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
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
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
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.