There is one, and only one, first principle in effective engagement with communities. That is believing engagement is a good thing–for the organization, for the community, and for art. Pragmatic rationales (e.g., “The funder made me do it.” or “We need to sell more tickets.”) are not unimportant, but in the end they do not move the mission focus of the organization away from internally focused artcentricity. Effective engagement demands that mission focuses on more than art. It needs to be about populating the intersection between the organization and the community with art–serving both. From that, authentic engagement can be built. And communities intuitively sense authenticity or the lack thereof. They will stay away in droves from inauthentic efforts.
This is the source of most internal dissonance in arts organizations around this subject. In my experience there are usually individuals or small groups who fervently believe there is a responsibility to connect communities with the benefits of the arts. These people know that focusing on the art alone will not get the job done. When they encounter colleagues, even those who are sincere in attempting to engage communities for pragmatic reasons, there is a disconnect that amounts to speaking incompatible languages. For this reason, it is critical that organizations have internal dialogue about mission before entering into extensive community engagement efforts. The path to this end is usually forming an “engagement working group” of those who see that art and community focus are not incompatible. This serves as both a support group and a tactical planning one. (In But . . . How? I referred to these people, tongue-in-cheek, as “instigators.”) They can then develop means of opening dialogue among the staff and, eventually, the board, about the merits of community engagement.
The interesting thing about this is that each stage of the process is rooted in relationship building, the essence of all community engagement work. Perhaps the necessity of doing so first in-house bodes well (eventually) for the success of institutional community engagement efforts.
[Each time I raise this issue I feel the need to reiterate: Community engagement is not about “giving them what (we think) they want.” It does demand learning enough about “them” (and the mindset that defaults to “them” is worth another blog post) to know what work of the international cultural canon will be meaningful to them. And then programming that with them.]
In the “community announcements” category, our friends at EmcArts are looking for applicants for the two final rounds of their Innovation Lab. Info can be found here. Also, while I think I may have mentioned it, they have produced a valuable publication featuring in-depth case studies of Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company and Denver Center Theatre Company. Good, and interesting, reading.