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Doug Borwick on vibrant arts and communities
Updated: 28 min 49 sec ago

External Connections

Wed, 11/15/2017 - 02:00

Fundraising, sales, education, and engagement. All are concerned with making connections between an arts organization and individuals (and groups) outside the organization. The first two have long been focused most on people who have historically been supportive of arts of the European aristocratic cultural tradition. The latter two have spent somewhat more time dealing with those who have not.

Fundraising and sales are further related in that 1) they are intended to seek an immediate, direct benefit to the arts organization (donations and ticket revenue), 2) as such, they are almost entirely focused on the organization’s needs and interests, and 3) they have been pursued with little attention to learning much about the funder or purchaser. The exception to that last point, is, of course, major donors; and, as many have argued far better than I, 2) and 3) are incredibly counterproductive. This is especially true now that the pool of people eager to participate in the arts as currently presented has become so small.

Education and engagement are about the “long game.” They do not usually bear short-term financial results, although that is not always the case. (See Riverside Art Museum) They also demand a degree of mutuality that has not characterized arts fundraising and sales in the past. (Again, that needs to change but it’s a different blog post.)

It’s difficult to “educate” without understanding the learner. Good teachers have to know their subject as well as the interests and abilities of their students. It’s impossible to develop a relationship (engage) without a high degree of mutual understanding and benefit. Who wants to be in a one-sided relationship?

Fundraising, sales, education, and engagement are the vehicles through which arts organizations connect with individuals and communities. As we get further into the 21st Century, it is becoming ever more important for our fundraising and sales practices to be more deeply rooted in relationship principles than has been true in the past. And, the relatively newer disciplines of education and engagement could benefit from the rigor and resources that have been applied to fundraising and sales.

They are all important to the current and future health of our organizations. Studying them together could prove highly valuable.

Engage!

Doug

Photo:  Some rights reserved by splorp

Community Knowledge

Wed, 11/08/2017 - 02:00

It’s no secret that I advocate for arts organizations addressing community interests. (Well, duh!) And, in order to do that, we have to know what those interests are. (Again, duh!) On my website I address some of the ways we can start to discover those interests. (Community Learning) Of course, the simple answer is to talk to members of those communities. And we absolutely should do so.

But if this is so important, here’s another thing we could do to keep community interests uppermost in our minds. At each board meeting, at each staff meeting devote time to a discussion of “what’s happening in the community.” We cannot credibly respond to things going on “out there” if we don’t know what those things are.

In the consultation I do around organizational planning I suggest that a portion of each board meeting be devoted to a discussion of one of the strategic issues facing the organization. (And if not at every meeting, at least frequently enough that the topic is recognized as significant.) If community engagement has been identified as a central focus of the organization, discussion of community issues (and how the organization might address them) is a perfectly logical step. And, since some of the opportunities that community interests raise might be operational or tactical, it also makes sense for staff meetings to have these discussions as well.

This would have the further impact of keeping engagement on everyone’s mental “front burner.” Worth considering.

Engage!

Doug

Photo:  Some rights reserved by Michigan Municipal League (MML)

From Mileposts to Through Line

Wed, 11/01/2017 - 02:00

Mileposts are those small signs we see (or, usually, ignore) as we speed along the interstate that indicate how far we’ve travelled. It’s only in the rarest instances that anyone pays them any attention. Some people probably never do.

Arts organizations are event-driven. We maintain in our heads an often unacknowledged chronology of progress from one event to the next. We pay extreme attention to the content and production of each event but this notion of moving from one event to the next is so ingrained as to be almost totally unnoticed.

This means we are inevitably arts-focused; or, to use my made-up word, artcentric. Our most basic understanding of the nature of our business, the way we function, is about the “product.”

But imagine an alternative. Instead of events being the “mile markers,” what if we tracked our progress in relationship building? The events would become the means of serving that end but our focus would be on the relationships.

The original title for this post was going to be “Through Line.” But upon reading about the origins of that concept I realized that a through line in a book or play is developed and carried out very consciously. It is the concept that holds the work together.

Moving from an unconscious focus on the succession of our events to conscious attention to relationship building as our “through line” would take considerable reframing of our mental models. But it would be a huge step forward on the path to relevance and on to indispensability.

Something to consider.

Engage!

Doug

Photo:  Some rights reserved by Michael Kappel

Excellence and Engagement: III

Wed, 10/25/2017 - 02:00

In my two previous posts I have been exploring the question of excellence as it applies to community engagement in the arts. (Excellence and Engagement: 1; Excellence and Engagement: II)  Here, I want to address issues of equity and respect for communities in this context.

Equity
A complicating factor in discussions of excellence is the issue of equity. The arts of the European aristocratic cultural tradition have benefited for centuries from financial support for infrastructure, education, and presentation that has been totally unavailable to the arts of other cultures. One result is that gatekeepers in the arts who are products of this system are largely unaware of the arts of other cultures and so continue to make assumptions about excellence that favor the art they know.

A more practical result of the access to resources is that visual and performing artists working in these European traditions have been provided time to hone their technique in ways sometimes not possible for artists whose work is rooted in other cultures. It is patently unfair to compare levels of technical excellence (especially with respect to institutions) in Eurocentric presentation with that of other cultures. The fact that many individual artists are on a par with their Western peers with respect to technical proficiency in their native styles and forms is a testament to the hold that the arts have on them.

Respect
Community engagement is rooted in relationship building and the indispensable foundation for that is respect for those with whom one is attempting to engage. Unfortunately, discussions of excellence in the arts are sometimes clouded by an undercurrent of dismissiveness about the ability of people (the “unwashed masses”) to appreciate great art. This assumption of cultural (and/or intellectual) superiority is usually, though not always, unconscious.  

The issue of cultural traditions is important here. I have some understanding of Indian classical music–ragas, rhythmic practices, and musical structure, but I can’t say that it speaks to me. That does not make me lesser nor does it demean Indian music. It’s just that I don’t make a point of attending concerts. That, I am sure, is largely due to the fact that I am not a product of the culture of the subcontinent of India; and it demonstrates why it can be difficult to grow an arts organization by attempting to connect with people who do not share the culture of the art presented. People whose cultural background is not tied to the European aristocratic tradition can hardly be faulted for a disinclination to participate in arts experiences derived from it.

With respect to the more general issue of capacity, there is one view that a lack of interest in our art demonstrates that “those people” lack a basic depth of feeling or understanding. (If, reading this, your reaction is that no one believes that, trust me. I’ve had these conversations.) The inherent arrogance of this perspective should be self-evident. Most people on this planet have passionate attachments to home and family, to their god, and sometimes to their region or country. When they have the time and luxury of thinking about things other than basic necessities (and this is a key issue) they are concerned about the big questions of their place in the universe and the meaning of life. To believe otherwise, consciously or not, is simply indefensible.

There is a related view that the success of mass culture proves that people are incapable of reflective experience. To be sure, there is much in mass culture that is superficial and easy, but there are also many examples of popular works providing profound insight–the songs of Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen, television shows like The West Wing or Breaking Bad, movies like Sophie’s Choice, and the cultural phenomenon of Hamilton–to name a few. In addition, frankly, there is absolutely nothing wrong with some entertainment being easy. (For more on the nature of different types of cultural experiences, see https://www.artsjournal.com/engage/reflective-art-visceral-art/.)

Finally, to address a negative assumption that some people make about community engagement, we are not talking about “giving people what they want.” Polling people about what works they want presented is particularly counter-productive when they have little or no awareness of what works exists. As I often say, community engagement is not “giving them what (we think) they want.” Rather, it demands learning enough about communities to know what work of the international cultural canon will be meaningful to them and then programming that with them.

Unquestionably, it takes education, effort, and experience to appreciate great art, but people without access to any or all of those cannot be held to account for that lack. We, the workers in the nonprofit arts industry, are the ones with the most direct, practical vested interest in the success of our organizations. It is not the responsibility of others to come to us. It is our job to figure out how to become more meaningful to them.

If it were true (and unalterable) that many are incapable of appreciating reflective art, that would be devastating for the future of arts organizations. Fortunately, that is not the case. For the health of the industry, widespread relevance is an important goal. Indeed, as I have argued elsewhere, relevance may not be sufficient in an era of conflicting priorities. Achieving recognized indispensability may be vital. (Engage Now! A Guide to Making the Arts Indispensable.) Finding appropriate ways to be meaningful to greater numbers of people is the key to our future.

Conclusion
There are many categories of excellence. No individual or organization can be excellent in all things. Unfortunately, some in our industry use the shibboleth of technical and expressive excellence (in one very specific cultural tradition) as a means of stopping conversation about connecting with communities. This is tragic when the need for ever greater relevance is critical to the future of the nonprofit arts industry.

There is no question that technical and expressive excellence in art of the European cultural tradition will be a central goal for many arts organizations, but these are not the only types of excellence. Frankly, they may not be the categories of excellence most necessary to move us toward relevance and certainly not toward the goal of indispensability. Organizations can and should make choices about how to focus their efforts and choose the areas of excellence they want to highlight, but this should be done with full understanding of the impact of those choices on their path to sustainability.

Engage!

Doug

Photo: Some rights reserved by mikecogh

Excellence and Engagement: II

Wed, 10/18/2017 - 02:00

Last time I began a discussion of excellence in community engagement, saying “Advocates for community engagement in the arts often get pushback from people who assume that concern for the interests of our communities necessitates a ‘lowering of standards.'” This time I continue with a consideration of three potential categories of excellence that are often not part of our discussions in the arts.

Participatory Experiences
Rather than focus on all categories of excellence, I’d like to consider just three that are particularly important to community engagement. The first is the ability to craft participatory arts experiences for members of the community.

The arts of the European aristocratic cultural tradition have skewed toward passive observation rather than direct participation, especially in the last two generations with the decline of public school arts programs and private instruction in the arts. A strong case can be made that increasing opportunities for arts participation is vital to the future of the nonprofit arts industry. Regardless of that, presentation of spectator-oriented arts experiences is vastly different from creating effective participatory ones. It is not easy to do the latter. Excellence in participatory program design and implementation can (and I would argue should) be viewed as being as important as presenting performances and exhibitions. The fact that the resulting artistic product will likely not be technically proficient is irrelevant. It is the excellence of the experience for the participant and the resulting benefits to the arts that are key. It could even be argued that this is more important for the future of the arts, the well-being of society, and the viability of the arts organization than technical and expressive excellence. To drive the point home, the organization typically focused on traditional views of artistic excellence could be described as inferior in this category.

Community Benefit
The capacity to develop and maintain awareness of the interests and needs of the communities we serve is important for the health of arts organizations. To be effective, this must then be paired with the ability to create and present programming that serves the community. Many (if not most) arts organizations are skilled at presenting work that is excellent with respect to technique and expression. Unfortunately, too many are oblivious to community concerns or somewhat hamfisted in attempts to be of service. Improving skills in these areas can be an important step in ensuring a better future for the organization.

Personal Meaning
The impact of the art we present on the individuals who experience it is, or should be, the core concern of what we do. However, some in our industry are so focused on the art that they ignore this or unconsciously assume that the art will work its magic spontaneously. There is some question as to whether the latter was ever true for anyone who was not an arts aficionado. However, due to cultural issues addressed above and the pervasive lack of arts education and participation we have seen develop over the last fifty years, it is clearly not the case today. The ability of an arts organization to help people connect with the art they present is another category of excellence not directly related to technical/expressive proficiency, but it, too, is a skill critical to sustainability.

The ability to craft effective participatory experiences, to serve the interests of communities, and to make connections between people and the art we present are three categories (but only three of many categories) not directly related to technique and expressiveness. When speaking of excellence in our field we need to remember that there are a variety of things to consider, each of which are important. Technique and expressiveness are vitally important and for most organizations will continue to be the bedrock of their practice. However, the tendency to be almost exclusively focused on them is short-sighted and, in the long run, detrimental to the industry.

[Next time: Equity and respect.]

Engage!

Doug

Photo: Some rights reserved by mikecogh

 

Excellence and Engagement: I

Wed, 10/11/2017 - 02:00

Advocates for community engagement in the arts often get pushback from people who assume that concern for the interests of our communities necessitates a “lowering of standards.” What follows is my attempt to address the misgivings (legitimate and otherwise) people have and to address them as clearly as I can. It is intended almost exclusively for arts organizations. Artists should be perfectly free to approach their art in whatever way seems best to them. However, if they are concerned about relevance or reaching more of the public, there may be things here of value.

Art Is an Expression of Culture
As background for what follows, it is important to acknowledge that all art is an expression of a specific culture. As such, no art is truly universal. One need only put a Shakespearean play and a Noh drama side by side to see the truth of this. The greatest works from any culture are rooted in universal principles but they do not translate (literally and/or figuratively) well between widely disparate cultures. There is an unconscious assumption that the great exemplars of the arts with which we are familiar are universal and that those with which we are not are parochial. This is an understandable but ultimately unsupportable view. Similarly, excellence in an art form is important within its cultural context but not superior to the same level of artistic excellence in work from another culture.

As just one example, music of the European aristocratic cultural tradition emphasizes harmony and counterpoint. The great works provide dazzling displays of both. However, largely because of that, it is based on some of the simplest rhythmic structures among world cultures–generally, one need only count to two, three, or four to master that aspect of the music. In contrast, African and Japanese drumming and Indian ragas demand feats of counting and the ability to play cross-rhythms that would befuddle the professional musician in an orchestra devoted to European masterworks.

The point here is that no culture’s greatest art is inherently better than that of another. It is also true that it is extremely difficult for someone to adequately assess the quality of art from a culture with which they are unfamiliar. Cross-cultural comparisons of greatness are nearly impossible and, for all practical purposes, pointless.

Excellence
With that as a background we can consider issues regarding artistic excellence inside a given form of cultural expression. There are two principal categories generally used in assessment of the quality of art. Technical excellence, the mastery of the elements of an art form, is one. It is sometimes quantifiable–the speed with which a musician can play scales, the number of accents an actor has mastered, the skill with which a painter manipulates perspective. But all critics acknowledge that technical excellence by itself, while impressive, is insufficient for greatness. The art must also be “expressive,” bringing forth the human feeling or experience associated with and undergirding the work. This aspect is nearly impossible to quantify but is also insufficient by itself. Great expressiveness without technical excellence is simply messy. The technical flaws usually distract from and diminish the experience.

These two aspects of excellence are critically important and form the basis of most people’s concerns about community engagement. However, those are not the only criteria for excellence. In workshop settings I sometimes ask participants which is better, a quilt made by an internationally renowned artist or one made by your grandmother. Obviously a “trick” question, the point, of course, is that they represent two completely different types of value. The former presents technical excellence and expressiveness, the latter personal meaning to the grandchild.

There are categories of excellence unrelated to technique and expressiveness. In a 2014 essay, “But What About Quality?” (http://museumtwo.blogspot.com/2014/09/but-what- about-quality.html) Nina Simon suggested dimensions of quality that could be considered in assessing excellence. (See below.) While not a thoroughly vetted list, it does, like the quilt question, highlight the fact that excellence is not a unitary thing. It is also diverse enough to show that excellence in one area does not imply excellence in all. Indeed, some of the categories may be so divergent as to be almost mutually exclusive.

[Next time: Consideration of three categories of excellence.]

Engage!

Doug

Photo: Some rights reserved by mikecogh

From Nina Simon:
AESTHETIC: is it beautiful?
TECHNICAL: is it masterful?
INNOVATIVE: is it cutting edge?
INTERPRETATIVE: can people understand it?
EDUCATIONAL: can people learn from it?
RELEVANT: can people relate to it?
PARTICIPATORY: can people get involved or contribute to it?
ACADEMIC: does it produce new research or knowledge?
BRIDGING: does it spark unexpected connections?
IGNITING: does it inspire people to action?

Community Engagement Training

Wed, 10/04/2017 - 02:00

Welcome to the Shameless Commerce Department of ArtsEngaged. I’ve indicated here over the past year that we have been developing training programs for the field. They are intended for people interested in moving their organizations toward more effective community engagement. We have piloted three beta test (actually alpha and beta) groups and are putting together two or three more. We will soon be beginning the regular offerings described below. If you’re interested in signing up, get in touch by emailing info@artsengaged.com.

Overview

There are three levels of training being envisioned currently. Videoconference debriefing sessions will be approximately 1 ½ hours long.  

Understanding Engagement (1 Session)-Homework: reading/thinking

This training is designed for board members, upper level staff of arts organizations, and anyone else wishing to better understand community engagement as it applies to the arts. It introduces basic concepts of and rationales for community engagement.

  • Team price (≤12): $600
  • Individual price: @ $75

Community Engagement Training [CET] (5 Sessions)-Homework: reading/thinking

This training is designed for anyone (organization-based teams or individuals) interested in helping arts organizations connect more deeply with their communities. It emphasizes the means of implementing a community engagement agenda.

  • Team price (≤ 12): $1750
  • Individual price: @ $250

CET Trainer (5 Sessions, same as CET; plus 2 more)-Homework: reading/thinking/writing

This training is for individuals who would like to become trainers. They will develop skills in preparing others to lead arts organizations to more effective community engagement.

  • Price (and advanced content) TBD

CET Modules (Content)

Session 1
Understanding Engagement

  • Definitions
  • Myths, Motivations, and Means
  • Engagement Principles

Session 2
Getting Your Board on Board
Are You Ready?
The Engagement Process: Planning, Preparing Session 3
The Engagement Process: Partnering
Mainstreaming Engagement Pt. 1

Session 4
Mainstreaming Engagement Pt. 2
Working with Communities: What You Don’t Know

Session 5
Working with Communities: The Pursuit of Equity
Conclusion

The trainings will, of course, evolve as we get more experience in the process and the needs of the field. If you’d like more information contact us at info@artsengaged.com.

Engage!

Doug

Photo:   Some rights reserved by Bestindiaedu.com

Zero Sum Funding?

Wed, 09/27/2017 - 02:00

The pursuit of grants, sponsorships, and donations is a central focus of all nonprofits–the arts no less than any other type of tax exempt entity. It keeps us up at night, permeates our dreams (and nightmares), and occupies many, if not most, of our working hours.

Over the years I’ve come to observe that this work is often rooted in an assumption so deep we don’t even realize we assume it. That is, the universe of funds from which we may legitimately pursue arts support is limited to a relatively small portion of the whole: wealthy individuals with an appreciation of the arts (or the status that the arts can provide), foundations with an arts mandate, corporations that for public image reasons give to the arts, and government entities with an arts support line item. Our funding efforts necessarily involve promoting one organization’s interests over another’s. This is the “cut the pie into smaller pieces” approach.

The notion of significantly expanding the funding horizon is seldom realistically entertained, although a precedent occurred years ago when it was discovered that corporate marketing departments had much more money at their disposal than their charitable contributions divisions. Today sponsorships have almost totally eclipsed “mere” contributions as a significant revenue source for arts organizations.

I would argue that the future of arts funding lies in the “baking more pies” approach. Crowdfunding, though not yet widely pursued by arts organizations holds promise. One of my early blog posts was titled 40,000 x $25 = $1Million. It is technically doable with advances in database management and maintenance. However, to be successful, it must be built on being valuable to many, many people. More on that in a moment.

But the real potential lies in the power of the arts to support interests beyond the traditional arts purview. In Engaged Fundraising I: More Pies, I highlighted Rocco Landesman’s work at the NEA. He found common ground with numerous federal agencies on how the arts could support their mission. The result was funding for the arts that had never been available before. The same principle holds true on the local level. Funding to support the arts can come from sources that are not directly interested in the arts but are willing to fund arts projects that further their own goals in social change, educational reform, health outcomes, etc. Pursuing such funding is the “bake more pies” approach.

The trick, with both crowdsourced and “not usual suspect” fundraising is the need for arts organizations to be deeply connected to their communities. It is community engagement that provides the mindset to imagine the possibilities and the tools to be successful in the attempt.

Engage!

Doug

Photo: Some rights reserved by nfnitloop

Evaluating Engagement: Outcomes

Wed, 09/20/2017 - 02:00

Evaluation of any kind is a challenge for nonprofit organizations generally and for nonprofit arts organizations in particular. Resource constraints and focus on mission, sometimes at the expense of critical management issues, make evaluation a frequent afterthought if considered at all.

Evaluating community engagement is particularly difficult because it is in its infancy as a practice for arts organizations. As such, it is no surprise that techniques of evaluation specific to it are not nearly as advanced or as systematized as those available for fundraising, marketing, or other arts management functions.

In addition, there are at least two vastly dissimilar categories of evaluation that are important for community engagement practitioners. One is, of course, evaluation of the outcomes of the work. The other, however, may be as important because it determines how successful any community engagement project can be. That is the effectiveness of the engagement process itself.

Evaluating Engagement Process Effectiveness
Last spring I presented an overview of my current thinking about evaluating the effectiveness of community engagement processes. (Evaluating Engagement) It was (and is) based on four fundamental principles: strength of the relationship, mutually understood benefit to the parties involved, partnership in planning and implementation, and quality of the relationship maintenance plan. The last is extremely important because, due to the arts industry’s focus on events it is easy to move away from a newly built relationship once the originating program is over.

Evaluating Engagement Results
Our principal attention today is the evaluation of engagement results. Evaluating the community outcomes of community engagement work, while still not widely understood within the arts industry, has the advantage of being directly related to the field of community development to which a good deal of thought has been given. Based on work by Americans for the Arts’ Animating Democracy initiative and the University of Pennsylvania’s Social Impact of the Arts Project, here are some rudimentary sample categories for various kinds of engagement projects.

Evidence of relationships, for example:

  • Participation by community members in discussions, surveys, events
  • Press, social media mentions
  • Instances of community seeking organizational assistance

Evidence of mutual benefit

  • Success in community-desired outcomes, for example:
    • Decreased violence
    • Increased school retention
    • Reduced racism
  • Evidence of success in organizationally-desired outcomes, for example
    • Variety of new funding sources
    • Increased ticket sales
    • Vibrancy in programmatic offerings–vibrancy in genres, styles–reflecting influence of the community

As with any successful evaluation project, the intended outcomes must be articulated in the planning process rather than created after the fact. They are the means by which the project should be judged.(What’s given above are simply samples. Criteria specific to the project, arts organization, and participating community must be developed as part of the planning.)

This aspect of the work demands extra time and thought on the front end and is a key reason any evaluation, not just of community engagement, is ignored or avoided in practice. The tendency to shortchange evaluation is perhaps understandable in the context of the industry’s extremely limited time and human resources, but it is also shortsighted and counterproductive. For ourselves, for our community partners, and for our funders, we need to be able to have information to improve our work and demonstrate its value.

Engage!

Doug

Image: Some rights reserved by sepyle86

Why Engage?

Wed, 09/13/2017 - 02:00

I am frequently asked about the rationales for community engagement. I have spent so much time with my head in the weeds about the subject that my responses have a tendency to go on for a long time, attempting to list all the reasons. But recently, in a videoconference with a group of graduate students, a lightbulb went off. I realized that, in essence, there were just two broad categories of rationales.

The first is the existential one. If significant change is not made from the 20th-Century model of “if we present it they will (should) come,” many of our arts institutions will not be around in another generation or two. The economic, demographic, and social expectation pressures/shifts we’re experiencing are so profound that “the center will not hold.” We’ve got to connect, in powerful ways, with our communities for our own well-being.

That’s the stick. However, while sticks may get people’s attention, there’s nothing particularly inspirational about them. They don’t provide the energy for sustained effort after the initial adrenalin rush of fear goes away. Fear is a powerful motivator but it cannot support long-lasting work.

Carrots (the proverbial ones, anyway) are far better. And in this case there’s an incredibly delicious carrot. Many arts organizations struggle with relevance, invisibility, images of elitism, and lack of public/community support to name just a few challenges. How immensely satisfying it would be to be commonly viewed as indispensable. Imagine a world in which everyone (or at least most people) saw your arts organization as totally indispensable in their own lives and in the life of their community. That’s a carrot to hang your hat on. (I get a perverse pleasure from vastly inappropriate mixed metaphors.)

The only trick here is that to be seen as indispensable we have to do things that people understand as being indispensable–not things that we identify as indispensable. And that is where community engagement comes in. We need to get to know the communities we want to serve and out of that knowledge work with them to provide opportunities that are vitally meaningful to them.

One carrot, one stick. Simple, right?

Engage!

Doug

Photo credit: <a href=”https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/e/e8/Carrot_and_stick_motivation.svg/632px-Carrot_and_stick_motivation.svg.png”>Wikimedia.org</a>

Wingspread Symposium 2016 Revisited

Wed, 09/06/2017 - 02:00

A year ago, the Robert E. Gard Foundation, along with the Johnson Foundation, the Wisconsin Arts Board, and Americans for the Arts, sponsored a conference to consider the past, present, and future of community arts work in this country. Today, the outcomes of that conference, in reflections, written summaries, written and audio versions of the presentations, and video interviews with presenters are available on the Gard website.

This is a remarkable repository of information about a remarkable gathering. The attendees represented many (but by no means all) of the important figures in the work of connecting the arts and communities and the range of topics covered was significant.

It’s difficult to pick out a “most important” part of this record. However, one item in particular bears mention since it was not an official part of the symposium itself. For those of us with vivid memories of the Community Arts Network (thank you again, Linda Frye Burnham and Steve Durland) there is an update on the 2004 CAN Report: State of the Field. The update (Wingspread: State of the Field 2016), commissioned by the Gard Foundation, is based on the findings of the symposium and is a valuable addition to the literature of the field. (Those of you unfamiliar with the Community Arts Network can, thankfully, find the archive of its incredibly comprehensive readings here.)

The Table of Contents of the archive, found on the Gard Website, is given below.

Engage!

Doug

Arts 1.0

Wed, 08/30/2017 - 02:00

Web 1.0 was the internet before “talkback.” It was static one-directional communication. Whether intentional or not, it was inherently self-centered, presenting the view of the owner of the website. Web 2.0 is the interactive internet where people are invited and encouraged to make their views known.

I recently drafted a series of statements in an effort to differentiate among sales, audience development, audience engagement, and community engagement. When I finished the first pass at it, I realized that I had formulated it using a traditionalist mental model of arts marketing–kinda Arts 1.0. Here’s what I came up with:

  • Sales
    • This is what’s happening.
    • Buy a ticket.
  • Audience Development
    • This is what’s happening.
    • This seems like a reason you might be interested.
    • Buy a ticket.
  • Audience Engagement
    • This is what’s happening.
    • This seems like a reason you might be interested.
    • Here’s something we think is worthwhile/relevant to you about it.
    • Buy a ticket.

Clearly this is all one-directional communication. While this may be a not-totally-incorrect view of some “arts marketing,” it’s not fair to what could and should be. Realizing this I decided to apply the same thinking to my field of expertise. A good deal of “community engagement” goes like this:

  • Community Engagement
    • Get a grant
    • Find some poor people
    • Tell them why what’s happening is good for them
    • Be surprised when they don’t show up

A 2.0 version of all of these would emphasize the need for two-way communication. Let’s try this again.

The first three should all be preceded by “Get to know them.” After that, it might look like:

  • Sales
    • This is what’s happening.
    • This is why it’s going to be worth your time and money.*
    • Buy a ticket.
  • Audience Development
    • This is what’s happening.
    • This is why it’s going to be worth your time and money.*
    • This seems like a reason you might be especially interested.*
    • Buy a ticket.
  • Audience Engagement
    • This is what’s happening.
    • This is why it’s going to be worth your time and money.*
    • This seems like a reason you might be especially interested.*
    • Here’s something that might make this even more worthwhile/relevant to you.*
    • Buy a ticket.

*We know this because we listened to what you told us.

And the 2.0 community engagement list would be

  • Community Engagement
    Step 1

    • Pleased to meet you.
    • Tell me about yourself.
    • This is what we do.

    Step 2

    • If we do [this thing*], will you help us make it better/be successful**?

    Step 3***

    • Let’s keep in touch.

*Chosen based on what they told you about themselves.
**Funding, community support, ticket sales
***Post-event

The obvious distinction between the first three and community engagement is the final line–Buy a ticket. That’s of critical importance to arts organizations and is the essence of sales, audience development, and audience engagement. Community engagement, while it has “Buy a ticket” (as well as “Contribute now” and “Support arts-friendly public policy”) as a long-term result, is a seed planting effort. That’s another reason relationship maintenance–”Let’s keep in touch”–is so important.

Too much of our industry is operating with an Arts 1.0 mental model. It gets in the way of selling tickets and it makes effective community engagement impossible.

Engage!

Doug

Photo:  Some rights reserved by presta

Storm Brewing

Wed, 08/23/2017 - 02:00

I’ve written before about the impact funding inequity is having on political discourse about government support of the arts. The Visible Hand was a response to Barry Hessenius’ observations about funding controversies in San Francisco three years ago: A Potential Deep Divide in the Arts Sector. A colleague recently sent me the link to an article about a bill that has been introduced in the Pennsylvania legislature to examine “systemic racism in public arts funding.” If passed it would consider the state’s arts funding formula that “[privileges] white, large budget, older arts organizations.” The fact that in many places more than the lion’s share of public arts funding goes to organizations focused on the cultural tradition of upper class European whites is a center that will not hold.

I have long advocated for community engagement because it is good for the arts, good for organizations, and the right thing to do. Now, the argument of self-preservation, while clearly not the noblest of motivations, is unveiling itself as an increasingly urgent existential concern.

The demographic trends in this country are not going to reverse themselves. The percentage of the population for whom European aristocratic culture is familiar will only continue to decrease. Rightly, communities will want their own cultures supported by public policy and will be disinclined to see their tax dollars spent disproportionately supporting what is to them a foreign culture. Large urban areas with diverse populations and not insignificant public arts funding have been and will be the areas first affected by these concerns. But the storm is brewing and will spread across the country.

Community engagement, when properly understood and implemented, is about building relationships, mutually beneficial relationships. As such it is an invaluable tool for addressing the need to become valuable to many more segments of the population. However, relationship building cannot happen without trust and the profound inequities in arts funding are a nearly insurmountable obstacle to building trust. This is an issue we cannot ignore.

Engage!

Doug

Photo:  Some rights reserved by alexdecarvalho

The Board’s Role in Community Engagement: II

Wed, 08/16/2017 - 02:00

Last time I presented the first part of a discussion about the potential for boards as positive resources for community engagement. Here is the rest of the text.

Getting to Yes
Since the inertial tendency of a nonprofit arts board may be ambivalent (or worse) toward community engagement, it is important to develop a strategy for developing enthusiastic support. The first step is to identify and then enter into preliminary discussions with current board members who are either already in favor of stronger community ties or seem willing to consider the position. (This is also the first step when considering a similar effort with arts organization staff members.) When ready, these board members will be able to provide guidance and to lead the process of educating the full board.

Advocating for community engagement should begin with clear explanations of what community engagement is and addressing misconceptions about it. Beyond that, the board needs to understand the rationale for an arts organization pursuing a community engagement agenda. Generally, the reasons fall in one of two categories: fostering sustainability and achieving far greater relevance. The former addresses the social and economic challenges that demand broadening the organization’s reach into the community; the latter the potential for significantly increased support. Since these could be construed as “sticks” and “carrots” arguments, as much focus as possible should be placed on the “carrots”–the excitement and expanded influence that community engagement can generate. In addition, reassurance that the entire organization will not be radically changed overnight is critical. The process of effectively developing relationships with new communities demands time and programming necessarily follows that process. As a result, best practice in community engagement demands slow, incremental change.

When the majority of the board has become convinced of the value of community engagement, it is important for there to be a public commitment to engagement. When new communities meet representatives of arts organizations they often assume the sole intent of the organization is to get them to buy tickets or make donations. That is many people’s experience with the arts. Successful community engagement needs to be based on mutual benefit. An official statement of the organization’s reasons for engaging and a commitment to mutuality can be a starting point for building trust. Sample wording for such a statement can be found here.

The Vision Thing
Articulating organizational values, vision, and mission is one of the most important responsibilities of nonprofit boards. It is an aspect of board governance that has the potential to energize every member and galvanize them into passionate commitment that spills over into all board functions. Enlisting the board in establishing community engagement as a strategic priority for the organization has the potential not just to support engagement but to make the board more effective in everything it does.

Partners in Engagement
Finally, it is valuable to include the board as partners in the ongoing process of engagement. Members should have input into the plans and be utilized as relationship builders. Where they have their own community connections they can lead. In other cases they can assist in developing and maintaining relationships with new communities. This is particularly important since staff members do not have the time to do much more than (at best) coordinate such work.

The board of directors is a legally required element of nonprofit organization management. It can be viewed as an obstacle to ignore or work around or it can become a resource to employ in the service of mission of the organization. It will be far better for the health of the nonprofit and the work of community engagement if its members are enlisted in the service of engagement. They represent great potential in relationship building. Indeed, given the time-intensive nature of working with communities, they may be among the most important assets to employ.

Engage!

Doug

Photo:  Some rights reserved by Michigan Municipal League (MML)

The full text of this essay can be found here.

The Board’s Role in Community Engagement: I

Wed, 08/09/2017 - 02:00

The board of directors of a nonprofit arts organization can and should play an important role in planning for and adopting community engagement as a crucial mission strategy. There is a tendency on the part of some (I have been guilty of this myself) to view the board as an obstacle to be overcome in this work. Yet the board’s potential as a resource for furthering the work of community engagement is considerable and we owe it to ourselves to find productive means of tapping it.

Basic Board Governance
However, the board’s potential for supporting community engagement can be limited if it does not have a clear understanding of and commitment to its more general roles and responsibilities. Boards certainly have a fiduciary responsibility, including ensuring (through participation in fundraising) that the organization has the necessary financial resources. They also have more wide-ranging internal responsibility for the health and welfare of the organization (e.g., maintaining faithfulness to mission, ensuring adherence to laws and regulations, and setting values and vision) as well as external responsibility to make certain the organization furthers the public good.

Unfortunately, too many boards are not aware of these (and many other) responsibilities and are thus ineffective in supporting the work of the organization. In some senses this should not be surprising. Outside the nonprofit world, there is very little understanding of the nature and function of 501(c)(3) organizations. As a result, few people come to nonprofit board service with a clear view of the nature of the work. Further, in an effort to secure board members, expectations are sometimes minimized while training is limited or haphazard. And for too many, board service consists of boring meetings that have little purpose or meaning and of tasks that are not challenging or interesting. This can be made worse by a chief executive’s lack of enthusiasm for the board’s input.

Since boards are a required fact of nonprofit life, it is in the interest of the organization to take advantage of their potential. The keys to doing so are effective recruitment and training processes; creation of a culture in which meetings are productive, meaningful, and even fun; and establishment of a mechanism for board evaluation–annual evaluation of the board as a whole and of members individually.

A board can participate in the development and implementation of an arts organization’s community engagement plan without being a fully functioning board. However, the chances of success in doing so are limited to its overall level of competence.

Status Quo
Board members serve arts organization because they like things the way they are. While, on reflection, this seems obvious, it is often a surprise to people that boards are not anxious to embrace change. This is not simply a reflection of the inherent conservatism of institutions; it is a manifestation of the fact that individual members do not, for themselves, see a need for change. Acknowledging this at the outset will help in developing a plan for educating the board about the need for and value of community engagement.

Beyond Buy-In
Some community engagement activists hope that, at best, the board will not actively oppose community-oriented planning and programs. Given the importance of the board’s role in the organization and the forms of significant support it can provide, I now believe that the board “not standing in the way” is far too low a goal. We need to work with our boards to develop in them enthusiasm for the relevance, vibrancy, and sustainability that community engagement can offer.

Board as Resource Engines
Certainly, boards of directors have long been seen as vehicles for providing financial support. They have also been understood to be valuable for the power connections (political, corporate, social) they have. However, in engaging with communities with which an organization has little history and few personal relationships, individuals who have community connections with the groups the organization is trying to reach are priceless assets. Not infrequently those communities have only vague (or sometimes even negative) impressions of the arts organization. A board member with “street cred” can provide a foundation on which trust can be built between the organization and the community. There is no amount of money that can accomplish that; it’s a resource as least as valuable as a large donation. So, when an organization commits to engagement, consideration should be given to recruiting board members who are passionate about the art and who are respected by the communities the organization is seeking to reach.  

Next time: Getting to Yes and the Board as Partner in Community Engagement

Engage!

Doug

Photo:  Some rights reserved by Michigan Municipal League (MML)

Who’da Thunk?

Wed, 08/02/2017 - 02:00

I don’t like spending money. I’m leery of signing up for ongoing contracts for service unless I really, really have to (want to).

So when we bought a new “pre-owned” car that came with a three-month trial subscription to SiriusXM™ satellite radio I was not overwhelmed with joy. But here’s what happened. I kinda like the Sixties radio station, the Margaritaville station, the Classic Vinyl station, and my wife loves the Seventies station. When the three months were up I looked at the cost of keeping just the music and thought I could swallow that for a year. But when I tried to do that it was a bit complicated (more on that in a minute) but they also were offering a one-year price on the bells and whistles version that was less than the price of the music only version so, well, I bit.

Then a few weeks ago I had a self-knowledge revelation, tumbling to the fact that inertia (feel free to substitute mental sloth for that word) will very likely cause me to re-up at the end of the year. This whole process is Sales 101. The free trial worked. I found I liked the service and would never, ever, ever, have chosen to pay at the beginning. The big discount for year one also sucked me in. My quarrel, of course, is with the hoops to jump through if you don’t want to choose the path they have laid out for you. It reminds me of what it takes to downgrade your Time-Warner Cable service. (They can’t trick me by changing their name to Spectrum. It’s still the same company.) That process was like running a Marine Corps obstacle course, complete with mental bruises. But I digress a bit.

I’ll grant that the connection to community engagement of all of this is tenuous, but here’s my thinking. I would never have purchased the service without the trial. The equivalent need not be a “pops concert” because some communities would have no interest in such a thing. It can simply be the opportunity to observe (or discuss) how an arts experience might actually enhance one’s life and improve one’s community. The nurturing process, moving from one stage to another, was scripted, intentional, very much like the one proposed by Morison/Dagleish in Waiting in the WingsI would argue for a more relationship-building approach than a clinical Step 1 to Step 2 to Step 3 one-size-fits-all scenario, but relationship building is a progressive process. Maybe there are lessons to be learned and applied.

Engage!

Doug