Reevaluating the Social Worth of Community Arts Participation

The arts play a central role in civic dialogue, providing space for audience members and performers to reflect on personal experiences, learn about community issues, and pursue social change.  Yet, for community arts organizations facing pressure to justify their social worth, evaluating the effect of civically-minded programming has proved to be a considerable challenge. In “Evaluating Community Outcomes of Participation in Community Arts: A Case for Civic Dialogue,” Kelaher et al. undertake this challenge by examining three Australian community performing arts organizations. They find that these organizations effectively spur individuals to engage in conversations addressing challenges–such as socially marginalized youth or sexual abuse–that are particularly salient to their surrounding communities.

The authors conducted their analysis using a three-step methodology. They collected 1,473 survey responses from audience members to gauge their reaction to each of the performances. The authors also surveyed partner organizations as well as performers and crew members from each art organization to add a layer of complexity to their analysis.

The authors find that each of the three organizations effectively provoked community members to engage in civic dialogue about the social challenges addressed in performances. On the whole, 73% of audience members reported that their understanding of the issue had been affected. Further, 35% of respondents claimed that the creative nature of the performance was the key driver of their changed perceptions, which is more than twice the response rate of the next closest indicator (preexisting motivation to address the issue).

While evaluating the social impact of community arts organizations is often a considerable challenge, Kelaher et al. provide a clear way forward with a methodological exploration of how community arts organizations successfully provoke critical reflection and civic discourse. As long as the challenges addressed are relevant to the community, the authors argue, local arts organizations emerge as a potential source for spurring social change.

Kelaher, Margaret, Naomi Berman, David Dunt, Victoria Johnson, Steve Curry, and Lindy Joubert. 2014. "Evaluating Community Outcomes of Participation in Community Arts: A Case for Civic Dialogue" Journal of Sociology, 50(2): 132-149. 
DOI: 10.1177/1440783312442255

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