The Chasm of Disbelief

Think you (or your organization) don’t understand the people you are trying to reach? If you are talking about people other than your current attendees/donors and their peers, you are 100% correct; and they understand you even less. (And if you don’t think you don’t understand you are probably deluding yourself.)

There is, between the general public and those of us on the “inside” of the nonprofit arts industry, a gap in perception that I think is insufficiently understood by stakeholders in the arts. Simply put, we are powerfully aware of the incredible value of the arts. The rest of the world is not. This gap makes communication extremely difficult.

The onus for breaking the logjam is on us. Who else has the motivation to try? But we can’t do so if we don’t recognize it. And even more daunting, the disconnect is deeply systemic. It is not a “simple” matter of presenting arguments about the wonderfulness of the arts. In spite of all the research and the myriad of studies demonstrating the power of the arts, people are not convinced. This always confused me until I interviewed Jonathan Katz, then CEO of the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies, for my first book (Building Communities, Not Audiences). He framed things in a way that set me back on my heels.

Neither professionals [or community leaders] in the relevant disciplines nor the general public put sufficient stock in . . . studies to alter policy. This disinclination to believe is rooted in unexamined assumptions that the arts do not touch the lives of more than a select few.

In other words, people do not believe the stories or the studies because they don’t believe they can be true. For many, the arts are so inconsequential, so void of impact on their own lives, any proof of their power is literally unbelievable.

So whether you are trying to convince people of the merit of the arts or the value of your organization or you are simply trying to get them to attend your events, there is a profound chasm of disbelief to be overcome. The way across this divide is not by words. It is action alone that will work. Being perceived as valuable must be earned by doing things that make us so. If we have to tell people we are valuable, we’re not to them.




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Community Engagement Resources

It has been seven years since I retired from three decades in academia. Yet each year, come fall, I am still aware of back-to-class vibrations in the air and my inner professor seeks to remind me he is there.

This year, at the same time, I am reflecting on the materials we have put together to support community engagement work. This thinking was generated by an email I got about one of my books. It said, in part,

“I have to be honest, I haven’t finished it yet because I’m constantly having to digest the ‘YES’ and ‘AMEN’ moments I get from each section.”

Every year I get 5-10 emails from new readers responding in ways not unlike this to the perspective the books have given them. So, the beginning of a new academic year feels like a good time to work on making all of these resources more widely known. ArtsEngaged has the following available for people in the field who want to support community engagement:

The books and Community Engagement Training are not free. However, everything else is. If you are active in community engagement and are unaware of some of these resources, I would encourage you to familiarize yourself with them. And, if you are aware of these resources and consider them to be valuable I would ask you to share them with friends and colleagues as widely as you can.




Relationships Checkup

Some time ago, while discussing relationship maintenance, a student of mine shared with her training group a practice she employed to keep community relationships current. (One of the big pitfalls in engagement is losing track of relationships after an event is over.) I commented on what a great idea it was and made a note to visit it further here on the blog and in my own thinking. . . . I promptly forgot about it.

Fortunately, the note recently resurfaced. As most really good ideas it’s not terribly complicated. It was simply a “note to self” to check in on all past engagement relationships on a regular–at least annual–basis.

This simple habit has the ability to accomplish a wide variety of good things.

  • It encourages (if not requires) documenting relationship work–contacts, past collaborations, results. (Others in your organization should be aware of the relationship work that has been done and the checkup is a good opportunity to loop them in.)
  • It provides a reasonable opportunity to “check in” on the community or organization as a means of acknowledging that they are still important to you.
  • It can be a catalyst for considering collaborative possibilities in the future.
  • It can provide a means by which members of the partner community or organization are aware of the past work and of the existence of the relationship for new endeavors. (Just like no one member of an arts organization should be the only person aware of/responsible for an engagement relationship, so too should multiple members of the partner community/organization have similar knowledge.)
  • The mechanisms for checking in could include a brief newsletter to the community which would further serve to raise awareness of the relationship, the arts organization’s continuing interest, and the potential it could represent.

As part of the relationship maintenance process, I heartily endorse this idea. I now hope to remember it long enough to add it to my training and other materials. Wish me luck.



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Benefits (Yet Again)

It has been two years since I posted my effort at categorizing the benefits of the arts. In both of my international trips this year the subject came up and people wanted to deal with it at length. The subject is an urgent one both because of the social and political pressures to justify funding (the fallback arguments are “instrumental” ones, “How can the arts improve non-arts outcomes?”) and our need to be able to articulate the inherent value of the arts to a disbelieving (or at least bemused) public.

So, again, here goes.

Those for whom the arts have deep meaning have difficulty understanding/relating to people for whom that is not the case. This is especially true when it comes to articulating why the arts are important. To simply say that there is something “ineffable” about the arts will yield nothing but blank stares from those who are not already “believers.” However, some of the more readily understood talking points (economic impact, educational support, health outcomes, etc.) have, arguably, been promoted beyond their actual merit and do not speak to the true reasons people are drawn to the arts.

While it is daunting to wade into this topic, a distinction between core and ancillary benefits might be of use. The core benefits of the arts are those that enhance the human spirit and improve social relationships. To further refine the concept, for individuals the arts provide (or enhance) internal congruence—self-understanding, self- acceptance, identity, and pleasure to name a few. Between individuals, the arts aid relational alignment— facilitating relationship building and understanding. In the community/society context, the arts foster social capital—both bonding among people of similar interests and backgrounds and bridging across lines of difference.

Ancillary benefits, in contrast and simply put, are all the benefits that do not fit in those categories. Among these, of course, are cognitive enhancement, improved health, and economic development, to name a few. These are valuable to individuals and/or communities but are not the most important roles of the arts.

This core/ancillary classification of benefits addresses the arts community’s discomfort with the emphasis placed on, for example, economic arguments for the arts. It can also satisfy the essence of the “arts for arts sake” position without forcing a focus on the arts rather than on their benefits for people. The mission of arts organizations can then be envisioned as doing things that impact people’s lives in ways they cannot help but see.

To summarize:

Core Benefits of the Arts: those that enhance the human spirit or improve social relationships

For individuals the arts provide (or enhance) internal congruence [e.g., self-understanding, self- acceptance, identity, and pleasure]

Between individuals, the arts aid relational alignment [facilitating relationship building and understanding]

In the community/society context, the arts foster social capital [both bonding among people of similar interests and backgrounds and bridging across lines of difference]

Ancillary Benefits of the Arts: all other forms of benefit

Some of you have objected to this approach in earlier iterations. I heard you, took some things to heart, and chose to leave others as they were. I still think this has value for our on-going efforts to explain to ourselves and to the general public why what we do is so important. It is, after all, our responsibility to be the “explainers” if we want understanding and the support we hope will go with it.





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The Long Road

Several months ago Joe Patti of Butts In Seats blogging fame posted a reflection on advice from Seth Godin about why businesses might not be connecting with customers. While I’ve not met Mr. Patti, it seems that we not infrequently seem to be channeling each other on topics related to community engagement.

He pulled out, from Mr. Godin’s article, a list of problems that sounded way too familiar to me in my work attempting to get arts organizations to understand the long road that needs to be walked to build relationships:

  • Because the people you seek to serve don’t think they need you.
  • Because the people you seek to serve don’t trust you.
  • Because the people you seek to serve don’t talk about you, thus, you’re not remarkable.
  • Because your product doesn’t earn traction with your customers, they wouldn’t miss you if you were gone–the substitutes are easy.

That third point echoes my common observation “If you have to tell people you are important, to them you are not.” The thing to be remembered with each of these is that simply complaining does nothing to solve the problem. The arts organization is the only one with a vested interest in changing those facts. We must acknowledge the issues and–humbly, see below–figure out ways to address them. It’s our responsibility to build trust with communities. It is not theirs to discover (and come to appreciate) us.

And then there is the principal self-inflicted issue that keeps arts organizations from developing meaningful relationships with new communities:

  • Because even though you’re trying hard, you’re being selfish, focusing on your needs instead of having empathy for those you seek to serve.

Ouch! And, of course, on point. We must build trust to develop the relationships necessary to sustain ourselves. The bedrock for that trust is our humility and our respect for those we seek to reach. If you can’t muster that respect, you are doing yourself, your organization, and the people with whom you come in contact an egregious disservice.





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