Many thanks to Jeff Rowlings at Shape Arts for sharing their results and insight for this case study.
This year, Shape’s annual exhibition, Shape Open, went digital. Titled, The Future is Loading, this online exhibition featured the work of disabled and non-disabled artists. Each year the show tends to work with socially engaged artists and this year the event addressed the mood of change and radicalisation resulting from the unfolding pandemic and Black Lives Matters protests.
When Shape first approached artists about an online exhibition, there was a positive response. Though it may traditionally be viewed as a second-class presentation method, online is more accessible to a wider variety of audiences. Shape was already moving towards broadcasting more of their work digitally, so this was the perfect opportunity to experiment.
The organisation took the opportunity to use the Template for Evaluating Online Work, readily available in their account, choosing to largely keep the included questions but removing a couple to ensure that the survey was succinct and specific to their audience. To distribute surveys to the public, they placed the survey link at the end of the exhibition web pages and also shared the links via Twitter.
The 26 artists who participated in the show were invited to take on the role of self–assessors for the evaluation. Aiming to make the process as clear as possible, Shape asked the artists to look out for the survey and took care to explain that the surveys and scores would only be used for learning and development purposes. They didn’t receive responses from every self–assessor; this prompted reflections that artists who are more accustomed to completing surveys, those who may work in the cultural sector or are familiar with funding structures, are more likely to respond to surveys.
The team felt that ‘Relevance’ was the most important dimension for this project, and it was the dimension that received the highest level of agreement from members of the public. As socially engaged practice is at the heart of Shape’s work supporting disabled creatives, relevance is integral to the organisation’s mission. By deliberately combining the work of disabled and non-disabled artists, the team aimed to bring both groups onto a single playing field– and creating a level field of audience expectation.
There was the greatest alignment on the dimensions for ‘Captivation’ and ‘Challenge’. ‘Challenge’ (It was thought-provoking) is also a dimension that aligns with their organisational aims around challenging perceptions of disability, as there are unfortunately generally low expectations around the work of disabled artists.
The dimension for which the public and self–assessors were least aligned was ‘Rigour’. For this event, Shape was less concerned with the ‘Rigour’ dimension, as it was put together in a short amount of time, and they acknowledged that a number of works in the exhibition were not originally intended to be presented digitally. Jeff explained, ‘If we had waited for it to be perfect, we would have missed the moment.’
For the next digital exhibition they are planning over the coming months, the work in it will be made for a more technically advanced presentation. The team behind the exhibition expect that ‘Rigour’ and ‘Captivation’ will be of greater importance in this evaluation. There was a positive response from the public about wanting to experience work digitally again, even after lockdown, so it looks as though the digital presentation of work may be here to stay.
In terms of challenges faced in the evaluation process, Shape struggled to gather peer feedback. Many peers were contacted; however, very few replied. We would urge peers to, at the very least, respond to requests to peer review. Nevertheless, next time, they will aim to leave more time to target peers. Another challenge around collecting feedback on an online and free exhibition, is that it is difficult to know if survey respondents even saw the entire exhibition. There is a dropdown question within the Template, “How long did you engage with this work for?” but in this instance Shape opted to remove it. When surveying free, multi-faceted online work, it is worth considering including a question like this which captures what your audience specifically engaged with.
To other organisations creating Toolkit evaluations, Shape recommends and emphasises the value of including a simple accessibility question: “Was the experience accessible to you?” You might also include a follow-up question, “Why?” Shape always includes this in their surveys because it gives them the opportunity to learn about ways in which they can improve accessibility, and therefore engagement.
All in all, the experience of shifting their annual exhibition online meant that, as an organisation, they were able to work with artists they hadn’t been able to work with otherwise. A positive learning experience, it taught them they are capable of working in other ways, making new partners outside of the traditional and consider ways in which their creative intentions were realised.
Image: Collage with text, a collage of artworks. Text in the centre reads, ‘The Future is Loading.’ The images in the collage, an array of thumbnail squares featuring diverse artworks and people in contrasting styles, are all taken from The Future is Loading exhibition, which you can view and find image descriptions for here: https://bit.ly/2SgWiUs