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?