The State of Engagement

As I consider the future of ArtsEngaged and of my own role in the community engagement arena I am, of necessity, thinking about the status of community engagement in the nonprofit arts industry. If most (or even many) arts organizations were on a clear path to substantive community engagement there would be no need for training in and advocacy for community engagement. I’d be really (really, really) happy to ride off into the sunset. But from my direct observation and from the reports of many in the field (usually from younger people in junior level arts organization positions) we’re not there yet. For too many arts organizations, their level of self-focus apparently makes understanding that effective community engagement is something substantially different from traditional sales/marketing/fundraising/education approaches nearly impossible.

To be clear, effective community engagement is the building of mutually beneficial relationships with new populations out of which grows arts programming that addresses the interests of those populations. This demands humility about how little we know about communities with which we have no relationship, respectful listening to learn, and a willingness to view and employ our art as a means of making lives better–better in ways understood by those communities, not in ways that we paternalistically assume. And it must be relationships with new populations because our reach is simply not great enough to support our work as we look to the future.

Across the field there are certainly many areas of good news. There are the arts organizations that practice effective engagement out of simply necessity. These are rural, neighborhood, and, sometimes, culturally specific organizations whose base population is small enough that they have to (and can) know their members fairly well. There are also the organizations whose mission is some form of social justice work utilizing the arts. Justice cannot be pursued without understanding the nature of injustice and its impact on individuals. Conversations have to happen.

Even among medium-size and large arts organizations with arts missions rooted in the European aristocratic tradition there are those that have made substantial, organization-wide mission-based commitments to their communities (Milwaukee Repertory Theater for one); others with significant programming or project-based commitments to their communities (Houston Grand Opera’s HGOco is but one); and still others that have hired a C-suite level (CEO, COO, CFO, etc.) officer to oversee relationship building processes and the resultant programming initiatives and have given them the mandate and resources to be successful. I believe the Queens Museum of Art falls in this category.

Unfortunately, there are many (I would unscientifically call it a vast majority) that have no interest in engagement, pay it lip service, or call things that they are doing “engagement” when they clearly do not use the means or serve the necessary ends (expanding reach) of effective engagement. The common thread among these is a prime or exclusive focus on benefits to the arts organization and a level of artcentricity (seeing the art, rather than the interaction between people and that art, as primary) that gets in the way building relationships. A few examples of what I mean are given below. This is by no means an exhaustive listing.

Calling these things engagement does nothing to address the systemic challenge we face: the need to be seen as valuable by vastly larger percentages of the population. If, like me, you believe that effective engagement is critical to the future of the arts in our country, you understand that there is much, much more that needs to be done.

Next time, some thoughts on things to be done.



Photo: Attribution Some rights reserved by archerwl

  1. Here are some thoughts to consider on why, as you put it, “Calling these things engagement does nothing to address the systemic challenge we face: the need to be seen as valuable by vastly larger percentages of the population.” :

    What if some folks simply do not have a foundation for art to be more than a luxury and the limit of their interest will only ever be that of entertainment? What if we are not all equally capable of finding the intrinsic value of the arts? What if there is some sort of obstruction that closes off even the potential for passion? And I’m suggesting this in opposition to everything I have believed for the last 20 odd years of teaching. This is an idea that may be difficult to digest. Art may simply not be available to all people equally.

    What I mean is that people are not necessarily wired in the same way, and that how one appreciates things is possibly sometimes a structural issue. What roles do things have in our lives? Are those roles necessarily available to all of us equally or just to some? Not limited by physical access or culture, but simply as the result of who we are? Is it possible that some folks are closed off from seeing art as anything more than a luxury, and no amount of facts or exposure will change that?

    A confirmed ‘lifelong’ Republican will almost never find a way to see things as differently as Democrats do. They have not simply forgotten the values of the other side, they just believe the opposite. And that becomes something fixed about them. Our habits of thought are too calcified beyond a certain point. People who see the arts as a luxury from structural consequences of their beliefs are perhaps as susceptible to conversion as Democrats are to being Republicans. It’s like we are selling Bibles to atheists and bacon to vegetarians.

    It seems on a variety of levels that holding certain beliefs, having certain belief structures, precludes us from entertaining other beliefs. That if you hold one thing you cannot at the same time believe this other thing. To make some folks feel art was more than entertainment would mean you’d have to overturn their whole belief system. You’d have to make them different……

    In other words, it might not be about art per se but something much deeper, and if we try to solve the problem on the level of art we are not even addressing the real problem. Their feelings about art may only be symptomatic. And so any solution framed around art will be missing the point.

    Ask yourself: What change is necessary for a Democrat to become a Republican? A meat eater to become a vegetarian? An atheist to become religious? What would it take for us to no longer believe the arts mattered, that they carried no value in themselves, that they were only good for entertainment, that they were not necessary in any sense to human life as we know it? This, I believe, is the level where we need to address these issues.

  2. Thank you for this thoughtful assessment, Doug. I’m encouraged by the good news you share, and I empathize with your frustration at the majority who still don’t get it.

    As you know, I see the same thing from a marketing perspective. There are a handful of organizations that are connecting meaningfully with sustaining audiences, but the majority are still spraying self-important nonsense at the world and wondering why people aren’t coming anymore.

    It’s been a pleasure exploring the relationship between marketing and engagement with you. Your writing has helped me clarify my thinking and it has made me appreciate how closely the two can work when leaders have a clear understanding of their respective roles.

    Thank you also for mentioning those young arts administrators who do get it and who are waiting in the wings for their “that’s the way we’ve always done it” bosses to move on. I’m greatly encouraged by their energy and optimism.

    Please keep up the excellent work.