Plan B

PlanBIn the context of posts that write themselves, this one falls in the category of “written (primarily) by someone else.” The Guardian (London) published, earlier this year, an opinion piece titled “Public arts funding: towards plan B.” (It was written by Three Johns and Shelagh: John Holden, John Kieffer, John Newbigin and Shelagh Wright.) The article is a critique of Arts Council England’s arts funding report titled Towards Plan A, a report they consider to be too “business as usual,” leaving “haves” and “have-nots” pretty much in the same place they have always been. The authors of the piece propose a “Plan B.” They say:

How many arts organisations can honestly say that their local communities would erect the barricades to defend them? Plan B involves creating the kind of solid public support that makes cuts politically dangerous or, even better, unthinkable.

This awareness of the connection between arts organizations taking public benefit seriously and resultant public policy (and private giving increases) is one of the (though not the only) principal rationales for community engagement. The article puts it this way:

Cultural organisations should be loved and cherished by their communities of interest and/or geography. Communities = people, and people = voters. But people are not only voters who can influence politicians; they are individuals who can dig into their pockets.

To which I can only respond, “Amen.” So what is Plan B? Arts organizations should:

Create relationships rather than transactions with their communities
• Extend their reach and improve ratings – bums on seats do matter; so does critical and public response to their works
• Make their governance reflect their community
• Be clear about their artistic and civic purposes and shout about them in plain and simple ways
• Not treat public funding as a proxy for public engagement
• Use language that everybody understands instead of advocacy-speak
• Be as creative and innovative in their organisational life as they are, or as they should be, in their artistic endeavours
• Use their spaces as much as possible – public buildings should be used every hour of the day and night
• Collaborate as much as possible, with other local arts organisations, community organisations, public agencies and businesses
• Be financially careful and able to show they give great value for money
• Show they care
• Care

I’d probably reverse the last two and the public funding point is almost irrelevant in the States. But the list as a whole is a clear statement of “marching orders” for any organization serious about community engagement. The arts should be for all, should be meaningful to all. It is in the interest of the nonprofit arts industry to work tirelessly toward that end, but the end will not be achieved through business as usual. The reasonable hope is that as a result of commitment to engagement:

[I]f organisations do get total public support, they will be able to flourish without grants. Their existence will no longer be subject to the vagaries of public funding or the whims of philanthropists.



Image: Public domain (

My Excellent Singapore Adventure

Regular readers of this blog know that I do not “journal” here. I attempt to maintain a myopic focus on issues related to the arts and community engagement. Therefore, I had not intended to write about my trip to the other side of the globe. That travel was related to my work as an arts administration educator. I was asked to address the inaugural meeting of the Asia-Pacific Network for Cultural Education and Research.

I am, though, virtually incapable of having a conversation about the arts without talking about community engagement. What I discovered doing so in Singapore surprised me. Whether talking with the staff of Singapore’s National Arts Council or arts administration educators from Taiwan, the Philippines, Thailand, or Singapore, community engagement (in the ways described in this blog) was a significant, if not critical, issue. In my naïveté, I had thought this was primarily a Western problem. What I discovered was that the root of the arts/community divide in the U.S.–European cultural hegemony and association of that artistic legacy with money and power–rings just as true in the Asia Pacific region as it does in my own backyard (although there it is European/U.S. cultural hegemony).

I discovered that there is work to be done in supporting native cultural heritages in the face of Western cultural dominance. The impression that I formed was that in much of Asia, funding for support of artistic endeavor is weighted heavily toward Western forms and expressions. (This fact is a fascinating one that deserves discussion by people far more versed in Asian cultural history than I. The closest I can come to understanding it is to draw a parallel to the situation in the U.S. through at least the first half of the twentieth century–our cultural inferiority complex. U.S. artists had to be “authenticated” by studying and/or succeeding in Europe.)

In the middle of a singularly challenging presentation by Benson Puah, CEO of Singapore’s National Arts Council, I found myself nodding so vigorously that he called me out on it after he concluded his remarks. What he was saying sounded exactly like the arguments many in the community arts movement in the U.S. use in advocating for broadening our understanding of “acceptable” arts practice, opening up the infrastructure to support artistic expression that speaks more directly to more segments of the population. I was having a cognitive dissonance/deja vu moment as I heard him saying things I have said on the other side of the globe in a vastly different context. He was talking about non-European cultures in the face of Western dominance. The cultural expressions for which he was advocating are, to some extent, different from those needing more support here, but the issues are nearly identical–for nearly identical reasons.

In addition, I got a good cultural/social history lesson from staff members of Singapore’s National Arts Council. Ai Liang Chua, the Council’s Arts and Community Director (You can imagine how much I enjoyed discovering that was a division of the NAC), explained to me that Singapore is, in the context of the Asia Pacific region, a uniquely multicultural nation. There is a strong presence of Indian, Chinese, and Malaysian cultures (to name just three). The multiculturalism of Singapore raises issues for its arts council that we face in our own highly diverse society. How are extant cultures adequately supported via cultural policy?

In short, the experience was a vitally important one for me, the arts and community engagement advocate. Seeing similar issues (and hearing them described in nearly identical terms) gave me valuable perspective on my own work. It showed me that my concerns about this issue are not as parochial as I thought. It also opened up the possibility of learning lessons about effective engagement from my Asia-Pacific colleagues. I look forward to that.