[Note to new readers: This is a very old and widely read post. In the interest of providing up-to-date information about thinking on this topic, you can find updated definitions of terminology related to community engagement and related arts management tools on the ArtsEngaged website here.]
OK, I lied. I said I wasn’t going to post while in Singapore, but I worked on this on the way here and I can’t make myself wait.
Last week, Karina Mangu-Ward from EmcArts contacted me asking if I would review their Audio Postcards featuring the audience engagement efforts of arts organizations in Cleveland. Harried though I was in preparing for the trip, I agreed to do so as soon as time allowed. I’m glad I did.
Watching those short descriptions of the work of 12 organizations helped clarify for me some of the issues I have had around the word engagement. In the recent past, I have written several times here about audience development, audience engagement, and community engagement. And at least some commenters have taken me to task about the words and phrases used.
Let’s acknowledge that many of us (most especially me) have deeply held convictions about what these words mean or, more accurately, should mean. There is also an issue about how they are understood outside of the world of professional marketers and community engagement activists. That’s a subject for another post.
Listening to EmcArts’ capsule videos helped capture for me an important distinction between audience engagement and community engagement. Simply put, the former maintains the arts organization at the center of the process. The latter puts community improvement at the center with the arts and the community as partners working toward that end. For me, audience engagement is outreach; its end result is more attendees: expanded “reach.” Community engagement is focused on developing partnerships, deep ones; its end result is trust and understanding from which expanded reach can be pursued.
The good news about the reports from Cleveland is that everyone there seems to have gotten over the “If we build it . . . .” mode of presentation. (Indeed, that Field of Dreams quote came up several times.) Each organization was spending considerable time thinking about its audience. But with only a couple of exceptions, the work put “art at the center” of everything. There was little evidence that relationships with the “audience” had much or any impact on the art being presented, at least not that resulted from any communication with those being reached. Seeking younger or diverse audiences did cause some alteration in content, but that alteration did not come, so far as I could tell, as a result of dialogue, much less work, with those audiences.
One organization described its considerable efforts to be more “welcoming”–a worthwhile effort, but not community engagement in the way described above. At the risk of reading too much into it, that sounds like their role is central and they’d love to have “outsiders” visit. How different would the work be if what the organization sought was “partnering”? Another organization’s approach was “We have something for you.” Again, this mindset places the art at the center. The formulation is a means to entice the community to experience what the arts organization has already decided to present. Without a pre-existing relationship, ts relevance to the community is unknown.
One exception was Cleveland Public Theatre that described itself as “creating great theatre with [its neighboring] communities.” But the engagement Oscar, among the featured groups, goes to Karamu House. (Why is it not surprising that this is an African-American arts organization, self-described as the oldest in the country?) They see their role as serving an “economically challenged community.” Among other things, they are sometimes the site of funeral services for area residents.
No, I’m not advocating our concert venues and museums become funeral parlors. It’s the depth of the relationship that blows me away. How could being that valued by a community be a bad thing?
It will come as no surprise that my favorite quote from their Executive Director, Gregory Ashe, was “once you engage, you don’t have to think about marketing.” He said it; I didn’t. [Note to the professional marketers that I know I continually irritate: I don’t mean that marketing is not important or valuable or difficult. I certainly do not mean it’s not necessary. It is. And of course the quote is hyperbole. But community engagement, as described here can provide an incredibly valuable platform from which to market.]
For me, community engagement must seek a deep relationship, the focus of which is service to the community. I know many arts organizations do not imagine themselves that way (nor even want to). My rants about why they should are elsewhere (and will follow). Suffice for now to say that it is possible (if not inevitable) to learn much about your art, yes, to deepen it, by developing such relationships. And I will continue to limit my use of “community engagement” to work that attempts it.