I am currently working on “how to” processes for a book about establishing community engagement as a core function in arts organizations. Certainly, one of the first and most important steps is developing a cadre of engagement advocates. The arguments for engagement are many. However, I’m starting to believe that the best place to begin may be with what I’m calling “the relevance test.” Here is how I’m articulating it right now:
The following questions, with a variety of different categories (as appropriate to the local situation), can be excellent conversation starters.
If you went out of business tomorrow, who would care?
- City council
- County commissioners
- School board
- United way
- Chamber of commerce
- Community’s religious leaders
- Neighborhood associations
- The general public
- (Any of them?)
If so, why? How do you know? (That is, on what evidence do you base your answer?)
If not, why not?
In responding, the critical issue is the demand for honest answers, seen from the point of view of each entity listed rather than from that of the arts organization.
These questions are valuable because, in fact, few arts organizations can make a compelling case that if they went under or if their existence were threatened, a groundswell of support would arise to carry them forward. (Certainly, some are in that enviable position.) The “If not, why not?” question is particularly telling. The truth is that for a variety of reasons (especially the fact that many of our missions do not take community into account) the answer is fairly obvious: Because little effort has been made to be directly supportive of the community. Substantive, systemic community engagement is the path to relevance because it is based on being valuable to people in ways that are meaningful to them. And it is such relevance that forms the basis for individual, institutional, and community support. This is a case that can be a powerful one to those being sought as allies.