One Jupiter

Jupiter, Florida in northern Palm Beach County is home to a very large population of Guatemalan immigrants. In April 2015, Onesimo Lopez-Ramos, an 18-year-old member of that community, was murdered outside his home by a group of young men who later told police they were out “Guat’ hunting.” In response to this tragedy, El Sol, a local resource center for Guatemalan immigrants, Jupiter Inlet Lighthouse and Museum, and the Lighthouse ArtCenter collaborated on a traveling exhibition, called “One Jupiter,” celebrating Mayan culture and the contributions of Guatemalans to life in Palm Beach County. It was designed to increase understanding of the rich heritage that the Guatemalans bring with them and provide an opportunity for healing and relationship building across cultures in the city. Presented in schools, libraries, community centers, and even Florida Atlantic University, it appears to have had a positive impact on the community. When El Sol opened in 2006 it was met with protests and angry residents complained about it at town council meetings. Today, in the words of a local reporter “the community’s tone has completely changed.” The public anger has evaporated.

The collaboration that sponsored the “One Jupiter” exhibition was not born as a result of Lopez-Ramos’ murder. The Jupiter Inlet Lighthouse  and the Lighthouse ArtCenter had worked with El Sol prior to that on programming for immigrant children and support for the Resource Center’s work. The tragedy certainly did galvanize the partners into action but it was not necessary to build trust from nothing at the time it occurred.

One of the most interesting things to me about this story is that the relationship among the institutions has continued and grown since the initial work in 2015. The partnering organizations remain in dialogue and assist each other in providing training and art classes for children and adults as well as summer camps designed in ways that encourage participation by Guatemalan young people. In June the Cultural Council of Palm Beach County hosted a portion of the “One Jupiter” exhibition and is sponsoring related panel discussions and presentations. (See article) Rather than being a “one off” collaboration, the members of the organizations have made a point of maintaining their connections, this is especially interesting since one of the principal leaders of the project has recently moved to Maine.

This story is inspiring on its own. We should never forget the role that art can play in cross-cultural understanding. But the “One Jupiter” story also demonstrates some critical principles of community engagement. The project would not have been nearly as successful if there had not already been a relationship among the participants, and certainly would not have happened so quickly. The exhibition first opened five months after the murder. Indeed, given the grief in the Guatemalan community it is likely that a project such as this would either have had to wait a long time–until trust was built–or would not have been possible at all. Relationship building is important foundational work even when we don’t know what projects will come out of it.

In addition, the collaboration did not simply stop when the first round of exhibition traveling ended. (Notably, the exhibition was also not the sole element of the partners’ joint projects.) They have continued to talk and work, all of which has resulted in drawing the awareness of the broader Palm Beach County community as demonstrated by the Cultural Council’s participation this summer. They have been successfully maintaining the relationships.

Even from a distance we can grieve with the city of Jupiter and particularly its Guatemalan community. The best hope going forward is that we can learn from this lessons about building bridges into the communities that surround us wherever we work.

Before I close, let me address my colleagues in academia. The people who have worked on the One Jupiter project are very anxious to get the word out about it. They would love someone to tell the story more broadly. I can imagine it being an excellent opportunity for a graduate student project. Get in touch if you’d like an introduction.



Riverside Art Museum

In May I was invited to speak at a convening of the Irvine Foundation’s New California Arts Fund grantees. Each of the cohort’s 14 arts organizations really gets engagement and is extremely active living out the work of connecting with communities.

There were many, many wonderful stories of effective community engagement. However, one in particular made a deep impression upon me. One part of the impression was the power of an example that demonstrates that not only does engagement not need to be a budget drain but that it also provides the possibility of bringing more revenue to an organization. The other part was the up-to-the-minute timeliness of the story.

In conversations with staff members of the Riverside Art Museum, I learned that their initial work in fostering relationships with Riverside’s Latino communities had resulted in donations to purchase art. But the “hot off the press” revelation came during the convening. The actor and comedian Cheech Marin had recently lent a portion of his Chicano art collection to the RAM for an exhibition. As a result of that experience and as a result of the enthusiasm he saw in the community’s response to it, he is partnering with the Museum and the city of Riverside to create the Cheech Marin Center for Chicano Art, Culture, and Industry in a repurposed library (that is being replaced by a new building) that will be five times the size of the Museum’s current space. This is one of the best examples I’ve seen putting to the lie the idea that community engagement is a one-way drain on resources. Congratulations to the RAM! For more info see: []

Even later breaking news: the project has been approved unanimously by the Riverside City Council Mr. Marin and the Museum will now have a year to raise about half of the $5-$7 Million cost of upfitting the old library for its new use.

Community engagement can be a path to new and otherwise unavailable sources of funding and support.



Co-Creation in Dance

by Clara Pinsky, Program Coordinator; Krissie Marty, Associate Choreographer;
Allison Orr, Artistic Director
Forklift Danceworks

This post is part of a series in conjunction with TRG Arts on developing relationships with both new communities and existing stakeholders through artistic programming, marketing and fundraising, community engagement and public policy. (Cross-post can be found at Analysis from TRG Arts.)

allisonelvis21The need to deepen relationships with current stakeholders and build relationships with new audiences is a compelling question for us at Forklift Danceworks. When we are asked this question, we often answer with a question: Who loves Elvis?

In 2007, Forklift’s Artistic Director Allison Orr choreographed The King & I—not the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, but an evening-length, contemporary dance performance work to address her curiosity, “Just what does Elvis Presley have to do with you and me, anyway?” In making the work, Allison knew she needed to find a way to get input and inspiration from the Elvis community. She sought out to find, “Who loves Elvis?”

Meeting the dedicated Elvis tribute artists and hearing stories from fans, Allison decided to loosely structure the performance of The King & I on Elvis’ last concert. Thinking even more about the fans who love Elvis (who also love to get together to talk about their love for Elvis!), she decided to perform the dance over three weekends around the 30th anniversary of Elvis’ death. Through collecting stories about Elvis’ life and work, performances of his songs and of course, choreography that included his iconic moves, this show with three professional dancers and five Elvis Tribute Artists was really a collaboration with many others, with inspiration and input from the Elvis-loving community.

In the years since The King & I, we have choreographed dances for trash collectors and their vehicles, electric utility workers and their equipment, forestry technicians and a heritage pecan tree, and baseball players and a historic field. The key to the success of each project has been asking, “Who loves Elvis–or recycling, or electricity, or trees, or baseball?” and finding the community that already has a stake in the dance we are making and inviting them to join us in the creative process.

In essence, community engagement is inherent in our process of making dances. We hang out, talk and ask questions, and most importantly we listen. We get really excited about the knowledge that exists in the groups with which we collaborate. Each specific community has had an abundance of ideas, expertise, and resources to offer our art making process. Practically, the only way to make a great dance with trash trucks is to work with someone who has been driving a trash truck for years. In the same way, the only way for us to make a great dance about Elvis is to work with people who love Elvis, too.

Our other trick? The people we work with become co-authors of the dance and the stories we tell within it. Baseball players have choreographed the action of 10 pitchers throwing in a circle; linemen have choreographed hanging electrical wire by hand and dropping pulleys in canon. Our projects share the story of our determined community with a wider audience and we often ask about, and listen for, what our community wants the general public to know.

For us as artists the exchange between ourselves and the community we are partnering with is reciprocal. We also ask ourselves what do we have to offer the community we are working with? What is the value add for them? And this ultimately encourages us as artists to make better dance. We want to make great dances, and by seeking relevance, connection and engagement from the get go—we give ourselves an even better chance of making that awesome dance.

And it just gets better. Working in this way—where relationships and listening are central to our dance making process—continues to provide us with rich material for art making. With each project, we engage with a new community that tells us even more about our city. Honestly, we feel blessed. How else could we have learned about what it is like to free climb a 100 ft transmission tower, or prune one of Austin’s oldest trees, or hit a home run in front of thousands of fans?

Our art making is what allows us to deepen and build relationships. So our advice…go find out “who loves Elvis?!”

Photo: by Sung Park [Donnie Roberts, left; Allison Orr, right]

Engaging Early Music

SeattleEMGI recently had the opportunity to meet with leaders of several arts groups in Seattle. One was Gus Denhard, executive director of Seattle’s Early Music Guild. In the course of the conversation, he told me about a fundraiser his organization has been involved in. Ordinarily, I am not enthusiastic about fundraisers as community engagement activities since they usually simply involve giving a portion of an event’s proceeds to some worthy cause with little involvement or investment by the arts organization in the organization whose cause the event supports. EMG’s fundraiser is different on several counts.

After Ebola: Bringing Hope to Life has been presented the last two years to raise funds for Liberian Transcontinental Christian Ministries’ provision of housing, food, clothing, and education for children who have been orphaned as a result of the Ebola crisis. The 2014 concert was described as follows:

The crises caused by various plagues in human history have inspired artistic responses — art that does the work of mourning and remembering the victims and offering consolation to the bereaved. The special Early Music Guild concert will focus on the musical response of Medieval European composers such as Machaut, Landini, and Dufay to the devastating bubonic plague of the late Middle Ages. These will be juxtaposed with readings and songs from West Africa.

The concert will suggest parallels between Europeans’ reactions to plague in the 13th and 14th centuries and the ongoing tragedy in West Africa. This Ebola Relief program will feature performers including Eunice Yonly, Erin Calata, Erika Chang, and Marian Seibert, voices; August Denhard, lute; Shulamit Kleinerman, vielle; Bill McJohn, harp; and Peggy Monroe, percussion.

The 2015 concert featured a trio performing on harp, jarana, guitar, quinta, voice, lute, Baroque guitar, therobo, oud, andereta, bendir, teponatzli, cajón, zils, cascabeles, and rattles.

To me these events are remarkable in several ways. First, the fact that an early music group is sufficiently invested in contemporary events to consider something like this is heartening. Second, awareness of the parallels between the origins of (very) old music and contemporary issues demonstrates a real concern for community and the potential of even Renaissance music to have continued relevance. Finally, the 2015 concert demonstrates a willingness to expand understanding of the group’s mission by including decidedly non-traditional (for an early music group) instruments in its offerings.

Bravo EMG!



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