Engaging the Third Rail

ThirdRailThe art. Programming. The reason artists create and arts organizations exist.  The untouchable heart of the enterprise.

(NB: In these posts on mainstreaming engagement, I am addressing only those individuals or organizations that want broader and deeper relationships with their communities but are uncertain how to begin or even whether it is possible to do so without completely reinventing the organization.)

When I began an outline of how best to approach the topic of mainstreaming community engagement, I put this last, knowing it would be the most difficult. But upon a nanosecond of reflection, it became obvious that if we do not address this key issue, no engagement effort we make in any other area will be meaningful (or believable). So, diving in where angels fear to tread . . . .

How can arts programming (and this is primarily relevant to arts organizations as opposed to individual artists) be thought of in a community engagement context? There are three access points (one with two subsets) at which engagement thinking can be applied.

  • Existing works have already been selected.
    • Presentation details have already been decided.
    • Presentation details are still TBD.
  • Works have not been selected but will be chosen from existing work.
  • Work will be commissioned.

Clearly, the further down the list one goes, the greater the lead time (and input from the artistic director/curator) required. Let’s begin with the first.

Existing works have already been selected: Presentation details have already been decided.
From an engagement perspective, there are at least three general approaches that can be taken. First, the work can be illuminated in such a way that the non-specialist can come to appreciate it from a technical perspective–in other words on its artistic merit. Certainly this may be an audience engagement tactic rather than a community engagement one, but so long as it flows from a respect for the arts observer, it has merit. In Engaging with Palestrina, I discussed this in more detail and included a link to a cool example of a crab canon by Bach being presented in such a way that non-musicians could appreciate its structure.

Beyond that, if the illumination were done through a cultural idiom that was familiar to the communities with which connection is being sought, even this technical approach could be deepened to community engagement. Imagine hip hop or classical Indian dance’s gestural idioms being used to parallel or highlight elements of modern dance. (I still have my experience with Ontario Dances on my mind.)

Second, the work can be placed in its sociocultural context. Little is new and the fact that the work of artists from earlier eras and other cultures reflected circumstances that parallel our own can be interesting. Again, in Engaging with Palestrina I suggested that Palestrina’s role as a conservator of an older approach to religion and music in the face of “new-fangled” innovations might be made relevant to people today and provide an opportunity to discuss such matters. Again, this could be primarily audience engagement, but focusing on the particular interests of the community might yield ways to use such historical information to engage on more than an individual or “academic” level.

Third, and the most directly related to community engagement, the work can be contextualized by social themes inherent in it. In what is becoming for me a bit of a tired example (although a valuable one to be sure), it’s possible to present West Side Story either as “simply” a great American musical or as an opportunity for community discussions of insider-outsider status, immigration, racial conflict, etc. Doing the latter only requires a perspective that seeks points of entry for engagement. Social themes abound in most great works of art. (It has only recently occurred to me that My Fair Lady is largely about income inequality and class barriers. Duh!) Such contextualizing need not be terribly expensive, but carrying it out may require skill sets not to be found inside the organization. The solution to that, of course, is to develop partnerships with organizations that do have such skills in-house.

Clearly, this only scratches the surface (a very hard surface at that). Much more should be done to drill down into each of these, but that’s for intensive workshops and individual consultations, not for blog posts.

I’ll continue with the next access point in a following post. In the meantime,

Engage!

Doug

Photo:AttributionShare Alike Some rights reserved by Richard Masoner / Cyclelicious

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