Doomed to Fail

Diversity, equity, and inclusion are–rightly and way too belatedly–important topics in the nonprofit arts world right now. I heartily applaud the focus.

However . . . I worry about the way the topics are being approached. If an arts organization attempts to incorporate DEI awareness and efforts without a deep, mission-level commitment to being of the community; to forming mutually beneficial, lasting relationships with new communities; to seeing its work as being a resource for improving lives, then there is no foundation upon which to build. There is also a real danger that the motivations behind some of the desire for DEI in the arts is to feel better about ourselves. As I wrote some time ago, pursuit of diversity for its own sake is highly self-serving. (The Self-Centered Pursuit of Diversity) This is even more true for the suite of work we refer to in DEI.

If the focus of the organization continues to be on the art rather than the arts’ connection with and impact upon people, DEI work will be at best surface deep and fleeting and at worst will, as the result of failures, deepen the rifts between the arts and the communities with which they are attempting to develop relationships.

Without significant commitment to substantive community engagement (which is rooted in the group of commitments I listed in the above), DEI efforts will probably not bear a great deal of fruit. It may be a bit of hyperbole to say they’re “doomed to fail.” It also may not.

There is no question that community engagement and DEI work are not the same thing. But they are often closely related when engaging with communities that have little or no connection with the arts. Diversity, equity, and inclusion are vital to the future of the arts. The commitment to community that community engagement requires (along with the mindset and skills to go with it) is an essential foundation upon which to build efforts in DEI.




Some rights reserved by Bill Selak

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.




Relationships Checkup

Some time ago, while discussing relationship maintenance, a student of mine shared with her training group a practice she employed to keep community relationships current. (One of the big pitfalls in engagement is losing track of relationships after an event is over.) I commented on what a great idea it was and made a note to visit it further here on the blog and in my own thinking. . . . I promptly forgot about it.

Fortunately, the note recently resurfaced. As most really good ideas it’s not terribly complicated. It was simply a “note to self” to check in on all past engagement relationships on a regular–at least annual–basis.

This simple habit has the ability to accomplish a wide variety of good things.

  • It encourages (if not requires) documenting relationship work–contacts, past collaborations, results. (Others in your organization should be aware of the relationship work that has been done and the checkup is a good opportunity to loop them in.)
  • It provides a reasonable opportunity to “check in” on the community or organization as a means of acknowledging that they are still important to you.
  • It can be a catalyst for considering collaborative possibilities in the future.
  • It can provide a means by which members of the partner community or organization are aware of the past work and of the existence of the relationship for new endeavors. (Just like no one member of an arts organization should be the only person aware of/responsible for an engagement relationship, so too should multiple members of the partner community/organization have similar knowledge.)
  • The mechanisms for checking in could include a brief newsletter to the community which would further serve to raise awareness of the relationship, the arts organization’s continuing interest, and the potential it could represent.

As part of the relationship maintenance process, I heartily endorse this idea. I now hope to remember it long enough to add it to my training and other materials. Wish me luck.



Image: Some rights reserved by sepyle86

Deep Engagement

International Presenters
II International Seminar on Cultural Mangement

In June it was my privilege to be a presenter at the II International Seminar on Cultural Management at GAM Center for the Arts in Santiago, Chile. The focus was on territories (neighborhoods, regions, towns/cites) and communities and it provided me with a great learning opportunity to observe the practice of community engagement in South America. (There were presenters from Argentina, Peru, and Uruguay as well as Chile.)

As a result of the centrality of government funding, the emphasis in much of the work in the arts appears to be on developing connections with communities. (I’ll have more to say about the positive–and negative–aspects of such funding in the future.) I learned of:

  • Peru’s Gran Teatro Nacional which, as a result of its architecture, has its back to a poor neighborhood in Lima. Staff there are working to alleviate the situation by establishing working relationships with the the people who live “behind” their building.
  • Uruguay’s Artistic Training Schools (a part of SODRE) that have implemented long-term student projects working with communities as part of the curriculum.
  • Site-specific theater projects in Buenos Aires in areas around the Teatro 25 de Mayo. Bombon Vecinal used homes and apartments as venues for telling neighborhood stories in a way that resembles progressive dinners, moving from one location to the next. I was particularly impressed by the investment in getting to know the residents and using the event to tell those people’s stories.
  • Galleria Metropolitana, a neighborhood-based art center/gallery in Santiago. It is an extension of the home–literally, an attached tin shed–of the founding couple and has for twenty years served as a gathering place and center for contemporary art that bridges the gap between conceptual visual arts practice and social justice concerns of the area’s residents.
  • KIMVNTeatro, a multi-disciplinary company focused on concerns of the Mapuche people, working directly with them in development and presentation.
  • And two on-going projects using the arts to create community in unusual ways:
    • Hula-la featuring lessons and performance in hula hoop (seriously). Participants bond in their shared love for the activity and spread awareness through public performances.
    • Similarly, Leona’s Project is a dance training and performance program. (Instagram link) It focuses on women’s self-esteem and safety using, yep, dance hall routines and twerking. (You read that correctly.) The have a significant community following based on their pop-up performances across Santiago.

The consistent focus on connecting with individuals and groups who were not part of any typical “arts scene” was invigorating, if at times the means of connection might have been a bit . . . unusual.

Many thanks to the conference organizers as well as the participants for providing such a compelling learning opportunity for all of us in attendance.



Shades of Meaning

At long last I am back from my journeys to Australia and Chile. It has been an exhilarating time full of making new friends, learning about the practice of community engagement around the world, and uncovering insights into new ways of thinking and working in this field. As is typical, I have several weeks of material for blog posts.

CircuitWest Showcase 2019 Attendees

At the CircuitWest Showcase in Perth, Australia artists, producers, and presenters met to discuss their work and make plans for the next several years. Perth is a city of about 2 million people set in the state of West Australia, a state that encompasses about 1/3 of the continent. According to a recent census, the next largest city is Bunbury, population 71,000. The next largest group of cities is in the 30,000 range. And even moreso than in the western U.S., the distances between population centers are vast. Perth itself has been described as the most remote city on the planet. It’s a five hour plane ride from any comparably sized city.

The point of this is not an academic travelogue. The principal topic of conversation at the Showcase was touring, the moving of arts events between the cities and towns of Western Australia. The logistics are one of the most critical pieces of the discussions.

But more to the point with regard to community engagement, the touring artists and production companies have had to develop skills in short-turnaround relationship building in the small cities and towns that host them. (One of the reasons for that is that there has been a concerted push by government funders for community engagement in the arts.) Long-time readers know that I warn that tying community engagement to arts events when there is no pre-existing relationship carries the danger of being seen as exploitative: “You’re just trying to sell me a ticket.” However, in WA circumstances, I suspect that populations understand the realities of travel well enough to be more open to overtures from the artists.

In addition, the touring companies have developed some pretty good engagement chops. Indeed, two of them specifically use the communities as the source material for their work. They spend a week or two in the community, collect local stories, and place those stories on stage or screen for everyone to see and enjoy. It takes exceptional writers and actors to make that work, but it’s a good solution to the inherent problem.

And companies that do not create community-based work typically develop substantive relationship building activities into the run-up to their performances–working, for example, with children and/or adults in the performance medium in advance of the event or holding community discussion opportunities on the topic of the show. (Interestingly, many of the subjects addressed are very serious: domestic abuse, depression, oppression of indigenous people.)

Granted, workshops and discussions look very much like what I typically call audience engagement. However, in the WA context, alternatives are limited; community members are, I imagine, OK with the situation; and the need to develop and maintain relationships long-term is so important to both the artists and the presenters that the efforts appear genuine rather than an afterthought or grudging task.

One suggestion I did make was that the local presenters could work on developing a community engagement infrastructure into which touring artists could tap when they arrive. This would be much like an arts organization in an urban center hiring a community organizer to build local relationships that artists could ease into in their relatively limited time on site. Of course, presenters in the smallest towns are already experts in community engagement out of sheer necessity. Some of the presenter towns have populations under 5,000. You can’t exist as a presenter in a place that size without knowing (nearly) everyone who lives there.

My point and personal takeaway is that the lines between community engagement and audience engagement are not as clear-cut as I sometimes suggest. Context has a huge impact on the nature of our work.

Thanks to my new friends in WA for the insight!