Engaged Mission: I

CompassWhen I first outlined my series of posts on mainstreaming community engagement I had not intended to address mission. I did not want to (nor did I think it necessary) to “take on” the definition of our core principles in addressing modes of mainstreaming engagement. However, as the posts and associated workshops have developed, I have come to the realization that, while I don’t necessarily advocate for rewriting “mission statements,” there is a habit of mind with respect to mission that we need to address. It’s also become clear that effective engagement is impossible without a fairly deep belief in its value, and that’s an issue of mission. I have touched upon this before, notably in Shifting the Center and Overcoming Artcentricity. I now understand that both those posts are fundamentally about the mission of arts organizations.

Simply put, the question is “Do we serve a what or a whom?” Many of our mission statements are mostly or entirely focused on a what–the art that is the medium of our work. I would argue that serving art, while it may be what’s in the front of our minds is 1) not at heart what many of us really want to do, 2) a pretty cold (and strange) thing to do, 3) not consistent with the spirit (or perhaps law) of not-for-profit structures, and 4) of questionable sustainability, as I’ve argued here incessantly.

Most (though not all) artists are invested in their work because they want other people to share the joy they experience in it. While this may look or feel like focus on the art, their core purpose is rooted in the impact of that art on people.

Divorced from such impact (or potential impact) on others, serving art is–let’s be frank–a kind of idolatry, self-absorption, or both.

As Diane Ragsdale has pointed out frequently (and I have occasionally) not-for-profit status is predicated on a public service mission. Any other work pushes the theoretical envelope at best or is outside the law at worst. The fact that the government or public has not called the sector on this (yet) does not obviate the point.

Any enterprise focused exclusively on itself and that depends upon public or private subsidy for its existence can not long endure. Additionally, ours is an enterprise that is destined to become increasingly (and exponentially) more expensive because of the labor intensive nature of our work.

So, if the answer to “the question” above is “Whom,” the follow-up question is “to what extent?” Unfortunately, there is an impression that some have that if a service orientation is undertaken the result must be a radical transformation of the arts enterprise. A recent New York Times article on social practice helped me think this through. While I am wildly enthusiastic about work that is intentionally built, from the ground up, for service, my reaction to this article was, “That’s cool. But this is not the only thing I’m talking about.” Any work that proceeds from a self-understanding of responsibility in the community is good. We can get better at community connections over time, but the mindset is where it must begin.


In an attempt to clarify this visually, the extreme arts-focused position is presented above on the left. An extreme “art is only service” approach is presented on the right. (This is the use of the arts exclusively for community service ends.)

ShiftingTheCenterThe middle ground, where the arts and the community work together to serve their mutual interests, is the area I would propose we stake out as a general position. This work is what I was describing in Shifting the Center with the circles graphic.

In terms of articulating such a mission, I think rather than eliminating statements about fostering an art form or forms, I would add to them. A default statement I have used in the past is “improve lives through the arts.” If something like this were added, not even to the mission statement itself but to our understanding of the practice, we would be well on the way to substantive community engagement. The caveat I would add is that the lives improved probably need to be (at least for practical reasons–expanding reach for both financial and political benefit) the lives of people who do not already understand the power of the arts.

The issue of the degree to and means by which we improve lives falls in the implementation of mission category, one I will address in my next post.



Photo:AttributionNoncommercial Some rights reserved by Roland Urbanek
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