undercoversIt’s been a week since the election. I have spent the time (metaphorically) in the fetal position under the covers. I regret that I’ve not had the psychological energy to weigh in before; I’m now viscerally aware that with age comes a marked reduction in resilience. (Who knew?)

I will confess that one of my first impulses was to throw in the towel on my work attempting to better connect arts organizations with their communities. Even then, though, I knew that was a form of cowardice that I couldn’t, ultimately, abide. It was Diane Ragsdale’s reflection on our situation slapped me silly and began the process of getting me out of my funk:

We arts workers will need to let go of the notion upon which many nonprofit professional cultural organizations were founded: that we exist, essentially, to save the world with art (and, quite often, with Western European Bourgeois Art, specifically). Instead, it seems that our first charge is to live fully in our tragically divided country and participate fully in our tragically broken democracy. Fleeing physically, mentally, emotionally, or spiritually is to deny both our culpability and power to make a difference.

But her reminder of Paul Krugman’s late-night election day post (that I did read live) is what is most affecting me now: “[P]eople like me, like most readers of the New York Times, truly didn’t understand the country we live in.” Like so many others, we didn’t see it coming; and we didn’t see it coming because 1) the reality of–as opposed to our fantasies about–suburban/exurban/rural life is invisible to us, 2) we have made little or no effort to learn about those communities, and/or 3) we don’t truly value the experiences of those communities.

Yes, there are virulent racists and rabid misogynists who voted for the next president, but there are not 59+ million of them. Many of those voters chose to hold their noses and opt for support of values, vitally important to them, with which we passionately disagree or, like working class jobs, we’ve given little thought; but we also know that many Clinton voters held their noses to support equity, justice, and/or a historic possibility.

I am the grandson, nephew, and cousin of Iowa farmers, raised in that state in a town of about 25,000 people. If I, who came from that world, can lose sight of their experience, it’s not surprising that so many of us were blindsided. BTW, if you want a good dose of humble pie, read “I am the rural uneducated person.” (Try substituting “arts establishment” for “media” as you read it.)

Years ago, when Building Communities, Not Audiences was in the planning stages, I was invited to speak with a group of staff members at the National Endowment for the Arts. (I am indebted to Jamie Bennett for that incredible opportunity.) When I described the book’s content, Joan Shigekawa, Sr. Deputy Chair of the Endowment, asked me, “But what about the disaffected middle class?” I knew I had been nailed because I was not specifically addressing that world in the book. I did a brief politician’s dance of words around the topic and resolved to make sure I never lost sight of her question.

When I encourage arts organizations to build relationships with new communities, I’m always asked “What communities?” The pragmatic answer is to begin with those with which some relationship already exists. But it’s true that the knee-jerk first thought–often encouraged by funders–is always some target community, often a community of color. I encourage broadening that thinking but it’s true I’ve seldom (though not never) mentioned segments of the middle class. Going forward, I must do better in responding to Ms. Shigekawa’s admonition.

I am seeing people referring to the arts as “weapons of mass inclusion” to be tapped at this moment in our history. That’s a great sentiment. To live up to that description we must include, along with others, rural, suburban, and middle class communities in our planning. Thus far, we’ve not devoted enough of our time to this. There are, of course, shining exceptions. Let me point to Art of the Rural and Springboard for the Arts (because they are the ones I know best) as two among a goodly number that do support work that impacts rural and/or middle class lives.

And to be clear, we’ve not devoted nearly enough thought and energy to building relationships with any new community, but that’s a much, much different discussion.

Ms. Ragsdale, at the conclusion of her election reflection exhorted us to “. . . walk out into our communities, with our senses wide open, and absorb ‘the relations between one thing and another.’” I’ve been advocating that for years as the basis for community building. What I now see is that we need to be doing that not just in urban neighborhoods but also in suburbs, towns, and villages across the country. For the good of our communities and, frankly, for the viability of our industry, we must, collectively, learn from and work with all of them. We can be a powerful force for furthering understanding and for building unity if we do things to make us so.

(Get out from under the covers and) Engage!


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Engage Now!

EngageNowCoverFinalIt has been some time since I first hinted that another book was coming out. And I am happy, nay ecstatic, to say, it’s here. Engage Now! A Guide to Making the Arts Indispensable is now available in paperback. The ebook version will be out very soon.

It’s wonderful to have this completed. Two years in the making is a pretty long gestation period. Regular readers of Engaging Matters have seen a good deal of it in draft form in this location.

I’m tremendously gratified to have gotten so many kind words from field leaders I deeply respect. (See quotes below.) The promotional material follows this opening. And, of course, here’s the skinny on sales:

Engage Now!

A Guide to Making the Arts Indispensable

For some, the arts as indispensable is a preposterous idea, yet nearly every stakeholder in the industry believes the arts’ value to be unquestionable. That gap accounts for most of the challenges arts organizations face. As long as the arts are seen as an amenity (at best), they will struggle in a world that only has time for that which is necessary. “Mere” relevance will not suffice. To compete in the marketplace of public value the required standard is indispensability.

Engage Now! is a “how to” manual for the arts organization seeking to become invaluable. It

  • Presents basic principles and practices of effective community engagement,
  • Provides guidance for achieving systemic focus on engagement, and
  • Outlines a process for becoming a universally recognized community asset.

This book is intended for anyone with a vested interest in the arts. Since the arts are essential for healthy individuals and healthy communities, it is for everyone. However, far too few people are aware of their “vested interest.” That makes Engage Now! important for us all.

Arts organizations cannot long survive
without earning impassioned support from the communities they serve.

 Communities cannot reach their full potential
without the benefits the arts can provide.

Part I: The Mission of Arts Organizations
Chapter One: Systemic Challenges and Internal Issues
Chapter Two: What Is the Arts Business?
Chapter Three: The Way Forward: New Understanding of Mission
Part II: A Community Engagement Primer
Chapter Four: Engagement Essentials
The Practice of Engagement
Chapter Five: The Engagement Process: Principles and Practice
Chapter Six: Engaged Arts: Organizations
Chapter Seven: Engaged Arts: Artists (Entrepreneurship
Chapter Eight: The Engagement Process: An Operational Blueprint
A Benediction: It’s Not Easy

Online Excerpts

What they’re saying:

A playbook for arts organizations to become as indispensable as the corner store
Jamie Bennett, Executive Director, ArtPlace America

An eloquent and persuasive voice in a global conversation
about the power of the arts to transform our society
Simon Brault, author, No Culture, No Future
Director and CEO, Canada Council for the Arts

Great advice about engaging more of the population, growing your organization and
increasing opportunity for successful operations and artistic expression
Janet Brown, President & CEO, Grantmakers in the Arts

Inspiring advice about how the arts sector can play a more powerful role in the public life of our communities
Ra Joy, Executive Director, Arts Alliance Illinois

A distinctively valuable guide for how to integrate
arts management and community development
Jonathan Katz, former CEO, National Assembly of State Arts Agencies

Borwick probes arts organizations to evaluate their relationship with their community and provides action steps to building a stronger, more sustainable connection with the people [we] serve
Robert Lynch, President & CEO, Americans for the Arts

A guiding light for nonprofit arts organizations seeking to be relevant, responsive, and
indispensable to the communities we exist to benefit
Josephine Ramirez, Arts Program Director, James Irvine Foundation

Borwick leaves no question unasked, proving why he is the authority on community engagement work
Alan Salzenstein, President, Association of Arts Administration Educators and
Professor of Performing Arts Management/Arts Leadership, DePaul University

A clear guide to taking on the necessary efforts to broaden our missions,
serve our communities and increase the impact of the arts
Marc A. Scorca, President & CEO, OPERA America



Meeting Half Way

WomanOnBridgeWhen two parties need to bridge distance between them there is a common phrase we use, “I’ll meet you half way.” That appeals to our basic sense of fairness. No one should have to do all the giving in developing (or healing) a relationship.

When arts organizations are attempting to develop a relationship (engage) with a new community, that same principle should apply, and we often refer to meeting them half way.  But I had a bit of an epiphany (although, yes, it’s a “Duh!”) that in meeting half way, both parties have to move. A commitment to relationship building requires a willingness to move. For an arts organization this means doing some thing or things differently.

If there is a belief that commitment to mission precludes much or any “movement” then something has to give. Either assumptions about the mission need to be examined or it will be necessary to recognize that true engagement is unachievable. Fortunately, the only understanding of mission that makes movement toward new communities impossible is one that assumes the way it has always been done (time, place, mode of presentation, and all content) is the way it must continue to be done.

This framework generates a question to apply in examining engagement activities. “What are you doing differently as a result of your commitment to engagement?” [This question was not among those in the last two posts (Yep, We Do That-Sequel (Part I) and Yep, We Do That-Sequel (Part II), but it is like one in my earlier post, Yep, We Do That: “In what ways has the work you do been altered, affected by your understanding of your communities (not your assumptions about your communities)?”] More importantly, how would the communities you are trying to reach answer that question about you? If your organization has difficulty responding to the question or if you think communities might have difficulty identifying a change, it’s likely more work needs to be done. It’s time to move.



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Yep, We Do That-Sequel (Part II)

ThumbUpLast time I mentioned that on several occasions recently I have been confronted by the disconnect that exists between arts organizations’ self-perceptions with respect to community engagement and the reality of what they are (not) doing. In that post I gave my yes/no, multiple choice questions for assessing community engagement readiness. This time I’m sharing the essay questions. (You can take the professor out of the classroom, but . . . .)

Long Form Readiness Assessment
Commitment to Community Engagement
Part II

With what communities is your organization intentionally engaging? For each:

Name the community
Briefly describe the relationship-building process you followed.
Briefly describe the relationship-maintenance activities you employ.
What are their principal interests and concerns? How do you know?
How long have these efforts been in place?

In what ways does your programming:

Reflect what you have learned from each community with which you are engaged?
Reflect the fact that [ ] is your home base? (I.e., how does it differ from a similar organization in a different city?)

How is community engagement supported by your organization’s administrative structure? What staff members are responsible for community engagement? To whom do they report?

How is community engagement supported in organizational planning processes? How is community engagement supported in organizational budgeting? Is there a dedicated budget for community engagement?

How are staff members responsible for community engagement evaluated?

What new sources of funding have you received as a result of your engagement with these communities? (Comment especially on support from sources that are not primarily arts funders.)

In what ways do your marketing and sales activities demonstrate an awareness of the needs and interests of these communities?
Provide data documenting increased sales as a result of these activities.

In what ways does your governance (board membership, agendas, activities) reflect your engagement with these communities?

How are you measuring:

The success of your engagement efforts?
The impact of your engagement efforts on the organization as a whole?

Again, the purposes of these questions are two-fold. One, they do a reasonably good job of showing how far along an organization is in developing its community engagement muscles. Second, they are educational in that some of them may reflect ideas about successful engagement that may not have been part of the internal discussions before.

Later this year all these questions will be on my website (–but they’re not up there yet. They will also be included in my second book which will be available mid-year. (I’ve now twice committed to a date in public, so I guess I’m stuck.) It should come as no surprise that I’ll be saying more here about that later.



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Yep, We Do That-Sequel (Part I)

ThumbUpI have recently had several occasions to be confronted, once again, by the disconnect that exists between arts organizations’ self-perceptions with respect to community engagement and the reality of what they are (not) doing. When community engagement is viewed as a good thing, there is a powerful incentive to believe that the things being done are community engagement. (My “glass half full” lies in the first part of that sentence. Some people are beginning to look on community engagement as a positive.) This delays (sometimes precludes) change or leads to unfortunate assumptions on the part of others about what community engagement is. I addressed this previously in Yep, We Do That. There I presented questions to ask in an effort to assess the depth of commitment and the reality of impact of community engagement by arts organizations.

To carry this forward, I have developed more questions that can be addressed to see where an organization is in the process of embracing engagement. It’s my hope that the questions themselves can be educational in examining the role of engagement in the organization.

What follows are the yes/no and multiple choice questions. My next post will have the essay questions. Also, for your information, later this year these questions will be on my website (–but they’re not up there yet. They will also be included in my second book which will be available mid-year. (There, it’s official, I’ve committed to a date in public.) More on that a bit later.

Long Form Readiness Assessment
Commitment to Community Engagement
Part I

Is there a board-approved statement regarding the importance of community engagement? (Y/N)
Is community engagement a significant feature in organizational plans? (Y/N)

Staffing and Budget
Are there staff members with assigned responsibility for community engagement? (Y/N)
If so, how many? (single answer)


Is that staff member (or one of them) the CEO or a direct report to the CEO? (Y/N) If not, to whom does staff member report (single answer)

Marketing and Development are a single unit

Is community engagement included in the responsibilities of another department? (Y/N) If yes, which: (single answer)

Marketing and Development are a single unit

Is there a dedicated budget for community engagement? (Y/N)
Do programming decisions reflect the impact of/support community engagement? (Y/N)

Community Connections
Are mechanisms in place to learn the interests and needs of communities with which you attempt to connect? (Y/N)

If yes, what are they? (multiple answers)

Focus groups
On-going advisory committees made up of community members
Board representation

Do communities outside the arts seek your assistance in addressing their concerns or supporting their celebrations? (Y/N)



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