The local arts agency in a small U.S. city is sponsoring a program to encourage community members to learn about and then volunteer to work with area arts organizations. An early public program functioned a bit like a speed dating mixer. It’s an interesting idea and is valuable for those who would like to be more involved with the arts but don’t know much about the various organizations or about the volunteer opportunities available. For reference below, note that this is rooted in identifying and drawing in people who are predisposed to involvement in the arts.
Since I’m like a dog that gets distracted by a squirrel when I hear the word engagement in an arts context, the program grabbed my attention and caused me to scratch my head a bit. Early on, multiple meanings of engagement got me to spend time reflecting on the differences among audience engagement, community engagement, and civic engagement. Recently I’ve been struggling with the concept of “arts engagement.” So, with this example thrown in the mix, I guess it’s time for me to do some more processing.
I continue to believe that in essence engagement–whatever modifier we use before it–implies relationship building. What’s now dawning on me is there are differences related to who is engaging with whom (or what). What’s a newish thought is that it’s important to consider who is at the center of the relationship that’s being developed. In audience engagement, the arts organization is attempting to draw current audience members closer to it. Here, the arts organization is the driving force. In civic engagement, citizens are being drawn toward community involvement. In this case, community advocates are working to draw people into a deeper relationship with social and governmental institutions. Community engagement, as I define it (although I concede that mine is not a universal understanding of this), is focused on developing an equal relationship between an arts organization and the communities it can serve. Both sides must benefit for it to be effective. Granted, the arts organization is the principal mover, working to build relationships with communities, but this is mostly because someone has to go first. The arts organization must understand that those communities may not be chomping at the bit to be engaged. The center of community engagement is not the arts organization or the community. It is the relationship between them.
Arts engagement confuses me somewhat since it seems to be a very “passive voice” concept. Who is doing what to or with whom? (And the to/with distinction is critical.) I know its intent is to encourage people to become involved with the arts. But at least in my ears it does not imply that arts organizations are doing anything to move that ball forward the way audience engagement and community engagement do (again, to my ear).
The example with which I led here, the arts/volunteer dating service, is, to be sure, a relationship building enterprise but the arts organization is at the center and seeks to draw people to it where it is. (See Meeting Half Way.) I admit that there is no compelling case I can make that the word engage should not be used for that (worthwhile) program, but at least as I understand it, it’s an exceedingly one-way relationship. It’s success is dependent upon there being a pool of people who are sufficiently interested in the work of the arts organizations (but without much information about their work). It won’t do a lot to expand the reach or impact of the arts organizations involved.
Engage (reciprocally, in the active voice)!