Yep, We Do That

ThumbUpIn But . . . How? I mentioned that I often am confronted with two vastly different “realities” with respect to arts organizations’ commitment to community engagement. High ranking officials will say that commitments to community are deep and wide while others (often education staff) describe their organization’s work as arts business as usual–focused almost exclusively on the art. Actually, on more than one occasion I’ve been faced with tears (yep, literal tears) of frustration over this issue.

In some senses this is not entirely surprising.  There is a distressingly profound lack of understanding of what engagement means. (I’ve written on this numerous times. Here is but one instance: Also, as the arts establishment becomes more aware that taking communities seriously is important, there is an inertial tendency to see what is being done as doing that.

In the spirit of trying to be helpful here (really), I’ve drafted some questions I’ll be using at the beginning of my “how to” workshops on engagement to assess the seriousness of existing institutional efforts at engagement. The current draft is, in three categories, as follows:

Show me the motivation

  • Do you understand one role of the arts to be addressing the needs and interests of communities around you? (Do you embrace this role?)

Show me the efforts

  • Do you have mechanisms in place to learn what the interests of communities around you are? (What are they?)
  • In what ways has the work you do been altered, affected by your understanding of your communities (not your assumptions about your communities)?

Show me the results

  • What new sources of funding (individual and institutional) support you as a result of your community engagement work?
  • How many new individuals (from previously under-served communities) are taking advantage of the services you provide?
  • How frequently do communities (and community organizations) seek your assistance in addressing community concerns or supporting community celebrations?

Honest answers to these questions will go a long way toward showing how deeply community engagement is embedded in the fabric of the organization. And the results questions are intended to help illuminate some of the tangible benefits of taking this work seriously.



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  1. Perhaps it isn’t the theory or strategy used to attract audiences to view performances or participate in music related endeavors that needs to be addressed but rather those facilitating or influencing performances through funding. Those that contribute monetarily are essential however many of the largest funders are still married to an existing framework that includes traditions that need more innovative approaches in order to be regarded as more relevant. I often wonder what I might do if I had the capability to directly influence the programming of artists and even implementation of performances and performance practices. While many traditional programming and practices attract large audiences now, it might be beneficial to consider finding and cultivating the next big thing that enhances both the music and experience rather than trying to educate the audience on the music and their associated traditional practices that many of us love. By reaching the audience through musically accessible performances as well as more innovative presentations of those performances, it might be possible to bridge the new with the established. Ideally this strategy would create a more vested interest for audiences and at the same time grow audience numbers and participation. This might be best approached and accomplished through a more culturally aware and integrated group of a new generation of patrons for the arts. If a listener discovers something new and exciting through an event that they attended because it is more inviting, it is likely that they will be more inviting or entertain ideas associated with more traditional or unfamiliar practices. That is why new music is programmed with established music however often the presentation of these works is still geared toward a more traditional audience. Exciting a larger demographic will likely require an updated version of this strategy that utilizes a new generation of patrons for the arts that emphasizes both traditional and new or more innovative settings and contexts.

  2. With continuous advancements in technology and a growing emphasis on individual entrepreneurship, it seems that we are in need of community engagement more than ever. Most of us agree that it is important to preserve and nurture our culture and community. Thus the answer to Doug’s first “show me the motivation” question should provide clarity and, perhaps, lead us in a different direction. It is the responsibility of arts organizations to realize that they play a key role in supporting the community. While it is important and necessary to focus on art for art’s sake, this can be accomplished with community involvement. It is our civic duty to preserve our communities and help them flourish through the arts. This fact is no longer possible to ignore, as we have seen from organizations, such as San Diego Opera, who have realized that they need to re-focus with community engagement at the forefront. Doug’s initial “how to” questions are great and will be helpful to organizations in their endeavors to engage.

  3. I think these questions are great. The experience/meaning of artwork changes depending on what one is expecting and where it happens. It is vital that we know a lot about our communities, what they’re hoping to experience, and what they need. We should be willing to listen, perhaps at times suspending the idea that we know what is best for any particular community. I’m particularly intrigued by the question, “Do you have mechanisms in place to learn what the interests of communities around you are? (What are they?).” Does anyone have any suggestions? I think arts leaders should be at city council meetings, various cultural celebrations, and actively follow the local news. I think that our only hope to reach and expand audiences is to understand their values, expectations, and struggles. In the process of doing this, I think we’ll learn a lot from our neighbors.