Arts evaluation and the transformative power of the arts: a visual ethnography of transformative learning in a collaborative community (arts) film
Wright, Claire Louisa
Arts organisations in receipt of public funding should seek to understand the impact of their work, for a variety of reasons. Contemporary outcome-based arts evaluation practice dichotomises impact as intrinsic or instrumental with the latter perspective defining what counts. However, a widely held belief in the transformative power of the arts is apparent in both arts policy and practice. It therefore follows that if evaluation is fundamentally about discerning value then arts evaluation should recognise transformation as core. I contend that visually-based research methods offer alternative ways of seeing and knowing from the methods that dominate arts evaluation practice. As a result, I consider how these methods might help to identify what is transformative within the context of a community arts project. To explore how evaluation can better reflect the transformative power of the arts, I ask three research questions. Firstly, can participants’ experience be theorised and understood as transformative arts-based learning? Secondly, to what extent can participants’ experience of a community arts project be understood through visually-based research methods? Thirdly, what are the implications for existing practices of arts evaluation? I explore these questions in relation to a single participatory arts project. The Happy Lands, funded (primarily) by Creative Scotland, brought together communities across Fife with a professional film crew to create a feature length film based on local stories of mining culture. Employing visual ethnography my research methods included image-elicited interviews with 19 participants over a 20 month period, participant observation during the making of the film, and documentary research. The theoretical contribution I make extends Morgan’s (2010) conception of the transformative potential of travel to the transformative power of the arts, which I define in terms of inspiration, interconnection and insight. I propose a conceptual framework that views the experience of ‘sameness’ (interconnection) and ‘Otherness’ (inspiration) as conducive to the possibility of voice (insight). The interaction of self, other and artwork in the context of the participatory (community) arts project leads to the creation of shared identity (identities) and a sense of belonging manifest in the symbolic status of objects and behaviour (‘spirit of place’) associated with the arts project. Visual research methods, combining subjective meaning-making and objective (representational) qualities, offer opportunities to understand and (re)present participants’ experience. I advance a methodological contribution that suggests image elicitation offers an epistemologically appropriate approach to understanding participant experiences of an inherently visual project. The identification of sense of place and spirit of place can be viewed as indicative of a transformative environment. I contend that the creation of an outcome acknowledging the transformative environment of the arts project would respond to the needs of government but also the beliefs of arts educators effectively redressing the balance of instrumental versus intrinsic worth. Moreover, the subjective and objective possibilities afforded by visually-based research methods would enable the latter to speak creatively, in language(s) reflecting their values. As a result my findings are offered as one possible version of a humanities-inspired approach to arts evaluation (Belfiore and Bennett, 2010b).