There is an unfortunate tendency in discussions of community engagement for an organization’s first response to be that all (or most) of the work should be in the hands of its artists. I hear this presented as an assumption at many conferences, especially discipline-specific ones. This can stymie engagement efforts for two significant reasons. First, to be credible, engagement must reflect the will of the organization and be visible in all its work. “Outsourcing” engagement to artists is a bit like a nonprofit board hiring a development director and deciding that therefore they do not need to participate in fundraising.
Second, with many wonderful exceptions, artists have not been trained in and are sometimes uncomfortable with the work of engagement. They may not have the tools necessary for relationship building with groups or individuals not part of the art world, and, importantly, that was not the work for which they were originally hired. This has been one source of significant labor disputes in the arts industry over the last decade. Certainly artists can be some of the best ambassadors for their art, but they will need time, training, and the opportunity to come to see such work as part of their job–without a gun to their head. Like all other staff they will become invaluable resources for engagement, but they are likely not the place to begin.
Fortunately, much can be done to engage with new communities that does not involve direct participation by artists in the process. Programming of works meaningful to the community; contextualizing them in ways that highlight their relevance; and presentation of them in venues with which the community is comfortable are ways to begin–establishing credibility and building relationships as everyone inside the organization develops skills working outside of traditional boundaries.
The work of engagement is not work that belongs entirely in the purview of any single subset of an arts organization. All must be involved, eventually. There are good ways to begin without immediately throwing everybody into the deep end of the pool.