New Approaches to Measuring Arts Engagement

Over the past decade, as many of our communities have become more racially and ethnically diverse, and as income inequality has risen, there has been growing concern in the arts sector about the socioeconomic gap between nonprofit arts audiences and their local communities. Nonprofit arts audiences have traditionally been less racially and ethnically diverse, with higher education levels, and higher incomes than many communities. These differences have been particularly acute in California, which has the most diverse population in the country. Many nonprofits and funders are now focusing directly on the issue of diversifying participation in the arts. Coupled with the technological changes that allow us to access and engage in the arts in new and unexpected ways, it is an exciting time in the nonprofit arts world.

One of the largest arts funders in California, the James Irvine Foundation, launched the Exploring Engagement Fund in 2012 to help nonprofit arts organizations pilot new ways of engaging low-income and racially and ethnically diverse Californians in the arts. To date, Irvine has awarded grants to 119 organizations across California totaling over $20 million in risk capital. The term “engagement” emphasizes the Fund’s focus on projects that use active participation opportunities, which grantees are using to respond to different interests among many potential participants.

Since the beginning of the Exploring Engagement Fund, Irvine has been committed to learning about the keys to effectively engaging people in the arts. Harder+Company has been Irvine’s evaluation and learning partner, developing new measurement tools and building the capacity of nonprofit arts organizations to track arts engagement activities. In addition to supporting its grantees, Irvine has shared insights with the field throughout the evaluation.

Tools for Measuring Engagement: A key objective for the Exploring Engagement Fund is engaging low-income and diverse participants in the arts projects. In order to understand the types of approaches that work best with these populations, Irvine asked us to partner with grantees to collect participation data across their many projects. Tracking a new type of arts outcome, engagement, led us to build a new measurement tool that grantees could use to systematically capture information about the people who participate in each project activity. Anticipating that tracking participant data would be new for many of the organizations, we have supported the grantees with ongoing technical assistance to support their distinct measurement needs. We partnered with Irvine to share the lessons from that data collection work in an online toolkit.

Lessons for Designing Engagement Programming: This approach to data collection has documented an impressive tally. As of December 2015, grantees have reported on 3,670 events that engaged 826,978 people. In line with the intent of the Exploring Engagement Fund, audiences at 65 percent of the events were primarily communities of color, while 47 percent of events were attended primarily by low-income participants. To help other organizations learn from this work, we compiled insights—informed by the analysis of the measurement tool, interviews with the grantees, and review of their grant reports—into a public report, “Emerging Lessons and Implications from the Exploring Engagement Fund.”

More Stories of Lessons Learned: People often learn best through specific examples from their peers and colleagues. This observation led us to build on the broad lessons of the first Exploring Engagement Fund report with a set of case studies about nine Exploring Engagement Fund projects. Recently released by Irvine, these case studies share individual grantee stories and overarching tips informed by all of the grantees, spanning a range of arts disciplines, approaches, and sizes from LA Opera to Street Poets. Whether an organization is in California or somewhere else in the United States, these lessons and the richness of experience of this wide range of grantees provide important advice to consider before beginning or expanding community engagement work in the arts. We greatly appreciate those grantees taking the time to share their story in a case study, and our partner Diane Espaldon who helped with this report.

Our work on the Exploring Engagement Fund has provided a unique opportunity to work with creative arts and culture organizations that are innovating new ways to engage Californians, and making the additional effort to track the reach and lessons of their programs. Over the next two years, we will continue to document the learning from this program to share with arts organizations and the field.