A member of a current cohort of our Community Engagement Training is a professional musician who is passionate about connecting with communities and has been so for years. Even before running across my books she was intuitively aware of the need for deeper relationships between musicians and people outside the artiverse. She has been an eager and very perceptive participant in the training.

All of that is why it was so revealing when she confessed shock at an insight that is part of the program. I assign some short readings (among others, thank you Trevor O’Donnell for this post) that highlight how self-focused and self-aggrandizing much arts marketing is and contrast that with virtually all other marketing, marketing that is about the consumer enjoying or benefitting from what is being promoted. The Austin Symphony brochure in question is one in which there are very few pictures of musicians or conductors. Almost all of the photos are of happy people attending the concert.

This bright, passionate, insightful musician was shocked. I mean really shocked that she had never noticed that the arts marketing materials she was used to were so . . . artcentric.

But to be honest, we shouldn’t be surprised that musicians (and most artists) are not aware of this feature of our world. The old adage that fish don’t notice water applies. We are so steeped in the awards/accolades/inside baseball approach to arts marketing that we take it for granted. That is, we are until someone points it out to us.

The first step toward effective community engagement is changing habits of mind on the part of those inside “the system.” Here’s a good place to start.




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On the Horizon

Earlier this month I highlighted three factors fueling a growing international interest in community engagement and the arts: economics (the “cost disease”); demographics (the declining percentage of people with European cultural backgrounds); and funders’ demands for much broader community impact than is typical with Eurocentric arts organizations.

It seems like a little expansion on these existential threats to the status quo might be in order. The rapidly rising cost of the arts (and all labor intensive industries) is not new and not news. What is perhaps worth emphasizing is that we are now at or past a breaking point where traditionally available resources are no longer able to keep up with that rise in costs. Expanding the base–of funders, of participants, of audiences–is essential.

Global demographic changes in which people whose cultural backgrounds are not European is another issue. When this is coupled with the growing social and political power of those people it forces greater accountability for attention and resources provided to arts institutions. Across the U.S., it has become imperative to consider the interests of Latino/a populations. Canada has begun to pay a good deal of attention to equity issues with respect to their First Nations. Both Singapore and China are seriously re-evaluating support of Eurocentric arts. Indigenous forms of cultural expression are, rightly in my view, questioning disproportionate backing of non-native cultural expression. If arts institutions cannot develop relationships addressing these imbalances, their futures are imperiled.

Since the ’60’s, the number of funders who support the arts as arts has declined precipitously. Many that had strong arts mandates, now barely fund the arts at all. (The Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation in my hometown is one that did this long ago.) One of the most notable of recent shifts like this is California’s Irvine Foundation.

Government funders are even more sensitive to a changing world. San Francisco has had a long-running controversy on this topic (The Visible Hand). In 2017 a bill was introduced in the Pennsylvania legislature to examine “systemic racism in arts funding.” The bill died in committee, but the point is that it was introduced. The political winds are shifting.

And funders of all kinds–individuals, foundations, corporations, government entities–are concerned that things they support have a broad impact. They want to to reach as many people as possible, a reach well beyond the traditional market share of Eurocentric nonprofits arts organizations.

So from the standpoint of costs, political reality, and shifts in funding, the need to engage deeply with new communities is essential to a sustainable future. As I said last time this is not true just in the U.S. We are seeing this phenomenon on a global level. And, in fairness, I should acknowledge that the title of this post is probably outdated. These issues are not just on the horizon. They are upon us now and action in response cannot wait.



Photo by Doug Borwick: Myrtle Beach, SC January 2019

ArtPlace America Engagement Resources

As I mentioned in an earlier post I recently had the opportunity to engage with Lyz Crane of ArtPlace America in a discussion about creative placemaking and community engagement. In the course of that discussion she shared some resources that ArtPlace has made available that can be of considerable benefit to anyone involved in community engagement.

The first is a blog post about crowdsourced funding for community-based projects. It offers a good deal of practical advice and introduced me to ioby “a nonprofit community crowdfunding platform that helps local leaders raise and organize all kinds of capital—cash, social networks, in-kind donations, volunteers, and advocacy—to meet their needs.” Looks like a good possibility for smaller projects.

The second link she shared was to ArtPlace’s Resources page. It’s full of useful material. I am particularly impressed with the sections on Community Planning and Development and Cross-Sector Collaboration.

These all present valuable tools for community engagement. Use them to help you better



Global Engagement

I began pondering issues related to community engagement almost 30 years ago. I began writing material that led to my first book on the subject about 10 years ago. And I started this blog about 7 and a half years ago. In all that time I assumed that my messages were pretty specific to the cultural and social history of the United States and to its arts institutions.

To my considerable surprise, in the last six years I have been asked to be a keynote presenter at conferences in Canada, Beijing, and Singapore and to do a couple of Skype-based guest presentations for a class at the University of Vienna. This year I have been asked to speak at conferences in Australia and Chile.

What has become clear to me is that the economic pressures faced by institutions presenting Eurocentric art forms are, throughout the world, forcing greater attention on spreading the reach of those arts. Community engagement is to my mind the best available means of doing so. (This is even true in a state-controlled society like China; or perhaps it is especially true there given the cultural dissonance that Eurocentric arts represent.)

At least some of the sources of this seeming universality seem to be:

  • Presentations by arts professionals are expensive and will become increasingly so thanks to the “cost disease.” This may not be exclusively true of Eurocentric arts, but it is certainly true of them. Ever-increasing revenue sources are essential.
  • The greater the disconnect between the cultural background of the broad populace and that of the roots of the arts presented, the greater the pressure for change. Rapidly shifting demographics and growing political power of native or indigenous peoples are major factors here. This is also true where Eurocentric arts have been transplanted to a place where they have no historical ties, like China and Singapore.
  • The vast majority of fundings sources–whether individual, corporate, foundation, or government–want or need to see evidence that their support is valued by more than the small percentage of any population that is enthusiastic about Eurocentric arts. (And need I observe that this is a declining percentage?) There are, of course, some funders that have a commitment specifically to these arts, but they are few in number and are not a growing cadre.

These are certainly preliminary thoughts and I may confirm, expand, or revise them after my trips this year. Also, I acknowledge that my conversations and experiences have been limited in comparison to the cultural richness of peoples around the globe–notably my lack of contact with on-the-ground sources in Africa. Nevertheless, it appears that the concern for connecting greater percentages of our communities with the arts seems to be a growing, not a declining, one.





Some rights reserved by NASA Goddard Photo and Video Image by Reto Stöckli; enhancements by Robert Simmon

Creative Placemaking

Recently I had the pleasure of reconnecting with a friend and colleague. The Community Engagement Network hosted a conversation with Lyz Crane addressing the topic of creative placemaking and community engagement. (To join the Network, click here or email us a Lyz is Deputy Director of ArtPlace America, the private agency whose ten-year mission is to encourage and support creative placemaking. She is also a friend whose comments almost ten year ago helped convince me that my first book, Building Communities, Not Audiences was necessary and who subsequently contributed a chapter to that book.

In preparing for her presentation I was reminded of at least three principal critiques of creative placemaking. Lyz’s presentation highlighted the work ArtPlace is doing to address those issues.

First, the concerns. Especially early on many people assumed that creative placemaking was simply code for a continuation of the 20th century passion for big bricks and mortar arts projects that cleared urban (usually) neighborhoods and raised giant arts centers that were often economically unviable. The fact that major developers were early supporters of creative placemaking contributed to this assumption. A second concern was, for obvious reasons, gentrification–the displacement of current residents and businesses due to escalating rents and property values. A third concern was similar but not specifically economic. My friend Roberto Bedoya coined the term creative placekeeping to highlight the fact that creative placemaking projects were not being undertaken in a vacuum. There were people, communities, and cultural practices already in place in any inhabited area. It was not the job of “creative placemakers” to make something from scratch. There was a moral responsibility to acknowledge the assets already in existence in a place and build upon them.

In her conversation with us, Lyz spoke about how ArtPlace is not focused on construction projects and is committed to using art to enhance communities in cooperation with the current residents of those communities. What she described was strikingly like the core principles of effective community engagement. More on that in a second.

It is not surprising that ArtPlace is taking this tack. In the 2010 book Creative Placemaking, the work that in them minds of many invented the creative placemaking movement, authors Ann Markusen and Anne Gadwa said:

In creative placemaking, partners from public, private, nonprofit, and community sectors strategically shape the physical and social character of a neighborhood, town, tribe, city, or region around arts and cultural activities. Creative placemaking animates public and private spaces, rejuvenates structures and streetscapes, improves local business viability and public safety, and brings diverse people together to celebrate, inspire, and be inspired.

The movement’s core philosophy is rooted in honoring and working with communities. Not surprisingly, effective creative placemaking is very much like effective community engagement. Simply put, when working with people, observe the Golden Rule or, to be cruder, Don’t be a #@$!!. Talk with people, get to know them, don’t go in assuming you have answers for them. (You don’t.)

Lyz, thanks for sharing with us. And thanks for the reminder that good work with communities demands listening to and learning from the people with whom we work.