Engaging Matters

The arts began as collective activity around the campfire, expressions of community. In a very real sense, the community owned that expression. Over time, with increasing specialization of labor, the arts– especially Western “high arts”– became distanced from the community. Today the survival of established arts organizations hinges on their ability to shorten that distance. Engagement is important; engaging matters.

To engage successfully, arts organizations need to make authentic, substantive connections with their communities.  Those communities should not be seen as a collection of market segments to be tapped in an effort to sell tickets or extend reach; they should be seen as indispensable partners in improving lives. It is the creation and support of healthy, vital communities that provide the ultimate justification for the allocation of financial and human resources that the arts require. Communities do not exist to serve the arts; the arts exist to serve communities.

Acknowledging a whiff of hyperbole in that last sentence, along with the potential for irritation in a misunderstanding of it, the issue nevertheless needs to be faced squarely. This blog will examine the topic of community engagement on the part of the arts community in both abstract principles and practical application. I welcome you to the discussions, debates, arguments, and rants.

2018 Addition to This Page
To help give readers context about “where I am coming from” and my own understanding of the limits of my work, the following are the frames that form the basis of my writing:

  1. I’m an old white guy. My personal and professional lives have benefitted from extreme privilege. While I can never truly understand the experience of those from other backgrounds, I am working to maintain awareness of the difference and continually learn ways to address the inequities that exist in our social and cultural systems.
  2. My work is almost solely focused on bringing systemically privileged nonprofit arts organizations to understand the moral and practical importance of community engagement and provide them with support in becoming effective in such engagement. My background supports me in this. I do not presume to be able to advise other categories of arts organizations except in that the basic principles of relationship building that support effective community engagement apply to any group seeking to engage with new communities.

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