Making lasting change: How we measure what we do

Marianne Highwood from COaST gives an insight into our research, impact and asks where next?

At a recent gathering of Community Catalysts at No.34, where we enjoyed refreshments, chatted and wrote our own poetry under the guidance of Deke Dobson, a local rapper-poet, I was asked what exactly it was that Cultural Offers at Seaside Towns (COaST) did for Ideas Test. This struck me as a question that many of you might be interested in, so let me try to explain who we are and what we do for Ideas Test. COaST is a research and consultancy group made up of researchers, academics and practitioners from Canterbury Christ Church University who share an interest in different evaluation methods for the arts and cultural sectors.

Our work with Ideas Test has two main components to it. First, we act as a ‘critical friend’ to Ideas Test, advocating for its success by supporting, encouraging and stretching the team so that they can be more effective in their efforts to meet their objectives.

Second, we have developed an evaluation framework to measure the impact of Ideas Test on community-based arts programmes in Swale and Medway. We will be presenting our final evaluation report to the Ideas Test team in December 2016.

So, what are these Ideas Test objectives that we want to evaluate?

  1. To increase participation in the arts. In ten years’ time it is hoped that more and more people in the area will actively seek out arts opportunities. They will seek out new and different experiences and activities and they will think of themselves as ‘regulars’ when it comes to engaging with the arts.
  2. To strengthen community leadership in the arts. To achieve this, Ideas Test will continue to support high quality work with community-led decision making. This means that local people will help shape the arts provision in their area, leading to more sustainable community-led projects for the future.
  3. To help develop the professional and amateur arts community in Swale and Medway. Ideas Test are doing this by helping local artists and arts organisations develop their skills and practice, by helping them thrive and attract event participants and audiences, which all lead to more sustainability in the arts sector.

And how are we measuring the impact of Ideas Test’s activities to meet these objectives?

Since April 2015, when we started working with Ideas Test, we have generated data from the distribution of participant (artists and audience) feedback forms, as well as face to face interviews, focus groups and event observation. Interim research findings presented to Ideas Test in May showed that they are heading in the right direction to meet their objectives. Ideas Test has developed:

  • a strong programme of activity that offers a wide variety of opportunities for people to become involved in the arts more widely – and closer to home.
  • a presence and a brand that is synonymous with the wider provision of art in Swale and Medway.
  • a wealth of experience and knowledge around what works in Swale and Medway, leading to increased engagement with the arts.
  • the role of Community Catalysts, which allows individuals to demonstrate leadership initiative in bringing the arts to audiences in their area.
  • the capacity for local arts providers to plan and deliver local arts events.
  • opportunities for artists and companies from the rest of the UK to come here to create and show their work.

Our recent Community Catalyst gathering in early October gave me an opportunity to speak directly to some of you who are actually out in your communities, leading others as you bring the arts to people in your area. You told me that Ideas Test has helped you raise the profile of the arts among those who have not previously been engaged and has given you opportunities and resources to take arts and creativity into people’s homes and places of study and work. You are genuine in your praise for the work of Ideas Test, but you also offered two specific suggestions on how Ideas Test can get closer to meeting their objectives:

  • Recruit/appoint more Community Catalysts. This is because, over time, the numbers of active Community Catalysts have diminished and you are feeling over-stretched and, at times, less effective than you want to be. The Community Catalyst role is exciting and rewarding, but more of you are needed because to meet the sustainability of Ideas Test initiatives, “long-term nurturing needs to be embedded in the community”.
  • Provide further access to training and skills development. You said that targeted training programmes in such topics as integrating social media into events and programmes, how to find, train and motivate volunteers, basic business and finance skills can lead to a more sustainable future for artistic and creative expression in Swale and Medway. You also said to use No.34 as a venue for training workshops so that as many people as possible can benefit from this wonderful resource.

If you have any comments or suggestions on how Ideas Test can get closer to meeting its objectives, please do send me an email!