Community Engagement: The Route to Civic Stature

A major element of the League of American Orchestras' strategic plan concerns an oft-misunderstood concept that we call "achieving civic stature." Simply put, it refers to an orchestra reaching a point in its community where the entire community views it as a resource of value, something central to the life of that community.  Even more simply put, it refers to orchestras finding ways to be of relevance to people who may never come to a subscription concert.  I believe that over the past ten to fifteen years, this area represents one of the most significant changes in the behavior of orchestras in America. But because it is not marked by a single, dramatic event, it has been largely unnoticed by the press, even by those who observe orchestras regularly and keenly.

Decades ago, orchestras began supplementing their educational and young peoples' concerts with something called "outreach." The term was much in favor, not only by arts organizations, but by funders who urged orchestras to do "outreach," whatever that may have meant. When orchestras (for the most part - there were certainly some exceptions) did these programs, there were usually two reasons: one was to attract funding from new sources, and a second was in hopes of attracting a new and more diverse audience to their main series concerts. When these programs were discussed, boards and managements often thought of them as extensions of marketing departments.

Within the past ten to fifteen years (again, there are always exceptions, and the timeline is not quite so clearcut), this area of work by orchestras began to change dramatically. First the word "outreach" was dropped - people began realizing that it was one-directional and, in fact, a bit condescending. It has been gradually replaced by the term "community engagement," and/or "civic stature."  Secondly, the mentality in orchestras began to change. Instead of thinking of these activities as a marketing stimulus, which was never realistic, they have begun to see them as having intrinsic value in and of themselves.

The truth is that if symphony orchestras only matter to people who attend their subscription concerts, they will truly become extinct. Modern American society will not be willing to fund them to the degree necessitated by rising costs if their value is so narrowly circumscribed. But if orchestras are seen as true community resources, each serving its particular community in unique ways suited specifically to that community, they become significantly more important and meaningful. Orchestras take a lot of money from resources in the community - foundations, corporations, and wealthy individuals. The sense that they deserve that money because they play great music for people who are willing and able to buy tickets to their subscription concerts is out of date, and should be. The questions orchestras now ask themselves more and more frequently is: How can we be true community resources?

By even re-thinking the terminology, switching from "outreach" to "community engagement," we think differently about how to go about being a resource of value. "Outreach" can easily translate as "we sit in our office at symphony hall, think of some nice programs that we're sure the community will like, and go out and offer it to them." But thinking about this as true "engagement" means including community leaders and resources in the conversation from day one - more of a spirit of "we'd love to have a relationship with your particular segment of this community - can we think together about what that relationship might be?"  Programs developed through this process will, of course, be of infinitely greater value and meaning to the people they are meant to serve.
From music therapy programs to collecting instruments to lend to children from families who cannot afford instruments, and then teaching them how to play them, to teaching a neighborhood community center how to form a community chorus, to bringing musicians together who play different kinds of musics, the possibilities are endless, and American orchestras are exploring them. The result is a far more vital, broad, and deep relationship between orchestras and their communities than might have been the case in past generations - and I have the feeling that these explorations are still in their beginning stage.

May 9, 2008 9:45 AM | | Comments (2)


In the places I've been, I have always taken in the local community specialties. These include museums, art, native cultures, local history, music etc. Have orchestras worked hand-in-hand with schools, museums and local experts to carve a season of music which is centered around the roots of each community,the course studies in the schools on all grade levels, and adding the standard and contemporary repertoire around that core of community roots and values? Seems this might bring many students and their families into the orchestral scene by mixing their studies with the history, art, literature and music that speaks of their communities which echo their daily school lives and studies, enhancing what they are learning by the book. Many unsung composers herald from these cities, and thematic programming including works of the native composers, past and present, might help join the communities together to bridge the gaps between the orchestra world and the young audiences that are a necessary component of future audiences.

Excellent points, Henry. This is something which must be part of the training done at music schools so the next generation of orchestra players will embrace this important idea. There has been some work done in this area already -- I think the Eastman School requires community engagement activites for its students. Much more still needs to be done.

There are countless orchestra musicians -- brilliant virtuosi on their instruments -- who are terrified at the thought of having to work with a small group of kids and actually talk to them! It's a skill which can be taught, like any other skill.

And let's also encourage orchestras not to forget about adults when they talk about "community engagement." There is still very little being done for this population, in proportion to what is being done for children. Funders are (unfortunately) not nearly as interested in education for adults as they are for kids.


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