Engagement Uber Alles?

To date I’ve avoided a direct answer to the unspoken question some of you may have about all of this. Even if engagement is important for some arts organizations, do I really think it is essential for all? After my Quality and Community posts (Quality and Community; Quality and Community-2), it’s probably time to face this. And, to save myself some time, I will, once again, quote myself (from Building Communities, Not Audiences).

Colleagues whom I deeply respect challenge me as to whether I believe all arts organizations should adopt community engagement as central to their mission, whether excellence is not enough of itself. I am a product of the established arts infrastructure, so it has taken me a long time to sort through what I think about this question. I now believe that, in the abstract, excellence alone may be sufficient justification for the existence of an arts organization. But there are important questions that organizations citing excellence as their raison d’etre should answer, and, to my mind, there are few that, as a result of those answers, can reasonably eschew a heavy emphasis on community engagement. . . . These are both practical and values-based questions to be considered by arts organizations with a mission focused exclusively or primarily on excellence, organizations that do not choose community engagement as a significant part of their mission.

  • Is the cultural expression at which you excel one that is sustainable for the foreseeable future? Excellence in the performance of Gesualdo’s music or John Heywood’s plays does not undergird entire industries today. How long will it be before your work is considered historic reenactment rather than living art?
  • Can the expense of your excellence be covered through fundraising if you are not widely seen as a community resource interested in and touching the lives of all?
  • Given demographic trends in this country, for how long will the resources (human and financial) required to support this culturally-specific work be socially and politically acceptable?
  • And even if the art is sustainable, is your level of excellence so unique that it is justifies focus on that excellence without significant attention being paid to community involvement?
  • Why are you resisting community engagement? Is it really a concern about losing focus on excellence or is it about attachments to a familiar medium,  genre, or cultural heritage? Varieties of perspective and cultural influence have always been beneficial to the development of the arts. Community engagement is a direct path to that variety. It is arguably the road to on-going excellence.

In general, then, it would appear that community engagement is an essential core value that should be central to the mission of almost all arts organizations. At the same time, some few orchids of culturally-specific excellence not substantively engaged with their communities may continue; they should be cherished as long as they can be viable. However, they should choose their course with eyes wide open.

So, while there is a piece of me that yearns to be able to say yes, excellence alone is sufficient, there is a significant practical argument to be made that for the health of the industry, those who could/should focus on excellence alone (and by that I mean largely ignoring community engagement) are extremely rare birds.


Here’s a good example of what I am talking about: engagement as a pervasive mindset. The Phillips Collection in Washington, DC has a deep awareness of those who come to its building as people. The video Just Take the Stairs simply encourages visitors to the Collection to make a healthy choice when they come. Dorothy Kosinski, Director of the Collection said of the program  “For me, the future of museums has a lot to do with supporting an overall sense of well-being for our visitors and community.” There’s nothing in the program or in the video that’s directly about the art. The initiative does demonstrate a significant awareness that those who come to 1600 21st Street, N.W. are human beings.  (Thanks to the Future of Museums blog for highlighting this.) 



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