Needs of the Field

Last time (The State of Engagement) I shared some thoughts about the status of community engagement in the nonprofit arts industry. Today I want to offer a few observations about the needs of our field with respect to community engagement. Before I begin I want to be clear that this does not purport to be an exhaustive list but simply some of the things that are most on my mind right now.

  • Understanding/Awareness
    There is a great need for more universal understanding of basic concepts in the means by which arts organizations and the public connect; and by universal, I mean all of our internal stakeholders: artistic staff, administrative staff, and board members. I have written extensively on the need to better understand and differentiate among audience development, audience engagement, and community engagement. The unfortunate conflating of the three creates confusion and inhibits success in any one of them. With respect to community engagement there is little awareness of its potential, principles, and practice. Without significant growth in this area, real change will be extremely limited.
  • Advocacy for Community Engagement
    While it might be hoped that simple understanding and awareness would generate change, the inertial forces in our industry make that unlikely. So, there needs to be a concerted effort to press arts organizations to deeper commitments to their communities. We need to utilize both carrots and sticks–the carrot of broadly perceived indispensability (wouldn’t that be cool!) and the stick of impending obsolescence.
  • Trained Practitioners
    The skills necessary for successful work in community engagement have not been part of the training or experience of most in our field. Opportunities for training, sharing, and mentoring need to expanded.
  • Mission-level Organizational Commitment
    As awareness and understanding lead to support for community engagement, organizations need to make their commitment to it a mission-level priority, not an add-on or afterthought. Otherwise, communities will see the limited efforts for what they are–window dressing. This need not be a commitment that excludes an arts mission but is added in parallel to it or, better, as a more accurate understanding of what an arts mission actually should be: connecting people with art.
  • Organizational Transformation
    Once the commitment is made, the hard work of transforming the organization from an artcentric to a community-oriented focus must take place. Initially, simple changes in our habits of mind will go a long way in supporting the process. Eventually, though,if an organization is not doing anything differently as a result of its engagement efforts, it’s not focused on the community.

I said at the beginning of my last post that these musings were the result of trying to assess the future of this blog and of ArtsEngaged. I’m clear that there is still much work that needs to be done. We will continue to support all of the points above. But this work must grow. To that end we are creating a network of community engagement practitioners and advocates. For now, it lives as a Facebook group: Become Indispensable. If this work is meaningful to you, join us and invite colleagues to participate as well. (If you are Facebook averse–and we understand that–emails us at and we’ll be sure to include you in the festivities.) In addition, ArtsEngaged continues to offer Community Engagement Training to individuals and groups.

One last word. With respect to organizational transformation, I have been pleased to read of the work of Of/By/For All, a movement to assist organizations that have made a substantive commitment to their communities. While it may not be for all organizations–the level of community focus they advocate may be a bit much for some arts organizations, at least at first–it does appear to be a great resource for implementing effective community engagement work.



Photo: Attribution Some rights reserved by archerwl