Arts Journal Feed
Sometimes a blog post derives from seeing something that only tangentially relates to its point. Such is the case with this one. A while ago I saw an article on the Wallace Foundation’s support of a project for Ballet Austin. It is an interesting and valuable marketing study related to audiences, arts industry assumptions about them, and new ways to draw more people into new work based on the research. It is a fascinating report and an important one. And to be clear I have great respect for the work Ballet Austin has done over the years in connecting with people and I’ve recently made friends with a number of the staff at Slover Linnett, the team that conducted the research.
So, the “however” that is coming has nothing to do with the research, the report, its findings, or any of the principals. It just stems from two nagging (and related) concerns. The first is our tendency not to see the people we try to reach or those who attend arts events as people. No one does this consciously, but the phrases “butts in seats/eyes on walls” is shorthand for our focus on numbers and results rather than relationships. And this tendency can have the effect of creating another barrier between us and “them” (which is another problem with our terminology). This was the genesis of the title of my first book, Building Communities, Not Audiences. We have to be vigilant in minimizing, not increasing, the distance between the arts and the people we should be serving.
The related concern is that datacentric research misses an opportunity. (This paragraph is based on assumptions so I’m perfectly willing to be corrected.) When focus groups are asked questions solely about what we want to know for marketing purposes, it can have the effect of making them subjects of our experiment. I can imagine adding a few questions that draw them into conversation with us that could have the effect of initiating or firming up relationships with them. Here are a few of my sophomoric ideas about possible questions:
- “Is this art form important to you? And if so, why?”
- “What about the things you saw/heard resonated with your own life?”
- “What things you saw and heard seemed particularly important or meaningful to you?”
- “What would you like our arts organization to know about you?”
You get the idea. I acknowledge that I’m not even a neophyte when it comes to arts marketing research. The field is way beyond me. However, there does seem to be an opportunity to turn focus groups into relationship building opportunities with the addition of a few questions like these. (This is an idea I first broached some time ago in Focus Group or Story Circle.)
I am, without question, excessively sensitive to anything that has the potential to increase the distance between us and the people we hope to reach. I put this forward not as a response to the article I cited but as a means to generate thought about how to use this important aspect of our work to improve connections with our communities.
Since I got into the weeds of defining development terms last week (Development Terminology), I thought it was time to present the latest in my thinking about terminology related to community engagement. Over the nearly six years that I’ve been writing this blog I’ve been working on definitions that help explain engagement’s place in the arts management tool box. There has been much confusion and misunderstanding about exactly what community engagement is and how it differs from other essential work like audience development and audience engagement. The confusion is most unfortunate in that conflating or misunderstanding any of them gets in the way of taking advantage of the benefits each has to offer.
As part of developing our engagement training programs and working with communities around the country, we have been fine tuning and updating the definitions and adding more substantive materials to understand it all. (Evaluating Engagement was one aspect of that.)
My posts dealing with these definitions have been among the most widely read of this blog. In the interest of keeping current, here is the current incarnation of definitions related to the
[This definition is exclusively intended to apply to community engagement work] Any group of people with common interests or characteristics defined, for example, by place, tradition, intention, or spirit. (Based on a definition created by Alternate ROOTS)
Or even simpler: A group of people with something in common.
Arts-Based Community Development
Arts activities designed to serve community interests. Principal beneficiary of direct, intended outcomes: community.
Activities undertaken by an arts organization as part of a marketing strategy designed to produce immediate results that benefit the organization: sales, donations, etc. Principal beneficiary of direct, intended outcomes: arts organization.
Activities undertaken by an arts organization as part of a marketing strategy designed to deepen relationships with current stakeholders. The purpose is, over time, to improve retention, increase frequency, and expand reach through stakeholder networks. Principal beneficiary of direct, intended outcomes: arts organization.
An attribute (or state of being) that communities seek–citizens actively involved with community life. The impetus for encouraging civic engagement could come from community leaders, grassroots advocates, or anyone (including artists and arts organizations) concerned with collective well-being.
Activities undertaken by an arts organization as part of a mission strategy designed to build deep relationships between the organization and the communities in which it operates for the purpose of achieving mutual benefit. It is accomplished by developing trust and understanding through which reach can be expanded. This results, over the long term in increased ticket sales and financial support as well as more arts-friendly public policy. Principal beneficiary of direct, intended outcomes: community and arts organization.
Community engagement that creates change in the arts organization–programming, organizational processes, and/or modes of thinking. The root of such engagement is community learning: learning about the needs, interests, even personality of the community the arts organization is attempting to engage. If an organization is not doing anything differently as a result of its engagement efforts, it’s not focused on the community. It’s focused on itself. It is only transformative engagement that builds an arts organization’s relevance.
For the online version of these definitions, click here.
Fools rush in . . . .
I may just be a glutton for punishment. However, over the (many) years I taught arts management and the many more in which I have engaged with colleagues in discussions of marketing, sales, development, fundraising–you know, the fun part of the arts (!?)–I’ve been troubled by what has seemed to me to be a fuzziness about the way we use all the terms. While all of this is not directly related to community engagement, the impact of these fields on it and of community engagement on them is (or should be) very important. So, as I’ve been working on my training programs I’ve decided to make a stab at differentiating among them in the way I have earlier worked on audience development, audience engagement, and community engagement. (Be warned, I’ve done a bit more work on those as well so a post will be forthcoming on those.)
I know these terms are now deeply embedded in our field and that people have deep commitments to the way they use and understand the terms. And, since I am not a day to day practitioner I may be missing important aspects of each. However, for me what follows is a way of making all these important terms play nicely together. For anyone interested in sharing these via URL, this material can be found here. [http://www.artsengaged.com/essentials#DevelTerms]
In the arts management world, much discussion of development, marketing, fundraising, and sales is complicated by conflicting or overlapping definitions. While what is presented here is decidedly “non-standard,” it represents an attempt to clarify the terminology in ways that might be helpful.
The process of soliciting and securing resources for an organization. All of the following are subsets of development.
Processes and activities that support fundraising and sales and that enhance organizational visibility which serves as the foundation for both. It is best understood as communication with external constituencies about the offerings–the receivable values–an organization presents.
The process and activity of soliciting and securing grants, contributions, and donations to an organization.
The process and activity of securing an exchange transaction with a member of the public in which they give money and/or their time in order to receive the value of the art the organization presents.
The percentage of any given population that takes advantage of an organization’s offerings.
The average number of times any given member of the public takes advantage of an organization’s offerings in a prescribed period of time.
So there you have it, for better or worse. I’m certainly interested in improving on these definitions so (constructive) comments are welcomed.
In May I was invited to speak at a convening of the Irvine Foundation’s New California Arts Fund grantees. Each of the cohort’s 14 arts organizations really gets engagement and is extremely active living out the work of connecting with communities.
There were many, many wonderful stories of effective community engagement. However, one in particular made a deep impression upon me. One part of the impression was the power of an example that demonstrates that not only does engagement not need to be a budget drain but that it also provides the possibility of bringing more revenue to an organization. The other part was the up-to-the-minute timeliness of the story.
In conversations with staff members of the Riverside Art Museum, I learned that their initial work in fostering relationships with Riverside’s Latino communities had resulted in donations to purchase art. But the “hot off the press” revelation came during the convening. The actor and comedian Cheech Marin had recently lent a portion of his Chicano art collection to the RAM for an exhibition. As a result of that experience and as a result of the enthusiasm he saw in the community’s response to it, he is partnering with the Museum and the city of Riverside to create the Cheech Marin Center for Chicano Art, Culture, and Industry in a repurposed library (that is being replaced by a new building) that will be five times the size of the Museum’s current space. This is one of the best examples I’ve seen putting to the lie the idea that community engagement is a one-way drain on resources. Congratulations to the RAM! For more info see: [http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/arts/miranda/la-et-cam-cheech-marin-chicano-art-center-20170424-story.html]
Even later breaking news: the project has been approved unanimously by the Riverside City Council–http://www.pe.com/2017/05/17/riverside-council-approves-cheech-marins-chicano-art-center-downtown/ Mr. Marin and the Museum will now have a year to raise about half of the $5-$7 Million cost of upfitting the old library for its new use.
Community engagement can be a path to new and otherwise unavailable sources of funding and support.
I had planned this post before Trevor O’Donnell wrote this: Is Marketing about the Consumer or the Product? Really I had.
We recently bought new pillows. Not expensive ones, mind you. Just basic pillows. The photo accompanying this post is of the bag the pillows came in. Who out there can now write the next few paragraphs for me?
What consumes well over the half of available space? You are correct. A picture of someone using (and enjoying–in all likelihood a greatly exaggerated enjoyment to be sure) the pillow. OK, I’ll also acknowledge the obvious. The pillow user is an attractive young woman, but this is pretty plain vanilla consumer marketing in the U.S.A. We’d hardly expect much else.
So, Marketing 101. Pictures = good. (Ditto few words.) Pictures of people happy about the product = better. And the second equation is baseline stuff, not a brilliant new horizon in advertising.
What do we not see on the package? Copy extolling the inherent virtues of the pillows. The following are words describing attributes the purchaser (me) might (and does) find personally attractive: “Allergy Protection Pillow,” “Firm,” “2-Pack,” and (arguably) “Jumbo.” We’ll leave the logo and product names aside. The only other copy is “100% Organic Cotton Fabric.” That could be interpreted as self-aggrandizement since it’s about the wonderfulness of the materials. At the same time, “organic” is popularly understood as a positive thing and “100% . . . cotton” rides the “natural” train in a time when natural is a widely valued trait.
Real arts marketers have discussed the lessons to be learned here far better than I ever could. I’ll just say, when you compare arts promotional materials with this pillow package, consider the impact of the faces of dead composers/playwrights/painters, imperious conductors, and otherworldly looking performers on potential “consumers” of the product as opposed to this pillow user on a rest deprived purchaser of sleep aids.
Engaging Matters will be taking the week off next week recovering from Memorial Day
I mentioned previously (Connecting) that I attended the Charlotte Jazz Festival earlier this year. It was a wonderful event with a number of highlights. The one most apropos of this blog was a concert by Sammy Miller and the Congregation. I had seen them perform at the Festival the previous year and they were good. This year, however, they had become a force of nature.
Let me begin with a bit of fanboy prose not directly related to this blog. They were awesome: immensely talented musicians, well-schooled in the history and techniques of jazz, and thoroughly, thoroughly entertaining. I was smiling throughout the concert. I think it may have been the most pure fun I’ve ever had at an evening of music.
That out of the way, what is related to this blog is their combination of high-end artistry and technical skill, musicianship, and knowledge of their discipline with total dedication to winning converts. The band even has a mission statement:
Sammy Miller and the Congregation are on a mission to put the generosity back into jazz and bring art back to the people. Playing joyful jazz—music that feels good—the band shares the power of community through music in a style that entertains, enriches, and most of all uplifts.
The concert itself was dangerously high energy from start to finish. They played to, with, and in (!) the audience. They were theatrical, even flamboyant at times. But just when I was ready to check out saying the schtick was going over the top they would launch into a fascinating, sensitive contemporary take on a jazz standard. They sometimes flirted with “too much” but in the end this was a group of artists dedicated to their art attempting–and succeeding in spades–to help people love jazz.
Everyone who I heard perform at the Festival this year was a stunning musician knowledgeable about and dedicated to jazz. What sets the Congregation apart is the addition of an almost maniacal dedication to connecting with their audience. They love performing and they really love making others love jazz.
I have written before about a performer who appears to completely enjoy connecting with the people at his concerts: Jimmy Buffett (Lessons from a Pirate: I; Lessons from a Pirate: II). He works in a much different corner of the musical universe but he is also dedicated to connecting with his fans.
The difference between the two is that JB is not worried about winning the hearts and minds of the public. His incredible commercial success proves that but he keeps at it. Sammy Miller and the Congregation do have that concern for the art of jazz and for its future.
It is the dedication to connecting that I would most highlight here. We in the nonprofit arts are every bit as committed to our art as this group is–but not more so. The question is whether we are willing to do what it takes to allow people to come to love our work as much as we do–not by “dumbing down” that work but by expending the energy required to make what we do irresistible . . . and keeping at it until we succeed.
I had a very difficult time finding a video or a recording that did justice to the live experience, but rather than leave you hanging, this is a pretty good representation of a part of the appeal of Sammy Miller and the Congregation: Li’l Liza Jane.
And, for a straight-ahead classical music example of the same ideas, see Joe Patti’s blog post on the pianist Alpin Hong.
I recently attended the second annual Charlotte Jazz Festival. I wrote about it last year, too, making blogging about it, I guess, a tradition. (And it has nothing to do with the fact that a picture of my wife and me was used in this year’s season brochure.) I find my heart leaning ever more strongly in the jazz direction. It’s similarities to classical music and, indeed, all of the nonprofit arts are many: a relatively small group of fans (except for the big stars), an esoteric “vocabulary” both of words and musical elements, and a deep concern about aging audiences. So I frequently find things to say as a result of attending concerts.
This time there are a couple, one of which will be a separate blog post. For now, I want to comment on the presentation of one particular piece. The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra led by Wynton Marsalis has been the anchor performing group both years. The individual musicians are, as you might expect, among the most talented in the country on their instruments and the ensemble is a well oiled machine. All of the technique boxes are checked with big red stars.
What struck me particularly was the performance on the last night of a newly commissioned work by Victor Goines called Untamed Elegance. The concert as a whole was organized around music of the jazz age and Goines’ work reflected themes or cultural artifacts from the era: Prohibition and flappers to name just two. Here are the movement titles:
- The Business of America Is Business
- The Elephant in the Room
- Laboratories of Ideas
- Untamed Elegance: The “It” Thing
- Drunk as a Skunk
- Bold, Naked and Sensational
This titles are interesting but if it had been left at that it would have been a series of six interesting and stunningly performed pieces to satisfy jazz aficionados. For others it would have gotten a bit long. What made the performance work much better was the relatively brief narration/scene setting by Mr. Goines ahead of each movement. He was succinct and provided a highly entertaining case for each of them. (You can readily guess which movement was about prohibition and which about flappers.)
The point is that he knew that a relatively small number of the people in the big crowd for the concert would be “all in” for 40 minutes of jazz based on 1920’s idioms. His oral program notes provided the rest access to appreciating the music.
Before I close I’m going to take a point of personal privilege and mention something that’s not directly related to the mission of this blog. At the Festival I found a new rising jazz star–vocalist/trumpeter (and after Louis Armstrong it takes a lot of guts for a jazz musician to own that combination) Bria Skonberg. She’s got amazing chops, both vocal and on the trumpet; a gift for putting a jazz stamp on a lot of different (decidedly non-jazz) music; a winning compositional style; and an extremely tight ensemble of ridiculously talented musicians. For me, her take on Joni Mitchell’s Big Yellow Taxi was a revelation and Trust in Me (from Disney’s Jungle Book) was overwhelming.
I am developing a training program for people interested in enhancing their skills in guiding organizations toward more effective community engagement. Several small groups have completed or are in the process of helping me beta test it. As part of the process I have been refining my criteria for substantive engagement.
I begin with what appear to me to be the four critical elements of relationship building in arts-community partnerships:
- Pre-existing relationship with identified communities (partners) built on respect
- Mutual benefit
- Collaborative design, implementation of programming
- Existence of a relationship maintenance plan
From these building blocks we are crafting essential questions to get to the depth of each:
Pre-existing relationship with identified communities (partners) built on respect
How long-standing is the relationship with the participating communit(y)(ies)?
How deep is/are the relationship(s) with the participating communit(y)(ies)?
- #/% involved
- Enthusiasm for relationship on part of participating communit(y)(ies)
- Enthusiasm for relationship on part of the organization
Mutual benefit (beyond or in addition to $ for community organization)
[Note: If there is no community-recognized benefit of the project, this is not a community engagement project]
Is the only benefit to the community financial? (Yes/No)
- How well articulated/understood are community-selected goals for the project?
- To what extent does the project meet community goals?
- How well articulated/understood are the organizational goals for the project?
- To what extent does the project further organizational mission and meet project goals?
Collaborative design, implementation
At what point in the planning/development did the participating communit(y)(ies) begin to contribute to project design?
Was/were the communit(y)(ies) involved in:
- Selecting programming?
- Marketing efforts?
- Production/participation details?
- Developing post-event relationship maintenance plans?
Relationship Maintenance Plan
How clearly detailed are the organization’s post-project plans for maintaining the relationships with the participating communit(y)(ies)?
For each of these questions, we are then developing a range of answers and point values rating the depth and quality of the relationship. While this part in particular is a work in progress and the ratings are not even remotely scientific, I think we are making some good progress. For those interested, the response options and ratings as currently articulated can be found here.
One of the important things that the process of developing the survey (and, for the students, of reviewing the questions) is reinforcing the importance of thoughtful, ongoing relationship building as central to the work of engagement.
My son is an IT consultant and over the years we have often discovered commonalities between our work. He was the one who first put me on to the concept of UX Design (UX = User Experience). The fact that we kept finding themes relevant to both our professions used to surprise me. Now I realize that he works with professionals in a complicated specialty who have to work with/communicate with end users who have no understanding of the vocabulary or practice of the discipline. Sounds familiar.
I recently was lamenting to my son an epic fail of customer relations on the part of the company that provides my business’s CRM database. (They implemented a change, with no warning, that moved significant quantities of data to a big pile of “Additional Information.”) The reasons for doing so made some sense from their point of view but the lack of consideration of what it would mean to the customer and the utter lack of communication in advance was stunning. [While no physical injury was involved, I am reminded of the tweet from Ron Evans, an arts marketing consultant, about the United Airlines “Doc off a plane” fiasco: “So nobody @ #united ever mapped out the user experience for passengers who refuse involuntary bump and said ‘yeah, that’s not a good idea.'”?]
John told me about a concept in IT development called Voice of the Customer. The idea is sometimes limited to what one might call in-depth market research, but he said it is also sometimes taken literally in product development meetings: someone is designated to represent the customer’s point of view as ideas are considered.
The implications for community engagement could be huge. Imagine, at a minimum, someone who is charged with keeping at the front of their minds “How would the people we are trying to reach respond to this?” The first, and obvious, objection should be “How would you know?” And that leads to the teachable moment. At the very least you need to talk with them; at best, include them in the conversation.
Regular readers of this blog know that I am uncomfortable with the distancing that is created by words like audience and customer. We need to build personal relationships and those words do not help that. So, I would advocate for a dedicated “Voice of the Community”–however the role is defined in an organization–to be included in all discussions of programming, from design to implementation.
And even if you don’t implement this, thinking that it might be a good idea could improve decision making processes.
In my last three posts (Doin’ It, Doin’ It: Vocabulary, and Doin’ It: Museums) I have been exploring participatory experiences as being an important element in the work of arts organizations. This week I want to talk about participatory experiences in the performing arts.
Options like pre-performance discussions and post-performance talkbacks have long served as interactive opportunities for event attendees. These are increasingly supplemented by social media information (e.g., background on works performed or live streaming of rehearsals), opportunities for Q&A with artists or staff members (often via Twitter), sharing of ideas and reactions with peers, and posting of “were you there?” pictures after the performance (taking into account, of course, restrictions on photographing the event).
There is also considerable potential for active participation in the performing arts. Some are relatively new ideas. Trained artists who are no longer practicing their art are having opportunities to perform created through programs like the Baltimore Symphony’s Rusty Musicians and Vermont’s Farm to Ballet Project. Other programs provide participatory opportunities for people who have not viewed themselves as performers. Older adults have been drawn into dance through projects like Liz Lerman’s Dancers of the Third Age. People who think they can’t sing are invited into opera in Milan’s Coro degli Stonati (loosely Choir of the Tone Deaf). To be honest that name is both misleading and, by and large, wrong. The work of the group is to get people past their psychological stumbling blocks to singing. Truly tone deaf people are exceedingly rare. Forklift Dance Works invites workers of all kinds–sanitation workers, gondoliers, arborists, Japanese softball players, and electric company employees–to be a part of the creation and performance of dance.
But some of the most promising options may be among the oldest. Community choirs (including symphony choruses), community theater, and community bands and orchestras in many cities predate creation of professional arts institutions. The range of performance these groups represent, from reading opportunities to professional in all but money, is vast. There is, unfortunately, a lamentable and nearly suicidal disdain on the part of some in the arts establishment for the work of such groups. If the need to support participation in the arts is critical to the health of professional arts organizations, condescension toward these ensembles is irresponsible. The world of the arts is an ecosystem in which each part should be as supportive of all others as possible. To do otherwise is foolhardy.
Arts participation is a patently obvious foundation upon which to build broad support for the arts. There are many ways to encourage participation. We need not all undertake all, but most of us should seriously consider moving forward on one or more.
In my last couple of posts, Doin’ It and Doin’ It: Vocabulary, I introduced the idea of participatory experiences as being a potentially critical element in the work of arts organizations as well as some ways to begin thinking about categories of such experiences. In my next two posts I want to focus on examples of both the practice and practitioners of this type of work.
Interactive exhibits and exhibitions are becoming increasingly common in the museum world. From relatively low-tech “response walls” (attendees comments on an exhibit) through a variety of technologically intermediated options–e.g., real-time Twitter-based Q&A, location-based support (like GPS in the museum), interactive video, and virtual reality, the visitor experience is becoming more participatory.
Beyond “simple” interactivity, much work is being done to make community members a vital part of the development and production of what takes place in the museum. There is no greater authority on participatory practice in museums than Nina Simon. Her blog, Museum 2.0, is “the gospel” on the topic; her work as Executive Director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History is one of the primary “poster children” for both community engagement and participation; and, of course, she literally “wrote the book” on participation: The Participatory Museum. I can simply get out of the way and let her speak for herself and point us to some other valuable resources.
Ms. Simon’s commitment to participatory practices is an outgrowth of her dedication to community engagement. In Does the Most Powerful Work Lie Onstage or Behind the Scenes? she says:
The more my organization has become focused on community engagement, the more we’ve balanced being experience producers with being experience co-creators/facilitators. We still produce exhibitions, events, and educational programs for an audience, but that audience is just one of our major constituencies. The partners we work with–to catalyze projects within and beyond our walls–are just as important as our visitors to fulfilling our mission. Relative to other museums, I think we spend less time producing an “onstage” experience and more time collaborating with community organizations behind the scenes to empower them to produce.
Ms. Simon’s museum practices what it preaches. “We invite diverse locals to share their creative and cultural talents with our greater community at the museum. Printmakers leading workshops. Teens advocating for all-gender bathrooms. Volunteers restoring a historic cemetery. Sculptors building giant metal fish with kids.” (Does Community Participation Scale to Destination Institutions?) The museum actively encourages community input on exhibitions and programming and invites feedback on all exhibitions. To be sure, they have guidelines about what they will and will not support in programs suggested by community members. They have gotten good at structuring feedback mechanisms to improve the results.
The number of examples at MAH-SC is almost too big to do justice in pulling out just one. Their pop-up museums feature considerable community input. One of my favorites was a women’s history display from a few years ago: “Celebrate Women’s History Month and International Women’s Day with a Pop Up Museum on Her Story. Bring an object from or inspired by an important woman in your life and leave it on display in MAH’s atrium.” Community members brought objects and photographs illustrating the contributions of women in the area over time.
Ms. Simon’s blog pointed me to another example, the Portland Art Museum’s Object Stories project, designed to involve area residents. “Launched in 2010, the Object Stories initiative displays personal perspectives and related physical objects on a single theme. The perspectives combine audio and still images into video interviews which are installed on iPads next to their corresponding objects in the gallery.”
This post is not intended to be a thorough review of participatory practice in museums. That is well covered by Ms. Simon. It is simply an attempt to highlight some of the work going on in the museum world for people who might not be aware of it. Here are a few more resources for the curious:
Just A Few Examples & Resources
- From Museum 2.0
- Jasper Visser: 30 “do’s” for designing participatory projects
As Ms. Simon and Mr. Visser make clear, the design of participatory experiences must be well thought out. Haphazard approaches will yield, at best, haphazard results. At worst, they can be institutional and public relations disasters. Nevertheless, the need to get more people involved in the work we do is so great that it is important that we begin to learn how to do this well.
In my last post, Doin’ It, I introduced the idea of participatory experiences as being a potentially critical element in the work of arts organizations.
After almost two generations of declining emphasis on the arts in public schools we face communities largely made up of people who have little or no experience participating in the arts. Where once large percentages of students sang, played in band, acted on stage, painted and made murals, and/or took private music lessons outside of school, today that is no longer the case. This is certainly not the only obstacle arts organizations face in drawing people in to performances and exhibitions but it certainly makes the task no easier. Today, our industry as a whole is in desperate need of larger percentages of the population “doing” the arts.
Last fall (in ABCD and Community Engagement) I even floated a label–Community Based Artistic Development–for this work. CBAD implies, rightly, that participatory projects can be important to the health of the arts and to arts organizations.
But in order to craft participatory experiences, it helps to have language that guides understanding of the options. So, a vocabulary (or, forgive me, a taxonomy) of participation is helpful. The best-known effort in this regard is in Alan Brown and Jennifer Novak-Leonard’s Getting in on the Act commissioned by the James Irvine foundation. They lay out a continuum of participation that is extremely helpful. However (and you suspected there was a however coming, didn’t you), some of the language of it strikes me as a bit “academic.” Yes, I know. That’s funny coming from someone who spent thirty years as a college professor and used the word “taxonomy” three sentences ago. Nevertheless, here is my translation of the what are essentially their concepts:
- Passive Observer
- Active Observer/Learner
- Curation [Selection of art]
Passive observer is probably fairly clear, although almost no one is a totally passive observer unless they are catatonic. Active observer/learner suggests the spectator is seeking out information or actively responding to the event in some way. The latter includes, but is not limited to, things like twitter commentary. There are certainly problems with in-the-moment tweeting, but having people actively responding to their experience is a clear sign that they are “into it.” Solutions can include a Twittermission as well as pre- or post-event interaction with artists or arts organization staff members. Pre-event discussions and post-event talkbacks also fall in this category.
Curation is some form of crowd-sourced selection process. (That need not/should not be a simple popularity contest of “the arts’ greatest hits.”) Implementation is participation in the production or presentation of the art under the guidance of an artist. Community choirs or mural projects are examples. Co-creation suggests a partnership between artists and community members in the composition, writing, choreographic, or painting/sculpting/drawing process. This could include selection of materials (physical or conceptual) or input on how to arrange/utilize the elements. And, of course, acting as “creator” is the participants making the choices on their own once they’ve learned some basic principles of construction in an art form.
There are a few differences between my list and the Brown/Novak-Leonard one but those are not really important here. Anyone interested in constructing participatory opportunities in the arts should have the concepts in mind in making choices about what type of project to create.
More next time.
After almost two generations of declining emphasis on the arts in public schools we face communities largely made up of people who have little or no experience participating in the arts. Where once large percentages of students sang, played in band, acted on stage, painted and made murals, and/or took private music lessons outside of school, today that is no longer the case. This is certainly not the only obstacle arts organizations face in drawing people in to performances and exhibitions but it makes the task far more difficult.
People with participatory experience in something are more likely to support those activities even when they are not doing them themselves. Familiarity often breeds understanding and appreciation. The incredible rise in U.S. support of soccer can, I am confident, be directly tied to the long-standing and pervasive presence of children’s soccer leagues in middle and upper class communities. Those children grow up, take their children to weekend games, understand (sort of) the Offside Rule, and are ready to be impressed by the skill of professionals from around the world. This rise of soccer has been meteoric considered in a social systems time-frame. I have witnessed the entire transformation in my own lifetime. When I was in junior high in the Midwest, the gym teacher brought a funny size white ball to class and tried to explain a game where only one player on each team could touch that ball with their hands. (Yes, except for throw ins.) What kind of a game was that?!! (For a good deal more on this, see Barry Hessenius’s blog post on the topic.)
What does all of this have to do with community engagement? At the risk of stating the obvious, arts participation is about as significant a way to build relationships between people and arts organization as I can imagine. And right now there seems to be a demonstrable hunger for such activities. When breweries and wine bars have discovered that opportunities to paint and drink make a good deal of money, it’s time for arts organizations to take notice. Yes, I know we are not talking about sophisticated art making; but we are talking about something that can be a small step toward undoing the damage that the arts’ absence from the public schools has done and significantly increasing our pool of potential supporters.
Not every arts organization needs to become a specialist in presenting participatory arts activities. Some will choose to say it’s inconsistent with their mission, although I will continue to question what the mission is if it does not include connecting more people with art.
I sometimes say no organization needs to feel it must have a planned giving program in place, but if it doesn’t it is missing out on an important opportunity. Similarly, I think any arts organization that does not at least consider adding participatory activities to its offerings is passing on the potential to connect with significant numbers of people. The work is good for the organization and for the participants. And our industry as a whole is in desperate need of larger percentages of the population “doing” the arts.
Over the next few weeks I will be presenting some examples of arts organizations creating opportunities for people to have hands on experiences in the arts. Perhaps they will encourage emulation not of the specific programs but of the idea of creating participatory activities.
The NEA, along with the NEH, the IMLS, the CPB, etc., etc., is very important for both symbolic and practical reasons. And I know that my professional niche is the nonprofit arts and culture industry. With respect to “Engaging Matters” I have seldom written about issues not directly related to the practice of community engagement, but the fight over funding cultural support mechanisms is vitally important to our industry so I know I should be weighing in even though others with far better advocacy chops than I have already done yeoman’s work providing us with arguments and data.
At the same time, however, community engagement happens at the intersection of the arts and communities and things are so totally messed up in Washington that it has given me great pause to imagine spending huge amounts of time on “just” cultural funding issues. My mantra for the last two months has been “Why is it so hot and what are we all doing in this handbasket?”
Then, bless him, my colleague Michael Rohd, director of the Center for Performance and Civic Practice and Artistic Director of Sojourn Theatre provided (in a Facebook post–I can’t figure out how to provide a link to it) a framework for how I think we should be approaching this horrendous state of affairs.
The NEA is not more important than neighborhood block grants. Than meals on wheels. Than services for those with special needs. I believe the best way to make the case for federal support of the arts at this moment is to connect the needs of our nation’s soul to the needs of our nation’s peoples. Many will be affected by the cuts this budget narrative lays out. We must think at the intersections. We must tell stories not just of great art production and leveraged grants and economic impact but of artists as assets engaged in the work of building healthier and more just communities. We must not shout- save the arts! We must sing – we stand together working towards equity, inclusion and resources for those most vulnerable among us. [Michael Rohd] Emphasis mine: DB
The other thing that concerns me is that, in general, attacks on public funding of the arts are not about money or the arts. They are often, as was the case with Mapplethorpe/Serrano in the late 1980’s/early 1990’s means for politicians to distract people from bigger issues. In my state Jesse Helms rode the NEA beast to re-election. I suspect that this administration’s mastery of deflection is a not-inconsiderable factor in the proposed budget.
My ventures into public policy discussion have primarily been about what might be called secondary advocacy: eliciting support by doing more things that large numbers of the electorate see as valuable. In other words, we should pursue community engagement work that will translate into increased support for the arts. The fact that the proposed spending budget was constructed in such a way as to eliminate funding for culture demonstrates that its creators believe the public will to support it is not there. Much has happened since the last major culture wars battles in the early 1990’s. There has been more public funding in more diverse and widespread regions than had been true up to that time. I suspect that there will be more grassroots support this time around.
If the body politic still does not rally in significant ways in support of the funding of culture it will be clear that we all still have much work to do in pursuit of impact and relevance.
The tendency to imagine that community engagement demands all kinds of new work, new approaches, and new venues makes the consideration of engagement nearly impossible for some. Last week in Essential Gradualism I pointed out that undertaking no immediate steps is often the best approach. Earlier, in Keep It Simple I made the case that even when programming becomes a part of the engagement process it is best to “go simple.” Engagement can often be best served by
[s]imple shifts of emphasis: the realization that West Side Story is about (among other things) immigration and gang violence; that Vivaldi’s Spring can be an expression of environmental awareness; [and] that Renaissance music inspired by the Plague is about a deadly public health crisis.
The profoundly clumsy term I have been using for this is contextualization. Every work of art has a socio-cultural context. Many of those contexts provide a means of access to the work that would be meaningful to different communities. In addition, many works have social themes, as pointed out in the quotation above, that are not only of interest but that are deeply meaningful to communities today.
The central point here is that, especially at the beginning of engagement efforts, we need not go to extreme lengths. Sometimes work we have already programmed will serve the purpose. Many other times work that we might have programmed anyway will fill the bill nicely.
It is entirely understandable that we look at the art we present primarily as the art it is. We should. But there is a blindness inherent in getting stuck there. Often looking at things another way will provide insight that shows a work’s value in serving the interests of our communities.
And now you can see the point of the optical illusion above. Let’s keep our minds open to various ways of “seeing” the art we present. Shifting perspective slightly can open the door to many possibilities for engagement.