In Engaged Mission: I, I suggested that service to people is/ought to be a fundamental element of the understanding of our mission, whether or not it is formally articulated in a mission statement. I think that is probably not too controversial. It’s the extent of the service and the way we carry it out that could be a little more challenging for us.
In the simplistic graphic I presented last time, I tried to show that art as only service (community focused), while there are people and organizations with such a mission, is not the ground I am claiming when I speak of community engagement. It is the middle ground–where mutual interests (the arts’ and the community’s) are advanced–that is the focus of my work.
People for whom a particular art form or a specific work has deep meaning have difficulty understanding/relating to people for whom that is not the case. As a result, they assume that simply putting forth their work or medium/genre is serving the community. As a result, in spite of their intent, the effect can be artcentric. The key for the future of the arts lies in finding ways to serve people who do not already feel the arts are important to them–ways that they recognize. Surreptitious service (service that is invisible to the “recipient”) is not beneficial for practical reasons; it is also, in many cases, not actually service if the people being “served” are not aware they are benefiting.
From a practical standpoint, service exclusively to those who already understand the value might be sufficient if there were far larger numbers of people in that category than there are. But even if there were unmanageable multitudes already hooked, wouldn’t there still be a moral argument to do more? If we do this work because we are aware of its great power for good, don’t we have some obligation to share it with those who are not aware? If so, then we are faced “simply” with the issue of how to do so.
This brings us back to the second question from my previous post. To what extent do we serve people? Since mutuality of benefit is the hallmark of effective community engagement, one-way service to others at the expense of the art, artists, or arts organization is not the answer. Every organization will make its own choices on the continuum. So long as work begins somewhere to the right of Artcentric, progress is being made. Simply asking, in the context of every programming decision, “In what ways can our art be made personally meaningful to people unfamiliar with it or with its benefits?” will be helpful. The benefits will be increasingly valuable the more the responses to that question are based on direct knowledge and relationship with the community.
Any sincere desire to serve is a great beginning. As experience is gained and training is received, the quality (and benefits) of the engagement will improve.