Outreach and Audience Engagement

StreetTheatreI’ll admit it. I have a bad attitude about the word “outreach” in the context of the arts. Whether that attitude is rooted in the way the word has been used or in some quality inherent in it is not clear to me. I have difficulty with what often seem to be paternalistic activities undertaken in its name. If you think about the meaning of the word, at least it appears this way to me, outreach puts the reacher at the center and the other outside, with that reacher attempting to get the other to come to them rather than meeting them somewhere in between. I know I am not alone in discomfort with the word because some organizations have banished it (officially or unofficially) from their vocabulary.

But that may be an etymological nit. Outreach is the principal activity of audience engagement. While audience engagement is a different thing from community engagement, it is a valuable and important focus for arts organizations. So, in my ongoing quest to clarify and differentiate among types of engagement–and thereby enhance the usefulness and value of the word–I’ve got a bit more to add to what I have said recently about audience engagement. (New Thought on Audience and Community Engagement and An Engagement Continuum, for example.)

Another benefit of the writing and speaking I am doing these days is the opportunity to refine (and discover) things about the topics in which I am so immersed. In preparation for my trip to Toronto, I did some work on describing categories of audience engagement. Remembering that all engagement is about relationship formation and development, here’s what I’ve got so far:

  • Artists Meet Audiences–These are the opportunities, before or after arts events, in which the public is able to interact with artists. Often these involve a brief presentation and a Q&A session. While sometimes derided as artist “petting zoos,” they can have the very real (and important) effect of humanizing the artist and artistic process. (But let’s not kid ourselves that all artists are equally adept at making that happen.)
  • New Population Centers–Taking art to places where there is not the opportunity to experience the genre. Originally, this involved going to smaller cities, towns, and rural areas. Today, while that is still true, this may also mean taking art to populations traditionally under-served by a particular art form.
  • New Venues–The Random Act of Culture events, with art popping up in airports and shopping malls, are one example. Others are string quartets in bars, theatre in the streets, and dancing at construction sites. Seeing arts experiences outside of their normal frame and, more to the point, in ones where the observer feels more comfortable can make the establishment of a relationship more possible. As with New Population Centers, this is about taking art to where the people are.
  • Relatable Cultural Idioms (Familiar/popular forms and styles)–In an effort to be meaningful to more people, arts organizations undertake work outside their principal cultural idiom that has greater resonance with people they hope to reach. This recognizes that the works on which focus has traditionally been placed often is not meaningful to those unfamiliar with the “language” of the art. The difficulty is ensuring that the chosen forms and styles are presented with understanding and integrity. The presenter must believe in what they are doing to make this a successful approach. (They also must have appropriate skills!)

As has been true with several recent posts, these thoughts are still unfinished. I also need to repeat (for myself, even if readers are tired of it) that audience engagement and community engagement are not the same thing. Understanding the differences can help us implement both more effectively.



Street Theatre Photo: AttributionNoncommercialNo Derivative Works Some rights reserved by pinelife

  1. Think of outreach as putting out a hand to shake, and you may come away with a different perspective. In public art artists are often on the front lines of these audience efforts. Individuals visiting municipal sites recently completed or under construction may be dismissive of or challenged by contemporary art. They may make snide comments, but once they see the work IN art, the effort it takes to show up in their place, they often appreciate the work of art. There isn’t a community for a waste water treatment plant or airport parking garage art, but the audience is not passive. The ‘reacher’ is breaking a perceived barrier, often of perceived economic class and knowledge base.
    I would think book tours are the same. Why does an author go out to read?

    • Ah, so many aspects for response. First, I acknowledge that it’s the word that gives me pause rather than (some of) the things that are done in its name. That’s my personal problem, not the word’s. And, as I said, the audience engagement that is “outreach” is a good thing. Second, if a handshake were really what some of the outreach I’ve seen was about, I’d be all for it. When it’s intended to pull the newcomer into the arts arena, it’s less compelling for me. (I’m going to post soon about who is expected to move/change in the outreach process before too long.) Third, public art artists going to sites are often there to learn about the sites and the people. That is wonderful work I applaud! And fourth, when the reacher is, indeed, attempting to break barriers and learn, I’m *all* for it.

      Thanks for chiming in!

  2. Pingback: Outreach and Audience Engagement | Presenting O...

  3. Pingback: Outreach and Audience Engagement | Audience Eng...