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.