Keep It Simple


In speeches, presentations, and workshops, I frequently get to the Q&A session and find myself faced with not a few perplexed expressions. In general, people understand the importance of community engagement. However, staff members of arts organizations in which substantive CE (as opposed to re-titled audience development) is a newish concept have difficulty getting their heads around what to do.

My first response is to assure them that the compulsion to do something immediately is misguided (though entirely understandable). The production of arts experiences that will be the expression of community engagement must come out of a relationship building process. That process must happen first, so nothing should be put on the boards or on the walls immediately.

My second response is that initial efforts will not/should not be time-consuming or expensive. Things will move as habits of mind change. When arts organization staff members (all departments) see a portion of their work as serving the interests of external communities, they will begin to rethink the things they are already doing with budgets that already exist.

But it has been my experience that too many people simply cannot believe me, even when they are polite enough not to vent their frustration. It has taken me several years to tumble to the pedagogical problem I have created for myself. In my zeal to show how cool successful community engagement can be, I present examples ranging from the very simple all the way to the bells and whistles stories of commissioned operas, multi-city story-capturing and -telling efforts, and cities transformed by multi-year dance company projects. The bells and whistles stories are almost all the culmination of years of community relationship building and herculean funding efforts. Unfortunately it can be only those stories that people hear and take away with them, shaking their heads about the impossibility of pursuing community engagement.

So I now realize I must retool my presentations. Except where everyone (or almost everyone) in the room is well on the path, I need to focus on the simple: the realization that West Side Story is about (among other things) immigration and gang violence; that Vivaldi’s Spring can be an expression of environmental awareness; that Renaissance music inspired by the Plague is about a deadly public health crisis; and that virtually every work of art we would be programming anyway in some way or other reflects issues of importance to people today. In addition, the work of each department of an arts organization outside of programming (those big enough and lucky enough to have departments) can be refocused in simple ways to support community engagement efforts. (One example: marketing focus groups can add a few questions to aid development of two-way relationships between the participants and the organization rather than the traditional one-way information gathering.)

Blockbuster community engagement projects are thrilling to examine and can serve as prods to greater efforts. However, especially at the beginning, they can also inspire despair (and, if I am going to be honest, confirm the dark–if subconscious–hopes of some) that change is impossible.

Lesson learned.



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