By: Mark Brewin
Can art change your life?
How can art change your life?
Most of us know the answer to the first question is supposed to be “yes.” As for the answer to the second, well, it’s complicated. A truly memorable artistic experience is so subjective, so unique, that it is often hard to describe or to explain.
This might not seem like a problem, except that artists, and those hoping to promote the cause of the arts in the modern world, are increasingly finding it necessary to make a case for the relevance of what they do. That, in turn, often translates into a demand that art’s effects on us be clearly spelled out and carefully measured.
It is something that my colleague Jeff Van Hanken found out about six years ago.
An independent filmmaker and the Wellspring Associate Professor of Film Studies at The University of Tulsa, Van Hanken had the idea of using a visual art project to help ease the divide, both physical and cultural, that exists between Tulsa’s north side and its downtown neighborhoods. Van Hanken proposed using video technology to transform an underpass below Interstate Highway 244, which currently cuts through the middle of the city, separating North Tulsa from the rapidly developing Greenwood business area and nearby Arts District. Van Hanken’s way of describing this now is that he wanted “to make the  bridge disappear.”
The nonprofit arts group that was thinking of funding Van Hanken’s proposal was enthusiastic about the project itself: out of 1,300 proposals submitted to the group that year, his was one of a very small group of finalists. Eventually, however, he was told there was not enough information in the project proposal about its impact on the surrounding community. In other words, it wasn’t that an impact was not expected — the whole point of the project, essentially, was to change the community dynamic within the city’s public spaces — but that there was not a clear way to measure that impact.
Disappointed by the final decision not to fund the proposal, Van Hanken nevertheless found himself intrigued by the new language that was being used to think about art. “I knew that there was a movement toward being able to demonstrate the impact of a project on a specific indicator, and I could just feel that was growing.” He decided that he needed to know more about this.
CHAMP and the Greenwood Art Project
It was out of this experience that CHAMP — the Center for Health, Arts, and Measurement Practices — was born. A research effort currently based at TU and co-directed by Van Hanken and myself, CHAMP brings together scholars, artists and arts administrators from across the country to explore how to make a rigorous and persuasive case to an often skeptical public that art still matters. Participants also develop and implement methodologies that can be enlisted in that cause.
CHAMP’s current work, conducted under the auspices of Bloomberg Philanthropies and London-based BOP Consulting, centers on the evaluation of the Greenwood Art Project (GAP). Part of a community-wide effort to commemorate the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, GAP is led by Rick Lowe, a Houston-based artist and MacArthur Award recipient. It will involve more than 20 projects spaced out over the course of the year. Taken together, these various exhibits both look back to the tragic events of 1921 but also look forward to the future of Greenwood and Tulsa’s Black community.
Currently, CHAMP’s evaluation effort consists of four components:
- A content analysis of local media coverage of GAP and the neighborhood
- Interviews with local businesspeople
- Qualitative and quantitative surveys of Tulsa residents
- Periodic observations of how Tulsans use their public and cultural spaces.
Stasha Cole (BA ’21), a joint English and Russian Studies major who is also part of the Kendall College of Arts and Sciences’ Honors Program, has been part of the evaluation team since late spring of last year. Cole is a native Tulsan but says she almost never heard about the Massacre growing up. While attending Booker T. Washington High School, which sits near the site of the Massacre and actually served as a refuge for some of residents during the rampage, she remembers “a single day, in my freshman year,” when the event was discussed.
Besides learning more about what happened on that fateful late-spring evening in 1921, Cole thinks her work on the project has also made her more attuned to the coverage of people of color in the modern media. “I’m starting to notice bias in media portrayals in everyday life,” she remarked. It is this sort of bias that the GAP project could begin to address.
The 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre centennial is an important moment in the history of Tulsa — an opportunity for the city to come to terms, in an honest way, with its difficult racial past. At CHAMP, we believe GAP could be a key element in making that shift happen. This is why CHAMP’s involvement in the evaluation is so exciting for both the students and faculty involved: there is a real opportunity here to make the case for art’s potentially transformative role in our lives.
Chapman Associate Professor of Media Studies Mark Brewin is co-director of the Center for Health, Arts, and Measurement Practices (CHAMP). He is fascinated by the intersection of postmodern or late-modern culture, politics and media technologies, as well as the role of the body as medium for political and public communication. Brewin can often be found in the summers at ONEOK Field, conducting informal participant research into the role of minor league baseball and soccer as conduits for civic identity.