Mission Creep??!!

A colleague recently shared that when they advocate for community engagement in their organization they get pushback about “mission creep.” Mission creep??!! If connecting the arts with communities is not an arts organization’s mission, what is it?! 

I know, I know. There is an assumption (conscious or otherwise) on some people’s part that arts organizations owe their allegiance to the art they present. I will spare long-time readers (and myself) a revisit to my “Arts for Arts Sake” rants. (For any newbies with the stomach for it, here’s one entry: Art for Art’s Sake Revisited.) And, certainly, the mission creep argument is an old one with which I am well familiar.

But really, how many of us would be in this business if we did not believe that the arts are valuable not just to us but to many/most/all people? And if we believe that, should it not be one of our primary callings to connect as many as possible with the art we know to be valuable? Community engagement (or if you bristle at that term, simply think “connecting people with the arts”) is the means to that end.

And on a practical level, of course, the long-term viability of arts organizations demands significantly increasing our reach, the percentage of people who value and take advantage of what we offer.

If connecting people with the arts represents “mission creep” for your organization, your organization needs to seriously re-examine it’s mission.




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Donor Myopia

In Grass Is Greener? I recounted discoveries about arts organizations with adequate or more-than-adequate government funding. They face problems that might surprise those of us working in the arts in the U.S. And more to the point of this post, my colleagues in South America and Australia were envious of the ability we have to tap private money–individuals, corporations, and foundations.

In that earlier post I promised a consideration of the “down sides” of our private-funding model. The most obvious issue is the lack of dependable support so that every arts organization spends much of its time–as do politicians for similar reasons–pounding the pavement looking for dollars. In an ideal world the resources spent in pursuit of operating funds could be so much better employed in connecting the arts with communities.

But an even bigger problem with our model is how it diverts arts organizations from paying attention to their communities. The history of support that our nonprofit arts infrastructure replicates is the European patronage system. The focus of artists and those presenting the arts was, inevitably, on those who provided the funds to make it happen.

From the beginning of the establishment of arts organizations in the U.S., with virtually no public money flowing in, they have, understandably, been most concerned with the interests of those who fund the enterprise. This narrowness of attention, this “donor myopia” has created a system in which the broader population can be very nearly unseen. We observe this today in the makeup of boards of directors, content (repertoire) selection, and messaging. Our eyes are on the relatively small number of people who have the money to keep operations going.

As the large- (and medium-) donor business model is breaking down the lack of experience in working with communities is going to be a serious impediment to long-term viability. It is time, actually way past time, to develop “chops” in being part of the fabric of the communities in which we work.




Some rights reserved by National Eye Institute

The Chasm of Disbelief

Think you (or your organization) don’t understand the people you are trying to reach? If you are talking about people other than your current attendees/donors and their peers, you are 100% correct; and they understand you even less. (And if you don’t think you don’t understand you are probably deluding yourself.)

There is, between the general public and those of us on the “inside” of the nonprofit arts industry, a gap in perception that I think is insufficiently understood by stakeholders in the arts. Simply put, we are powerfully aware of the incredible value of the arts. The rest of the world is not. This gap makes communication extremely difficult.

The onus for breaking the logjam is on us. Who else has the motivation to try? But we can’t do so if we don’t recognize it. And even more daunting, the disconnect is deeply systemic. It is not a “simple” matter of presenting arguments about the wonderfulness of the arts. In spite of all the research and the myriad of studies demonstrating the power of the arts, people are not convinced. This always confused me until I interviewed Jonathan Katz, then CEO of the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies, for my first book (Building Communities, Not Audiences). He framed things in a way that set me back on my heels.

Neither professionals [or community leaders] in the relevant disciplines nor the general public put sufficient stock in . . . studies to alter policy. This disinclination to believe is rooted in unexamined assumptions that the arts do not touch the lives of more than a select few.

In other words, people do not believe the stories or the studies because they don’t believe they can be true. For many, the arts are so inconsequential, so void of impact on their own lives, any proof of their power is literally unbelievable.

So whether you are trying to convince people of the merit of the arts or the value of your organization or you are simply trying to get them to attend your events, there is a profound chasm of disbelief to be overcome. The way across this divide is not by words. It is action alone that will work. Being perceived as valuable must be earned by doing things that make us so. If we have to tell people we are valuable, we’re not to them.




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Community Engagement Resources

It has been seven years since I retired from three decades in academia. Yet each year, come fall, I am still aware of back-to-class vibrations in the air and my inner professor seeks to remind me he is there.

This year, at the same time, I am reflecting on the materials we have put together to support community engagement work. This thinking was generated by an email I got about one of my books. It said, in part,

“I have to be honest, I haven’t finished it yet because I’m constantly having to digest the ‘YES’ and ‘AMEN’ moments I get from each section.”

Every year I get 5-10 emails from new readers responding in ways not unlike this to the perspective the books have given them. So, the beginning of a new academic year feels like a good time to work on making all of these resources more widely known. ArtsEngaged has the following available for people in the field who want to support community engagement:

The books and Community Engagement Training are not free. However, everything else is. If you are active in community engagement and are unaware of some of these resources, I would encourage you to familiarize yourself with them. And, if you are aware of these resources and consider them to be valuable I would ask you to share them with friends and colleagues as widely as you can.




Benefits (Yet Again)

It has been two years since I posted my effort at categorizing the benefits of the arts. In both of my international trips this year the subject came up and people wanted to deal with it at length. The subject is an urgent one both because of the social and political pressures to justify funding (the fallback arguments are “instrumental” ones, “How can the arts improve non-arts outcomes?”) and our need to be able to articulate the inherent value of the arts to a disbelieving (or at least bemused) public.

So, again, here goes.

Those for whom the arts have deep meaning have difficulty understanding/relating to people for whom that is not the case. This is especially true when it comes to articulating why the arts are important. To simply say that there is something “ineffable” about the arts will yield nothing but blank stares from those who are not already “believers.” However, some of the more readily understood talking points (economic impact, educational support, health outcomes, etc.) have, arguably, been promoted beyond their actual merit and do not speak to the true reasons people are drawn to the arts.

While it is daunting to wade into this topic, a distinction between core and ancillary benefits might be of use. The core benefits of the arts are those that enhance the human spirit and improve social relationships. To further refine the concept, for individuals the arts provide (or enhance) internal congruence—self-understanding, self- acceptance, identity, and pleasure to name a few. Between individuals, the arts aid relational alignment— facilitating relationship building and understanding. In the community/society context, the arts foster social capital—both bonding among people of similar interests and backgrounds and bridging across lines of difference.

Ancillary benefits, in contrast and simply put, are all the benefits that do not fit in those categories. Among these, of course, are cognitive enhancement, improved health, and economic development, to name a few. These are valuable to individuals and/or communities but are not the most important roles of the arts.

This core/ancillary classification of benefits addresses the arts community’s discomfort with the emphasis placed on, for example, economic arguments for the arts. It can also satisfy the essence of the “arts for arts sake” position without forcing a focus on the arts rather than on their benefits for people. The mission of arts organizations can then be envisioned as doing things that impact people’s lives in ways they cannot help but see.

To summarize:

Core Benefits of the Arts: those that enhance the human spirit or improve social relationships

For individuals the arts provide (or enhance) internal congruence [e.g., self-understanding, self- acceptance, identity, and pleasure]

Between individuals, the arts aid relational alignment [facilitating relationship building and understanding]

In the community/society context, the arts foster social capital [both bonding among people of similar interests and backgrounds and bridging across lines of difference]

Ancillary Benefits of the Arts: all other forms of benefit

Some of you have objected to this approach in earlier iterations. I heard you, took some things to heart, and chose to leave others as they were. I still think this has value for our on-going efforts to explain to ourselves and to the general public why what we do is so important. It is, after all, our responsibility to be the “explainers” if we want understanding and the support we hope will go with it.





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