During my one week home in October I had two grant review gigs to complete. One was for the Connecticut Office of the Arts, the other for the Cuyahoga (think Cleveland) Arts Council. My job was to review a bit over 100 grant applications. My role was to represent an “arts and community engagement” point of view.
It was a learning experience. First, it’s heartening that arts funding agencies are taking the public seriously. In Connecticut, considerable weight was being given to “Community Relevance and Civic Engagement.” In Ohio, 45% of the scoring was in the category of “Public Benefit: An organization’s ability to successfully engage its community through its project”
Second, and the big (though not surprising) takeaway, was how little understanding there is about public benefit and the arts or of substantive community engagement. In general, applications fell into one of four categories:
- Arts organizations that do not see a role for themselves as participants in their community’s well-being. Their proposals had a tendency to be either self-celebrations or of the “If we present it, they will come (if they want to)” variety. The idea that public benefit might be something for them to consider or that community engagement was important seemed to be a foreign concept. I suspect that in many instances, they were not aware that they were not aware.
- Arts organizations that have some awareness of community but have little idea how to relate. These showed no preliminary conversations with the community about what was needed/desired. They were primarily presentations to/for the community of what the organization imagined might be good. [The Preparation–Event–Follow-up continuum necessary for the most effective engagement was missed. Even casting the event itself in a community-focused manner was not considered.] Sometimes these proposals involved doing what they were going to do anyway in a venue that was “in the community.”
- Community organizations that had heard the arts funder was giving money for something in the community. I read of many street festivals that had no (or little) input from artists or arts organizations. (I have to say there are a lot of jugglers out there!)
- Community organizations that are somewhat aware that the arts can be helpful in a community but have little idea about how that is true or how to connect with those artists. I think this is a category where some real inroads might be made with a bit of education about the possibilities, assuming that the arts community with which they would be working was prepared to respond.
There was a fifth category: the arts or community organization that understood the issues, had done relationship-building work with “the other side,” and had fashioned a project in which the arts benefited the community in significant ways. This was, unfortunately, fairly rare. Each time I read one of these I bothered my wife with a celebratory phone call to her office. She did still get a lot of work done that week.
To be clear (and fair) I am not saying this to rant about the wretched state of the world. I understand that the arts and the communities in which they exist do not have much history of working together, nor do they have a lot of models or training to follow. And change is happening, both on the grant-makers side and on the proposal side. There is just a lot that remains to be done. That’s what I want to support. It’s the purpose of this blog, my book, and the work on which I am embarking.