if you set improved health as a desired outcome of a dance project, it is obvious that before and after health checks will be one (if not the only) way of tracking attainment. Questionnaires can be useful, if you relate the questions to the objectives: most questionnaires give the impression that they were devised by people who asked themselves: 'What could we ask?' rather than: 'What do we need to know?'

If your assessment systems are logical, simple and meaningful they will work, provided they are also equitable. The critical issue in impact assessment is not practical at all, but ethical. In one of the early working papers we set out a number of principles for arts work which had a social purpose (2):

  • Projects intended to produce social benefits should address stated needs or aspirations

  • It is unethical to seek to produce change without the informed consent of those involved

  • The needs and aspirations of individuals or communities are best identified by them, often in partnership with others, such as local authorities, public agencies and arts bodies

  • Partnership requires the agreement of common objectives and commitments (though not all goals need be shared by all partners)

  • Those who have identified a goal are best placed to ascertain when it has been met

  • An arts project may not be the most appropriate means of achieving a given goal. A process which involves all the stakeholders in agreeing the objectives of an activity, and how they will be monitored, will produce credible evidence of the impact of the arts. It will probably also change everyone involved.

Francois Matarasso, Principal, Comedia. Contact +44 (0) 1452 770624. Comedia publications are available from Eco Distribution +44 (0)1509 890068.

1 Pearce, John, Raynard Peter, Zadek, Peter and Simon, Social Auditing for Small Organisations, New Economics Foundation, London, 1997.
2 Matarasso, Francois, Defining Values, Comedia, Stroud, 1996.

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Animated: Issues 1996 - 2001