Engagement Essentials


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.

Over the last few years, the arts world has entertained much discussion of "engagement." The word is used by people to mean many things. In particular, there has been a tendency to use the word interchangably when speaking of audience development, audience engagement, or community enagement.

It is the view of ArtsEngaged that audience development is primarily focused on immediate or near-term "sales," transactions (of money or time), that get individuals external to the arts organization in the doors (literal or figurative) to experience art. Audience engagement is a longer-term approach designed to encourage members of the public to feel a relationship with the artist or arts organization. The primary purpose of this is to create receptivity to "sales" (as described in the previous sentence) on the part of individuals. This is a medium- and long-term approach, still focused on the art and "sales" of that art.

Both audience development and audience engagement are valuable functions for the arts. They fit squarely in traditional approaches to marketing and arts marketers are adept at the skills required to succeed in each type. The focus of ArtsEngaged is on community engagement. This, too, is a valuable enterprise for marketting purposes, but its importance goes to the core of the arts enterprise. It is the view of ArtsEngaged that this work can and, for most arts organizations, should be central.

While community engagement focuses on relationship building, the core of the relationship is mutuality. While audience development works to have members of the public feel a relationship with the arts as created and/or presented by the artist or organization, community engagement seeks to develop relationships that potentially transform both individuals external to the arts and the art itself.  In other words, the arts organization opens itself to the possibility of change as a result of engagement process. A summary chart comparing audience engagement and community engagement is given below.

Audience Engagement

Community Engagement

Art is the key commodity

Relationships are the key commodity

Art is central

Art serves the community

Art serves as entry point

Relationships are the entry point. Art selection follows.

The goal is to expand reach


The goal is to improve community, thereby building trust and loyalty. The result is expanded reach.

Art is repackaged to expand reach

Art is repackaged, reconceived, or newly created–based on community needs/input–to improve community

Community engagement is not a "natural act" in the arts world descended from 18th- and 19th-century European models, despite the fact that the origin of the arts was in communal (and community) expression. The socio-economic and political history of patronage removed the arts from those roots. Artists and the arts industry, with some important exceptions, have not been trained nor do they have significant experience in the skills required for substantive engagement.

As an indicator of the degree to which community engagement differs from "business as usual" in the arts industry, here are some questions that illuminate the depths to which engagement can take the arts:

  • In what direct, tangible ways are the lives of specific people in your community outside of the arts world made better by your programming and other activities?
  • Are you actively involved in on-going, mutually beneficial partnerships with individuals and organizations that had to be convinced you were trustworthy and/or did not initially believe the arts to be truly important? (In other words, individuals or organizations who/that were not “true believers” going in to the project(s).)
  • Does your work look substantially different from your peers’ and is it perceived as such by your community?

These questions highlight the intense involvement in community engagement that is required to be effective in it. Meaningful answers take an organization far beyond and much deeper than traditional outreach programming that has as its principal intent increasing audience size.

The knowledge and skills required for effective community engagement are not part of traditional training in the arts or in arts administration. (A few are listed here.) ArtsEngaged exists to provide that training and to aid the arts world interested in becoming more deeply focused on community engagement.



[For the purpose of community engagement work]
Any group of people with common interests or characteristics defined, for example, by place, tradition, intention, or spirit. (Based on a definition created by Alternate ROOTS)
Or even simpler: A group of people with something in common.

Arts-Based Community Development
Arts activities designed to serve community interests. Principal beneficiary of direct, intended outcomes: community.

Audience Development
A marketing strategy designed for immediate results (sales, donations, etc.). Principal beneficiary of direct, intended outcomes: arts organization.

Audience Engagement
A marketing strategy designed for deepening relationships with current stakeholders. The purpose is, over time, to improve retention, increase frequency, and expand reach through their networks. Principal beneficiary of direct, intended outcomes: arts organization.

Community Engagement
A mission strategy of building deep relationships between the arts and their communities for the purpose of achieving mutual benefit. It is accomplished by developing trust and understanding through which reach can be expanded. The arts and community are equal partners. Principal beneficiary of direct, intended outcomes: community and arts organization.

Transformative Engagement
Community engagement that creates change in the arts organization–programming, organizational processes, and/or modes of thinking. The root of such engagement is community learning: learning about the needs, interests, even personality of the community the arts organization is attempting to engage. If an organization is not doing anything differently as a result of its engagement efforts, it’s not focused on the community. It’s focused on itself. It is only transformative engagement that builds an arts organization’s relevance.


Book Tour/Workshops/Speaking Engagements
Privilege/Encumbrance (Thoughts on privilege and burdens)
Understanding Your Community (Questions to evaluate–and improve–your community IQ)
The Eightfold Path to Community Engagement
Creating the 21st-Century Commons