One Way

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.



Picture: AttributionNoncommercialNo Derivative Works Some rights reserved by Brandon Doran

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  1. Leonard Jacobs says

    Mr. Borwick,

    Count me among those with whom you may also feel frustrated. For not only do I feel Kaiser’s piece was spot-on, I also fear, with all due respect, that you read it improperly. At its core, Kaiser is warning the sector against the mind-slackening, deleterious effects of buzzword-ism, and he chose “audience engagement” to focus on because far too many people have latched onto it as a magical panacea for all that ails the sector. Rightly, in my view, he rhetorically wonders just what the nonprofit arts world has been doing for the last four, five, six decades if not engaging audiences. I feel it’s a fair question to ask.

    But what disturbs me—again, with all due respect—is your eagerness to castigate Kaiser for equating “influence, educate, inspire, and entertain” as “unidirectional words” and “one-way transactions.” Unless my reading of the dictionary is so poor as to make a cat laugh, is it not a fact that “influence” requires someone or something to be doing the influencing and someone or something to be influenced? Similarly, may one “educate” without someone or something being educated? May one “inspire” with no one, or nothing, to be inspired? I’ll grant it’s possible to entertain oneself, but that, to use your word, is a nitpick.

    You also castigate Kaiser’s use of those words for possessing “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.” This is a fine point and an important one. At the same time, if “audience engagement” should never at least partly involve one or more than one of those experiences—influence, education, inspiration and entertainment—that sounds pretty boring to me, particularly if I’m not predisposed toward art in the first place.

    My point is not to engage, if you will, in a line by line fisking of your post. Rather, I’m asking what we gain, as a sector, when we engage (there’s that word again) in an attempt to monopolize definitions. In the 21st century, why shouldn’t “audience engagement” be what we each make of it? Isn’t that, in a way, your whole gestalt?

    Respectfully, Leonard Jacobs

    • says

      I think the main concern here, Leonard, is the fact that Kaiser’s statements only speaks from the view point of the organization engaging the audience. The audience may have a part in feeling engaged with, but perhaps these statements does not go far enough to speak of the possibilities of individual audience members engaging the organization. It still lacks the formula of the two-way engagement that may be necessary for healthier arts organizations. Yes, it may be semantics and interpretation. At least it is stirring up healthy conversation!

    • says

      First of all, I had no intent to “castigate” anybody. If it came across that way, I am sorry. And I will confess to being a bit zealous with respect to the word engage not because I think I hold “truth” about it but because I don’t want the field to lose sight of what I believe to be an under-utilized aspect of it: the *mutuality* of engagement. Yes, there are other meanings of the word. My approach to blogging does sometimes mean I can’t cover all the nuances of which I am aware. I simply don’t want the buzz around engagement to land solely on the traditional “audience engagement” of the past. To your point at the end of first paragraph, I guess my view is that the audience engagement we have attempted historically could have had better results if it had included the kind of broader community or individual engagement for which I advocate.
      In that regard, I will stand by my “one way” view of the words influence, educate, inspire, and entertain. They are certainly good things to do, but think of it this way: all of those words imply that one party will influence, educate, inspire, or entertain another. There is nothing inherent in that construct that leads to dialogue or discovery between the parties. Certainly they *can,” but there is not a history of that being true.

  2. says

    Bravo! Engaging does not necessarily mean getting your audience involved on a two-way level. I have been thinking a great deal about this subject. There is nothing more important than building relationships with your individual audience members, and this can get lost in these mass engagement efforts. We could stand to start asking ourselves: Do these efforts really benefit the audience members? Are they substantial enough programs to matter to individual people?

    We are now in an age of transparency. The audiences will know whether or not your efforts are for you or for them. It would be better to start thinking in terms of how we can truly benefit our audience and find out what they individually want and need to the best of our abilities.

    The main point here is that we continue to work our programs and efforts from an organizational view point. Efforts are undertaken to benefit the organization and the organization *thinks* they know what their audiences *might* enjoy. Until we start working with our audiences, as people, we are still missing out on true relationship building.

    Engaging on a mass level with organizational consideration only saves time, but these mass efforts may not be getting your audience members more involved as individuals, which for audience development is the main reward.

  3. says

    Hi Doug –

    I just posted a response on to Michael Kaiser’s piece that I think will be of interest to you:

    “Last week, Michael Kaiser wrote in The Huffington Post on Engaging Audiences. He suggested that the field’s recent focus on this topic was ironic, as it’s a well established part of arts organizations’ missions. Presuming the emphasis derives from loss of audiences, Michael asked why this is happening, urged a focus on older audiences as well as younger, and noted the importance of tailoring strategies to “audience types.”

    It seems to me that Michael is right about one thing: what he calls “audience engagement” is undergoing a “resurgence” in the arts. But I don’t think what we’re seeing now is just a fashionable reinvention of an old concept. The old concept is embedded in Michael’s language of “target groups” and “audience segments” who are “visiting the arts.” This approach has the rapid monetizing of previous non-attenders as its bottom line.

    By contrast, what I’m seeing through my work at EmcArts with organizations across the country is the emergence of largely new, and substantially innovative, approaches to how people participate in arts experiences, with arts professionals serving as mediators of those experiences. Indeed, those at the forefront of this movement no longer use worn phrases like “audience engagement.” Instead, they describe the pursuit of broader reciprocal relationships with community members – expressive relationships created through, and embodied in, art.”

    Here’s the full piece:

    Thoughts? Comments?

    Richard Evans

    • says

      Richard, I had seen your post this morning but had not had chance to respond yet. I agree with you that we are expanding our understanding of engagement past the old “audience engagement” cul de sac. I’ll say again, that I have a tendency to over-emphasize deep relationship building as the “meaning” of engagement. I’m aware that’s not the only meaning. I just want us to remember that there’s a lot of historically untapped substance in the deeper meaning that holds much promise for the arts. (That’s a gentler construction than “Ignore this at your peril.”) I saw that Trevor O’Donnell entered the fray ( with an interesting acknowledgement of at least two meanings of engagement: sales-oriented and “outreach.” That’s a good start, but I think there are more nuances to be addressed. In particular, I cringe at the word outreach. It has such a missionary connotation. “I hold the Truth and am going to seek you out to show it to you.” Perhaps that’s an over-reaction, but there it is.