Four questions to guide arts-based knowledge translation

By Tiina Kukkonen and Amanda Cooper

Tiina Kukkonen (biography)

Arts-based knowledge translation refers to the process of using artistic approaches to communicate research findings to target audiences. Arts-based knowledge translation continues to grow in popularity among researchers and knowledge mobilisers, particularly in the health sector, because of its capacity to reach and engage diverse audiences through the arts. But how might researchers, with or without experience in the arts, actually go about planning and implementing arts-based knowledge translation?

Amanda Cooper (biography)

We propose an arts-based knowledge translation planning framework, which encourages researchers to think through four non-linear “steps”, each with its own key question.

Step 1: Identifying Goals and Target Audiences
Key Question: What are the goals of your arts-based knowledge translation efforts and how are they best tailored for each target audience you hope to influence?

Drawing on the work of Cooper (2014), as well as examples from the arts-based knowledge translation literature, we have identified the following arts-based knowledge translation brokering goals that researchers might consider in relation to their target audiences:

  • Increase awareness of the empirical evidence or developments on a topic
  • Create spaces for debate and dialogue around pressing societal issues
  • Increase accessibility to research through the arts, for instance, in cases where language, literacy, or cultural barriers exist
  • Increase engagement with research content (eg., the arts can stimulate the senses and tap into emotions)
  • Facilitate capacity-building, such as professional learning and skill development, around a particular topic (eg., understanding patient healthcare experiences and best practices)
  • Support advocacy around specific issues of concern to influence policy priorities and change
  • Facilitate partnerships and co-production of knowledge among diverse stakeholders, for example, by offering different modes of expression and representation.

Step 2: Choose Art Genres, Mediums, and Methods for Examining Impact
Key question: What art genre and medium are appropriate for your topic, goal, and target audience?

At this stage, researchers need to decide what art genres best fit with their specific context. Selection of art genre and methods for gathering impact data should again take into consideration the target audience and brokering goals.

Example: Colantonio and colleagues (2008) aimed to facilitate professional learning and awareness around the experiences of traumatic brain injury survivors, so they staged a professional-quality play, based on data gathered through focus group discussions with key stakeholders (eg., survivors, their families, healthcare providers), to audiences of healthcare professionals. To assess the impact of their production, they conducted post-performance surveys with 283 audience members.

In this case, the researchers had the specific goal of educating groups of professionals, therefore the choice of theatre was appropriate to convey specific messages, while also tapping into the emotional lived experiences of brain injury survivors. Surveys were the most efficient approach to gathering impact data from large audiences with limited free time.

Other researchers may find that visual arts, music, dance, creative writing, or multi-media genres are better suited for their brokering goals, and may choose other means of gathering impact data, such as in-person discussions, online platforms, or other written formats (eg., comment cards that audiences can fill out).

Step 3: Building Partnerships with Artists and Communities
Key question: Who might be interested in partnering with you from the arts communities?

Consistent with the standards in arts-based research, we agree that arts-based knowledge translation should include competent artists and/or curator intermediaries to ensure the quality and integrity of the artwork(s) being produced. In some cases, researchers may be practicing artists and possess the artistic skills required to carry out the project, but may still need the help of other artists and specialists to further guide the direction of the piece.

Step 4: Tracing Dissemination and Impact of Arts-Based Knowledge Translation
Key question: What methods and impact indicators might inform your arts-based knowledge translation efforts in relation to your goals?

In other kinds of research, impact may be assessed by looking at how research knowledge is put into practice and monitoring observable change. This type of impact is not as common in the arts, creating problems for anyone wishing to assess the impact of arts-based knowledge translation. Therefore, we propose expanding the meaning of “impact” to include more than observable actions and policy changes, such as shifts in perspective that are foundational to social change.

As mentioned earlier, methods for gathering impact data should relate to the original goals and the art genre. As impact data is gathered, researchers can look for specific indicators or signs to ascertain the scope and depth of the impact. While we provide potential metrics and indicators for impact assessment (adapted from Barwick (2011)) in arts-based knowledge translation, we still urge researchers not to think of impact in terms of metrics alone, but rather to see the value of arts-based knowledge translation as a process of knowledge co-production among researchers, participants, artists, and audiences.

That said, impact indicators might include:

  • Reach indicators that measure how many people the arts-based knowledge translation initiative has reached, such as Google analytics data that tells how many visitors a website has had.
  • Partnership and collaboration indicators that measure processes of co-production and dissemination, such as the number of products/performances disseminated with various partners.
  • Usefulness indicators that measure whether a target audience found the arts-based knowledge translation initiative useful, such as increased knowledge or changed perceptions.
  • Practice, program or service changes that show a commitment to change, which can be identified through, say, the number and consistency of observed changes.
  • Policy and advocacy indicators that measure the influence and change in policy debate, formation, and implementation, such as social media coverage and citations.

What next?

More empirical research and dialogue are needed to better understand how the four steps might function in practice and how/if arts-based knowledge translation is actually having sustainable impact on behaviour and policy. We have provided an initial tool to help researchers think through the arts-based knowledge translation process, so now we look forward to seeing how it may be used and developed further. How might this framework be useful in your context? What problems might you (or others) face in implementation? Other thoughts and/or insights?

To find out more:
Kukkonen, T. and Cooper, A. (2017). An arts-based knowledge translation (ABKT) planning framework for researchers. Evidence and Policy. Online (DOI):  10.1332/174426417X15006249072134

Thanks to Evidence and Policy for making this paper free to access until 16 February, 2018.

To see all blog posts from the partnership with the journal Evidence and Policy:

Barwick, M. (2008, 2013). Knowledge translation planning template. Hospital for Sick Children, Toronto, Ontario: Canada. Online: Retrieved from

Colantonio, A., Kontos, P. C., Gilbert, J. E., Rossiter, K., Gray, J. and Keightley, M. L. (2008). After the crash: Research-based theatre for knowledge transfer. Journal of Continuing Education in the Health Professions, 28, 3: 180–185.

Cooper, A. (2014). Knowledge mobilisation in education across Canada: A cross-case analysis of 44 research brokering organizations. Evidence and Policy, 10, 1: 29–59.

Biography: Tiina Kukkonen is an artist, arts educator, and PhD student in the Faculty of Education at Queen’s University in Canada. Her research interests include rural and remote arts education, cross-sector partnerships and knowledge mobilization in arts education, and arts-based research methods. As a visual arts teacher, Tiina has taught in various community and school environments in Ontario and Quebec. Her work as an artist stems from her love of northern nature, craft, and design.

Biography: Amanda Cooper PhD is Assistant Professor in Educational Policy and Leadership at Queen’s University in Canada and the founder of RIPPLE (Research Informing Policy, Practice and Leadership in Education): a program of research, training and knowledge mobilization aimed at learning more about how knowledge brokering can increase research use and its impact in education by facilitating collaboration between multi-stakeholder networks.

17 thoughts on “Four questions to guide arts-based knowledge translation”

  1. Thanks for sharing that framework, Tiina and Amanda! I think this a great opportunity to reach and engage with various audiences in a new (and moving) way. As we need more and more to question and rethink how we showcase research and science, options like ABKT, science slams, etc. offer novel ways to have a meaningful connection with the general public – and to make people care about our message.

    • Thank you for your comments, Genevieve! Yes, the arts have always been a powerful medium for affective engagement with social issues. The more approaches we have to KT, the better!

  2. Fascinating piece and comments as well! Thank you for sharing. I wonder if you have thought about the idea that frequently several types of artistic expression might be useful simultaneously to reach people with different interests/talents?

    • Thank you! And yes, there are definitely examples of ABKT that incorporate many forms of art, particularly in the case of multi-media art exhibits that use photo, written word, audio, and artefacts all at once. A book may also contain illustrations as well as writing to convey messages to different audiences. However, I would argue against the notion that “more is better”. It really depends on what you are trying to achieve. Researchers who are new to ABKT and the arts might find it daunting to incorporate too much at once. Also, the more art forms you use, the more partnerships you may need to form to ensure the artistic integrity of the pieces. This is not necessarily a bad thing, just something to consider. Past multi-media exhibits in ABKT have incorporated the knowledge and expertise of many professionals, which certainly contributed to their wide success with audiences.

  3. Tinna, you make a valid point in your last comment cautioning the desire to instrumentalize the arts. I wonder if you have experienced this challenge in your work, specifically the tenuous relationship between artists and scientists that stems from the assumption that artists are illustrators recruited to aestheticize research findings. Is there an agreed upon social contract that parties enter into before they begin? Would you consider this collaboration interdisciplinary or does it more often fall along transactional (multidisciplinary) interactions? I also ask because you make a good distinction in your paper between arts research and ABKT, they serve different roles. Do you find that ABKT is more aimed at communicating research results, i.e. art that stays tightly coupled to the facts or more closely coupled to the ideas/principles? An example of this would be two American shows, “The Wire” and “Treme” that are fictional in that they do not serve as documentary but are authentic in the fidelity they display towards the demographic, ethnographic, and sociocultural dynamics of these communities. They go so far as to recruit actors from the communities to play major roles. I also raise these questions because your first step, “Identifying Goals and Target Audiences” is dynamic enough that I could see both scenarios unfolding – staying tightly coupled to the facts or using fictional stories that that animate the complexity of particular research. This post is primarily meant to open further discussion because I’m curious about roadblocks and insights you have experienced in your own work.

    • Thanks for your comments, Edgar. As an arts educator and education researcher, I have certainly come across the instrumentalist approach to using the arts, as you put it, particularly in the context of “arts integration” in schools. I can certainly see how researchers might have specific ideas about how their data should be interpreted or worked without considering the additional conceptual and artistic knowledge that artists bring to the table. Personally, I think this work should be interdisciplinary with equal emphasis on the arts and research. Artistic integrity is important within arts-based research and ABKT, which in my view involves giving artists a certain level of creative license over the project. However, in my discussions with researchers and practitioners at arts conferences, there were some who felt that ABKT offers artists another avenue to market their services, thus falling more so under the “transaction” model. I think your suggestion of a contract of sorts is worth thinking about to ensure that everyone is on the same page. Some artists may not mind taking on the role of illustrator, whereas others may want more creative control.

      To touch on your second point, I think a show can be considered ABKT if the content, fictional or not, is research-based and has some impact objective in mind. There is currently debate as to what the differences are between various communication strategies and knowledge translation– one main difference being that knowledge translation is focused on research evidence (see, for example, the work of Barwick et al. (2014) How loosely or tightly the artistic interpretation adheres to the evidence is another question. The arts offer rich opportunities to capture the essence or feeling of a phenomenon or experience, but that might be considered too “out there” for researchers who aim for clear communication of specific messages. This is perhaps why certain art forms, such as visual arts, have not been explored as much within ABKT as theatre or multimedia. Again, it depends on the goals of the ABKT initiative and the intended audience.

  4. I agree that changing perspectives should be a recognised indicator of impact. Without it, not much can really change significantly over time. You will probably be interested in the current work of Orchestral Conductor Paul MacAlindin, who it busy trying to help change perspectives and people’s quality of life in Govan, the ship-building district of Glasgow, Scotland. Here is a link to a recent post of his about it:!/2018/01/the-glasgow-barons-year-zero-long-read.html

    This phrase leaped out at me and is pertinent to the importance of perspective, I think:

    ‘Far more significant, however, was the sheer number of people who didn’t come out of their flats to participate in a completely free arts and craft event right on their doorstep. We saw adults and kids looking down on us from their living room windows.’


    • Thank you for sharing this inspiring initiative, Charles. It reminds me of “El Sistema,” the Venezuelan music program that has turned into a global phenomenon of community revitalization through orchestral music and the arts. Changing habits and public opinion is often a slow and arduous process, hence the need to involve community leaders and members in the planning and execution of arts-based KT endeavours, and community arts projects in general. The more you do it, the more likely it is that people will warm up to it. In the case of your example, it might be that people watched from their windows the first time, but even that shows a certain level of interest. Perhaps the next time they’ll dare to walk outside and observe, and then participate at the following event. These more nuanced changes in perspective are difficult to gauge and quantify, but are nonetheless important, as you say.

  5. Tiina: Your work is welcome, and brings us back to many art forms for social change, including popular theatre. The emphasis on planning and evaluation from the start is refreshing. Looking forward to hearing if and where you are able to test it further and adapt it to different contexts. Warm regards, @Ricardo1Ramirez

    • We appreciate your comments, Ricardo! It is an exciting time for ABKT. In addition to our own work, we hope to see how others will use it as well!

    • I agree, Melanie. Thank you. It’s exciting to see the expansion of theory and evidence in ABKT. The health sector has been leading the way thus far, so now I’m hoping to see an increase in use across sectors!

  6. I have long believed that it is the artists who take science to the public. Thank you very much for this piece. As a quick check on my belief, I did a search on this query ‘artists take science to public’ and discovered some really interesting resources.

    • Thank you, Jack. There is evidence within art history and beyond to suggest that arts and science have always been intertwined in some way. Consider, for example, the work of Leonardo Da Vinci. Now, the disciplinary silos that have traditionally held arts and science as separate in the public eye are increasingly breaking down with the focus on interdisciplinary work, such as science-based artist residencies, STEAM education, sustainable arts and design, art history courses for medical students, and arts-based KT, to name a few examples. I would caution, of course, not to view the arts only as a means to support learning in other subject areas, but rather appreciate the value and contribution of the arts equally.


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