Engagement Vocabulary

Dictionary[Note to new readers: This is a very old and widely read post. In the interest of providing up-to-date information about thinking on this topic, you can find updated definitions of terminology related to community engagement and related arts management tools on the ArtsEngaged website here.]

I have on a number of occasions this year (New Thought on Audience and Community Engagement, An Engagement Continuum, Outreach and Audience Engagement, Outreach ≠ Community Engagement) introduced the idea that we need to come to some consensus on the meaning of the words we use when discussing “engagement.” What follows is a summary of some of the thinking I’ve been doing and presenting in work around the country (and in Canada).


Let’s be honest, the word engagement has become a fad of late. That should be a good thing for someone who has written a book about community engagement. And it is. It’s one of the reasons you’re reading this. However, the lack of understanding of the word is so pervasive that we are in danger of losing the power that community engagement represents in the fog of meanings that surround it.

My despair around this issue reached a peak when I heard someone describe a revenue sharing project–$1 of every ticket sold to a dance concert went to the soup kitchen–as community engagement. If that is, indeed, community engagement, community engagement is a meaningless concept. What it is is cause marketing, a good and worthy thing, but it’s not engagement.

Since I believe community engagement can be a powerful tool benefiting both the arts and the communities they serve, it’s necessary to define it (and terms for concepts that get conflated with it) in meaningful ways. This understanding has led me to an effort to differentiate among audience development, audience engagement, and community engagement. It is important to highlight the fact that all are good things to do. The issue for me is that they are not all the same thing. Here are my “work in progress” thoughts.

 Audience Development is a marketing strategy designed for immediate results (sales, donations, etc.). It is internally focused (artcentric) and usually results in little or no change to the arts “product.”

In contrast, the word engagement implies relationship. Audience Engagement is a marketing strategy designed for deepening relationships with current stakeholders and expanding reach over time. Also internally focused (artcentric), it may result in new modes/venues of presentation and means of illuminating/explaining the arts to the public. Work is often developed/presented unilaterally. Typically, “outreach” is an example of audience engagement.

Community Engagement is a mission strategy designed to create and maintain relationships with individuals and communities (many of whom may not be currently affiliated with the organization). It is dependent upon establishment of trusting, mutually beneficial relationships over time–the arts and the community are equal partners. The focus of community engagement is on the relationship; the art grows out of or is a response to the relationship. The desired end results are deepened relationships and expanded reach for the arts organization and healthier, more vibrant communities.

In my next post I’ll present some questions to use in helping to determine which is which.



Photo:Attribution Some rights reserved by greeblie

  1. Great stuff, Doug. I agree that definitions are necessary and I appreciate your having drawn such a clear distinction between internally focused and externally focused forms. I think this goes to the heart of what separates the pure, generous, humane, mission-driven engagement you advocate from the “how do we lure more people into our bubble?” forms that have become such a fad.

  2. Although I present myself as an Audience Development Expert, I have integrated community engagement in my work and strategies I recommend to my clients.

  3. Ditto to Trevor’s appreciation at drawing clear distinctions. I am wrestling with if/how I agree with them, but regardless–openly wrestling with the question and trying to create common vocabulary is integral. Speaking of one of those wrestling moments….
    Curious if you could speak to how you see Audience Engagement as a marketing strategy resulting in “new modes/venues of presentation.” The opinion embedded in my question: Audience Engagement is an artistic strategy at that point.

    • From my POV, the fact that mode/venue choices can be artistic choices does not preclude them from being in an AE category. Community Engagement also demands artistic input. We can’t separate programming from these issues.

  4. Sometimes art grows out of or is a response to the relationship between the artist and community -think socially engaged art, but not necessarily. In fact not often. It is believed that Modernism gave birth to the idea of art about art but according to scholars like Joseph Campbell that idea that art stems from the artists creation goes further back. He believed that it is the artist who is the visionary, the leader in society, and the public responds to that vision. The emphasis is on the idea, the creation coming first from the artist.
    The current fade of engagement and inclusivity is a political construct not a creative one.

    • It’s difficult to respond to such a significant issue in the confines of a blog post comment or reply. In the end, we may simply need to agree to disagree. While I in no way see the role of artist as “servant to the masses,” I do believe the view of the artist as a solely independent agent who should be responsive strictly to their own muse is detrimental to artists and to art. It was an important corrective when it developed in the 19th Century, but I believe a modest reversal of the pendulum swing is in order.

      From a practical perspective, extreme separation between artists and the public is one cause of the difficulties arts organizations face today. From society’s point of view, the gap deprives people of connection to their humanity that artists can best mediate. The disconnect can be detrimental to artists as well. Working with the public in mind can enrich and deepen our work; access to cultural traditions not one’s own, another result of community connections, can expand artistic options in significant ways.

      I don’t disagree that “engagement” has become a fad. I’ve written about that a good deal. But that does not mean it’s not important or valuable. Engagement and inclusivity are not simply political. They do have creative potential. And perhaps that is yet another point on which we need to agree to disagree.

      • Thanks for the reply Doug.
        James Whistler said “An artist is not paid for his labor but for his vision.” That striving and dedication to a vision does not lead to “extreme separation between artists and the public.” That dedication to a muse, or lifestyle of working leads to the unique artistic experience. This is the source of creativity that will engage people. Theater directors, producers, museum administrators and the audience themselves are not looking for the sequel to Stars Wars or the Lion King. They are longing for what will be the next Star Wars, the next unknown and unheard experience that will move them only as art can.

        Your suggestion that artists need to “work with the public in mind” is a experiential vagary. You blame the perceive disconnect between the arts and the public on the artist. Igor Stravinsky’s 1913 ‘The Rite of Spring’, one of modernities masterpieces was riled by the public as trash when it first was presented. Maya Lin’s Vietnam Memorial, one of the most powerful public art projects ever created was rejected as junk when it first was presented.
        Your field’s misplacement of blame seems to call for a new kind of art. An art directed more by the public’s taste. That can be achieved, but real art, the good stuff, doesn’t work that way.

        • This is the difficulty with communication via comments and replies. The truth is if we sat down to discuss this we would discover that we are not that far apart. I in no way support the sequel mentality to which you refer. Maya Lin’s design is actually an excellent example of what I advocate. (And the Rite of Spring riot was not about the music.)

          I have on numerous occasions said that I am *not* talking about giving the public what they want. Rather the concern I have is in artists not viewing themselves as agents with no connection to the world around them. (That sentence is one that needs a lot of expansion that’s not really possible here, but I guarantee you if we talked it over you would see that you and I agree almost completely.) And I am not blaming anyone for anything. (Indeed, this stream is about only one relatively small element in the mix.) I am merely pointing out that if the arts industry (which is my primary focus, not artists) is in need of change, what factors need to be understood.. My comments about artists (and that is the world from which I come) are more about symptoms than causes.

          • This is critical dialog from an artists perspective Doug. It would be very helpful if sometime you could elaborate what you mean when you say ” the concern I have is in artists not viewing themselves as agents with no connection to the world around them.” Frankly I don’t know a single artists that does that or what that actually even means.

          • Fair enough. I will respond in a post in the next few weeks.

            In the meantime, I’m talking about artists who take pride in the fact that “the public” doesn’t get them. It’s a badge of honor that they are too sopisticated or deep to be understood by the masses. They have no interest in connecting. This is particularly an issue in academic circles. If you don’t know any such artists, that makes me feel better about the future.

          • ” It’s a badge of honor that they are too sopisticated or deep to be understood by the masses.”

            I firmly believe your statement is a myth propagated by people who feel intimidated by a level of intellectualism they don’t understand. But that feeling of intimidation doesn’t end there. That lack of understanding (for what ever the reason) changes to feelings of being excluded or a false sense of lack of access. Rather than a badge of honor displayed by the artist or intellectual it is a defense mechanism used by a individual or public. This increasing sentiment of anti-intellectual can be seen in everything from American Idol type talent shows where public opinion trumps knowledge to political policy where knowledge in the sciences and the arts are attacked in favor of public opinion.

          • “‘It’s a badge of honor that they are too sophisticated or deep to be understood by the masses.’
            I firmly believe your statement is a myth propagated by people who feel intimidated by a level of intellectualism they don’t understand.”

            In the late 1970’s I was working on my doctorate in composition at the Eastman School of Music. Aaron Copland came for a guest presentation. In the Q&A session an undergraduate student castigated him for “selling out” by writing music to which people could relate. To some in the audience that young man was a hero for speaking truth to power. That story is no myth.

            There is certainly validity in what you say in your last reply, but anti-intellectualism has nothing to do with any of my work or with the practical need for the arts to more deeply connected with communities.

            I understand that there are profound differences in the arts among genres, regions, and areas of function (academia vs. field practitioners for example). I have tried to remain open to the possibility that my experience (and the story above is but one small example) is not universal. I would request that you do the same.

          • Doug, My comments were in no way meant as a personal attack. If they read as such I apologize.

            As an artist I am living in a time where I am witnessing the complete dismantling of any type of national support for the arts and artists. I witnessed the political tearing apart of the NEA to the ridiculous entity it is today. I’ve seen an ultra conservative push that has forced an agenda based austerity program on our cultural institutions, our arts educational system, and any little amount of artist and arts organizational support left in the system.
            You know, probably even more than I do, that art organizations and art institutions are slowly strangling and are left scrambling to find funds to stay alive, let alone attempt meaningful outreach. And artists, while repeatedly being told we are valued for our priceless contributions to society, have to work two jobs, to pay the rent so that we might have some time left to create.

            Under these conditions imposed on our cultural society by politicians, I firmly object to any reference that it’s somehow artist’s attitudes that are blame for any lack of engagement. My fear is that every time the complexity of intellectual discussion is mocked or attacked in favor of a dumbed down populism, the arts get hurt. I’m hoping you and I could agree on that point.

  5. I found this post defining “engagement” extremely helpful and clarifying. Engagement is an ambiguous word and it is easy for arts organization to say they are engaging with an audience when they are merely trying to increase ticket sales, use technologies that make them seem relevant, or use gimmicks that may attract attention. What was most beneficial about this post is the distinction between audience and community. It is easy to conflate the two. The audience here are the patrons you already know, who are currently in attendance, and who arrive at your door. The community is the immediate world outside of the concert hall doors with whom a relationship must be built over time. The time differentiation outlined in this post is also extremely helpful. There are short term and long-term goals to widen artistic exposure. Linking community engagement to a long-term goal reminds arts organization that it takes strategy, time, effort, and open communication to create a lasting relationship that will lead to the real meaning of engagement.