Can arts organizations be both art-focused and community-focused?


False Dilemma-thumb-300x254-153811[1]Doug Borwick has a new post (inspired by comments made by Lyz Crane at the Creative Placemaking Summit) on the “central disconnect” between arts organizations and community engagement. The cornerstones of his argument appear to be that the “art world” exists to do what it wants to do (in contrast to most of the social sectors that exist to solve a problem or need); that arts organizations, therefore, depend upon true believers that are willing to support them in their self-interested pursuits; that community engagement requires seeing art (not as an end in-and-of itself but) as a tool for social change; and thus, ipso facto, given their we-want-to-do-what-we-want-to-do orientation there is little possibility for arts organizations to extend their reach and work to advance their communities.

I’m a fan of Doug’s writing on Engaging Matters, generally, but I’m not sure I buy the argument in this instance.

First, the “art world” (his word) encompasses (or more accurately various “art worlds” encompass) much more than artists, art, and arts organizations. As Howard Becker asserts in his book of the same name, art worlds are made up of artists; organizations and individuals of various types that support them; the media and the cultural elite who legitimize and often patronize them; and the audiences who choose (or not) to pay attention to them. In other words, and this is an important point made by Becker, the audience is not only part of the art world, it has a critical role to pay: in giving attention to art works and experiences, audiences “reconstitute” (Becker’s word) them on a daily basis. That is, art lives only to the degree that it receives attention.

Following from the point above, one of the primary roles of nonprofit arts organizations, in particular but not exclusively, is to encourage people to pay attention to art works or artists that they might otherwise disregard or miss because they are not being produced and promoted for the masses by commercial firms. Doug seems to suggest that there is a limited pool of “true believers” that are the prime targets for any arts organization; while that may be true it is also true that nonprofit arts organizations exist to provide “education” and to encourage “taste formation”. They work to create more “true believers” in the arts experience (i.e., people for whom the experience matters, is relevant, or meaningful).

Another role is to serve markets (whether based on taste, income, geography or other factors) that are typically too unprofitable to be of interest to commercial producers and distributors. Thus, it’s debatable whether arts organizations are primarily “doing what they want to do”; rather, it’s arguable that nonprofit arts organizations are generally doing things (they perceive to be important or of value) that would not otherwise get done by commercial firms, but for which there is value to society. I would concede that perhaps too many of these things appeal to the eccentric tastes of upper middle class white people (and too little to the tastes of others in society); but that is a topic for another day. The main point is that, in and of itself, paying attention to markets or goods that the commercial world ignores, and getting others to pay attention to them, as well, are two of the great values of mission-based, nonprofit arts organizations. Moreover, these would seem to be (at least two of) “the problems” many arts organizations exist “to solve.”

Finally, I don’t buy that it is near-to-impossible for arts organizations to pursue a community engagement strategy. We are living in a period in which longstanding dichotomies (many tangentially related to this topic) are being challenged left and right: the assumption that you are either a professional or an amateur (and that the two should not work together); that one is either a maker or a consumer; that the focus is either on the product or the customer; and that as a business you either exist for financial profit or social profit. There is growing evidence such dichotomies are false and divides can be bridged. Indeed, a potential value for arts organizations is to make connections between amateurs and pros, between making and consuming, and between producers (i.e., artists) and consumers (i.e., patrons). Yes, there has been a pervasive sentiment for decades that nonprofit arts organizations either exist to advance art or the community. I would argue that we should add this to the list of false dichotomies above and start from the assumption that it is possible to do both.

Do you agree? Do you have examples to share?

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  1. says

    Merging art with social mission can work, but only if there’s a conscious effort made not to allow artistic standards to take second chair. I’vw worked for religious theatres and political theatres. Whenever high production values were maintained, in every case the productions played to diverse audiences. When the social mission was given priority over artistic quality, performances were only attended by people who already actively supported the organization’s goals. We were preaching, almost literally, to the choir.

  2. says

    Reading this, I had to go back to my post to see what I had written. Upon reflection, I will confess to some imprecision of language. My focus is almost exclusively on the not-for-profit arts industry and so to use a phrase like “art world” is sloppy shorthand. (This is especially true since I once used Becker’s book as a text in my arts management classes.) There is also a bit of hyperbole borne of weariness: the “do what it wants to do” line is ham-fisted, I’ll admit. I primarily phrased it that way to describe the situation as seen by the general public.

    The not-for-profit arts industry has, in the U.S., a problem of perceived public value. Too many “people on the street” have a sense that the arts as presented by that industry are not for them. One source of that is our funding history, with support coming from wealthy arts patrons. My main point was intended to be that the insight from Lyz Crane’s remarks provided an additional explanation: social service agencies exist to address a community issue; not-for-profit arts organizations exist to do art. Seen that way by the public can simply reinforce notions of limited public value.

    The thing that truly distresses me is your conclusion that I believe it “is near-to-impossible for arts organizations to pursue a community engagement strategy.” Nothing could be further from the truth. Indeed, I am devoting the rest of my professional life to moving arts organizations in that direction. Doing art and serving the community are not mutually exclusive. I would even argue that they are inextricably linked and mutually reinforcing. I frequently highlight examples of organizations doing both and seek to help others develop skills in doing so. What concerns me in my work is artcentricity: an over-focus on art at the expense of considering modes of service.

    • says

      Doug, my sincere apologies if I misconstrued your post and points! It was these paragraphs you wrote that led me to conclude that you saw the “we want to do what we want to do” focus in arts organizations and community engagement as mutually exclusive:

      “She [Lyz Crane] pointed out that most of the not-for-profit world exists to address a community problem, or at least to change (read: improve) an existing condition. On the other hand, for the most part the arts industry exists to do what it wants to do: present/produce art.

      There is the central disconnect regarding community engagement. The mission-focus of (much of) the arts world is on itself, what it wants to do. Support for the work depends on external constituencies believing that is important. With that mindset, there is no way (or, to be more accurate, very little opportunity) to foster new relationships that extend the reach of the organization.

      Community engagement depends upon seeing the creation of positive change as central to the mission and art as the mode and means of accomplishing that end. The details of how are complex, but this conceptual basis is fairly simple.”

      Much of your post focuses on the idea that arts organizations see art as an end in itself and the last paragraph, in particular, states that community engagement depends upon arts organizations seeing art as a means (and not an end). I don’t agree and think this ends/means distinction may be another false construct.

      Reading your comments above it would seem that I have misunderstood your post and that we are in agreement that the two goals are not mutually exclusive. And I also take your point that (too) many people are not engaged by the arts and that this is problematic. I have been known to harp on about this on Jumper, as well.

      Many thanks for clarifying and apologies, again, if I missed your point.


      • says

        Diane, No apology necessary. When an “on-the-same-page” colleague misunderstands you, you’re being imprecise. The issue is that “central to the mission” is not the same thing as the exclusive mission. I’ve long talked about balancing focus on art and service. ( is one good example.) The weighting of that balance is up to the organization. Community engagement does require taking some level of community awareness seriously, but never to the exclusion of quality art making.

        • Krysta Sorensen says

          “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.” It is true that many, not all, non-profit arts organizations try to exist by “doing what they want to do.” This is one of the reasons why so many of them struggle to stay afloat. Of course, not many would admit to it or even realize that its happening. The community demands attention. We, as arts leaders, need to look closer at ourselves, reevaluate, and then look even closer at those around us and what they need socially and artistically.

          All arts organizations have good intentions. We all agree that we must “engage.” However, the question is how do we engage with the community and find new, creative ways to do what we all want? It seems that it requires a completely different way of thinking. Knowing that it can be done, as Diane pointed out, is the first step. The difficulty is finding the right balance between producing quality art and engaging the community. Ideally there will come a point where they are one in the same.

  3. says

    It’s a troubling issue that is not just US based. I work for a non-profit arts organization in Canada (Hamilton, ON) and unlike other arts orbs. we do not exist to make art. Our job is to promote, educate, research, and develop model which make art, and more broadly culture, viable for communities. The key here is that we see artists and creative workers as part of a full community, and a community unto themselves. These two distinctions leave us to have differing strategies and approaches depending on which part of our mission we’re working from. We cannot divide “art” from the “world”. It exists in the here and now and needs leaders who can champion in now – not some hypothetical future or a long lost past. Jeremy

  4. says

    Baudelaire said that it was the artist, and their heroic act of art making, that provide society with what they dare not make or do themselves. In simpler words, it is the artist who leads cultural society.
    Fortunately new studies like the one from Arts Council England might be helping the arts advocacy field realize that our recent socio-economic assumptions about the arts might be wrong.
Borwick may admit here that the arts field should be both art focused and community focused, but his blog seems dedicated to de-emphasizing Baudelaire’s point in favor of a neo-liberal idea of what art is and what artists do.
    It’s important to try to understand who is promoting the dichotomies that Ragsdale lists and to remember ultimately that communities, arts organizers, advocates, patrons, and individuals don’t get to decide what art is or what artists do. It is the artist who makes those decisions. That’s the way art works.

  5. says

    There are two ways of looking at an artist’s relationship to society. One is that he or she is a part of a local community (even if the artist’s reputation might extend beyond it.) The other is that artists are a professional community unto themselves, often with little connection to local environments. Their art refers to its own autonomous aesthetic ideals as formulated by a community of artists widely dispersed across a country or even internationally.

    In Europe, concepts of art are generally more communally embodied than in the States. Cities and regions often identify strongly with their cultural history and the living artists that represent its continuation. This is obvious in cities like Paris, Rome, Prague, Florence, and Amsterdam, and even in small cities like Siena, Montepuliciano, Basel, Freiburg, and Utrecht.

    In America, art is generally more disembodied. Our communities do not have long cultural histories like Europe. And our society is also far more mobile. We move around, while Europeans are much more likely to live their whole lives close to where they were born. Europeans extol history and preservation, while Americans see culture as something with a set life expectancy that will be discarded and replaced with something new and more relevant.

    (There are a few places in America that have communally embodied art. The Southwestern art of Santa Fe and Taos, or the jazz traditions of New Orleans are some examples, but they are exceptions to the norm.)

    This connection of art to community is especially important for arts funding systems. It’s a lot easier to justify funding for communally embodied art because it represents a community’s identity and speaks for it. It can be difficult to fund art in America because it is more often communally disembodied and has less connection to the communities that are asked to pay for it. (I think this is part of the problem Doug Borwick was trying to address.)

    This also helps us understand why the NEA–in contrast to most public funding agencies in Europe–once funded individual artists across the entire country. Locality and community were thought to be irrelevant. This practice inevitably ended in disaster since the NEA’s artistic perspectives sometimes clashed with the communities where its funding was used. Think Mapplethorpe in Cincinnati while the same exhibition in the Castro Street area of San Francisco would have hardly raised an eyebrow..

    Culture is by nature local, so it should generally be funded and administered on a local level. This is also important in the USA because there are enormous regional differences– even to the extent that they caused the bloodiest war in our history. In spite of all the myths, we are not a terribly unified country. There is a paradox that we generally do not identity the high arts regionally, and yet we express large regional differences in our culture.

    The NEA’s new Place-Making program is an attempt to compensate for these problems – even though place-making practiced by a national agency is self-contradictory. Place-making should obviously be conceived, funded and administered by local governments.

    The Europeans have enormous experience with public funding systems for the arts and most of their funding is administered on the municipal and state levels. The numbers vary from country to country, but the general principle holds. In Germany, for example, only 5% of arts funding comes from the Federal Government. About 50% is municipal and about 45% from the State level.

    Large European cities even divide themselves into sub-regions like the 20 arrondissements of Paris–most of which have their own separate cultural agencies. When I lived in Munich there were cultural centers for each of the city’s major quarters.

    In short, culture will always by nature be local, even in the USA, and this should formulate its administrative practices and funding systems.

  6. says

    Hi there! It most certainly can be done – I’m the Senior Director of Community Relations & Communications for Central Florida Community Arts and we’re doing it!

    Central Florida Community Arts (CFCArts), based out of Orlando FL, is a non-profit arts organization whose heartbeat is to give back to the community. In the 3-1/2 years of our existence we have gone from a 140-voice community choir to nearly 400 voices in 3 choirs (community, classical and gospel), 130 instrumentalists in our community orchestra, nearly 100 kids in our Children & Youth Arts program, and over 130 students in our School of Performing Arts.

    Here is a short video that explains our organization:

    Our members love to perform but the heartbeat of our organization is to advance the arts, to make the arts affordable and accessible and to give back to the community. We do this by offering scholarships to children and adults who would like to join our programs but can’t afford the season due. We also offer full scholarships to kids being serviced by the local foster care system, homeless shelters and the Boys & Girls Club, so they can attend our week of musical theater camp in the summer – these kids’ case workers say the changes they see in just one week of being exposed to the arts is incredible! Our full-scale concerts are just $10 each, to make the arts accessible to a wider range of socioeconomic backgrounds. Most importantly, we perform for other non-profits, for free, to help their respective missions by performing at their fundraisers or for the clients they serve. To date, we have performed for over fifty 501(c)(3) organizations in the Central Florida area.

    As an example, here is a flash mob we did for a fundraiser for Canine Companions in 2011:

    Here are some of the 501(c)(3) organizations we’ve partnered with:

    Oh, and when I say we have a “community choir” or a “community orchestra,” this ain’t your mama’s community choir or orchestra – depending on the season, these are full-scale shows, complete with audio-visuals, dancers, narrators, actors, etc. housed in a 3,100-seat state-of-the-arts venue. Our most recent full-scale concert, “What Christmas Means to Me,” entertained over 5,000 patrons over the course of 3 days.

    Our Community Choir:
    (May 2013):
    (May 2012):

    Our Community Orchestra
    Harry Potter:
    Rhapsody in Blue:

    We are incredibly lucky that we have MANY people, both performers and those in production, whose full-time jobs are at the local theme parks, who then perform with us, or help us with production because it’s a creative outlet that’s different from the same 8 shows at day they do at theme parks all the time.

    Can arts organizations be both art-focused and community-focused? Absolutely. Ours is a grass roots effort but we’re doing it. It’s taken countless hours of volunteers and a common goal to advance the arts in Central Florida and to give back to the community. And it’s working.

  7. says

    I once asked a Cardinal in training how the Church allowed likenesses in art…He gave me a letter from the Pope (printed booklet), that explained 3 exceptions… Veneration, Education, & Decoration….These have been useful to me in a broader sense when making or pondering art…
    I feel this discussion has at its core, a tiny detail that spins the artist’s core…
    That art should not be craft, & that craft has purpose…A mug serves the purpose of holding tea or coffee, & this usefulness is somehow abhorrent to artists & art educators…
    In a broader sense, if art is serving the community as a purpose, like holding tea, is it not then craft?
    This distinction holds artists back from making useful things…That purpose could sully the purity…
    I don’t necessarily agree, am just putting a microscope to the problem…

    • says

      Sari, Craft isn’t “abhorrent’ to artists. Artists and craftspeople understand that craft and art have different types of usefulness. Confusion arises when others don’t understand these differences.

  8. says

    Such an interesting discussion. I thank my colleague Karen Bradley for leading me to it.
    I am of the mind that one of the ways these false dichotomies can be disassembled is in how we develop young artists – ie – what choices we provide as a society for people who want to pursue an art-focused life path. In higher education, for example, there are few opportunities for students to develop a sense of value for the impact that art can have on the way we think, feel, imagine, create, dream and realize the myriad experiences that life provides. Whether those experiences are felt by people in the deepest throes of poverty or by those who may unwittingly be entrenched in the comforts of privilege, there is a translation of connection that creative expression unlocks. I believe this connection is devalued in how we construct not only educational systems, but organizations and the arts market place, as well.

  9. Jeff gonci says

    “if the artist cannot find the way, the way cannot be found” Terrence Mckenna
    but the thing is… artists are finding a way. its been tough and at times a lot of hurting. and sometimes it feels that something is not right but it is right, and right were we need to be. And community art is a major step in our direction that needs to happen and is happening. its screaming out I AM IMPORTANT!

  10. says

    Part of this question (can nonprofit arts organizations serve both art and the community and further the social good) revolves around the definition of art, and who gets to decide what qualifies. This can lead to thorny discussions in a small community, where some art is deemed acceptable, and some not, for example in a not for profit art gallery that showcases local artists. Thus the “standards’ question. In societies where there is no word for “art” would those issues even arise? Art has come to be seen as something apart from the social fabric, something to be judged, something to be done by artists. As a long time art educator, I would like to see that split between artists and the so called uneducated, dissolved. A community service that arts organizations can help perform, is the recognition that art belongs to all and serves an important social function; it can heal, communicate the unspeakable, cross boundaries, in ways words cannot. Communal art can weave a group together, strengthen community. But it needs arts organizations to dissolve the boundaries our culture has created. That is community service.

  11. Anne-Marie Cherry says

    I think that Karen addresses an essential element to this discussion with the statement: “Art has come to be seen as something apart from the social fabric, something to be judged, something to be done by artists.” The culture of judgement associated with both the production and “consumption” of art (or art experiences) exacerbates the dichotomies between artist and community, artist and patron, and even that of art appreciation and arts engagement. Current modes of art engagement –even the determination of which projects receive public funds– rely on an evaluation of merit; a judgement of worth or relevancy that is dominated by intellectualized qualitative assessment.

    The discussion of art vs craft is an interesting one, though I often feel that this distinction is disproportionately emphasized by those of us in the arts, Many musicians, for example, view film music as somehow compromised by its association with, or dependence upon, another narrative. One could argue for the similarities between film music and operas/incidental music (Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream comes to mind), but the more relevant discussion examines the impact of film music to audiences and communities. That sheet music and albums of film scores are sold and enjoyed separately from screenings of the films, and that countless youtube videos demonstrate individuals performing their own covers of favorite themes, speaks volumes to the connection that audiences feel to this repertoire.

    As both Borwick and Ragsdale mention, it is not impossible to bridge the gulf between art for arts sake and community engagement, but our adherence to dichotomies and value statements limit both our options as performers and opportunities for communities to engage with us. An earlier comment highlighted the importance of maintaining excellence standards to avoid “preaching to the choir.” I agree that the onus of diligent and genuine arts-making is crucial reaching audiences (nothing is more off-putting to an audience than watching someone “phone it in”), I think we must also allow that our definition of excellence must be tempered with an understanding of context and accessibility to the audience.

    • says

      Ever since the arts were freed from the control of religious institutions they have existed apart from the mainstream “social fabric”, free to move and grow and do what they do best; evolve.

      Individual and societal judgement and assessment of the arts does exists but it also exists for medicine, science, politics.. We use what Anne-Marie Cherry suggested -“intellectualized qualitative assessment” in every aspect of our lives. Why is it therefore deemed bad to do so when it comes to Art?

      What is this “gulf between art for arts sake and community engagement” everyone keeps speaking of? Does it exists in knowledge? Ability? Ticket sales? If ‘Rocky” the musical hits it big on Broadway or the ‘Lion KIng” runs for another 10 years does than mean it’s good theater and the community has been engaged?

  12. Sam Grodin says

    I think that it’s important to remember that (most) artists do what they do because they believe in the beauty of their work and its value to society. I can comment from experience that intensive training at a music conservatory can temporarily make us lose sight of this and succumb to our own neuroses, but I think that ultimately we all want to share our art with people – to open people’s eyes, ears, and hearts to new experiences. Perhaps we’re getting bogged down by this definition of “community-focused” art: I don’t necessarily think that art needs to be designed to solve social problems. Isn’t bringing people together simply to experience something extraordinary valuable enough?

    I like the way in which Ragsdale articulates the goals of a nonprofit arts organization, and I agree that we can (and must) effectively reach communities without sacrificing artistic excellence. I believe that for many of these organizations, the problem is not the art that is being created, but rather, an image problem—a perception of elitism and unfriendliness that keeps people away. We should continue to work to create environments for viewing art and listening to music that are welcoming and educational (without being insulting). Interdisciplinary projects and utilization of technology can also provide opportunities for bringing in new audiences. Social interaction among viewers, listeners, and even performers can provide a more enriching experience for everyone, and can be effectively integrated into almost any arts event. Artists must be able to maintain a certain level of autonomy/integrity, but should also be willing to listen to their communities for feedback (particularly regarding the ways in which the art is presented).

  13. peter stark says

    Faced with an awful lot of this in my work in the cultural world of South Africa as it emerged from an apartheid past, I started using the shorthand of ‘jofo’ for the rhetorical trick of the juxtaposition of false opposites.

  14. Ryan Reithmeier says

    The fact that electronic distribution, social media, and other forms of digitalization of culture has become a dominant factor in the dissemination of the arts to the general public makes this discussion – and particularly the charge of non-profit arts organizations to champion non-commercial art – of particular interest. Today’s general arts consumer is inundated with recommendations (mostly generated by algorhythm, no longer human tastes and with how little discretionary time people have in today’s societies, it is understandable why one would default to such a means of seeking out new products.
    But these systems are generated by organizations seeking profit (as the article above highlights) and thus, any artist who is not a part of that commercial system, quality or not, gets lost in the ether. Not-for-profit arts organizations, however small can maintain the avenue for discovering the “new” which will abate the commercialization of the arts.

  15. says

    I hope this isn’t too tangential to the post/conversation. What I have been wondering is: where in the arts ecosystem and this whole dichotomy do social-service arts organizations fit? By that I mean organizations that are practicing “instrumental arts” – the arts as tools to achieve some other end such as safer neighborhoods or improved health. I am a student in Drexel’s Arts Admin Masters program writing my thesis on arts-for-health programs, such as the Music and Wellness program at the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra and Mural Art’s Porch Light program in Philadelphia, which addresses behavioral health through public art creation. These programs (and some whole organizations) exist solely on the idea of art as a tool to achieve some other community focus, not necessarily an end in and of itself. I wonder if anyone has thoughts on this? I got here while trying to find some source for my thesis about why arts organizations often add instrumental arts programming to their repertoire (such as a theatre that adds an education component meant to keep low-income students in school or a museum that creates a therapy program for people with Alzheimer’s). Any insight would be much appreciated!

    • says


      This might be better handled as a person-to-person communication than as a reply to your comment, nevertheless . . . . The focus of my work (as Diane’s) is really on organizations that have an arts-based mission. You are right that there are many programs in such organizations as well as service-focused organizations that utilize the arts as a tool for community improvement. The world needs them and they have lessons to teach about the value of such work. It may be helpful to see a post of mine in which I discuss the range of possibilities available: If you want to pursue this, feel free to get in touch via the email link on my blog: Engaging Matters.

  16. says

    Great discussion here, about a meta-issue that connects so many tensions and confusions in he sector.

    Some of these tensions can be explored and resolved by artists, no? Our sector is so lucky to have the strongest cultural researchers (artists) at our core.

    Here’s how these questions have played out in my life as an artist:

    Depending on the context, my dance company was either expected to prioritize aesthetic rigor (innovation, formal strategies, an ongoing dialogue about meaning) or community rigor (who the piece is for, where it lives, the bodies and cultures that make up its context).

    We quickly learned (not consciously, at first) to sense which rigor was primary. There were all kinds of signals from the organizations and presenters. No one at Dance Theater Workshop asked us: who is this work for? And when we made a piece in community on Deer Isle, Maine, no one asked: where is the formal innovation?

    I think every work has an aesthetic proposal and a proposal about where it lives in the world. But, in a given work, one rigor is nearly always the priority. I’m struck by how rarely we were held to account for the “other rigor.” And how rarely we held ourselves to account.

    I did manage to make one piece that put those rigors parallel (“on the horizontal” as Liz Lerman says.) One piece in 20 years.

    And I’m now working with a gallery in Philadelphia that truly holds both rigors, sees them as inextricable:

    I want to push artists to ask these questions, and resource the ones who do. (Funders, though they may talk a good game, nearly always favor one rigor over the other.)

    And I want to keep asking artists and arts professionals about the “other rigor.”


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