Arts Programming

II. History of Arts Programming

Purposeful arts programming, which also has links to the currently named community arts movement, has its modern roots in the Settlement House movement of the late 1800s and early 1900s, according to Grady Hillman, one of the leading practitioners of the use of art as an intervention strategy. Settlement houses originated to serve immigrants with educational programming, social services, and the arts as part of the effort to acculturate residents and create upward mobility for them. Settlement houses are, not coincidentally, important also to the development of social work. It was a strategy to create and provide services to the general population with identified needs. Variations of this model of community intervention exist today in a range of environments, from neighborhood-based community organizations to a large federal Housing and Urban Development program called Creative Communities.

In the 1960s, the Arts in Education program greatly expanded the utilization of artists, with many schools around the United States hosting this program. This brought artists into the schools to work directly with youth and connected youth with art, culture, and the practitioners.

Later in that decade, the work and employment program Comprehensive Employment and Training Act was created, and many artists began working for that program. Hillman (in press) quoted a figure of $200 million that was invested in hiring artists through that program. This work program was also used by schools to bring arts into the building.

Through the Arts in Education program and the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act, the expertise and the knowledge base for the use of arts as a model that can positively impact the life of youth began to develop. Interest in ways to expand this programming into other institutions was generated. The next step occurred when this programming began to be used in other institutions, in particular juvenile detention facilities and adult prisons. Again referring to Hillman’s perspective, this drift toward those settings occurred intuitively, that is, without it being developed as a result of research or hard data. There was an underlying assumption that the process of viewing or creating art was inherently therapeutic or personally helpful. Identification of this assumption and how it impacted the prognosis of an individual in a positive manner was intuitively described and not clearly defined, at least from a research perspective. It was during this time that art intervention programs began receiving national (U.S.) recognition. One program, StreetSmART, was named a national model.

Up until this point, most of the reported positive aspects of arts programming were anecdotal. There had been little systematic evaluation or research of which these authors were aware. In general, the evaluations that had been conducted had methodological problems and were not very robust. There were many unaccounted-for variables that could skew the results. The studies, however, did tend to support the notion that there were indeed positive outcomes. This naturally led to an interest in developing more systematic evaluations of arts intervention programming.

Two projects in the 1990s attempted to address this issue and are particularly noteworthy. Neither can be said to provide definitive evidence supporting the value of the programming, but they represent important historical steps in furthering the research and practice of arts intervention programming. Both are still widely referenced in current work.

The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention in the U.S. Department of Justice funded, in partnership with the National Endowment for the Arts, a pilot diversion project (for first-time offenders) and incarcerated youth. The YouthARTS project, evaluated by Clawson and Coolbaugh (2001), was a three-site program established as a demonstration project. This program was meant to serve as a formal evaluative process of what had been emerging independently and in piecemeal fashion throughout the country. It was designed to shed light on the question as to whether arts programming worked as intended.

At each of these sites, a cohort of youth was followed for a period of months, and assessments were conducted to evaluate the impact of the programming on the youth. Because of a number of problems, the evaluations were promising but inconclusive, a situation that frequently occurs when evaluating juvenile justice programs. The premise was that engaging youth in arts programming would result in their learning better ways to manage themselves and their lives. The youth generally lived in at-risk neighborhoods, which in these days current models describe as communities with limited social capital or community assets.

Many issues disrupted the quality of the data and the efficacy of the research. These included participant retention (high loss of participants), fidelity of implementation, quality of data collection, and similar issues. However, a pattern emerged that did indicate there was some promise to these programs. This was in line with previous evaluations that showed arts intervention as a promising practice.

The second noteworthy research project was a set of studies conducted by the RAND Corporation. These studies attempted to identify and codify characteristics and best practices of programs across the country and, more locally, in Los Angeles. These studies helped create the foundation for future research. They were systematic in their data collection and analysis and had a large enough sample size to have greater assurance in their findings, and they represented the most robust research concerning arts programming.

One of the RAND studies differentiated programs identified as developing “prosocial” behaviors from those that did not have that outcome. From this the researchers developed a set of best practices—or, more accurately, common practices—used by the programs associated with the positive prosocial outcomes. Some of these are described later in this research paper.

One of the most robust, long-term study of arts programs is commonly called the McGill study, because it was conducted by faculty from McGill University. Robin Wright and colleagues (Wright, Lindsay, Allaggia, & Sheel, 2006) conducted a 3-year quasi-experimental study across five sites in Canada to ascertain the impact on the psychosocial functioning of the participating youth. Comparison with a matched sample from the Canadian National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth showed significant positive changes in some mental health measures, such as depression. Significant improvements were reported in social skills, communication, cooperation, teamwork, and conflict resolution. The data were inconclusive in regard to behavioral changes.

The RAND studies and Clawson and Coolbaugh’s (2001) study foretold the interest in the impact of arts programming on juveniles and on criminal offenders. The McGill study was the one of the stronger examinations of the impact of the arts. Studies on the use of arts as an intervention, though still not conclusive, are now less inconclusive, and they show promising outcomes. These results are described later in this research paper, after some background about the philosophy and theoretical foundation of arts programming as an intervention program is discussed.

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