Prove It

On Tuesday, I attended a Grantmakers in the Arts conference presentation on “Participatory Arts and Community Health: Challenges and Opportunities,” organized by Amy Kitchener of the Alliance for California Traditional Arts. It began with presentations on exemplary projects braiding art with individual and community well-being, offered by Maria Rosario Jackson of the Urban Institute, Beatriz Solis of The California Endowment; Josephine Ramirez of The James Irvine Foundation; Alaka Wali of The Field Museum; and Christine Dunford of Lookingglass Theatre and The Field Museum. They were so fiercely articulate that when I heard the Catalyst Quartet play Mu Kkubo Ery’Omusaalaba so beautifully at lunchtime, my mind skipped back to that group of women asserting art’s bond with well-being: different instruments, same story.

The discussion that followed their presentations turned to metrics, a word I can now barely stand to hear. The underlying question is important, though, as Maria Rosario Jackson phrased it: “What would it take to bring attention to this approach to arts and health, to validate it within and across sectors?”

People had a lot to say, clustering around two views.

Some are seeking ways to substantiate art’s role in well-being (or community development or any other area of public intervention) that slide easily into the existing systems of documentation and assessment used by other agencies. The underlying idea is that Health and Human Services (to pick a single example among many) can’t validate art as an integral part of its work unless art can be measured and described with instruments and language already familiar, comfortable, and compatible with HHS’ internal culture and vocabulary, its metrics. The hope is that if this translation can be accomplished, if HHS’ comfort zone can thus be breached and infiltrated, arts-based projects will eventually be accepted and supported.

Others doubt this will work (or suspect that blowback will distort the arts work rather than open up the agency), seeking instead to transform the standards of proof, so that stories, testimonies, interactions, and small-scale observations will coexist with what can validly be quantified. If what truly has most value can’t be conveyed by numbers, they argue, the systems of measurement have to adjust.

It’s kind of a timeless argument, no? Adapt to things as they are and try to play that game well; or focus on changing what doesn’t fit what matters most. On the one hand, as one questioner said, “They have their methodologies, and if you don’t adapt, you’re walking into a brick wall.” Yet, in the words of another participant, “You can’t just do quantitative research anymore to get at the hard questions of transforming health in this country….Evaluation metrics just get in the way, everybody is trying to figure out how to measure some damn outcome.”

So far, there are anecdotes and minor inroads, but neither strategy is proven, if proof means systemic change.

Alaka Wali told an interesting story about the physicist Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, who regularly drove two hours from Wisconsin to Chicago to teach only two students. Everyone asked if the trip was worth it, especially on icy winter roads. The question was answered definitively when the two students, Tsung-Dao Lee and Chen-Ning Franklin Yang, received the Nobel prize in 1957. “It takes time to understand impact,” she said. “Why is a thousand people for two minutes worth more than two people over a lifetime? We have to complicate the metrics to really get at the quality of impact….Where are the metrics that say failure is a good thing? If there’s no space to fail, where can we take a risk?”

I keep thinking of the talk by Joi Ito I wrote about yesterday. One of his key points was that when the initial investment in developing an idea is relatively low, that minimizes risk—it doesn’t hurt so much to fail—which creates the opportunity to pivot, to come at a general goal in a different way. How can arts philanthropy learn from this, supporting a framework that maximizes invention and creativity in this way?

The biggest current obstacles in the existing philanthropic field are connected to the relatively high cost of testing an idea via grant funding. I’m measuring that cost in several currencies: most funding programs require a tremendous amount of planning entailing a big investment of time and energy. An exciting idea can lose a lot of its shine by the time you’ve filled out the budget, timeline, logic model, theory of change, evaluation plan, and narrative description, assembled the attachments, and waited months to see if you get on the docket. If you happen to be lucky enough to be funded, the remaining gleam is likely to be dulled by the need to invest significantly more time and energy in creating the metrics, documenting the effort, and applying them in a way that doesn’t jeopardize future funding by calling a failure a failure. Or even more discouragingly, tweaking like mad in process to avoid anything that looks like failure, thereby draining every last drop of innovation out of that original bright, shiny idea.

In the technology sphere Ito described, a much more nimble system prevails. Small amounts of venture capital may be deemed worth risking without many guarantees, given the random nature of success and the possibility that a failure in one frame can be repurposed as a startling success in another. In this framework, things can move quickly.

Ito said that the best internet ideas came from artists. Tuesday afternoon, I started wondering aloud whether there would be one or two venture capitalists willing to set up a fund for arts projects that worked on these same principles: investing modestly in a good idea, no guarantees, no time wasted on promises, everyone understanding the level of risk and welcoming failure with the intention to pivot, as Ito said yesterday, embracing serendipity as signal, not noise.

Everyone I mentioned the idea to got very excited at the prospect of even a small-scale alternative to the nearly terminal congestion and risk-aversion of the present system. How could it work? You tell me: I’d love to hear your ideas.

I can’t quite explain how the Kronos Quartet’s beautiful “Wa Habibi” came to be the music that rhymes with today’s post. In his introduction to their playing following Aaron Dworkin’s talk, Catalyst’s spokesman mentioned that Kronos had played the same music. It wasn’t on YouTube, but when I searched through the collection of Kronos videos, I found this deeply soothing piece. Perhaps you will find this piece of art healing too, whether or not the result can be quantified.