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Doug Borwick on vibrant arts and communities
Updated: 2 hours 32 min ago

Baby Steps

Wed, 01/17/2018 - 02:00

Over the last eighteen months I have begun to put greater emphasis on the need for (and advantages of) simplicity and gradualism in beginning community engagement efforts. [Keep It Simple, Essential Gradualism] Major community engagement efforts (commissioning work, massive collaborations, large-scale productions) are cool but daunting (and sometimes off-putting to the communities we are trying to reach) to organizations new to substantive engagement and, here’s the important thing, largely counter-productive. Big work should grow out of relationships with communities and it takes a long time to build the trust and understanding required. Too much too soon can drive people away. (And yield meager benefits at best.)

Initial steps in engagement should be, must be, small. This applies to programming, marketing and sales, fundraising, governance, evaluation . . . all aspects of organizational function. Over the next weeks Engaging Matters will devote itself to an examination of the modest, doable steps that can be taken in each area to support early engagement efforts in ways that are relatively inexpensive, not time-consuming, and provide a foundation for larger efforts in the future.

To provide the CliffsNotes overview of all that will follow, the common theme is as simple, inexpensive, and excruciatingly difficult as changing habits of mind. The essential transition is to stop seeing our work as delivering a product that should be consumed by a nameless, faceless public and to view it instead as a valuable resource for specific individuals and communities whom we know (or are getting to know)When the board and staff of arts organizations makes this switch and apply it to how they go about their existing tasks, the results will begin to support the work of deep engagement with communities.

Next time I’ll share an overview of some of the means by which we can connect with communities.



Photo:  Some rights reserved by Kalyani

What You Need to Know

Wed, 01/10/2018 - 02:00

Community engagement and its potential for enhancing the viability of arts organizations is too often poorly understood or just plain misunderstood. It is conflated with other tasks and minimized by people who cannot envision its potential.

I have become increasingly aware of the need for a (relatively) brief and simple overview of the essentials in order to see what community engagement is and can be and, importantly, what it is not. Over the last several months a variety of people who have been through the Community Engagement Training offered by ArtsEngaged have been helping me trim my nine page, single-spaced, overly academic treatise to a much more manageable four pager with more blank space and readable content.

The resulting document has the following outline:

  • Definitions (Working definitions of community, audience development, audience engagement, and community engagement)
  • Is It Community Engagement? (What effective community engagement looks like)
  • Community Connections (The critical difference between “We Tell” and “We Listen”)
  • The Engagement Process: Preparing, Planning, Partnering (An overview of effective approaches to community engagement)
  • Can You Say This? (A statement of commitment to community engagement)

Some of the contents have appeared in Engaging Matters before, but having these things together in one, digestible place should be of benefit to the field. You can find the whole text here. And here is a link to download the pdf. Feel free to do so and share as much as you want.



Photo:  Some rights reserved by renaissancechambara

Docents as Engagers

Wed, 01/03/2018 - 02:00

Some time ago in a forum discussing community engagement, someone asked me what the role of docents should be in engagement work. It was a light bulb question for me. My professional background is primarily in the performing arts so I have always viewed box office workers and ushers as important elements in contact with the public and, therefore, in engagement efforts. The question opened up to me a whole world of possibilities since docents are a deeply ingrained part of the culture of many visual arts organizations.

Docents are ideal prospects for important involvement in engagement. They are dedicated to the work of the organization and to the art or they would not be volunteering to be educators in this way. They have experience in interacting with people from outside the organization and in advocating for the work the organization presents. Perhaps most importantly, it is part of their function to spend time, sometimes a lot of time, with visitors.

Including docents as a key component of engagement efforts would require some new training and skill development. Historically, docents have been primarily one-way providers of information, although that has been changing. Two-way  exchanges to develop relationships would be an additional task as would the debriefing required to access what they discover. However, the potential is enormous. Not only are docents in a position to learn much about communities that are already curious about the work of the organization, they might, in some cases, also become resources to develop and maintain relationships with those communities outside of the walls of the museum or gallery. All of this would, of course, have to be part of a comprehensive engagement plan, a plan in which docents are only one element.

Docents are an established part of the visual arts world. They already interact with the public. It would not take a great deal of change to enlist them in helping the organization develop relationships with individuals and the communities from which they come.



Photo:  Some rights reserved by Saint Louis Art Museum

Robert Gard on Arts and Communities

Tue, 12/12/2017 - 02:00

When my good friend Maryo Gard Ewell asked me to write a reflection on the Gard Foundation/Americans for the Arts collaborative collection of Robert Gard’s writings (To Change the Face & Heart of America), I was more than willing. Eager would probably not be a stretch.

When I began teaching arts management, I remember Gard’s The Arts in the Small Community almost leaping off the library shelf at me. His insistence on the importance of the arts to all people and of communities to the arts resonated with me from the moment I encountered his work. I have since discovered that as a high school student in Iowa my life was transformed by a summer program he was instrumental in supporting in Wisconsin. And, as long-time readers of Engaging Matters know, I happily served on the board of the Robert E. Gard Foundation.

To prepare for this blog post I re-read what we on the Gard board affectionately call “the purple book,” this time with copious underlining and dog-earing of pages. Many themes emerge from that, and many of my most cherished ideas, among them the role of the “arts establishment” in this work (the need to pay attention to communities) and the role of the arts council. I have long held that the arts council. or as we now sometimes say–the local arts agency, is vital to the work of connecting the arts with communities.

However, for my purposes here I want to focus on just two of Gard’s important concerns. First is participation in the arts. A centerpiece of Gard’s work was the creation of opportunities for “ordinary” people to write about their own experiences and present them on stage. He was a theater person at heart. He believed that everyone should be encouraged to express themselves artistically. This was both a conviction borne out of faith in humanity and a pragmatic understanding of the importance of participation in building support for the arts. Here are just three quotes from the book that address participation:

  • The arts . . . are not reserved for the wealthy, or for the well-endowed museum the gallery, or the ever-subsidized regional professional theater. . . . The people, if shown the way, can create art in and of themselves.
  • We substituted the wonderful words joy fulfillment, comprehension, change of attitude, and selfless participation as concepts and values as good or better than the thin “professional” requirements.
  • My part is in the back country, away from the largest centers, where the hardest battle is being fought. My part and work is with the creative force that is in the people, and this creative power, developed slowly, in keeping with the life of the people, might finally swell the idea of the arts to a national spiritual crescendo.

In the end, it was this participation in creative work that Gard felt might be “the only sure way toward wide acceptance of the arts.”

The other idea I want to highlight here is Gard’s emphasis on “the grass roots.” Gard writes about this eloquently and often.

  • The springs of the American spirit are at the grass roots.
  • It is the grassroots where the essence of art
    Most joyously flourishes.
  • I do fully believe that the greatness of American arts must lie in the seeding ground of the home place.

However, and I in no way mean this as criticism, since Gard’s work focused like a laser beam on Wisconsin and, in particular, rural Wisconsin, there is a danger that today’s reader of this book might equate grass roots with rural and white. If Gard were writing and working today I have no doubt that his conception of the grass roots would include people living in both urban and rural environments. His passion was to find and tap the creative genius in all people. That is an easy case to make given the philosophical framework he presents so clearly. And, it is the case that we on the board of the Gard Foundation made in helping it broaden its focus from Wisconsin to the whole country and all of its widely disparate parts–rural communities, urban neighborhoods, and native populations.

It might seem astonishing that a man who retired in 1970 could have been so prescient about the need to involve everyone in the arts. Upon reflection, I see his convictions coming not from clairvoyance but from abiding faith in the human spirit and human potential as well as understanding of the need for the “arts establishment” to tap into that vast reservoir of creativity for its own well-being if not survival.

Thank you Mr. Gard.



First You Talk

Wed, 12/06/2017 - 02:00

Typically, when I see a headline like this: Opera Memphis Kicks Off Effort to Diversify Audience, I cringe. Not because I don’t believe in diversifying our audiences. I clearly do. However, too often it is done badly and for pretty poor reasons. (See The Self-Centered Pursuit of Diversity) I can’t speak to the company’s motivations or even to much extent about their practices in attempting this. However–stop the presses–if you read the article you discover something quite bizarre.

“[T]he company is seeking input from the community about how to close the racial gap in its audience demographics.”
(Emphasis mine)

I had to read that sentence several times to make sure I had it right. Rather than beginning with a “solution” they had intuited from their own perspective without getting feedback from those they might want to reach, they are attempting to have conversations with them. Indeed, the article goes on to say that “Opera Memphis hopes to spark an ongoing discussion about how best to serve minority communities in Memphis. The organization says that discussion in turn will shape not only future engagement but also the creation of a [program] for singers, directors and coaches of color.”

You don’t (successfully) begin any relationship by assuming 1) that you know what the other party needs/wants and 2) that you can provide it. Relationship building (AKA engagement) begins by listening and learning.

It’s not a given that any community will have large numbers of people (or any) interested in the work your organization presents, especially if you are not willing to consider any alterations to your programming. (See Excellence and Engagement: III) However, you’ll never know if you don’t ask, if you don’t have conversations in which you seek to learn.

I have no idea how sincere Opera Memphis is or how successful they will be in this endeavor. But I believe this is the first time I have ever seen a newspaper article about an arts organization focus on the fact that they are beginning to talk to people. Bravo Opera Memphis!



Education and Engagement

Wed, 11/29/2017 - 02:00

Speaking of education and engagement (as I did in my last post, External Connections), there is topic (or two or three) specific to them that probably bears addressing. Like marketing/sales and fundraising, education and engagement are externally oriented. However, since they do not necessarily have an immediate impact on the bottom line they can be viewed as less important in the arts organization hierarchy. In addition, they are both relative newcomers to the discipline of arts management and as such are less well integrated into management processes.

Education and engagement are increasingly being paired in job titles and descriptions. There is some sense to that, but the differences–with respect to fundamental focus–are significant. Fundamentally, education seeks to tell/teach others about the work the arts organization does. While it is critical to understand the potential learners in order to communicate effectively, the prime focus of attention is on the organization. Engagement, the building of mutually beneficial relationships, begins with the organization learning about the community with which it attempts to engage. It must simultaneously be explaining itself to that community but we have to lead with listening. As a result, in response to a remark I recently heard, engagement is not “just” a different form of education. If that’s an organization’s understanding of and approach to engagement, the efforts will be at best marginally successful. Similarly, marketing and engagement have considerable overlap, at least in external appearance; but the differences, as with education and engagement, are such that we have to be very careful not to conflate them.

Another issue is the frequent complaint I hear from education or engagement professionals that their work is undervalued in comparison with that of their colleagues in marketing/sales and fundraising. The long-term (as opposed to immediate) nature of their impact is certainly one reason for this. The “new(ish)-kid-on-the-block” nature of each is another. However, both are vital to the future of our organizations. Neither is a “sub-par” version of the other nor are they less important than any other organizational function. The sooner we embrace the necessity of education and engagement and include them in the all decision-making processes the greater the chance of ensuring our organization’s’ viability, relevance, and indispensability.



Photo: By Tcodl (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

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.



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.



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.



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.

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.

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

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.

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.



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.]



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.

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?” ( 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.]



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


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

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



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