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!



Five Years On


July 30 marked the fifth anniversary of Engaging Matters. On the one hand, it seems like yesterday that this journey began; on the other, it feels like it’s been going on forever. I can barely remember what it was like not to think about the blog potential of virtually every single thing I do. (Some of you may remember posts about minor league baseball games I attended!) I began posting twice a week, but after a couple of years exhaustion led me to one per week. The end result is that there have been over 325 posts to this blog, most written by me but a number penned by guest bloggers. What I plan to do during the month of August is repost some of the most read articles and share links to others. Some, even many, may be new to those who have stumbled across this blog in the last year or two; others may be read in different contexts with the passage of time. Regardless, I hope there may be something worthwhile for you in these blasts from the past.

This week’s highlights deal with definitions. Unsurprisingly, these posts have been some of the most read on this blog. We are all struggling with what “engagement” means and how it relates to efforts of which we have better understanding. The most read is Audience Development “vs.” Community Engagement  (originally published in May of 2012 and presented below). Other widely read articles  addressing the meaning of related terminology include:

Outreach ≠ Community Engagement
Outreach and Audience Engagement
Audience Engagement-Community Engagement
New Thought on Audience and Community Engagement
Engagement Is
Engagement Vocabulary
Transformative Engagement


Audience Development “vs.” Community Engagement
(from May 2012)

Earlier (in Engagement Is) I introduced a chart I ran across last month at the American Association of Museums conference, prepared by Candace Tangorra Matelic, highlighting what engagement is and is not. I also promised a follow-up to that introducing Dr. Matelic’s analysis of the differences between Audience Development and Community Engagement. (I should point out that her work is geared very specifically toward museums.)

My post (One Way) on Michael Kaiser’s discussion of “audience engagement” garnered enough interest (and a little heat) to make this worthwhile. While some of Dr. Matelic’s language is a bit stronger–the left-hand column is a little too dismissive–than I would adopt in making the distinctions (I *do* understand the merits of audience development), her perspective is advocacy for robust engagement. Like her, I would prefer we not get stuck in the first door as there is so much of merit (though it will be long-term rather than immediate) to be found if we walk through it to pursue deeper relationships.

Audience Development Community Engagement
Short term marketing strategy to increase the number of people who visit your organization: builds and broadens your audience, which can turn into support for your organization Long term strategy organizational development to build community ownership, participation, relationships, and support for your organization: builds a better community, which in turn, builds your audience and position of importance in the community
Looks at who is and who is not coming and why or why not; identifies potential audiences for marketing existing museum services Looks at what matters to the community and how your organization is or is not responding; identifies how existing museum services are relevant or could become more relevant
Focus on increasing visitation numbers from existing and new groups, and building membership numbers, the relationship with community remains the same as it is currently Focus on developing relationships and increasing partnerships and collaborations with a variety of community groups, benefiting all participating partners
Internally focused approach: how can the community serve us and our needs (this approach potentially closes doors as it does not address what other organizations need—it is all about your organization) Externally focused approach: how can we serve the community’s needs, working with others (this approach opens doors as it is a shared goal with other community organizations—it is about what we all need)
Involves education, marketing and development staff members Involves all stakeholders, including staff, trustees and volunteers
A consultant can complete the bulk of the work, working on your behalf, conducting interviews in the community and facilitating focus groups and then summarizing salient points (a consultant goes to the community and reports back to you) A consultant can facilitate and guide the initial conversations and summarize the collective input from community participants, but your staff needs to be actively involved to make it work (a consultant helps to bring the community to you for collective dialogue)
Organizational identity, goals and priorities remain essentially the same, as does the organization’s current reputation, public service, value and standing in the community Organizational identity, goals and priorities could be fundamentally transformed in response to community input and ideas, substantially increasing reputation, public service, value and standing in the community
A more conservative approach, with more predictable and focused outcomes, if completed thoughtfully, impacting a limited portion of the organization A more risky approach, but if completed with sincerity and honesty, outcomes can far exceed initial expectations, impact all aspects of the operation and last longer

Developed by Candace Tangorra Matelic, CTM Professional Services. Source:
Comparing Audience Development and Community Engagement

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