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Info You Can Use: Resources For Developing Community Engagement

I have been reading a fair bit lately accusing arts organizations of paying lip service to the concepts of connecting and building relationships with the community. The suggestion is this is something of a euphemism for “what is the least I have to do to convince people to see my show?”

While there may be some truth to this, there are a number of arts organizations who sincerely wish to forge stronger bonds with their communities.

The Association of Performing Arts Presenters recently released a resource for those wishing to develop community engagement activities.

The 14 members of the Leadership Development Institute, comprised of presenters from across the country developed the content for “A Cooperative Inquiry: How Can Performing Arts Organizations Build and Sustain Meaningful Relationships with Their Communities?”

They organize the content into the following areas:

Making the Case – Why is it important to know and connect with community?

Building an Organizational Culture – Why is it important to integrate community engagement into a presenter’s mission/strategic plan?

Connecting with Your Community – How should geographic, socioeconomic and political realities of the community inform an organization’s approach?

Involving Artists – How should artists – who are key stakeholders in the arts ecology – be involved in connecting their work with communities?

Evaluating Impact – How can evaluation serve internal learning and enhanced community engagement?

The material gets the old Butts in the Seats seal of approval because it offers practical solutions. Being part of the Leadership Development Institute requires that you discuss the theories, go back and try to implement what you discussed within the context of your organization and then come back and report to the whole group.

As a result, most of the five areas listed above ends with a “How It Works In Practice” section discussing what did and didn’t work for some of the participants. Each area also has a worksheet associated with it to help guide discussions and planning.

The areas that I read with the greatest interest were the first two, making the case and building organizational culture. It seems to me that if you don’t have a clear understanding of your goals and investment by the staff, all your efforts are likely to come to naught.

I liked the five sample generic case statements they provided because they ran the gamut from invoking Aristotelian ideals to the short and practical,

“Unless our arts organizations continually evaluate our missions and evolve our programming to reflect the communities in which we serve, we run the risk of becoming irrelevant and impotent as a force for social and cultural change in our cities.”

I also appreciated that there was one specifically geared to university campus based art organizations.

When it came to making statements about who the community you served was and who you would like to connect to, I liked their suggestion that an arts organization work a little backwards and start by examining a performance or event that you deemed culturally successful and determine what made it important and relevant.

This appealed to me because so often statements about mission and who you serve are very aspirational. That is how it should be.

But often looking at these statements in the context of an event you feel was successful might contradict some of that self-image if the community you think you are serving well isn’t participating in your greatest successes.

On the other hand, you may discover that you have made greater strides in serving a community than you imagined when you recognize that what you identify as the culturally successful event, while not the best attended or financially rewarding, has had the deepest impact in the community. This may manifest in a hundred small ways that aren’t directly recorded on a balance sheet.

When it comes time to try to build organizational culture around the idea of community engagement, that culturally successful event can provide a great starting point.

Staff can be dubious when new initiatives are introduced so having an example of an event that everyone is proud of provides a set of shared values from which to start a conversation about other efforts in which everyone can feel some degree of investment.

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Stuff To Ponder: Active Interpretation of Culture

Participating in the Lead or Follow discussion over at Artsjournal.com, Lynne Conner writes the following about audience participation/engagement in performances (my emphasis).

Inviting audiences to interpret the art works we present (make, produce, critique) is not pandering. I wish we would stop this disingenuous habit of conflating an audience member’s inherent desire and cultural right to interpret the meaning or value of a work of art with choosing the agenda for artists or arts organizations. Sports fans engage in some of the most active interpretation in our culture (and as a result experience real satisfaction and pleasure), but that doesn’t mean they choose the plays or create the roster. I mean, come on.

This got me to thinking in a slightly different direction. There are numerous television stations, radio shows and newspaper columns featuring people with high levels of expertise talking about sports, yet thousands of people feel no reservation about expressing a contrary opinion loudly in public places and in blog posts. They can hold opposite opinions about games and players from those of their close friends and still remain close. They are not intimidated by those with greater expertise or by the prospect of hurting their personal relationships.

But have you ever been afraid to express your opinion about an artist or arts experience you have had for fear of either appearing elitist to the people around you, even close friends? Or on the other side of the coin, been afraid of appearing insufficiently knowledgeable? Why is that? Feeling unable to discuss these topics, of course, creates a vicious cycle where people continue to feel they can’t discuss these things.

But can the image problem the arts have be fixed by having more people talking a lot more? Maybe, but it will require a lot of people doing a lot of talking.

It is interesting to me that when a person goes shopping, a large number of choices can paralyze someone and result in no choice being made. However, in the face of hundreds of different opinions to select from, sports fans don’t seem to have a problem sifting through them and generating their own view of things. They don’t worry if they don’t agree with the guys at ESPN despite all the computers, statisticians and analysts the network has in their employ.

When it comes to the arts, people get concerned if they don’t agree with the single person writing the review/preview. Either something is wrong with the reviewer or with them. Sports fans can dismiss a single writer as a bum and find another source of information that more closely agrees with them. It doesn’t matter if it is a wholly unsubstantiated view. The fact it confirms their view can make them more comfortable and confident with their ability to evaluate their favorite sport.

That isn’t so easy to achieve in relation to the arts and is becoming less so as media outlets cut back their coverage.

Its funny because it is so much easier to dismiss the opinion of a single poorly funded person over a corporate television station with the resources to analyze something to death based on a thousand different criteria. Yet in the absence of any other easily accessible information about the performance, people don’t feel they know enough to say the reviewer is wrong, even though they may be absolutely right. On the other hand, ESPN’s analysis may be as close to 100% correct as can be, but it doesn’t bother the sports fan in the least that they are completely wrong in disagreeing with the analysis.

Heck, there are sports fans who have been rooting for teams that haven’t been contenders for a championship in decades. They find some pleasure in being wrong year after year rooting for the wrong team.

How many arts organizations get that much slack after rendering a poor performance?

A lot of the devotion a sports fan feels has to do with a feeling of ownership and investment they have in the team, a sense of kinship they feel with other fans and myriad other factors. Many arts patrons feel the exact same things.

Of course, some elements of the sports experience won’t translate over to the arts. Dancers aren’t going to reminisce about how they were berated by audiences at the beginning of the season but won them over with their technique and heart the way a rookie athlete might. Though audiences for those few performing arts companies who retain the same ensemble from year to year can speak about watching artists develop over time.

There isn’t anything insurmountable standing in the way of people engaging in active interpretation of their arts or cultural experience in the same manner as they do with sports–except that they aren’t doing it. There isn’t an arts and culture police running around enforcing standards on conversations. The only impediments are those largely tacit ones we enforce upon ourselves and each other.

I am going to stop short of suggesting what we must do because I don’t think it is as simple as more arts coverage in the media, more arts in schools, more arts bloggers, more outreaches, more free performances. These may all help, but there are a lot chicken and egg factors to the arts environment in the United States. These things are useless of themselves if no one is receptive to them. How do you create that receptive environment?

At the Arts Presenters conference earlier this month, Braddock, PA Mayor John Fetterman quoted a lesson from Sen. Alan Simpson that any significant change takes seven years. I wonder how long it might take to change the culture of a community to the point where people felt free to engage in active interpretation of arts and culture.

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Comes The Curator

While at the Arts Presenters conference, I learned that Wesleyan University has a certificate program in Curatorial Practice in Performance. My first thought was to wonder if there was really that much of a demand for such a program. Then I recalled that many arts organizations have long been consolidating their executive and artistic director positions into one person and that there were likely quite a few people who sought the training originating from this situation alone. People hired for their ability to run the arts organization like a business might find themselves a little anxious about making the correct artistic decisions.

According to the program website, the purpose is:

“…designed so that students can learn to modify and adapt curatorial practices from one discipline to another. ICPP welcomes emerging curators as well as other arts professionals who are interested in time-based art practices in visual art, traditional arts and the performing arts. The emphasis of the program is on the how of curating and focused on developing tools to contextualize performance.”

I was in a session where either Program Director Kristy Edmunds or Managing Director Pamela Tatge, (whomever was sitting behind me) noted that the visual arts have long had curatorial training, but it was lacking in performance disciplines.

In a separate session moderated by Alan Brown on what drives and inhibits our success, Brown noted that presenting arts organizations are becoming increasingly interested in having a curatorial relationship with artists rather than just taking what is offered. Given that most contracts coming across my desk stipulate that the artist has sole control over the artistic content of the show, I wondered if there is going to be a lot of pressure to on that very common contract clause in the future.

Conceivably, if arts organizations take their responsibility to more effectively serve and engage their community to heart, they will have a better sense of what their community will respond to than the artist. I am not talking about pressing artists to tone down edgy elements in the performance to conform to local tastes. Rather I envision a presenter may ask that a particular piece be performed knowing how it will resonate with the history of the location or address an on going concern of the region.

Brown noted that a few performing arts organizations are soliciting requests for proposals (RFQ) from performing artists so that projects more closely conform with what they want to achieve. RFQs from visual artists aren’t uncommon, and Brown says there aren’t a lot of performing arts organizations soliciting, but the fact there are may represent a shift in the approach to residencies. Pam Tatge who was on the panel for this session commented that artist residencies were becoming an intersection of the artist’s goals and presenter’s goals.

It seemed to me that this is something of a compromise between commissioning a piece and hosting an artist for a performance. There is a desire to provide the community a deeper experience than might be derived from attending a performance but not enough resources to direct the creation of a new work. So presenters are seeking artists who can provide additional experiences with specific relevance to the local community. These additional experiences seem to tend toward interaction and working with members of the community and de-emphasize the lecture/demonstration model.

It just occurred to me that another one of the underlying themes of the conference seemed to be the blurring of distinct roles. In addition to a session specifically about cross-discipline performance curation, there were two different sessions on the dissolving boundaries between agent, manager and producer with people taking on the functions of all three in various situations.

Those were just the sessions specifically dedicated to this idea. Just as the topic of cross-discipline curation came up in a separate session I attended, I am sure the topic permeated other conversations.

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Info You Can Use: Foreign Guest Visas

Arts Presenters has recently alerted their membership to a proposed change in the way visas for foreign artists are evaluated. According to Artists From Abroad, O Visas are given to “only one alien of extraordinary ability in the arts entering the U.S. to work in his/her area of expertise. “Extraordinary ability” for purposes of the arts is not an especially high standard. It means “distinction” which, in turn, means a high level of achievement in the field, substantially above that ordinarily encountered.”

This differs from the P-1 and P-3 visas, the first of which applies to groups of note with a long term association and the latter which requires cultural uniqueness.

The nature of my work is such that I don’t use O visas. As I understand it, the problem with emerging with the O visa is that Customs and Immigration are proposing “45-day cap on the amount of time allowable between engagements.” Since an O visa can be valid for up to three years, it is feasible there would be gaps in activity of 45 days here and there during this time.

If you do use O visas or have the potential of doing so, you may want to review the page Customs and Immigration has set up soliciting feedback on the proposed changes.

If you need help framing your feedback, Arts Presenters is encouraging people to contact Leah Frelinghuysen, Director of Public Affairs.

Even if you don’t use O visas, Arts Presenters is advocating for changes in the whole visa process because it has been incredibly frustrating and problematic for people trying to bring tours together. Keep your eyes open for opportunities to provide feedback and comments as those policies (hopefully) come under review.

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