Center for Artistic Activism

Measuring the Impact of Artistic Activism

Literature Review Report

DRAFT March 25, 2016



Social change is hard. Over the years, social issue campaigners and activists have employed a variety of marketing and communications efforts to attract public interest to their issues and causes to varying degrees of success. More recently, activists have turned to the arts for inspiration and as a way to engage audiences through deep and emotional connections to create more powerful and meaningful interactions. At the same time, more artists are imbuing their work with social and political messaging to advance the issues they feel most passionate about.


Now that there is a growing body of work in the field, as well as a host of different training programs available to artists and activists, there is an opportunity to develop common definitions, best practices and a generic working theory-of-change model for artistic activism programs. What we’re looking for are answers to the question “Do these practices work?” and what are the metrics we should use for measuring them?


The project is being managed by a team from The Center for Artistic Activism and George Perlov Consulting, with support from an Advisory Committee of academics, practitioners and others with extensive experience in the field. (see Appendix for member list). As a first step in this process, George Perlov Consulting and the Center for Artistic Activism (the project team) conducted a literature review of the field to see what information, reports and research exist on the topic of measuring the impact of artistic activism.


The supporting Excel spreadsheet contains links to the documents we feel are important for this analysis with additional background and commentary on them (Some documents are available via a Dropbox that can be shared if interested, and some are library books that have been reviewed for inclusion). We envision the literature review as the first step of an extensive investigation and planning process to better understand the issues, challenges and opportunities to better evaluate this kind of work and to provide tools to practitioners to support them in their future efforts.



In order to delimit the process, the project team developed the following parameters for the literature review:

  • References should be international
  • Could be present or historical
  • The kinds of art should be visual, performative, conceptual, sound (but not music)
  • Our working definition of activism was intentional action to bring about political, economic, social change


The project team also divided the review into different tiers, with the decision to put the most focus on the first tier:

  1. Studies on the effect/affect of artistic activism
  2. Studies on the affect/affect of kindred fields like documentary films and photography educational/community/socially engaged theatre or music
  3. Studies on the effect/affect of tangential fields like “artful” social marketing or propaganda
  4. Contextual theory: cognition, aesthetics/art, philosophy


A call for submissions was sent to a broad group of stakeholders in the fall of 2015 (see email draft in appendix) which was supplemented by a web and database search, as well as recommendations from the project team. In total about 80 references were assembled. The project team then edited the list to conform to the abovementioned parameters/tiers and ended up reviewing and analyzing about 50 references. The literature review is considered a working document to be updated over time.


A note on language used in the search

There is a wide variety of language used to describe the field of artistic activism, much of it depending on the author. For artists or artist-led initiatives, terms like “socially engaged art” or “social practice” are commonly used, while activist-led efforts tend to use “artistic activism” or “creative activism” more commonly. For the purpose of the web and online search, we used these terms, as well “political art” and “cultural activism” along with definers such as “Impact of…,” “effect of,” “evaluation of…” or best practices in…” to conduct our online and database search.


Defining Artistic Activism

For this report, we are using a working definition of artistic activism developed by the Center for Artistic Activism as paraphrased below:


Activism, as the name implies, is the activity of challenging and changing power relations, what the political scientist Harold Lasswell once defined as “who gets what, when and how.” The goal of activism is Action to generate an Effect. Art, on the other hand, doesn’t have such a clear target. It’s hard to say what art is for or against; its value often lays in showing us new perspectives and ways to bring meaning to our lives. In short, art is an Expression that generates Affect.


At first glance the outcomes of Affect or Effect seem at odds with one another – they point in different directions.  Affect is personal, something one senses, manifesting itself in an individual, emotional response. Effect is more social, displaying universal, observable, and measurable results. We’re moved by affective experiences to do physical actions that result in concrete effects: Affect leads to Effect.  And concrete effects have affective impact, generating personal emotion: Effect leads to Affect.


The Center used to call this complimentary combination Affective Effect, or sometimes: Effective Affect. But it was too clumsy so they came up with a new word. Using the grapheme aesc, or Æ, they invented the term:



Their belief is that Artistic Activists are always trying to have an æffect, creating an experience that generates a feeling that has demonstrable impact in the world.


This definition contrasts deeply with projects and activities that are seen in the field more commonly: social practice or socially engaged art, which typically are more focused on affect rather than effect, where effect might be unplanned or accidental. Artistic activism, by contrast, is rooted in creating measurable outcomes and impact that lead to concrete social or behavioral change.

Key Findings

Based on this definition, we found almost no literature (the exception being some essays from the Center for Artistic Activism and a few other sources – see below) on the topic of measuring the impact of artistic activism. What we did find was a fair amount written on the kindred fields of socially engaged art, public art, edutainment, political art, and fields like social marketing and other behavior change-related sectors.


We start our analysis by looking at some of the theoretical underpinnings of artistic activism that relate to the study of its impact and effectiveness, then move on to the few writings on the topic itself, and then look at the kindred fields from which we may deduce some thoughts and ideas that will be relevant to developing better tools and structures to assess the field more broadly. More information about the literature mentioned in this report can be found on the accompanying summary section of the spreadsheet and/or the source itself.


Theories behind artistic activism demonstrate challenges inherent in measuring/evaluating this discipline

A recent ArtNews article about social practice raises what might be the most basic questions and challenges of measuring the impact of artistic activism projects: “Should (these projects) be evaluated for the social changes they produce, for the elements of performance they incorporate, or for the esthetic qualities of the environments in which they take place?”


The Spectres of Evaluation report from the University of Melbourne also highlights some of the challenges of identifying what evaluation actually is, “Evaluation can include measures of efficacy, impact, value, best practice, advocacy, an independent audit, an opportunity for critical feedback from participants or descriptions of critical learnings, such as ‘what would we do differently next time?’ Evaluation can also range from systematic bureaucratic procedures delivered by external consultants and researchers to improvised group activities.”


TV Reed, in his essay, points out how the political and aesthetic movements have come together over the years. Some of the metrics he describes for measuring the intensity of cultural movements may also be applied to the evaluation of artistic activism projects. And Deborah Fisher, in her essay about how A Blade of Grass works, raises questions about the concept of power within the art and social justice movements, as many of these efforts rely on external funding sources.


All of these forces combine to make the process of assessing impact and even describing impact a challenge in the field. Questions also arise regarding what impact measures to utilize – should they be related to specific advocacy outcomes, mobilizing engaged audiences or reaching new audiences, for example.


Only a small number of reports and papers focus on artistic-activist programs (vs. artist –led) as well as the measuring/evaluation of them

Some highlights include:

  • The Michael Shank article, Redefining the Movement: Art Activism, which offers a strong theoretical approach to how artistic activism works, based on childhood learning patterns and the power of nonverbal communication, but without any focus on impact or assessment.
  • The ArtCorps paper on the theoretical underpinnings of their Central American training programs for activists. These include Integral Theory, Creative Learning, Multiple Intelligences and the Power of Art, Popular Education, Conflict Transformation Theory and Theory of Structural Violence.
  • The Astrea Lesbian Foundation’s report on the advocacy gains made by artistic interventions in social justice programs on transgender rights. Using a framework to identify public policy strategy, the author makes the case that the artistic interventions provided more upstream outcomes with a higher level of decision maker than typical awareness and education campaigns.


Measurement, evaluation and how “it” works is fairly developed in kindred fields

As we expected, there is a fairly developed literature on measurement and impact in a number of kindred fields – such as social marketing or “behavior change” marketing, and in more arts-oriented fields like public art, art education, edutainment, political art and socially engaged art or social practice as it is more commonly known. The latter topic is addressed in its own section below.


Social marketing

The McKenzie-Mohr text is one of many guides on the topic of social marketing available that lays out a theory of change and leads novices and more experienced practitioners on the steps necessary to develop and implement an effective behavior change campaign. In many ways, it is the processes described by McKenzie-Mohr and others in the field that provide the structural backbone of artistic activism, the effect part of the equation.



In the field of edutainment, the Lacayo and Singhal guide is comprehensive and identifies specific issues and concerns in evaluating edutainment programs and projects. It also includes thoughtful sections on evaluation.



Public Art and Civic Engagement

The report, Building Cultures – Art and Our City, takes the perspective of architects and city planners on what arts activism can add to the city planning process. And in the public art front, Research on Public Art: Assessing Impact and Quality, is a comprehensive report on theory, practice and evaluation in that discipline. Lastly, in terms of arts and civic engagement, the Animating Democracy report, Civic Engagement and the Arts: Issues of Conceptualization and Measurement, provides detailed theories of change, evaluations, and other information germane to that field.


Social Practice and Socially Engaged Art

The field of social practice and socially engaged art has been growing steadily over the years and new thinking about measuring its impact has been coming from various fronts:


A Blade of Grass’ (ABOG) exploration of the practicalities of measurement and evaluation is strong and raises important questions

As a producer/funder of a growing body of socially engaged art programs, some of which have been transformed into sustainable programs supported by public and private endeavors, ABOG’s ethnographic, multi-stakeholder approach to evaluation is providing good learning and beginning to identify standards of best practice in the field. And their work in documenting the programs is starting to create more of a voice for the importance of socially engaged art in the art world and beyond. They are also questioning issues like power and funder influence, as well as the slow pace of social change, how well versed in the social issue at hand does the artist have to be, and the “spectator” experience of projects that wouldn’t be considered art by traditional standards, like a pop-up library of Spanish literature.


New work from Animating Democracy is exploring some of the deeper nuances of evaluating socially engaged art and providing new frameworks

Animating Democracy’s new reports on aesthetic and values considerations of socially engaged art are building blocks for developing more sophisticated underlying theories and theories of change about this work; they are a testing ground for metrics and measures that can be utilized. For example, the values proposed in that paper,

  • Shared learning and understanding
  • Reciprocity
  • Collaboration
  • Context
  • Equity
  • Right-sized expectations
  • Appropriate metrics
  • Ethics
  • Adequately resourced

are fleshed out as potential evaluative indicators.


Similarly, their proposed aesthetic qualities,

  • Disruption
  • Authenticity
  • Communal meaning
  • Porosity
  • Risk taking
  • Stickiness
  • Commitment

include a series of questions that might be asked to also guide the evaluation process.


There are a few very good, comprehensive guides for socially engaged art that do include sections on planning, measurement and evaluation

Novices looking for support in the field have a lot of consolidated wisdom to support them. More notable guides are those listed below:

  • Created for the website Impact Arts, Callahan Consulting’s Evaluation Guides for Arts and Social Impact are intended for artists and “administrators” as well.
  • The very straightforward Creative Activist Toolkit by Creative Visions includes a step-by step guide for artists engaging in social practice and explanation of metrics for measurement. Similarly, the Revolutions-Per-Minute guide is tailored for its musician audience.
  • Making Waves: A Guide to Cultural Strategy, from the Culture Group provides artists and activists with historic examples and planning tools, however without any focus on evaluation.


A meta-analysis of these guides will be helpful as we begin to develop recommendations for the field.



We see the following as the two key implications from the initial review of this literature:


A small body of literature on the “bullseye” of measuring/evaluating impact of activist art

The majority of the literature identified so far is focused on what artists are doing to engage in their own social practice. Some literature exists on the theories of how it works, but there is no real theory of change established for the field nor specific evaluative tools or techniques germane to activists using artistic methods to achieve their goals.


Guides and frameworks from kindred fields are helpful for planning, but need for specialized tools in this field

While guides highlighted in this report from fields like public art, social practice and edutainment serve artists and practitioners in those fields, there is an absence of specialized tools for activists using art to further their causes. Activist-led projects and programs need more best practices, theories of change and tools for assessing impact.

More dialogue and discussion are planned to help shape this diagram as we begin to create better tools, tactics and language for measuring the impact of artistic activism.


Next Steps

Moving forward, we plan to share this document and the spreadsheet with members of the Advisory Committee for their input and additional suggestions. We will also continue to update the review with new documents and information so that it is a resource for others working in the field.





Measuring the Impact of Artistic Activism

Lit Review Call for Submissions


Subject: Open call for Reports, Evaluations, Articles and other Documents that Measure the Impact of Artistic Activism


Dear XXXX,


As you may have heard, the Center for Artistic Activism is working on a study of the impact of artistic activism programs. As a first step, and with seed funding from the Open Society Foundations, our colleague George Perlov, former head of research and evaluation at the Ad Council and expert on measuring such things, is conducting a literature review on the topic.


We are reaching out today to see if you have any case studies, evaluations, reports, articles or other relevant documents from artistic activism programs you or colleagues have developed over the years to share with George. We are also interested in any theoretical frameworks developed for measuring such programs that might help us put some context around the issue.


Some additional details:

  • We are looking for evaluation of programs or initiatives conducted anywhere in the world.
  • New and historical efforts are welcome.
  • The “art” involved in the project should be visual, performative, sound-focused and/or conceptual.
    • Note: we are also interested in evaluations of documentary films, photography, music and educational, community or socially engaged theater, but as these fields are typically more established our focus is on the other types mentioned above.
  • Our working definition of activism is “action to bring about political, economic and/or social change.”


Should you have any questions, please feel free to reach out to George directly, copied above. And please forward any materials to him no later than September 21st. Thanks for your help and we look forward to sharing our learning with you.


Best regards,


Steve and Steve