Engaging the Third Rail

ThirdRailThe art. Programming. The reason artists create and arts organizations exist.  The untouchable heart of the enterprise.

(NB: In these posts on mainstreaming engagement, I am addressing only those individuals or organizations that want broader and deeper relationships with their communities but are uncertain how to begin or even whether it is possible to do so without completely reinventing the organization.)

When I began an outline of how best to approach the topic of mainstreaming community engagement, I put this last, knowing it would be the most difficult. But upon a nanosecond of reflection, it became obvious that if we do not address this key issue, no engagement effort we make in any other area will be meaningful (or believable). So, diving in where angels fear to tread . . . .

How can arts programming (and this is primarily relevant to arts organizations as opposed to individual artists) be thought of in a community engagement context? There are three access points (one with two subsets) at which engagement thinking can be applied.

  • Existing works have already been selected.
    • Presentation details have already been decided.
    • Presentation details are still TBD.
  • Works have not been selected but will be chosen from existing work.
  • Work will be commissioned.

Clearly, the further down the list one goes, the greater the lead time (and input from the artistic director/curator) required. Let’s begin with the first.

Existing works have already been selected: Presentation details have already been decided.
From an engagement perspective, there are at least three general approaches that can be taken. First, the work can be illuminated in such a way that the non-specialist can come to appreciate it from a technical perspective–in other words on its artistic merit. Certainly this may be an audience engagement tactic rather than a community engagement one, but so long as it flows from a respect for the arts observer, it has merit. In Engaging with Palestrina, I discussed this in more detail and included a link to a cool example of a crab canon by Bach being presented in such a way that non-musicians could appreciate its structure.

Beyond that, if the illumination were done through a cultural idiom that was familiar to the communities with which connection is being sought, even this technical approach could be deepened to community engagement. Imagine hip hop or classical Indian dance’s gestural idioms being used to parallel or highlight elements of modern dance. (I still have my experience with Ontario Dances on my mind.)

Second, the work can be placed in its sociocultural context. Little is new and the fact that the work of artists from earlier eras and other cultures reflected circumstances that parallel our own can be interesting. Again, in Engaging with Palestrina I suggested that Palestrina’s role as a conservator of an older approach to religion and music in the face of “new-fangled” innovations might be made relevant to people today and provide an opportunity to discuss such matters. Again, this could be primarily audience engagement, but focusing on the particular interests of the community might yield ways to use such historical information to engage on more than an individual or “academic” level.

Third, and the most directly related to community engagement, the work can be contextualized by social themes inherent in it. In what is becoming for me a bit of a tired example (although a valuable one to be sure), it’s possible to present West Side Story either as “simply” a great American musical or as an opportunity for community discussions of insider-outsider status, immigration, racial conflict, etc. Doing the latter only requires a perspective that seeks points of entry for engagement. Social themes abound in most great works of art. (It has only recently occurred to me that My Fair Lady is largely about income inequality and class barriers. Duh!) Such contextualizing need not be terribly expensive, but carrying it out may require skill sets not to be found inside the organization. The solution to that, of course, is to develop partnerships with organizations that do have such skills in-house.

Clearly, this only scratches the surface (a very hard surface at that). Much more should be done to drill down into each of these, but that’s for intensive workshops and individual consultations, not for blog posts.

I’ll continue with the next access point in a following post. In the meantime,



Photo:AttributionShare Alike Some rights reserved by Richard Masoner / Cyclelicious

What Is the Arts Business?

The problem with unconscious assumptions is that they are  . . . unconscious. Even for me, spending time as I do questioning the status quo in the arts, the basic nature of the arts enterprise–deeper even than  the “business model”–often remains unexplored. But the arguments for and against community engagement inevitably have at their root this fundamental question. What is the arts business?

Individual or Community Resource?
A good (and valuable) preliminary question might be “Are the arts an individual or a community resource?” Trick question, of course. The arts inevitably serve both. However, I think much of our focus is on the individual, both as creator and consumer. I certainly believe more attention should be paid to the arts as a resource for community improvement. And, of course, by community I mean any collection of people who are bound–intentionally or, sometimes, de facto–by a characteristic they share: geography, certainly, but also culture, interests, concerns, preferences, background, etc. We speculate that this service to community was one of the origins of the arts but their binding or healing power for communities has been, in my opinion, under-appreciated, under-valued, and under-utilized by the arts infrastructure. (Evil Doug is trying to get me to say that the community service nature of the arts has been under-monetized. Oops, there he went.)

What Is the Business?
The deeper fundamental (and even less consciously considered) question is “What is the business?” I’ve got three metaphors to consider, but let me clarify as I always used to do for my students, the fact that I list three does not mean that I think these are the three, that these are correct, or that three is even the right number. I will also acknowledge that almost no one thinks of their work as part of the first two I list, but I am talking about unconscious assumptions.

This is a work in progress. I may not even agree with myself next week. With that caveat, here goes:

  • Reliquary, as in a shrine or container of relics. The only focus here is on the relic. A reliquary would still be a reliquary if no one looked at it. Arts organizations that are “all about the art” are reliquaries whether they deal in visual (fixed) or performing (variable) work.
  • Hajj, as in a regularly occurring pilgrimage to a holy place. I am taking a specific religious rite and attempting to make a secular metaphor out of it. The metaphor holds that in a secular hajj, the destination of the journey (the museum, concert hall, theater, etc.) and the content to be found there are primary. A pilgrim is required for a hajj, but the intent is for the participants to be uplifted by objects or experiences. In the arts hajj, it is the audience/visitor who is transformed or edified; the art is fixed and not altered or affected by external concerns, interests, or influences. For the art to be so would be sacrilege. The arts organizations that treat their offerings as a “city on a hill” that the public is lucky to have available fit this metaphor. What is important, again, is the art.
  • Commons, as in a resource accessible to all members of society. The commons belongs to everyone, even those who do not take advantage of it. People can utilize it individually or collectively. The commons is extremely valuable, but its purpose is to be of benefit to those who use it. While it might exist if no one took advantage of it, it would not be fulfilling its core purpose. In addition, as time and society changes, the merit of individual expressions of the commons may change. (Hitching posts for horses are not nearly as valuable today as they were in the West in frontier times.) Arts organizations that see art as a means of improving individual lives and collective experience are living out the commons metaphor. For them, if a work of art is not speaking to the community, that’s not the community’s fault; their response is either community-focused education or selection of alternative works.

I suspect I may be missing a metaphor somewhere between hajj and commons, but this is the best I can do today. The important thing is to consider what the focus of an arts organization is. As I suggested in Shifting the Center, the simple act of thinking about community interests in programming decisions can pay great dividends. Moving away from a reliquary- or hajj-like approaches will prove far more sustainable for the long term.



Reliquary Photo: AttributionNoncommercial Some rights reserved by Art History Images (Holly Hayes)
Kaaba Photo: Attribution Some rights reserved by Al Fassam
Commons Photo: AttributionShare Alike Some rights reserved by Jack W. Pearce


Engaging with Palestrina

So, I was sitting there, behaving (as well as I generally can), when a sentence leapt out of my mouth unbidden. The occasion was a grant review panel, the subject was a chamber choir requesting funds to present a concert of music by Palestrina, and the precipitating topic was a discussion of the group’s response to the question about the public benefit of the activity. As is typical (and totally understandable given the state of the arts industry today), they had obviously struggled with their answer. They promised to reach out to all kinds of choral groups (e.g., church choirs), citing particularly African-American and ethnic European ones and to be welcoming to everyone. In addition, they said, “the music is chosen to be accessible and inspiring to all.”

Let me be clear. I am a huge fan of the music of Palestrina, but in today’s world, including among African-American and ethnic European communities, this would be an atypical and acquired taste. It would take a good deal of work to engage the audiences they listed. The truth was, and this is neither surprising nor something about which I could really take them to task, there was no acknowledgement of that fact nor any consideration of what to do about it. Generally, we don’t consider the issue because we suspect there is nothing that can be done.

So, the sentence that leapt out, without bypassing my thought processes, was, “Anything can be made engaging if you want to do so badly enough.” (If that statement had passed through my cerebellum at all, I probably would have amended “anything” to “any great art,” but that’s hindsight.) We briefly discussed their assessment of public benefit and went on from there.

But my exclamation stuck with me, nagging at the fringes of my consciousness. When I finally let it in, I realized I needed to examine it to see if I really believed it. Or rather, if I believed it (and I do), is it even remotely true.

I have used Palestrina before as an example of a truly great artist whose work is no longer the center of an industry the way, say, Beethoven might be considered to be a center of the orchestral industry today. But could things be done to make Palestrina engaging for uninitiated audiences today?

So, what do I have to say about this? Let’s begin with the music itself. It is the epitome of reflective music, especially in today’s context. It is not “easy listening.” It is “foreign” in text, mood, subject matter, and complexity. Yet, over the last decade or so there have been several “top 40” (or so) hits that focused on Gregorian chant. While most of those added (at some point) a strong (and stylistically inappropriate “beat”), there is precedent for music not wholly unlike Palestrina’s to be popular. Additionally, I think highlighting the music’s “points of imitation” could provide a viable window into the music itself. (If you question whether it’s possible to make structural details of music interesting to the general public, see http://www.openculture.com/2009/09/how_a_bach_canon_works.html.)

Another avenue that might be open to engagement is the meditative quality of at least some of the music–its potential for personal reflection. I know we are not a meditative society, but there are times and places when/where people are looking for opportunities to consider their place in the cosmos.

A third option is understanding Palestrina’s context. He was the musical center of the Counter-Reformation, attempting to stem the tide of messy modernism. (To my musicologist friends: cut me some slack for hyperbole and for over-simplification here.) Regardless of which side one is on in such debates today, understanding Palestrina’s socio-cultural role is kind of interesting as a basis for listening to the music.

I recognize that this may not represent an overwhelmingly compelling case for engaging via Palestrina, but they are a few “off the top of my head” ideas that might resonate. For those who know him and his music more intimately than I, there should be many others. Ultimately, the point is to see merit in the attempt to engage and then spend the time to seek out points of engagement and offer them to a public that by and large needs convincing.

In the end, I think I agree with myself, “Any great art can be made engaging if you want to do so badly enough.” And you don’t have to sell the art’s soul to do so.



Photo:Attribution Some rights reserved by dom archer

The Porgy Problem

Many of you, on the basis of the title alone, could write this post yourself. Porgy and Bess is an iconic masterwork of the arts in the U.S. It is justifiably performed countless times by opera companies everywhere. And it sometimes provides a textbook example of the myopia with which arts organizations often conduct themselves in communities.

On numerous occasions, when I am discussing engagement and the necessity of developing and being in relationships over a long period of time, Porgy comes up. The first time it did so, many years ago now, I was conducting a community-oriented workshop on engagement and two women from a local African-American church mentioned a local opera company’s production of the work and that company’s efforts to sell tickets to the church’s members. The biggest issue on their mind, years later, was “We hadn’t heard from them before and we haven’t heard from them since.”

This story illustrates several critical elements of engagement. First, arts organizations can be (unconsciously) ham-fisted in their interactions with the community. So focused are they on their product (so absorbed in “keeping the doors open”) that basic “rules” of interacting with strangers are forgotten. Second, at a minimum, Porgy ticket sales would have been far more successful if there had been a relationship with those churches before the production was scheduled. And even if there had not been, using the production to begin something would have been far superior to the hit-and-run sales effort. If the relationship would have been nurtured from Porgy forward, that would have been an acceptable (though not ideal) approach.

But the most important lesson may be that there are people in our communities who are not merely neutral toward the arts but, based on experiences such as this (and even more serious affronts), are hostile to the arts community. This is difficult for many of us to acknowledge, but awareness of the fact prepares us for working in community. Knowing there may be holes out of which we have to dig ourselves is worthwhile knowledge. We can be prepared.

Engage (with care and respect)!


Photo:AttributionShare Alike Some rights reserved by TeledyN

Shifting the Center

ShiftingTheCenterYou are now privy to the reason I became a musician rather than a visual artist. (Or at least one reason.) I deeply appreciate good graphic design but my capacity for creation is, shall we say, limited. What you see here is the best I can do. Honestly!

Yet as crude as this is, I think it gets the point across. I have attempted to articulate the thought that the picture expresses on a number of occasions and I discover that the adage about pictures and words is correct.

Historically, arts organizations have placed art, their understood mission, at the core of their work and thinking. To be honest, in that construct, the “community” outside of the arts organization is often an afterthought, if it rises to the level of thought at all. My argument is that the mission really lies in the relationship between the arts organization and the community. The art is at the center of that.

The engagement mode of thinking sees the art as something that grows out of the relationship between the arts organization (and/or artist) and the community. In this view, the center of the things, the art, lies immediately between them. I am advocating for a shifting of our frame of reference about the art from our own internal understanding of (and passion about) it to the point at which the art brings meaning to the larger community–shifting the center.