Measuring the Impact of the Arts? Planning Here, Planning Now

Advancing neighborhoods through data and cultural investments.

Bushwick Collective Mural in Brooklyn. Photo: Alain Sojourner.

Last month I started a series of posts on the subject of measuring the impacts of the arts, based on the idea that we need to do a better job at measuring and expressing all the ways the arts advance people, communities and society. In the first of the series, I told the story of our attempts to measure the economic impacts of a mural festival in Lynn, MA after the event, and how we were challenged by a lack of advance planning and having only a limited sense of what could or should have been measured.

This month, I’ll tell the story of the Building Community Capacity project, a groundbreaking program run by NYC’s Department of Cultural Affairs. The program was established in 2016 to connect cultural development to other city investments around neighborhood planning, affordable housing and economic development; such efforts aim to include the voices and active participation of cultural communities present in these neighborhoods in order to drive social change. The idea is to help communities create their own vision of the future with sustainable infrastructure, preparing them to address local interests and challenges through a cultural lens.

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The second round of the program launched this past January with groups in three selected neighborhoods: Morrisania in the Bronx, Bushwick in Brooklyn and The Rockaways in Queens. The first task for the groups was to engage their neighborhoods in a collective process of discovery and visioning, leading to the creation of a Neighborhood Arts and Cultural Inventory (NACI) that informs a neighborhood assessment. This work will provide communities with a stronger understanding of who is present in their neighborhoods, as well as local history, activities, motivations, key challenges, capacities and resources.

Each neighborhood team represents a partnership between a community-based development organization and a community-based arts organization. They use the neighborhood assessment to create a shared vision for an equitable and vibrant future, which will then lead to the design, funding, and implementation of a cultural program.

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Let’s stop right there to note how unique and interesting this all is. From the outset, arts organizations and community developers are focusing on what’s going in the surrounding place, not just in the arts sector. Then, together, they envision a bright future for their community. Only then will they get to the (re-)design of a cultural arts program — whether the direction relates to expanded facilities, improved fundraising capacity, or new approaches to telling the neighborhood’s history and heritage through the arts.

My firm has been hired by the City to develop a research framework to help neighborhood teams conduct standardized research via tools such as surveys, focus groups and cultural asset inventories. The major challenge will be to create research protocols that allow each neighborhood to collect relevant information while establishing the necessary consistency to allow the City to compare data and measure progress across neighborhoods and over time.

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The information in the initial inventory will provide a baseline against which the impacts of the program can be measured. If the neighborhoods can collect solid information on basic indicators of vibrancy and sustainability, the City will have the opportunity to observe and quantify the impacts of specific cultural programs. The accumulated data will provide important information on the current level of cultural activity in neighborhoods and how that relates to demographic and socioeconomic issues.

The point here is not to measure the impact on the arts, but to measure the impact of the arts. That way we can strengthen the value proposition for the arts and speak clearly and convincingly to the question of the return on an arts investment.