This is part of my continuing series on “How” to build a community-focused arts organization. An early step is organizing a group of “believers” who can work to generate enthusiasm and support for a transition. For lack of a better term, I call this an engagement working group. The means by which potential members of such a group “find” each other can be as varied as are organizations. Some individuals probably already are aware of like-minded colleagues. Others can be identified by sharing short articles or examples and gauging the enthusiasm with which their peers respond.
Once organized, this group can spend time becoming more familiar with the principles and practice of engagement as well as with examples of success. Over time, plans for opening dialogue about the merits of community engagement among the rest of the staff and, eventually, the board can be developed.
A valuable starting place in those considerations is assessing the readiness of each constituency. As discussed in Yep, We Do That, there are often conflicting assumptions about the actual depth of commitment to engagement in arts organizations. That post contained questions to raise as an aid in understanding that community engagement demands a deeper restructuring of thought and decision-making processes than some imagine.
For these purposes, it can be helpful to become more fully aware of the attitudes of principal players. Creating a chart in which the internal stakeholders (CEO, administrative staff, artistic director, artistic staff, and board) are rated as being negative, skeptical, ambivalent, interested, or enthusiastic about community engagement can aid planning for approaches to use with each. (In chart form this can be graphically illuminating.)
It is essential, however, to understand that the ratings need to be based on serious understanding of engagement, not simply lip service to an abstract (and poorly understood) concept. In other words, the ratings should not be those that would be self-reported by each individual or category. They must reflect the actual commitment to substantive engagement long-time readers of Engaging Matters will recognize. This form of knowledge is an important early step in becoming an “engaged” organization. Once this has been done, it is possible to develop plans for developing allies, increasing the number of stakeholders committed to truly valuing a focus on community.