Signs of Engagement

While I’m on a roll with posts dissecting the meaning and nature of engagement (Engagement Is, Audience Development “vs.” Community Engagement, Audience Engagement-Community Engagement), I’ve got some more issues to raise (or repeat). I have made much of the fact that substantive community engagement (as opposed to audience engagement) is extremely rare among established arts organizations. In an effort to stave off arguments about that, here are two questions to ask of any organization that considers itself to be practicing community engagement:

  • In what direct, tangible ways are the lives of specific people in your community outside of the arts world made better by your programming and other activities? [A key here is whether the beneficiary recognizes the benefit and its source.]
  • Are you actively involved in on-going, mutually beneficial partnerships with individuals and organizations that had to be convinced you were trustworthy and/or did not initially believe the arts to be truly important? In other words, individuals or organizations who/that were not “true believers” going in to the project(s). (It sometimes comes as a surprise to arts professionals that there are individuals and segments of our communities that, as a result of direct, negative interactions with the arts community, are not simply apathetic about the arts but are hostile to the arts establishment.)

Those questions are not definitive (or sole) indicators of community engagement, but they highlight the depth of and commitment to the work that is required. As I have said previously, I know that many arts organizations do not (currently) aspire to this kind of engagement. My calls for doing so are a separate subject. Here all I’m working on is clarifying the nature of the engagement for which I advocate.

Since my posts sharing Dr. Matelic’s charts on audience development and community engagement, I’ve begun trying to develop a similar side by side comparison of audience engagement and community engagement. Here is what I’ve got so far. Remember that this is a work in progress.

Audience Engagement Community Engagement
Art is the key commodity Relationships are the key commodity
Art is central Art serves the community
Art serves as entry point Relationships are the entry point. Art selection follows.
The goal is to expand reach The goal is to improve community, thereby building trust and loyalty. The result is expanded reach.
Art is repackaged to expand reach Art is repackaged, reconceived, or newly created–based on community needs/input–to improve community

This is clearly not finished and is certainly not definitive. But since I am trying to develop a way for us to discuss these issues–we do need to have common language (or at least common understanding of our different uses of language)–I wanted to get this in front of you early on to see how it can be improved and expanded.

I anticipate your (gentle) suggestions for improvement.



Share on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on RedditEmail this to someone


  1. michael rohd says

    Doug- we’re talking about the same things alot lately. Watch for my next Translations column at Howlround and a guest column at Pew about the growing needs for vocabulary that focuses on intention and outcome and relationships alongside conversations about excellence and virtuosity, with values being the link every which way we turn. Thanks for the post.

  2. says

    Doug: Thank you for continuing to shed light on a tension I have struggled with trying to describe and abolish for many years as an arts education / community arts projects administrator… and now as an artist and arts administrator working in audience engagement/participation/connectivity …with only minor success. I agree with you and Michael and all others who have stated it: the language we use is key. Is language so powerful though that agreeing upon and deploying a common vocabulary will result in using it accurately and authentically? Will shared, authentic language –> authentic programming?

    • says

      While language is important, it’s only a foundation. The real work is in what we build upon it. (And I know how tiring *that* thought is!)

  3. Sara says

    First, I just want to say that as someone who knows and admired Rachel, I take umbrage at her “minor success” characterization, those who know her in the DC area theater community think she’s a great success at this and continues to inspire and push all of us to engage.

    My three pointed questions on the right-hand side of the chart:

    1.What does it mean to “improve community” — tangibly speaking, how do I evaluate community quality and its improvement?

    2. What does it mean to “serve” a community?

    3. What is a “relationship”?

    I hope these don’t come off as snarky questions — really, I think the language is perfectly inspiring and nice, but I am not up on the literature of community building or whether there are best practices, case studies, shared evaluation metrics, etc. Transformation is just always so tough to talk about, and group transformation is so hard to achieve, and that’s even without throwing MFAs into the mix.

    Those are my thoughts, best of luck with the effort!

    • says

      Remember that the list and Q’s only address very introductory concepts, not practices. At the risk of oversimplifying something that is already an oversimplification, 1 & 2 are simply modes of thought. Until arts organizations at least consider community improvement and service as important functions, we can’t make serious moves in this direction. So improving or serving, so long as the focus is really on the community, is a great start. As for relationship, I generally describe it as mutually beneficial, substantive, and on-going. The details and, eventually, description of benchmark or indicator categories, is for another day/post. (And I hope, but won’t guarantee, my book will be helpful.)

  4. Sara says

    Ack — admires Rachel, present tense. I wish I could remember to proofread BEFORE hitting “POST COMMENT” at least once in a while!

  5. bronwyn says

    Great initial questions to ask of organisations (and ourselves) Doug. I wonder if there is a point about the creation of artistic work and or programming that should be in your list of comparasions as well? Perhaps something along the lines of with audience engagement, work is always created by a select group of artists for another group, but with community engagement, work is created with the community.

    (I also should note that by “work” I am meaning quite a broad range of activities including programming, artistic creation etc.)

    • says

      The category of programming is one I had not mentioned at all. Good point. There’s a topic that needs inclusion. I will say that while programming is deeply affected in organizations adopting a community engagement agenda, it does not *always* need to involve the creation of new work; and new work is not always the result of participatory creation processes. There are ways to re-imagine and utilize existing work in ways that directly speak to community needs. And there are many examples of individual artists incorporating the interests of a community in new work they create on their own.

  6. michael rohd says

    i think the new work/programming distinction is actually a big problem is this conversation in theatre. New work should not (and is not in some contexts) be seen only as ‘new plays’. New work can be more productively defined as artistic practice that brings what I describe as ‘imaginative acts leading to expressive actions within a time-based and public context’. More to come on this at a guest post I am doing for Pew Center next week, and an essay at Howlround about, again, the power and utility of interrogating terms and finding shared vocabulary.