I sometimes hear people equate outreach with community engagement. In my ongoing effort to clarify the language we use about these matters, I’d like to differentiate between these two terms. For me, the simplest distinction is that outreach is (at best) done “for,” community engagement is done “with.” Outreach, as the word implies, keeps the “outreacher” at the center. The “targets” of the outreach are outsiders. The entire center of gravity as well as most of the concern is with the arts organization.
Community engagement is rooted in relationship building. The “what” that is the art grows out of the relationship, factoring in the interests and needs of the community. This is not simply a semantic distinction. The frame of reference of the arts organization impacts the quality (or even the existence) of the relationship. It will also affect the nature of the work presented. If the art does not bear evidence of community involvement, the work is not a result of community engagement.
Outreach can be more accurately equated with audience engagement-the effort to deepen relationships with current stakeholders and to extend an organization’s reach. Audience engagement is, properly, self-focused and somewhat more immediately concerned with butts-in-seats/eyes-on-walls results. (Audience development is, of course most immediately concerned with those things.) Some common examples of outreach efforts are:
- Artists meet audiences (one-way presentation and answers from artists)
- New population centers (under-served towns, etc.)
- New Venues (neighborhood centers, construction sites, public parks)
- Relatable cultural idioms; Familiar/popular forms (often new work)
To me, understanding distinctions between outreach (and audience engagement) and community engagement is helpful in that it supports a broader palette of potential in the service of both organizational sustainability and community service.