Taking Notice of AFTA’s Arts + Social Impact Explorer

Artists drive social change? How do you measure it? Here's a new tool from Americans for the Arts.

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Explorer
Image courtesy of AFTA

There are three categories of artists who must legitimize the quality of their work by demonstrating social impact:

  • Teaching artists
  • Social practice artists
  • Community-based artists

Unlike arts organizations that might have resources for evaluating the impact of their programs, individual artists often lack the capacity to measure how their projects drive social change. They are active. They are doing the work. Providing independent artists with clear content for their own advocacy, and boosting their own research capacities, is vitally important to driving evidence-based practice in the field. I know this because I am one of them.

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As a social practice dance artist and collaborator, I have been going deeper into and beyond those roles for the last few years. I’ve been pursuing cross-sector research that might better reflect the impact of my work. My dream is to integrate movement analysis with methodologies from psychology and sociology. The goal would be to measure proximity, weight share, extent of physical expression, tension and ease within the body, and other observable physicality alongside analysis via journaling and interviews. A project team of professors from the State University of New York (SUNY) was instrumental in early 2016 conversations on this prospect; now, faculty from a Chicago university is interested in collaborating on such research.

As we restarted these discussions, I wanted to see what the existing literature says about how the arts impact social change just generally. For our project, more particularly, I also wanted to see if I could find data for how inter-group dance experiences impact:

  • social/cultural identity salience
  • kinetic empathy
  • reduction of prejudice and defensiveness
  • capacity for spontaneity and release of inhibition
  • social interaction and mobility
  • sense of security and interpersonal trust
  • positive mood and lessening of anxiety

My hunt for information was taking me all over the place and nowhere at the same time. That’s why a new resource caught my eye. In June, at its national conference, Americans for the Arts (AFTA) launched its interactive, mobile-friendly Arts + Social Impact Explorer. AFTA described it as:

An online primer that draws together top-line research, example projects, core research papers, and service/partner organizations, all in an effort to make more visible the incredible, wide-reaching impact of the arts.

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I learned of the Explorer earlier this month thanks to social media (I must be more out of the loop than I thought). The pinwheel’s 10 color-coded sections — Culture and Heritage, Diplomacy, Economy, Education, Environment, Faith, Health and Wellness, Infrastructure, Innovation and Social Justice — are divided into 26 subsections. Each subsection pulls out into a “Learn More” panel where you can download a PDF Fact Sheet with statistics, reading list, example projects and organizations related to that specific topic. Here’s more insight from AFTA:

Functioning as the surface of a deep “lake” of knowledge, all impact points and research within the Explorer comes with citations and links so that people can visit the websites of all the example projects, click directly to the research referenced, and engage directly with the other partners doing this work around the country.

While I am not yet sure if the Explorer addresses my particular lines of inquiry — the Social Cohesion fact sheet already has me headed in a promising direction — I am impressed by how it looks at social change through the lens of individuals, groups, environments and systems, locally and internationally. The facts on the fact sheets are not all the expected and regular talking points.

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In many ways, AFTA’s Explorer is a new iteration of its Animating Democracy: Resources for Evaluating the Social Impact of the Arts; it’s also comparable to Createquity’s 2016 interactive graphic How the Arts Improve Lives and its 2017 summary on the Benefits of the Arts. I was honored to be on the team for those projects and believe the work was done well. Createquity’s materials seem more rigorous on the side of evaluating and synthesizing existing research for meaning and knowledge-making — making it great for researchers and administrators. I find AFTA’s Explorer, created with support from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, more practitioner-friendly.

One note to make, though. AFTA says they’re developing and distributing the Explorer in order to build “deeper understanding of the arts’ long-term social impact.” That focus on durational change could be outdated, in my opinion. Often, relevance and timeliness are better indicators of the depth of social change. Often, scale and scope are better indicators of the breadth of social change. Time is not always the best judge of merit when urgency is at play. I’d be very interested to see where that particular conversation goes.

What are your thoughts on AFTA’s Explorer?

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Shawn Lent
Shawn Lent moves this world as both a program manager and a social practice dance artist, with experience from a field in Bosnia to a children’s cancer hospital in revolutionary Egypt. She is a U.S. Fulbright Scholar and UNAOC International Fellow, and has spoken at the University of Maryland, Universal Exposition Milan, TEDx Shibin El Kom, Sandbox Industries, and Commencement for Millikin University. From 2013-2015, Shawn served as the EducationUSA Egypt Coordinator for AMIDEAST and the U.S. Department of State. In 2013, her blog post "Am I a Dancer Who Gave Up?," went viral. Shawn holds a Masters in Arts Management from Columbia College Chicago and a Post-Graduate Certificate in Youth Arts Development from Goldsmith's College.