I barely know where (or how) to begin.
In a recent article in the Huffington Post, Michael Kaiser writes about engagement. (Engaging Audiences) So far so good, although see below regarding the title of the article.
He also ends the article with the following: “[T]his effort will not be sustained if there isn’t real commitment to on-going implementation of the engagement strategy. Audience engagement cannot be the flavor of the week; it must be a core element of long-term strategic effort to accomplish our missions.” Excellent. And true.
It’s the stuff in between that gives me pause. Mr. Kaiser begins by saying that “. . . for decades, the mission statements of most not-for-profit arts organizations include explicit mention of the desire to influence, educate, inspire or entertain specific audiences — in other words, to engage them.” [Emphasis mine] And here is where I begin to hit my head on my desk. Influence, educate, inspire, and entertain are unidirectional words. They are one-way transactions. (Granted education should be two-way, but . . . .) At best, they align perfectly with the notion that the arts are observational rather than participatory activities. They place the arts at the center with all (and everyone) else revolving around them. Of greater concern to me, though, is that they do nothing to nudge the arts in the direction of identifying the needs and interests of those who are not predisposed to be interested in their work. From a simply pragmatic view focused on expanding reach, they are not helpful; they require those outside to come to us. In either case, they do not define or even encourage engagement.
This is particularly highlighted in the article’s title. An audience is a collection of individuals, but its primary meaning in the arts is a collection of patrons or ticket buyers rather than people. That may seem a nitpick, but it’s indicative of how some (unconsciously) see “the audience.” I would be happier (and the results would be far more successful) if this were framed as engaging individuals. That would imply (at least to my mind) a two-way process of discovery. And I would be happier still if it were framed as engaging communities. (Surprise, surprise!) “Communities” includes people not already part of our world in a way that “audiences” doesn’t. This is a vital issue for the future of the arts. As I say elsewhere (yep, it’s in Building Communities, Not Audiences–inching it’s way to availability, ca. June 1):
Perhaps the most critical transformation necessary is a re-imagining of the arts world’s understanding of and relationship with the community in which it exists. Our communities should not be seen as a collection of market segments to be tapped in an effort to sell tickets or extend “reach.” Communities are not resources to be exploited in the interest of furthering the health of the organization or even the arts as a sector. It is from community that the arts developed and it is in serving communities that the arts will thrive.
I have said before and will do so again that while I am gratified by all the discussion of “engagement” that is going on in the arts world today, I am deeply concerned about cheapening (or limiting) its meaning. Engagement can be a powerful tool for healing communities and for (re)vitalizing arts organizations. However, it is a complex, time-consuming process that requires deep commitment and significant re-thinking to be an effective strategy for the arts.