New Paths 4th Gathering: Evaluating the Arts

This article centres on the task of evaluating and researching the work that is done through art projects such as this that we are developing through Finding Maindee. Sympathy is already felt for the role of evaluator as we write this blog and try to capture ambitious and challenging presentations; and the reactions from a group of people who attend this monthly discussion space.


Our main speaker was Eugene Dubens discussing how to evaluate the arts and culture. Eugene is pursuing a PhD about the Arts Council of Wales’ Ideas: People: Places  (IPP) programme which financially supports our Finding Maindee project as well as 6 others. We also heard from Steph Roberts with reflections on her 2016 Mosaic Maindee project and the future work of Steve Jones (AKA Stuart Farnsworth) as he starts the Nonsensus survey of 2,000 households.


By the end of this article it is possible to perhaps see that the question we are really asking is how to go about the task of Finding Maindee; that’s to say how are the artists we work using their practice as a process of gathering data about people in the place of Maindee?

1. Eugene Dubens

Eugene started by explaining the conventional route of an academic researcher: firstly to load up on lots of information such as previous studies of similar scenarios; secondly to go out into the field to gather data and/or conduct interviews then compare and check the information gathered in the field against existing norms. Eugene stated that he is keen to take an innovative approach where he is completely open to the work that artists are doing rather than making it fit into existing norms.


We were prompted us to consider the field that he is researching: the Arts Council of Wales’ IPP programme which is based on using art in the regeneration of places. We were invited to think about the term regeneration in this context and break it down: maybe considering how art allows a place to (re)turn to a previous form or maybe that we forget the re altogether and consider the power of art to be generative - that’s to say helping the creation of something new? In practical terms, are we using art to find a Maindee that existed in the past or are we using art as a new way of seeing Maindee as it is today.


Looking to history Eugene traced an arc of public policy for combining art and place renewal [or regeneration] which started in 1997 and had included evaluation exercises from the outset. In the two decades since there are projects which have gone far beyond our case in Maindee. For example, we can look at the 2008 European City of Culture in Liverpool, Newcastle & Gateshead or Margate in Kent. Evaluation programmes were set up and developed alongside all of these major state supported initiatives.


Starting to evaluate Maindee: what has been learned from Swansea


Returning to the here and now Eugene’s presentation used examples of another IPP project  (Volcano Theatre’s From the Station to Sea in Swansea) to illustrate his main argument that we cannot separate the practice of socially-engaged art from being there - as he says ‘where it comes from.’ He described his research in Swansea - and what he is now offering to Newport - as ‘being at ground level.’ As an example, he makes a reference to preparations for the Swansea High Street Troublemakers Festival which will happen this July 13 to 16.


At the pre-festival launch event it was possible to consider what it will really mean to close down streets and animate public space with different activities: to try something new and be exploratory. This connects to what we witnessed on a smaller scale in Maindee through Mr & Mrs Clark’s week of Inviting the Neighbours Around to Paint in October 2016: that art gives people permission to play. But how do you evaluate this if you just count the numbers of people who came each day; or even try to categorise who they may be? Eugene’s presentation started to illustrate that we have to get amongst people and consider their responses to the opportunity.


The following three sentences are a response to what Eugene asks. Do those of us involved in Finding Maindee also have to think hard about how we capture our projects? Maybe it is worth looking back at the Bosch film which was made alongside Mr and Mrs Clark’s work on Chepstow Road in 2016? Does this capture what happened and does this provide a basis for evaluation?



What about monitoring?


Using the preparation for Troublemakers as an example Eugene helped us to see the benefit of monitoring - which we can understand as counting numbers and perhaps using questionnaires with repeated questions that can be compared to each other. However, he did ask whether we should expect more from evaluation?


Perhaps we should we also consider who benefits from the answers to the questions that evaluation exercises ask? Providing another example from Swansea, we were asked by our speaker to consider the large artwork of well-established [and not Swansea-based] artist Pure Evil on Volcano Theatre’s Iceland Building. Before we ask if people like the piece or not, Eugene suggested asking whether any of the tens of artists based within that building could have benefited from showing their work in this public space.


The image was featured in The Guardian on 8th October 2016. On the face of it, this national recognition was a success story for the Swansea art project as it reached out to a UK audience. If we consider this as a form of monitoring, we could count the number of hits on the Guardian website; shares on Twitter and Facebook and be satisfied that this project had worked in terms of drawing attention to something positive in Swansea.


Considering hyperlocal evaluation


A very local evaluation exercise in Swansea could try to sense whether the local and national opinion are the same. Maybe it was the work of the well-known Pure Evil which prompted The Guardian editorial to feature the article - who really knows? What is sure is that the article was published and is a document for research; furthermore there is some very healthy discussion in the comments section below the online version. Reading through the latter will show that some people are happy with the changes to Swansea whereas others are critical and cynical. Just taking this one online document [with its comments below] as evidence it is indeed very hard to provide what people would call an objective or unambiguous and clear account of the outcomes from an art project in Swansea; and same would apply in Maindee.


Though the following are not Eugene’s words, the Pure Evil example helps us to see that projects such as Finding Maindee have their own local agendas and are asking their own questions. For example, we stage these gatherings (and write them up in detailed blog posts) as a way of supporting collaboration and building a community of participation between artists and people living and working in Maindee. To that end we hope that this blog articles can be assembled again in the future as a record of what happened and how people responded.  


Returning to the presentation, the final section included examples of Eugene’s responses to Swansea - including photos - where he met and interviewed people as they contributed to a painting project on a walkway tunnel under a railway line. The responses from the audience, with people taking notes, sending Tweets and making their own photos, suggest that these examples from Swansea gave a chance to think about how other artists can evaluate and research their own projects. For example, Stephanie Bolt, who works across Wales and came to the meeting from Cardiff, added that art projects open up unexpected spaces for learning and different points for assessment. Eugene’s whole presentation was about encouraging us to think about different ways to conduct research and evaluation. For those who who may be find this daunting he added a nice quote from economist John Maynard Keynes, who said that:


‘The difficulty lies, not in the new ideas, but in escaping from the old ones…’


Keynes was one of the World’s most influential economists of the interwar period and also one of the proponents for the Arts Council[s] to be founded. Ismael Velasco connected to make an interesting observation about new approaches and ideas. Ismael, who has worked locally on his Theatre for Change project, explained that art projects have invisible outcomes; this is to say phenomena that are perhaps unmeasurable through ticking boxes or even by asking people for their words... However, he did offer some ideas for how we can use gestures to represent how we feel about things and then use conventional ways of counting. We are sure to give Ismael space to contribute to this blog in the future and add his own experience and proposals.


Responses to Eugene's presentation


Further commentary - and a question - came from Chris Coppock, the creative principle behind the Arts + Minds project [also part of IPP] in Blaenau Gwent. Chris saw the way that many people in Wales voted to leave the EU at the referendum, despite the visible evidence of EU money spent on infrastructure [what is often called regeneration], as a clear example of numbers losing their political power.  As such, he shared the sentiment of Eugene’s presentation to pursue the response to art at the ground level, but asked what sort of purchase it would have. This is to say, would there be future projects funded through the public sector such as Swansea, Maindee or Blaenau Gwent if we don’t do evaluation in the conventional sense of collecting numbers and making comparisons? In response Eugene was confident in his own PhD and pointed to the power of the 3-minute film to influence people and policies.


This last response felt like a good way to conclude Eugene’s presentation about evaluation of the arts: that there is power in visual arts (for example) to prove that art can have a meaningful influence upon people’s lives. We thank Eugene for his contribution and look forward to him helping us over the next 15 months. His email address is eugenemichaeldubens@gmail.com.


2. Steph Roberts reflects on Mosaic Maindee


Steph Roberts applied for a New Paths grant in March 2016 and proceeded to develop the Mosaic Maindee project across a number of ceramic workshops. Referring back to the topic of evaluation, this presentation proposed socially-engaged art as a method for people to explore and understand their relationship with places - in this case Maindee. Steph said that she had wanted her project to ‘...deliver the street back to people.’


Steph explained her process and introduced the term andamento (from the world of mosaics) to describe how her workshops allowed people to explore Maindee. Streets such as Chepstow Road have certain form and texture which the participants in her workshops teased out by going outside, taking photos and collecting textures. An interesting article on www.mosaicmakers.co.uk/ explains how tiles can be placed in different forms to create a sense of flow and energy.


Steph explained that space forms its own andamento and that her community-based workshop exercises helped to capture some of the colours, textures and patterns that are repeated through the urban form of Maindee. In a connection to the question about communication that Ismael had earlier posed, Steph explained that written words were not really her strength. When it came to evaluation of her own project she explained the photos of people who took part in her workshops: a range of expressions from concentration as they learned new skills to satisfaction and pride when they had completed their pieces. The challenge is capture what Steph describes as the:


‘Transferal of energy from one person to a work of art.’


Being influenced by other artists


Since completing Mosaic Maindee work last autumn, Steph explained that she been to see [and embrace] some of Anthony Gormley’s lifesize sculptures near Liverpool. She had also used these New Paths Gatherings as a way to connect with other artists and sense how they see the world. For example, she was keen to work with the images of people and faces in Maindee that Jo Haycock and Dilip Sinha had captured through photography. Indeed Steph had already made a venture in this field by making a mosaic portrait of Bob Pontin, whose 75th we celebrated with cake at this event [see below right]. Steph said that she would like to put mosaic images of people out on the streets in Maindee.

 

There were comments from Stephanie Bolt about the use of photography to evaluate the process of art: posing whether we always have to show photos of people who look  happy? Chris Coppock built on this and came back to the question of what IPP projects such as Finding Maindee really do: are they to activate people - and explore how people connect with place such as Steph [Roberts] has done in Maindee - or simply to show people smiling? The wider argument is made in Owen Kelly's 1984 book Community, art and the state: Storming the Citadels.


John Hallam concluded this segment of the gathering by suggesting that numbers are not so rigid and that we should embrace science. He asked whether we should bring somebody with a statistical mind into this group. As such, this was a nice way to link to the next presentation - which came from Stuart Farnsworth - aka Steve Jones - as he seeks to take on big data by meeting 2,000 households and producing the Maindee Nonsensus.


3. Stuart Farnsworth and Maindee Nonsensus


Stuart built on the presentation that he gave to this audience last month. He explained that his organisation - Farnsworth’s Factfinding Facilitators - would be canvassing 2,000 households in the Maindee area to ask them questions about their lives. The project will include a data gathering stage - the household survey comprising three different questions - which will be followed by collation. Stuart then proposes to pass his data to 5 selected artists - including Barrie J Morgan in the audience today - for them interpret using their own approach.


Acting as the real life Steve Jones, our presenter explained that he would like to ask people 3 different questions. One of the questions he really wanted to ask was about somebody’s most treasured item. He explained that he had tried this out with people and found that they took a long time to answer that question. He had picked up a few suggestions and is now thinking to frame the question as ‘what would you save from a burning building?’ as a more emotive question.


Steve hopes that people will find the character of Stuart [above] to be slightly ridiculous, but also unthreatening. He explained that he had already tried out the character - and the approach - when doing a photoshoot on a street in Newport. He described knocking on a house to ask permission for the door to feature on the Maindee newsletter; how he could hear that there was an argument brewing inside the property. Having spoken to this particular householder he got a good response and felt that his approach will work in the future.


Ideally Steve wants to capture some of the indirect responses, such as smiles and gestures that Ismael proposed earlier on. We look forward to this work as he develops it over the late spring and summer.


What next for evaluation?

  

This gathering was only a taster of getting into the issue of evaluating the arts. Furthermore, there was a feeling from the last two presentations that their art projects respond to Ideas: People: Places and propose a type of evaluation in their own right. For example, the completed mosaic work by Steph Roberts has helped to convey how people sense the form, colour and hue of Maindee’s streets whilst Steve Jones hopes to tease out the way that people feel about their lives in Maindee. Both exercises have a very clear methodology and are very open about the potential outcomes. They also both put a lot of importance on showing the results of the their work to the people of Maindee.


Perhaps all we really need to ask if whether - and how - we are Finding Maindee? And if we are finding the place then does this give some ingredients or energy that can be used to generate new ways of seeing and being in Maindee? For example, can this work help to develop the library as a space which collects and interprets the stories and objects which are about Maindee?


Without being too philosophical, there is a need to follow up this session with a further discussion. Ideas from the group include:


  • A defence of the value of numbers - as John Hallam suggested

  • A chance to discuss other case studies in further detail - Rhian Hutchings was keen to discuss the experience of ArtWorks Cymru

  • Considering examples of evaluation of programmes such as Lead Creative Schools


If you would like to be involved in further discussion please email aled@maindee.org.  We also welcome Eugene’s eagerness and experience to help.


Next New Paths


The next gathering on Thursday 11 May at 5.30pm will focus on how we will shape the library. Maindee Unlimited are looking for a creative practice to help shape the fabric of the building and the next session will reveal who we are working with.


This meeting is also a chance to pitch for what the library as a building and a space could be in the future. The shaping of the library is the biggest single initiative [in financial terms] within the Finding Maindee project.

Related Links

Swansea High Street Troublemakers Festival 

Swansdea aticle in The Guardian on 8th October 2016

Mosaic article on www.mosaicmakers.co.uk

Owen Kelly's 1984 book Community, art and the state: Storming the Citadels

Quality experience of ArtWorks Cymru

More about Lead Creative Schools

 

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