Last time your intrepid blogger embarked upon a consideration of the untouchable heart of the arts enterprise: programming. Herein we continue the journey.
From the previous post:
(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.)
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.
Existing works have already been selected: Presentation details are still TBD.
If engagement is considered before staging or other presentation details are decided, it is possible to create further relationship-building opportunities. Theatrical works (drama, dance, opera, perhaps oratorios) can be set in times or locations that resonate with the community more than might otherwise be the case. (I believe I have commented here previously about a proposal to set a Cleveland production of Nutcracker in 19th-century Cleveland.) There is a long tradition of contemporary (or at least more familiar) settings of Shakespeare (Macbeth among the mafia in New York City, for example). Visual arts exhibitions can include (or be organized around) community-centered themes (although this may be more directly related to the next category: Works have not been selected but will be chosen from existing work). Such approaches can of course be simply gimmicky, but if they are entered into with community interests in mind and used for relationship building purposes, they can be valuable
In addition, venues may be selected that have importance to the community. Of course, selection of accessible or familiar venues can also be simply an audience development (ticket sales) decision. But if a location has significance to the community (and particularly if it is in some way related to the work(s) presented), it goes deeper into audience or even community engagement.
Works have not been selected but will be chosen from existing work.
If an organization understands its community, programming decisions can be made taking local concerns into account. This is frequently seen when a community is celebrating an anniversary: the 100th birthday of our town, etc. Celebratory programming is intentional. (Again, this may be done more for reasons of ticket sales, but if the arts organization is seen as a community citizen, this will have relationship building potential.) Similarly, to use the West Side Story example again, if the arts organization is aware that the area is suffering with issues related to immigration, choosing to produce the piece might be a worthwhile response. This is most true if the organization has been in dialogue with community groups about this (and other) issue(s) before the work is chosen. It’s far more effective to do such things in partnership than unilaterally.
Work will be commissioned.
Obviously, if time and funding permit, newly created work can speak directly to community concerns. Houston Grand Opera’s HGOco Song of Houston project celebrates or highlights important facets of life in the city. Of course an artist could choose to create such a piece “on spec,” but since these posts are primarily intended for arts organizations, I want to focus on the responsibility to commission artists.
As was true in my earlier post on this topic, this barely even scratches the surface of the categories. And, clearly, commissioning requires resources beyond “regular” programming. (Although, if the organization is going to be commissioning something anyway, why not have it community-oriented?)
But the most important things to keep in mind are
- It is essential to operate from a position of sincere belief in the value of engagement, and
- The broad suggestions here can only be successful as community engagement activity if they are rooted in existing relationships with the community. Relationship building must come first.
This completes the bare-bones outline of my current thinking about engagement-oriented approaches to programming. Details and application require considerable thought and time, especially since they are so site-/locale-specific. The good news is that at least the first two categories do not require significant additional resources, simply more (or different kinds of) thought (and willing community partners).
Future posts in this series will address governance and development. In the meantime,