Engaging the Third Rail: II

ThirdRailLast 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

  1. It is essential to operate from a position of sincere belief in the value of engagement, and
  2. 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,



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

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  1. says

    Questions. In the new language of engagement what is actually meant by the word ‘engagement’? Does engaging an audience simply mean making them happy in someway? Does engagement mean simply giving them what they want or already know and if not how do you measure engagement of an uncharted water?
    And if the actual act of engagement happens between the audience or viewer and the artist and performer what are the ethical obligations an art organization has not only to the artists or performer but to the art form itself?
    What are the responsibilities that art organizations, as cultural gatekeepers ,have to artists and performers who they use to engage with the public? How does the new language of engagement effect the movement of art forms into the future?

    • says

      These are all central issues surrounding engagement. There is, first of all, a need to differentiate among audience development, audience engagement, community engagement, and civic engagement. I’ve posted on these issues numerous times, the most recent being An Engagement Continuum. This is work in progress, but understanding the similarities and differences is an important first step. Getting our heads around basic definitions (or, better, parameters) will help us answer the rest of those questions.

  2. Nicole Vasconi says

    Through engagement-minded programming, are there ever times when arts organizations find themselves in trouble for taking up a particular issue? In this blog, do you suggest that the arts organization act as a conduit for expression, or do you know of any arts organizations that have actually taken positions in social issues? I think that might cause some repercussions from different parts of the community, and perhaps might change relationships between certain groups of constituents and the organizations. While I’m an advocate of engagement that directly addresses community issues and projects, I also wonder what do you do if it goes wrong or your message is misinterpreted. Thank you for such a well-written, thought-provoking blog!

    • says

      In general, the only arts organizations that should be taking a position on community issues are those that have something about that issue in their mission statement. You are right that there is considerable potential for blowback if the organization takes a position. Some may choose to do so, but it should be with the full consent of the board.
      However, arts organizations can create safe(r) spaces for the community to discuss issues by having them addressed in a work of art. The emotional distance the work provides makes thinking and talking about the issue less threatening.