The viability of our industry depends upon significantly expanding our base. To do so, we must connect with and come to matter to more and more people.
This post is a follow up to an earlier one, Getting the Question(s) Right. It would probably be a good idea to read that if you’ve not done so. Here is an excerpt from the close of that post:
So our questions should be, first, “What are our communities feeling/ experiencing?” and second, “How can we help them?” Once we have our questions right, we will need to position ourselves to be of help. In order to do that, we must first Connect and then Matter.
Connecting with new communities begins with a sincere desire to do so. This should be beyond obvious, but there are arts organizations that do not see “connecting” in the way I mean it here as critical to their work. They do not see expanding connections to communities as vital to their continued existence.
I know that, to some, an existential necessity is not as inspiring as is a lofty goal. So, to put this in a more positive way, we all should be heavily invested in connecting more and more people with the art we love.
After the desire to connect is established, the connection itself can begin. As with relationships between individuals this may necessitate an introduction and it will certainly require many conversations over time. One of my colleagues has observed that engagement requires “lots of coffee.”
But the bedrock of successful connections is respect–respect for those with whom a relationship is sought. If that respect is not present, the work will fail.
I have recently finished Barack Obama’s new book A Promised Land. In an entirely different context, he articulated the concept nicely:
To be known. To be heard. To have one’s unique identity recognized and seen as worthy. It [is] a universal human desire.Barack Obama, A Promised Land
Along with respect, we must bring humility to the relationship. It is a challenge for the passionate expert to understand those who do not share their knowledge and point of view, and it requires almost superhuman effort for the expert not to be seen as condescending. This can be a serious impediment to engaging with communities. It is, therefore, incumbent upon the arts establishment, it is in its own self-interest, to learn and practice humility.
While arts professionals have expertise in things artistic (at least in the cultural traditions with which they are familiar), not a few are clueless or less than “clued” about the interests, needs, and modes of operation of communities outside the arts. This is one reason community engagement is so dependent upon collaboration with individuals or organizations external to the field. Arts savvy comes from our education and experience; external sources must provide understanding of and access to the community.
People are not, today, predisposed to give the aloof artist or arts organization much benefit of the doubt. In a time when expanding reach is critical, the first tool that needs to be mastered is the skill of relationship building, and a vital ingredient for success in that is humility.
Establishing a connection is good, but by itself it is insufficient. In order to achieve our goals we must also come to matter to people. That is where we will begin next time.