“[I]t’s kind of a witnessing. It’s kind of an active witnessing where someone is giving you feedback. It’s dialogic as you go, and that to me is a lot of the value. There’s much to be said for dialogue in many contexts and I’d say that dialogue is a component of the way I do this process. That’s an important part of it.”

As a distinguished theatre maker and facilitator, Jan Cohen-Cruz wears many hats. She is a professor at Syracuse University’s College of Visual and Performing Arts, editor and co-founder of the arts, design, and humanities journal Public, Director of Field Research at A Blade of Grass, and author of books such as Engaging Performance: Theatre as Call and Response and Local Acts: Community Based Performance in the United States. At A Blade of Grass, a nonprofit organization that fosters and promotes socially engaged art, Cohen-Cruz works with fellows to reflect on and evaluate their work and its goals.


Steve Duncombe: So Jan, for about 10 years, we’ve been asking artistic activists a simple question: how do you know if it works?

Jan Cohen-Cruz: Right.

SD: Personally, I’m interested in the question because I’m coming at all this from an activist’s standpoint and I really want to know: Does this actually work for social change? Yet I’ve been around enough artists to also know that’s not an easy answer when it comes to art.

I wanted to talk to you because you’re probably one of the people who’s thought about this question the most — and you’re someone who has actually done the practice of trying to assess and has a methodology for assessment.

So, why is assessment important? And I’m not sure I feel comfortable with that word…

JCC: Yeah, nor I.

SD: …but why is assessment important to do when looking at art for change?

JCC: Yeah. I don’t think there’s one answer to that question. I think in some cases it’s probably not important. In some cases there’s an artist who’s on a long trajectory and it’s not the moment to sit back and say, “Oh, well, what’s happening here?” It still needs to get out there. It’s not ready to be pushed and probed and questioned. There are certain things you discover by doing it and there’s no need to stop and ask everyone a lot of questions, often at the wrong moment. So, first of all, I’d say it’s not always necessary.

Then I’d say it depends a lot on the artist and the project and the participants. I do think it’s good to occasionally sit back and say, “So, why are we doing this project and what do we want from it? And has that changed? And if so, why? Has it changed because we reached a dead end or has it changed because we found something else?” But sometimes you don’t even realize that until you pause and have the conversation.

So, in a way, I think that assessment is like a good graduate school where you have an exam just so you stop and synthesize, not so you can get a grade.

SD: Almost a point of reflection. Self-reflection.

JCC: Exactly.

SD: Earlier you cringed when I used the word assessment, as did I. Why do we cringe when we use the word assessment? Why does it make us uncomfortable?

JCC: Yeah, yeah. I mean, there are so many associations if somebody from the outside is applying a set of values to your work that may or may not be relevant, so that’s the main reason. And I’ve had so many artists, in working with them and following their work, who at first have a resistance. It’s: “Ugh, I’m going to be evaluated.” And I don’t want to be that person.

At a Blade of Grass for example, we only choose eight projects out of nearly 480. We think [all of the projects are] pretty terrific and so I’m not evaluating them. We think their work has value. What I am doing, however, is starting with their goals. The ‘they’ in the question, it’s not just the artist, but the artist and the partners and they might not have the exact same goals, but there’s almost always some very important partners without whom they couldn’t do the work. That’s partly why it’s social practice is usually there’s something you need from some other sector.

Photo courtesy of Melanie Crean from the “No Such Place as America” project with Patricia Kelly.

The last artist I watched work was Melanie Crean. She was working with Patricia Kelly, an African American woman who has a stable in a low-resource neighborhood of Hartford. She does therapy using the horses, often with people who have been traumatized. She also works with kids in the neighborhood who’ve often been traumatized and who’ve had very hard lives despite their young years. There’s a way of working with the horses that is very pleasurable, it’s a kind of relationship which asks nothing of you. You don’t explain yourself.

So Pat, in being willing to work with [artist] Melanie Crean, she wants to see what this artist is going to do that she can’t just do in the therapy. It’s important for me to understand what that is and it’s important for Melanie to understand what that is. And then Melanie has reasons why she wants there to be with this horse person who deals with therapy, combining that with whatever art project she’d want to make about police and school guards in Hartford and these African-American, mostly young men and challenging relationships.

There’s something [about Pat’s work] that Melanie felt added something — that combining this type of therapy with art could lead to results that she thought were better than what she had so far. It just makes the tool box bigger.

So, that’s a long way of saying that it’s important that I know what Pat wants out of it as well as I know what Melanie wants out of it. If I get to go enough, then as I get to know the regular participants it would be important to know: Why are they coming? What do they want?

Then, part of the assessment is saying: Okay, in relationship to what you want, here’s what I’m observing happening, and then what I’m hearing you say is happening, and then we can sit down and talk and consider if is what you hoped would happen here is happening. And then we hear if it is, and we look for what’s the evidence that it is. And if they say “not really”, then well, is something else happening? Or what’s your experience of what is happening? Is there value in it for you? Why are you continuing to do it? You try not to put words in people’s mouth.

So, it’s kind of a witnessing. It’s kind of an active witnessing where someone is giving you feedback. It’s dialogic as you go, and that to me is a lot of the value. There’s much to be said for dialogue in many contexts and I’d say that dialogue is a component of the way I do this process. That’s an important part of it.

SD: As you’re talking about assessment, what’s becoming clear to me is that you see it as something that strengthens the project throughout the entire project — not just something done at the end where you ask: Did it work or did it not work?

JCC: Exactly. It’s iterative. As you go, [you stop and say]: Oh, look where we are now. Okay, so therefore, what’s the next step?

I like very much when I’m working with an artist who wants to have those conversations with me. I think it’s using me well, but not that they all want to and that’s fine. They don’t all need that because it’s not their working method, and that’s fine. Or they don’t know me well enough or there’s not enough time or they have someone else they do that with, so it’s not always there, but it is always a process over time. It’s never just at the end. It’s not like a play [where] at the end and you can say, “Oh, the process was hell, but what a great play.” That wouldn’t hold up here because the process is as important as the project, as we all know with this kind of work.

SD: So when does assessment start when you’re working with the Socially Engaged Art Fellows at A Blade of Grass?

JCC: I have a conversation with them when they’re finalists so that they understand: I’ll be coming in. Are you okay with this? Is this a moment in the project where that’s gonna be okay? Because if not, and this is very hard because of course the artist really needs the money to do the project so they’re gonna be really tempted to say, “Oh yes, it’s fine”, and then sometimes it’s okay and sometimes it isn’t.

So then, they’re selected and they accept to do the project and they come for orientation. This year I had a conversation with two filmmakers [where] we all had this conversation together about: So what are you thinking now? Has the project changed at all since you wrote the proposal some months ago? Little by little, I’m absorbing what’s going on in this project, so I’m understanding what they’re doing. Then they have to tell me when they’re ready for me to come.

It really varies. I don’t have any problem about waiting until the artist is ready, just so long as they understand that at some point I need to be able to come in. So, it starts at different points.

SD: Yeah. But it sounds like even if it starts as a practice in different parts from the beginning, there’s a discussion about what the person’s goals are.

JCC: That’s right.

SD:And then that discussion broadens out as you meet the people that they’re working with to include the other stakeholders. What they think and why they’re there and that becomes a holistic approach which allows you to check in at various points and on various different levels because they may not all have the same goals.

JCC: Right. Honestly, most everyone I work with, all the different parties want the people who are meant to benefit to benefit. And they have their ideas about what will make them benefit and what won’t, but if they would only go to the art, that’s the thing. That’s where I think the lesson is again and again. Don’t talk about it so much, don’t argue about it. Go see what they’re doing. Then talk about it.

SD: And part of that is that all assessment takes place within context and that there are different contexts people are coming from. So in a way, your job is to figure out with them, what are their common and conflicting aims.

So do you see part of your job as doing that translating between different aims and different goals?

JCC: Yes, I do see part of my job as translating. Deborah [Fisher, Executive Director of A Blade of Grass] even had me take a week long conflict resolution course because sometimes I’m a conflict resolution person. So, I see the job of the person who’s doing what I do, as very fluid based on who the person is, what skill set they bring, and there are a number of skill sets that you bring and there are other things you have to learn.

SD: So really you see your practice as one of improving the person’s work. So part of what your job is, is not always assessment. It’s about conflict resolution, it’s about getting different parties in the room to listen to one another, it’s about translation. It’s kind of a different job than “assessor” or “evaluator” just because you define assessment differently.

JCC: That’s right. How can I, as a witness, contribute to them doing their job better? It’s almost like I sneak in under the fence under the title of “Evaluator” because every project is allowed to have an evaluator or is supposed to. [There’s a] word value in “Evaluator.” So, I actually use evaluation more than assessment because of the word value.

SD: At A Blade of Grass you also use the title “Field Researcher.” Why do you call it field research, and what are the presuppositions that come with not calling it “assessment,” but calling it “field research?”

JCC: Because the truth is A Blade of Grass wants to make more visible, more understood, and more appreciated socially engaged art. The way to do it, since it’s not all about the final product, is that someone’s got to be seeing what the artists are doing and tell the world, tell someone what’s going on.

SD: The witness.

JCC: That’s right, that’s right. That’s a form of research and it’s going out and observing them doing it and then having the conversation, so it’s literally field research. That’s what A Blade of Grass wants it to be, and it also fulfills whatever requirements like when there’s various grants that are helping pay for the fellowships, we can send things I write to people, we can send them to funders we’re trying to cultivate. So it’s helpful to have a record.

Pictured: Jan Cohen-Cruz

SD: You hinted at this before, but I want to follow up on the resistance you sometimes face from the artists you work with. One, what do you think the resistance is? And two, how do you move around that? Or maybe you just move to the side? I don’t know. But what do you do?

JCC: Yeah, yeah. There are a number of situations. One was a situation where the artist, she’s an African American woman who deals only with African American women and she sees the kind of art she does as very much therapeutic and it’s therapeutical by drawing on things from the cultural traditions. I was in fact the one who broached it with her. I said, “I feel like it might be awkward to have me sitting in the room as this white woman given the nature of your work.” I can’t participate because that would be inappropriate.

And she said, “Really? We’re allowed to talk about that?” I said, “Yes. We’re allowed to talk about that.” We agreed that we would get her an African American woman to evaluate and we did and it was a good thing. Sometimes I can participate and then that sort of breaks barriers and in some situations that’s been a way to deal with it, but sometimes I’m not the right person.

SD: So, sometimes it’s an issue of who is doing the evaluating?

JCC: Sometimes, but that’s not with everyone who’s from a different race, culture, nationality. In fact, it’s often a show of respect that someone white would want to follow the work of someone of color and that’s how I feel about it. I would have loved to watch that project but it wasn’t best for the artist or the project. [Sometimes], you have to find an insider. Sometimes that’s the way to deal with it.

SD: Sometimes it seems that artists I’ve worked with, or talked to, are afraid of evaluation because they don’t really want to know if things work or not. Or, they’re afraid. They’re afraid because they’ve spent an amazing time on something, they’re passionate about it, they’ve made claims in their minds, they’ve sometimes made claims on paper and they’re a little scared that actually what happens may not measure up.

JCC: Yeah, I’ve had that experience and I’ve had the experience where they were right, it doesn’t measure up. They’re really good talkers and I don’t know what they normally do in some cases, but this is like — the Emperor has no clothes. And sometimes I think that’s not the case. I think the case is that the work is absolutely lovely and even though they feel trepidation about it, I can reassure them they don’t need to.

A Blade of Grass Fellows, Mark [Strandquist]  and Courtney [Bowles], were doing this work involved with the courts and young people. So there they are, they’re working with an evaluator. The evaluator, they didn’t really feel she got what they were doing, she didn’t really make the time. It became clear by the interim report that she had almost nothing to say. I said, “Well, if this isn’t working, this is the moment. Let’s think what might work.” And they said, “What might work is if we had a lawyer writing about us. If we could find someone who knows the law who could explain to people in the system why they should consider letting artists be involved with these kids as an alternative to juvenile detention, that would be awesome.” [So], we found someone like that.

Usually the artists find someone, once they know it’s possible, and I interview [the new evaluator]. I talk with them. I make sure they understand what we need and I make sure that they understand they difference between doing it through art and doing it through law — not that I know a whole lot about law, but I make sure some of things we’re looking for as far as we want to understand why this is part of an art project. So I really like that as a possible model: Who is it who really could give you the feedback you need?

SD: Because in some cases it may be a lawyer, it may be a correctional officer, it may be an art historian.

JCC: That’s right, that’s right.

SD: Why should art have anything to do with social change? Couldn’t it just be pretty things on the wall and you know…

JCC: I guess it depends on what one’s definition of art is. It’s like once you experience this kind of range of what art can do, then you want it to do it.

SD: But what can art do?

JCC: So for example, for me, one of my early experiences that was on my 21st birthday, I was in New York City Street Theater Company and on my 21st birthday the director and I went to work at Trenton State Prison. We went to do a workshop, and I never knew that I had these stereotypes about people in prison because I didn’t know anyone in prison. And I’d come back from the workshop every day talking to Richard [the director] saying, “Weezie has the wildest imagination. I don’t think I saw an imagination like this and Gil’s way of analyzing situations …” And Richard would say to me, “Why are you so surprised?” And I’d think: this work that we’re doing together is illuminating these other dimensions of these people that not only I but many people carry all kinds of crazy ideas about — and they carry ideas about me. They were surprised by me when they saw a middle-class Jewish girl they went like, whoa. And it’s not like there weren’t some awful things, too. There were. That’s part of it.

One thing for me, is the way that [art allows us] to see each other three dimensionally. And I see this with a lot of the projects with A Blade of Grass.

It’s striking how often it’s from somebody in the arts. Their art teacher at school or they were in a play or it might be someone in sports, but it’s something that you’re good at and someone sees it. There are just sort of less rules around the arts usually when you’re growing up and so that makes it easier. I think there’s just so many situations where art is doing something. It’s playing a role often in a multi-sectoral initiative, not by itself for heaven sakes, but in a multi-sectoral situation and at a particular moment. There has to be a moment that allows us to see something.

SD: I think I understand that, and I agree, and yet — part of me still remains skeptical. Why should hardheaded activists and politicians and political people care about what a bunch of artists are doing with horses in Hartford? What’s the value?

JCC: Well, I’d say in that case, so many things have not worked in getting low resourced kids of color and police to understand each other because it’s a continual, perennial problem. So much hasn’t worked, so [why not] try something else? I’m not saying that’s the only thing to try but it was just uncanny. The kids know more about the horses than the adults, The police were given these tasks to try to get all the horses to go over this obstacle without touching the horse, and they didn’t have a clue how to do it. It was kind of mortifying for them to try and try and try and then the therapist said, “Okay”, to the kids, “Why don’t you do it now?” And they did it in 10 seconds. The police were just amazed.

So it gives you an experience together. It’s just very different to go through experiences with each other. I don’t think there are shortcuts. I don’t think there are shortcuts to these big awful things we live with. But experience isn’t enough because, as a friend loved to say, “Right experience, wrong conclusion.” So you also have to be able to then reflect and try to understand what you experienced.

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