Several months ago at a conference (I honestly cannot remember which one) I overheard a disagreement about the best approach for an arts organization to take in engaging with their community. Was it better to begin with the things that the arts organization does well or with the things that the community most needs done?
Despite my guilt at being an eavesdropper, I was nearly overwhelmed by the conversation. First, there were two people who cared so much about community engagement that they had thought about this question. Second, they cared enough to have an opinion. Third, they cared enough to argue! About approaches to community engagement?! I could barely concentrate on the substance of what they were saying.
I have been letting the question percolate for months trying to process the content of that discussion. When it comes right down to it, I think the answer is “Yes.” Or, more accurately, “You need to ask a different question.”
Community engagement almost always requires a partnership between an artist or arts organization and some non-artist community member or organization. (Otherwise, it’s simply the arts doing “for” the community.) The core principle here is that artists and arts organizations are the experts in art. The community is expert in its needs and in what works in the community. The “What do we do?” question can only come from the intersection of those two areas of expertise. So, as I said in Shifting the Center, you start in the middle, with what the arts organization does well and what the community’s interests/needs are. The most appropriate question would appear to me to be, “How can we take what we do well and apply it usefully in the community?” That’s more complicated (and less elegant) than the questions I overheard at that conference, but it seems to be more relevant to the work of engagement. The arts can and should begin with what they have the technical capacity to accomplish, but the work should address the community’s greatest needs.
All of this puts me in mind of the theologian Frederick Buechner’s observation about an individual’s “calling” in life. He said it is found at “the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” (Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC) In other words, at what are you best/what do you most enjoy doing and what does the world (the community) most need? This has always resonated for me as an individual. It seems to make sense institutionally as well.