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Documentary Film in Program Evaluation

Over the last three and a half years, I have had the privilege of working with Arts Midwest, a U.S. Regional Arts Organization located in Minneapolis, on a program called Caravanserai: A Place Where Cultures Meet. With support from the Building Bridges Program of the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Arts Midwest launched Caravanserai in 2011 as an initiative to “create new pathways for Americans to experience the diversity of contemporary Muslim cultures” through artist residencies, showcase performances/presentations, and community engagements.

At the onset of Caravanserai, Arts Midwest approached WolfBrown with a desire to evaluate the impacts of this initiative. With respect to audience and community outcomes, our objectives were to measure expanded knowledge, understanding, and curiosity about Muslim cultures and to detect positive attitude changes toward Muslim societies. Through various quantitative surveys and panel methodologies we were able to observe a growth in several key indicators (e.g., knowledge and curiosity) as well as detect feelings of empathy for and connection to the artists. Ultimately, the data supported and affirmed our early research questions.

After two years of evaluation under our belts, we realized that a substantial component of the overall Caravanserai story was going largely untold. Following some initial brainstorming, we decided to move forward with a documentary film approach to bridge the gap. The new evaluation method would capture the personal impacts of Caravanserai‘s residencies on three pre-recruited individuals at one location in order to assess transformational outcomes in qualitative terms and to tell the story of the residencies in a more compelling format. Our first experiment with this new method took place in Lawrence, Kansas, at the Lied Center. A local filmmaker was hired to help lead and guide the overall vision and style of the documentary, while WolfBrown and Art Midwest helped to shape the overall objective and evaluative nature of the film.

The result is a 22-minute film that shows the journey of Caravanserai through the eyes of audiences and community members — and in a much more dynamic and animated format than we could have presented with only quantitative data.

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