In Communities Take Care of Things I raised the issue of mattering. It is our marginalization from the broad public that is a principal hindrance to sustainability. If we matter to our communities, we will be supported by them in all ways that are important, including financially.
How do we reach this nirvana-like state of support? (Or more realistically, how do we simply get on the community’s radar screen in a positive way?) Communities must recognize what we do as meaningful, important, even life-changing to them–collectively and/or individually. To be seen that way, we must be and do things that make us so.
The beginning of the process is communication–listening and talking, but mostly listening to learn. Beyond that, what are the magical categories of being and doing? They are both internal and external. In our internal conversations we need to see the world from the community’s point of view. If we have gotten to know what is important to them, we can craft our work in ways that support those things. Externally, after getting to know them and gaining their trust, we together develop programming that serves our mutual interests.
The central and to some (many?) arts organizations new question is “How can we serve the interests of our community?” Note that I did not say “serve the needs.” There is a tendency, especially among those new to the idea of community engagement, to think that the “trick” is to meet needs. That can be and often is an important result of an engagement focus, but facilitating celebrations and fostering relationships (social capital) are equally valuable community interests. (Of course, economic development also serves community interests; but other people are spending a lot of energy advocating for the arts as an economic development tool, so that’s not a prime focus of mine. Plus, I am leery of the over-selling that’s been associated with some of this work.)
Listen. Learn. Build relationships. Develop work together. Serve mutual interests.
Become important–matter by mattering.
In other words: engage!