Relationships All the Way Down

This is the last of a series of blog posts in conjunction with TRG Arts on the interrelationships among marketing, development, fundraising, and community engagement. (Cross-post can be found at Analysis from TRG Arts.)

StackedTurtlesTwo months ago, Jill Robinson and Amelia Nothrup-Simpson of TRG Arts and I (OK: the commercial–of ArtsEngaged) began exploring the fact that almost every important facet of arts administration is (or should be) rooted in developing and maintaining relationships with external constituencies, what I would call “communities.” This post brings that series to a close. However, see the note at the end about what the future holds.

In the meantime, the following is an excerpt from my second book, Engage Now! A Guide to Making the Arts Indispensable that can serve as a benediction for the series.

Stephen Hawking’s 1988 book A Brief History of Time, begins with the following story:

A well-known scientist . . . once gave a public lecture on astronomy. He described how the earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits around the center of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy. At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said: “What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise.” The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, “What is the tortoise standing on?” “You’re very clever, young man, very clever,” said the old lady. “But it’s tortoises all the way down!”

In some versions of this story the punchline does not come until after a series of tortoises has been identified, each supporting the one before it, but the essence is the same. When the story is cited in discussions of cosmology or philosophy the point, of course, is the fallacy of basing arguments on an unverifiable “first principle.” In the context of the arts and community engagement, however, it can serve another purpose. The story is a reminder that to achieve success the focus in every aspect of the arts organization’s work must be on developing and maintaining ties with others—individuals, informal groups, and organizations. The first principle in and foundation for everything is engagement; “it’s relationships all the way down.”

An awareness of the need to establish connections outside the organization must be central to the mindset of every person that cares about its health and every functional unit must understand it has a role (and stake) in engagement.

At the macro level, attention must be paid to being of the community, supporting its organizations, informal groups, and individuals. At the unit level, each function and program needs to examine and pursue its work with an engagement perspective, addressing the questions, “How can we help?” and “How can we nurture relationships?”

So far we’ve heard from a few responders to this series. In the spring we are hoping to have more people provide insight into the importance of relationships from a variety of perspectives. We’ve been in touch with a few people to see if they will be willing to prime the pump. We are interested in hearing from others who might want to weigh in on the importance of relationship building to their work. And, of course, if you disagree with the premise, we’d like to see you make your case. If you want to participate in a more extended conversation in the spring, contact me at

For those who missed any of this series (and want to look at them), here’s the list, with links:



Photo: Some rights reserved by Troy B Thompson