How can we measure the impact of art?

09/06/2017
Did the IHME Project change your view on something?

The aims that IHME – like so many other cultural actors – sets for its activities are rarely measurable with numbers alone. When evaluating the Festival’s work, the aim is also to try to gauge other ways in which a public artwork and the event constructed around it can have an impact.

Objectives for art

“Monitoring quantifiable indicators, such as numbers of visitors or media hits, might be seen as being straightforward. But, for us, evaluation of what we do also begins with the values that arise out of the art experience,” says the Festival’s Executive Director Paula Toppila.

Toppila points out that, right from the start, when defining its aims, IHME has employed the model for evaluating public art developed by the British think tank ixia. “Impact indicators are surveyed using a procedure that involves engaging in discussion particularly about the project’s artistic and social aims, or those carried out on a community level,” she says, and continues: “This year, the indicators used have, for example, been community participation, learning, critical debate, and an art experience that has value for the person experiencing it. If we take, for example, community participation as a criterion, we discuss the different ways that participation can be understood in relation to the project. This can mean simply joining in, but equally, for example, that the work has generated a momentary or longer-lasting community.”

Sometimes, realizing complex aims can be surprisingly simple to monitor. “In our questionnaires we have asked whether visitors see IHME as being intended for them,” says Communications Officer Suvi Korhonen. “This year, 94% of respondents said Yes. Accessibility is one of IHME’s most important values, and it is important to us that visitors feel that their starting points for participation have been taken into account.” Reaching new audiences is also important for IHME, which is why the percentage of first-time visitors is monitored annually in the questionnaires. So far, each year, more than half of Festival visitors have been taking part in IHME’s events for the first time.

The experience is central

The art experience is often a starting point for outcomes that start from the work, and which have an effect on the level of the individual or of the broader community. The reception of Theaster Gates’s the IHME Project at this spring’s Festival was surveyed by applying a qualitative method piloted in Britain with Arts and Humanities Research Council funding.

“The research was carried out in a small group and images of the artwork provided stimuli for associative discussion. The purpose of the image-led discussion is to encourage aesthetic and emotional associations. The discussion following it provides a transition to a more discursive approach, to interpretation and analysis. The aim is to take into account various aspects of experience – things experienced with the senses or affective experiences are as important as a cognitive approach to the work. In this way we managed to pin down those associations that can be hard to put into words,” says PhD candidate in Educational Sciences Oona Myllyntaus, who was invited to carry out this spring’s audience research. “The method also allows us to get information about the state of mind, and the experiences and feelings, with which visitors leave after having encountered the artwork,” Myllyntaus says.

“In the questionnaire forms we have also asked whether, having experienced the IHME project, the respondent sees anything differently from before and what are the things about which their ways of thinking or their attitudes have changed,” the Festival’s Communications Officer says. “Meanwhile, a method based on small-group discussions successfully tested this year has given us a more in-depth impression than we can gain using forms of the sorts of interaction the encounter between work and audience has generated.”