Re-defining the currency of success

How do artists, organisations & funders measure success in relation to socially engaged practice? Reflecting on Take A Part’s Social Making: Socially Engaged Practice Now & Next, read how researchers have teamed up with Situations to develop a new Visual Matrix methodology and what action points project creators need to consider.

Social Making: Re-defining the currency of success

A range of speakers at Take A Part’s Social Making event identified the pressing need for socially engaged practitioners to redefine the currency of success in projects that have complex, fuzzy and not readily readable or easily measured outcomes. This was also discussed with reference to the need to uncouple the link between evaluative research and advocacy or the need to demonstrate success to funders. This link often leads to conservative results and an evaluation process that does little with the information gathered.

Claire Dotherty (Situations) & Lynn Froggett (University of Central Lancashire) discussing their recently developed ‘Visual Matrix’ methodology Photo Credit: Take A Part

Lynn Froggett and Claire Dotherty discussed their recently developed ‘Visual Matrix’ methodology (full text research paper available online here) which is concerned with identifying the value and the evaluation of public engagement with visual art. Their intention is to measure value beyond easy spectacle or simple economic arguments, focussing on richer arts-based evaluative experiences (as opposed to initial cognitive or verbal responses, or collecting basic quantitative or qualitative data).

The process began with Froggett & Doherty asking “Can we detect the traces left behind in the social imagination a year after the event?” and brings into focus more longitudinal and deeper impacts of different forms of public art commissions and projects.

Theaster Gates: Sanctum – a Situations project for Bristol 2015 European Green Capital Photo Credit: Situations

They suggest that “happiness and prosperity might actually be achieved or happen through unsettling art projects” and not be measured in terms of happiness on a scale of 1-10. As Froggett said, “the reflective and engaged citizen is not necessarily a happy one”, and this  highlights the importance of an audience’s engagement with the artist’s activity, project or artwork in raising a particular quality of attention and unsettling the status quo.

Across the two days of the symposium, in different presentations, a number of points were raised that relate directly to this particular type of ‘unsettling’:

  • artists and their projects allow us to see things as though they might be different
  • artists and their projects can present potential (temporary) visions of the future as a way to begin a discussion and conversation within a community or social milieu
  • artists and communities can demonstrate (by example, through use and doing) the potential viability of a space (with reference to Assemble & Homebaked‘s projects in Liverpool)
  • arts projects that promote dialogue and conversation can help participants and others to find a new language for (and allow people to communicate more fluently about) complex experiences, insights and realisations

Throughout Social Making there was a reiteration of artists’ need to resist becoming instrumentalized in order for these qualities of creative unsettling, re-imagining, demonstration and facilitation to be maintained.

In relation to redefining success, we (as artists and producers) need to think about and develop ways to seek out, focus on, measure or capture information that more deeply represents ‘how’ people have engaged with arts projects and assess their impacts accordingly.

Froggett and Dotherty’s Visual Matrix offers a more applicable methodology for soliciting complex feedback from audience members and participants but appears to be relatively time intensive and benefits from taking place retrospectively. Perhaps there are further ways to embed these processes within the fabric of projects themselves, or applications of the methodologies into situations of developing fluency in community settings?


Action Points:

What does this project aim to unsettle?

In what ways will it / could it do this?

How does this project allow us to see things as though they might be different?

How does this project demonstrate the viability of something that is overlooked, underused or undervalued?

How do the experiences generated through this project promote dialogue and conversation?

What does this project do to allow people to communicate more fluently about complex experiences, insights and realisations?

What tools or methods could we use to detect the traces left behind in the social imagination a month / six months / a year / five years / ten years after the event?

What qualities of engagement are we looking for? How could we successfully measure and evidence these?


Lynn Froggett & Claire Dotherty – Is there life after evaluation? Art, Method & Social Impact


This post is part of a series reflecting on Social Making – a conference organised by Take A Part in Plymouth, April 2016. I attended the event as a PAC Home / VASW bursary recipient and this writing is also published in the official conference publication Social Making Socially Engaged Practice Now and Next [available online].

Rachel Dobbs is one half of LOW PROFILE, an artist and educator based in Plymouth, UK. Rachel works on community projects, has a long-term interest in creative approaches to community development and runs workshops, teaching & training sessions for a range of formal & informal groups including students, arts practitioners and communities – contact me for more details.

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