In mid-November I had the pleasure of presenting two workshops for Illinois’ Local Arts Network, an organization of local arts agencies supported by the Illinois Arts Council and Arts Alliance Illinois. These two gigs, in Oak Park and Peoria, were the shakedown cruise on a new workshop, “Mainstreaming Engagement,” designed to provide artists and arts organization a chance to think through how a systemic approach to community engagement would look. It’s based on the premise that no one has time or room to do “one more thing” and that for engagement to work, it must be at the root of all existing organizational systems.
I will be discussing the substance of the workshops in future posts. (I can feel my next book coming on.) For now I just wanted to acknowledge the hunger for community engagement represented in both those venues. I had asked my buddy Jennifer Armstrong from the Illinois Arts Council whether there would be any need to advocate for engagement in the sessions. She said “No.” And she was right. There in the heartland, representatives of local arts agencies and a few arts organizations came together eager to try to identify means of increasing their relevance to the communities they serve.
The discussions were lively, the questions on point, and the insights provided by participants were helpful to me. I came away from the experience reminded of two important principles that, while not new, are worth bearing more directly in mind. The first is that arts workers in smaller settings are often more open to and more experienced in community engagement than those from large organizations in densely populated urban environments. They have to be. The second is that local arts agencies may well be the engine that drives the arts world to an engagement agenda. In general, they have the perspective, contacts, and incentive to do so. In follow-up evaluations, one LAA leader said,
The primary idea I took away was that arts organizations should attempt to develop their programming WITH the community, rather than FOR the community.
We hope to do three things over the next few months:
1. Convene a gathering of the principal organizations who provide arts programming … to discuss collaboration and community engagement.
2. Conduct a community arts needs/wants assessment survey.
3. Re-energize and engage the … Board Programming Committee.
Sounds like an action plan to me.
A final note for my personal files is that there is in the field a concern about the sense among some in the arts that “We are doing that.” A participant at one of the workshops put it succinctly, saying “People think they are doing this, but just because they’re talking with their friends does not mean they are engaging with the community.” Amen.