Leading From Behind – We Need a Better Definition

I’m wondering about what has brought about this frenzy of attention to engagement in the last few years. Facebook pages and Twitter feeds. Artists making video of their work. Online chats. Endless behind-the-scenes interviews and making-of opportunities. Contests. Prizes. Parties. Games…

Sure technology has made it easier to communicate with one another, and now people don’t need to go through publications and institutions to communicate to a wider audience. But the promise of the web was ultimately not just that we have better access to consume more things but that each of us now had the ability to become our own broadcaster. In other words, it’s not just the ability to talk about what others are doing, but the promise of creating our own and getting it out to an audience that is exciting to so many people.

We’ve seen an explosion in the amount (or at least the visibility) of self-produced art. Twelve-year-olds making and editing their own feature-length movies. Kids making music online and working with others in far-off cities. Hundreds of thousands of budding authors publishing their own books.

Seventy percent of all the “content” produced on the web this year is made by the public, not by professionals. And correspondingly, more people are creating things offline. Sales of band instruments, for example, are at all-time highs. More and more book clubs. Dance studios are bulging with people. This in a time of declining arts education in schools. Arts education is far from dead; it’s just moved out of the schools and onto technology – the de-institutionalization of arts ed.

The theory has long been that more exposure to art created more people interested in art. If that’s true, than we’re in a budding Golden Age. But if more and more activity is happening outside of our institutions (arts, education etc), then what does that mean for the institutions? For the most part, it seems like most institutions currently view engagement as a call-and-response relationship (tell us what you think about us), with the benefits of that relationship accruing first for the institution (read: sell more tickets, get more people through the doors) before the audience.

The assumption is that in creating something, we’re giving the audience something that is of value to them, and that the thing itself ought to be enough. But we all know that that isn’t always true. Our definition of value might not be the audience definition. And in fact, in a crowded world in which the options are dizzying for how one spends one’s time, asking someone to pay attention to something is asking them first to make an investment – in time, in attention, in interest, in money. We’re asking for the precious commodity of attention and yet we pretend the transaction is beginning with a benefit to the consumer rather than to us. Of course, we might be right ultimately that our work is so powerful and persuasive that there’s a big pay off for the audience. But what about when there isn’t?

Engagement seems more often to be used as a tool to sell art as a product rather than as an intrinsic part of the art process,. That’s fine, but it seems to me that looking at it this way misses the potential power of engagement. If “engagement” is merely a better way to get data about what your audience thinks about you, then it’s rather self-serving (and ultimately unsuccessful). Relationships that are too self-serving are difficult to sustain.

If on the other hand, engagement is a better process by which to create work, it can greatly enrich the art you create.

Okay, so you’re probably reading that last bit and thinking it’s a bunch of theoretical nonsense. Orchestra concerts, plays, dance, literature – the best of it is created by highly talented artists who are able to focus vision and inspiration and technical skill to create extraordinary things. But where do we think that vision and inspiration and skill come from? From engaging with culture and translating it in inspired ways. The reason a lot of our art can seem stale today is because the experience in the creation of the art has been hermetically sealed. We’ve too often focused more on the technique than the artistry, excellence by our own definition over experience.

Engagement and audience interaction isn’t about finding out what your audience wants and then following it. Or about trying to find a balance between leading and following and figuring out how much control you want to give up. Those are yesterday’s definitions. Engagement in the ways that technology has helped unlock is about culture as a conversation. That’s a conversation that’s been going on forever, but which has now expanded exponentially.


  1. In this discussion, we see two views of engagement. One is the perspective of artists: engagement is a form of communication – one that can even have a deeply spiritual character. The other is of the administrator: engagement is a marketing technique, centered mostly around methods of gauging and responding to the public’s interests.

    Both views are important. I think part of the problem is that the arts in the USA have become administrative heavy, to the point that artists are sometimes not adequately included in the decision-making process about community engagement.

    A good case would be the Detroit Symphony. The CEO, Anne Parsons, had some good ideas, but her execution of them seemed to lack an understanding of the internal dynamics of orchestras. She made too many decisions herself about revising the musicians’ job descriptions instead of consulting and working together with them. For example, she seems to have basically told the orchestra it would be more involved with chamber music and community education projects. Anyone familiar with professional orchestras knows that approach will bomb in a major way – even though there are always members of orchestras who are fanatics about chamber music and educational projects.

    She should have turned to those specific individuals in the orchestra who are naturally enthusiastic about chamber music and education and said I have x sum of money this year for you to organize chamber music concerts and educational programs with your colleagues. (The chamber music and educational types in orchestras are usually not the same people.) Orchestra musicians are almost always willing to join with one of their colleagues who has a budget for a project he or she is really enthusiastic about. (I’m not sure why that is, but I know that’s how orchestra musicians think. They love joining with a colleague who is enthusiastic about something.) Find the folks in the orchestra who will inspire and lead their colleagues. To a considerable degree an artist’s work has to come from her heart. It’s better to let them inspire each other, and this almost always works in orchestras.

    Once that is done, let those individual artists lead the way while helping them with the organizational and financial skills they need. That type of administrative collaboration with artists often results in both artists and administrators being able to use their best leadership skills.

    The management of the Chattanooga Symphony had almost exactly the same goals as in Detroit. They took the approach I describe about encouraging internal leadership and it worked wonderfully, while the same goals in Detroit failed miserably because management’s methods were far too top heavy.

    I fear that the MBA-ization of arts management is one reason management has trended toward a dysfunctional top heaviness. Businesses and groups of artists have very different internal dynamics. A good arts administrator quietly creates environments where artists can lead, and where the public can engage with them. Red flags should go up when we see arts administrators talking about the artistic visions “they” are trying to create. Administrators facilitate artistic visions and dialog, they don’t create them. As has been mentioned in other places in this discussion, the best arts management is often a kind of leading by following — a very complex form of leadership through quiet facilitation, that has few relationships to business organizations.

  2. “A good arts administrator quietly creates environments where artists can lead, and where the public can engage with them.” -William Osborne

    Yes! Our calling is to become servant leaders.

    We wrestle here because for so many of us, engagement is measured by how well it leads to the financial viability and sustainability of our artistic enterprises. Yet, effective engagement cannot be guaranteed because it often relies as much on circumstance and luck as on calculation and logic. There may well be universal elements and considerations that define art, but day-to-day each individual will recognize and define art for him/her self.

    Ultimately, artistic engagement is a spirit journey found in the nexus of the artist’s attempts to touch on aspects of the sacred and the divine. Regardless of motivation, artists, like God, create something out of nothing, sometimes using smoke and mirrors to do so. Many then invite others to find meaning in the creation, often with the hope that the others will attach value to the meaning and then support further creative explorations according to their means.

    In the best of monetized worlds, sufficient support will accrue and translate into lifestyles to which individuals – artists and administrators – and their organizations would like to become accustomed.

  3. Sari Grove says

    I’m an artist…what I hear is that art is moving into a conversation rather than a presentation…What that seems to mean practically is that my art might get better, but paradoxically, fewer people will pay for it…

  4. art institutions are parasites.
    billions of dollars goes to funding these orgs,
    practically NONE of which goes to artists.

  5. If institutions become willing to accord artists equal consideration, only then will they guarantee their future existence, unless of course we are moving into a fascism so pervasive that this is not possible.

  6. Ms. Bryant may believe her two comments may be taken into account – I believe not so – not because
    she is right or wrong but that most responders have long made up their minds that their point of view
    is correct – being long frozen into their positions, preaching the same dreary script or variations of to
    each other , they wax concern for the artist (arts ) when in reality it is their personal concepts of what is art
    and what art should do that consumes them and betrays their ignorance .. Facts are avoided like the plague as are any truths that might shake up a premise – many can claim some sort of school degree which they believe validates their theories , but only causes one to wonder ” how little an education can mean …….. also, some make a living as lecturers , speakers etc. espousing this nonsense and for others it gives
    meaning to their banal existence .
    You most often get the ludicrous nonsense of ” Our calling is to become servant leaders ” or
    ” bunch of theoretical nonsense .” Remember arts institutions have only one end result and that
    is to raise money for their survival and the “arts” being used as a stalking horse to this end . Whatever
    art results from this is the Sunday week end painter, the feel good community fair level .