I am frequently asked about the rationales for community engagement. I have spent so much time with my head in the weeds about the subject that my responses have a tendency to go on for a long time, attempting to list all the reasons. But recently, in a videoconference with a group of graduate students, a lightbulb went off. I realized that, in essence, there were just two broad categories of rationales.
The first is the existential one. If significant change is not made from the 20th-Century model of “if we present it they will (should) come,” many of our arts institutions will not be around in another generation or two. The economic, demographic, and social expectation pressures/shifts we’re experiencing are so profound that “the center will not hold.” We’ve got to connect, in powerful ways, with our communities for our own well-being.
That’s the stick. However, while sticks may get people’s attention, there’s nothing particularly inspirational about them. They don’t provide the energy for sustained effort after the initial adrenalin rush of fear goes away. Fear is a powerful motivator but it cannot support long-lasting work.
Carrots (the proverbial ones, anyway) are far better. And in this case there’s an incredibly delicious carrot. Many arts organizations struggle with relevance, invisibility, images of elitism, and lack of public/community support to name just a few challenges. How immensely satisfying it would be to be commonly viewed as indispensable. Imagine a world in which everyone (or at least most people) saw your arts organization as totally indispensable in their own lives and in the life of their community. That’s a carrot to hang your hat on. (I get a perverse pleasure from vastly inappropriate mixed metaphors.)
The only trick here is that to be seen as indispensable we have to do things that people understand as being indispensable–not things that we identify as indispensable. And that is where community engagement comes in. We need to get to know the communities we want to serve and out of that knowledge work with them to provide opportunities that are vitally meaningful to them.
One carrot, one stick. Simple, right?
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