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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.
An occasionally expressed concern about community engagement is that current stakeholders will be driven away by imagined precipitous changes to the organization and/or its offerings. There are a couple of responses to this that should be comforting. First, community engagement should begin with the community that is your core constituents. Getting their feedback on plans and involving them in the process of making your organization indispensable to the larger community can make of them allies and cheerleaders in all engagement processes. (Also, as I’ll discuss next time, any initial changes should be gradual anyway.)
However, the thing on my mind here is that in successful engagement work no change should happen quickly. As I pointed out some time ago in Develop Allies:
Just as important will be reassurance that it is possible to begin engagement work incrementally. That is, the next show/season will not suddenly consist of work foreign to the current staff and support base. Indeed, relationship building is time-consuming work so the results of engagement with new communities should not be immediate or pervasive. This is one place where the lengthy process of engagement is a benefit.
We in the arts have an understandable desire to rush to action. Ours is an event production business. We exist to do. In community engagement work, though, this instinct is almost inevitably counter-productive. We cannot present–or even suggest–meaningful work until we have a reasonable understanding of the interests of the community with which we want to engage. Careening into production prematurely is usually at best off-putting and at worst offensive. Give the relationship time to reveal how best to partner with a new community.
That lament from an arts administrator, with eyes rolled and hands thrown up, demonstrates a profound lack of connection with the subject of the exclamation. It is usually expressed in a “safe space” in an arts organization’s office or conference room. I get the frustration but let’s break it down a bit. First, nothing is ever really “free.” At the least there is opportunity cost: what might someone be doing other than the thing with no financial cost associated? The list of other costless and/or, to the potential attendee, more compelling opportunities is long. In addition, for those unfamiliar with the art form or venue there is also the psychological cost of stepping into the unknown. This is exacerbated where the venue or art form has negative connotations in their minds.
But I would go further and bet that there are a number of things the speaker would not consider doing even if they were free. Try it for yourself. Quick, put together a short list of things you’d pass on even if they were free. We’ll wait.
There are a number of things that many people enjoy that would be for me a kind of torture. Here’s just a tiny representative list:
- Games of almost any kind. I (metaphorically) break out in hives if someone suggests we play charades. (This is why I tend to be the timer, scorekeeper, or judge when my family plays board or other kinds of games. They love me enough to tolerate my near-phobia yet include me nonetheless.)
- Skiing. Almost everyone I know loves to ski or would take advantage of a free opportunity to learn. I am not even remotely interested in participating in something in which becoming cold and wet is a central feature.
- Kickboxing lessons. I have no inherent philosophical problem with the sport. And I fully respect those for whom it is a cherished activity. But it’s not for me.
You get the idea. (Putting this together sobered me to the fact that I could easily make this list go on and on. I’ll probably not pursue that revelation too closely.) The point is that just because something is free does not mean that we should assume everyone wants to do it. The nonprofit arts industry has reputational, relevance, and relationship issues that make a lack of “freeness” only one element in a person’s decision to pass on a giveaway.
Without a doubt, cost can be a reason people choose not to attend arts events. However, it is only one factor among many. Focusing on the price of admission is, frankly, far simpler than addressing other inhibiting factors. But if we are to expand our base, we have to be looking at as many of those stumbling blocks as possible.
If people are not taking advantage of your free offerings, you probably should consider those other issues rather than complain about “them.” (And by the way, don’t get me started on the default to “them” and “they” in talking about people with whom we need to build relationships.)
There are, of course, many things that community engagement is not. High on that list is “a magical elixir to cure all of the nonprofit arts industry’s ills.” At best it can position organizations for greater viability by significantly increasing donor and attendee reach. That comes to pass by being seen as valuable by much larger percentages of the population than is the case at the moment.
Addressing more common and smaller issues, engagement need not be expensive (especially at the beginning) or “charity work” or code for “diversity” or any of a number of other things that critics ascribe to it. But the rant du jour here is about my old nemesis “pandering.” I get wound up about this a good deal (including The “Pandering” Straw Man and R E S P E C T), but it’s been a while now and so I thought it was time to briefly revisit this hoary old chestnut. Here is my go-to statement about the issue.
Community engagement is not “giving them what (we think) they want.” It does demand learning enough about “them” to know what work of the international cultural canon will be meaningful to them. And then programming that with them.
The notion that anyone would take a poll of what orchestral works or plays or paintings or ballets a community unfamiliar with the art form wants and then program that is or should be ludicrous. It would be artistically irresponsible. It would also be, if I may say, disrespectful of the community (assuming that they couldn’t possibly be moved by works they don’t know) and, not to put too fine a point on it, lazy. True engagement, learning about new communities, is without a doubt time consuming on the front end. It takes work.
But more than work, it takes commitment, belief, and respect for communities and the process of building relationships with them. With those basic building blocks engagement is possible and its benefits attainable.
Some time ago I happened to catch a segment on the PBS News Hour featuring the Harvard educated DJ Jace Clayton (who goes by the name DJ/rupture). He works by collecting music of all kinds from all over the world and creating fusions of many styles. He seeks out interesting and unusual music in villages, street corners, and back alleys. Any music is worthy of consideration. Dancing is, of course, an ultimate goal.
By itself I found this fascinating. However, one quote in particular resonated with me in the context of my work in community engagement. He approaches every locale with the framing question: “What’s special here?” He is of course primarily interested in the music in each place. But it is this wisdom, that every community–every community–is a repository of assets of value to many outside the community that leapt out at me.
Too often (far, far too often), work that is thought of as engagement work views the arts organization or arts professional as the exclusive bearer of resources. Of course the prime taboo of engagement is doing things “for” rather than “with” those one is seeking to reach. This inevitably leads to failure and frustration for everyone involved. However, even if a sincere effort has been made to work “with” the community rather than do things “for” it, potential contributions of the community to the project are often missed because no one thought to consider what is special there.
All communities have valuable assets. Identifying and employing them will strengthen, deepen, and make more successful any engagement work.
In keeping with the spirit of my just-concluded series on privilege I wanted to direct readers to a very good blog post by fellow ArtsJournal writer Alexander Laing. His Dear White Orchestras helps put some of the issues I addressed in a context specific to an arts form, in this case symphony orchestras. His introduction of the contrast between universality and particularity is especially important for those of us in the world of legacy arts organizations to understand. In particular, a view of the universality of an art (or any element of culture) is at odds with the reality of different cultures and different forms of cultural expression. As I’ve said here before:
When I taught music, I would use one of the profession’s most closely held truisms to challenge my students’ understanding of the field. “Music is the universal language” is a sentence repeated with the reverence of scripture. It also happens to be false. Music is universal, but its language, grammar, and syntax are not. Traditional Chinese opera is as foreign and incomprehensible to Western ears as Strauss’s tone poems are to aboriginal peoples. That does not diminish either. It simply forces us to question what we mean by “music is universal.”
In many ways, thinking (even unconsciously) of the cultural expression with which we are most familiar as “universal” is an ultimate form of privilege. Here are Mr. Laing’s closing remarks in his post:
A universalist ethic inclines us to believe that orchestral music is, itself, a universal thing and our place in the arts ecosystem is related to that. It leads us to focus on how this music is True in some larger sense of the word. With that in mind we see our lack of diversity (our whiteness) as an injustice. Everyone should have access to this Truth.
On the other hand, the particularist ethic says that orchestras are certainly not universal and the music isn’t either. Recognizing that orchestras and orchestral music are not universal, a particularist ethic brings the whiteness of orchestras into view differently.
From a particularist view, we’re more inclined to see that the privileged position we enjoy as orchestras is not just the result of how True the art form is – our universality – it’s also because of our whiteness.
This is not to say to say orchestras were rewarded for our lack of diversity. It is to say that orchestras, as white institutions, benefit from the history and forces that privilege whiteness.
This is also not to say that orchestras have nothing to offer those whose cultural background is not European. It does, however, mean we need to reexamine our assumptions about the “shouldness” of our art being, inherently, for everyone. And that examination is a first step toward rethinking issues of cultural equity.