I’ve recently returned from presenting two workshops dealing with the arts and community engagement. Both in Grand Rapids, MI, one was part of the Midwest Arts Conference sponsored by ArtsMidwest and the Mid-American Arts Alliance. The other was at the Johnson Center for Philanthropy at Grand Valley State University.
As always happens, the experience opened up new insights for me in several different categories. One helped clarify for me the basic nature of the engagement process. Simply put, substantive engagement has three essential parts and one important marker. There is a period of relationship building that takes place before there is any arts experience shared; there is the arts experience itself; and there is the follow-up, the opportunities through which the arts experience is used as the basis for solidifying and deepening the relationship. This is not to say that nothing worthwhile happens without the pre- and post-, but that significant engagement involves all three elements.
The “marker” involves the art itself. How (and how significantly) is the art different as a result of the engagement? Deep engagement will inevitably cause the central expression of that relationship to change. Couples in healthy relationships will, over time, alter in ways large and small their thinking, their actions, their habits, their way of being in the world. Both of them will do so. Any relationship in which that is not true has the seeds of something unhealthy in it. One partner may be a bully; one may be pathologically submissive; or perhaps they simply do not share things with each other, they don’t talk. I can hear Ann Landers’ voice in my head (if you know who that is, you are “of a certain age” with me) talking about how destructive any of those scenarios are. They are destructive in personal relationships, they are so (or at least highly unproductive) in arts/community relationships.
I think the marker of “How is the art different?” is an important one. Not every work of art presented need be transformed–different from past practice–if engagement is successful. But if none of it is, or even none of the core programming, then it seems there is likely a lack of reciprocity in the relationship between the arts organization and the community.
This construct for understanding engagement is a work in progress. It will evolve as I get more experience discussing the principles with my colleagues around the country. I look forward to the opportunity to do so with more of you.
For anyone interested, the American Association of Museums is seeking crowdsourced input on sessions proposals for next year’s conference. I’m part of a group (with Nina Simon and Paige Simpson) that has proposed a session called Mainstreaming Engagement. If you are an AAM member and are interested in the topic, look the session up at http://www.aam-us.org/proposals/viewproposal. (You will, of course, need to sign in.)