Arts Engaged
Engage Now

Chapter Three

Obstacles To Change

If the handwriting on the wall is writ so large, why is there not a massive effort underway—in every arts genre—to transform established arts organizations? To some in the arts community, the status quo of the arts is so ingrained that the notion of broad-based impact is seen as preposterous. The systemic obstacles to significant change in thought about this are substantial.


Artists, by and large, are trained in their craft, a craft rooted in the arts of Europe, and are not encouraged to think about the relationship of the artistic enterprise with those who are not predisposed to be interested in the art in which they are trained. (There is some evidence of change in this respect in the training of individual artists, but it is to date, neither broad nor systemic in the industry.) As a result, many of them cannot be leading forces for change because they are unaware of the need for change, of examples of what that change might look like, or of the processes by which to make such change occur.

Most artists contend that “The arts are for everyone.” is a self-evident truth, a centerpiece of their worldview. However, deep down, a not insignificant number of arts professionals have serious doubts about whether what they do is really for Bobbie Sue or NASCAR Bubba. Their in-jokes about the “unwashed” attest to the mindset. This is often buried so deeply that they cannot even admit to themselves it is true. Nevertheless, their ambivalence about whether “high art” can really be appreciated by the masses is readily apparent to those masses. Clearly, if there is among artists even an unconscious sense that the arts are not for everyone, they will not be pressing for change.

And there is a particular artistic legacy that further stands in the way of change. In the Nineteenth Century there emerged in the West the idea of the heroic artist, aloof and disconnected from the concerns of common humanity, answerable to no one but himself. (In the Nineteenth Century it was almost universally himself.) This development, a culmination of the specialization of labor transformation discussed earlier in this book, stood the historical relationship between artist and community on its head. Now, instead of being an interpreter of and voice for the community, the artist became an outsider forging new paths without concern as to who (if anyone) would follow. The artistic merits of this shift are open to lively debate. But the impact on social sustainability (and therefore political and economic viability), as has been discussed here, has been negative. From the point of view of fostering lively, artistically vibrant communities, this has led to a cultural cul de sac.


Arts Supporters

Those who support established arts organizations do so, by and large, out of a love for what that organization presents and how it improves their lives. They like things as they are. Change might provide them with less of what they value, and so they have little interest in change. For some arts supporters, the “high arts” reputation as an activity of the elite is a prime attraction. Thus, significantly broadening the base of support for “their” organization would not be an attractive prospect.


Arts Organizations


Not-for-profit arts organizations are, like nearly all institutions, conservative. There is much invested in the status quo. A frequently heard response to questions about expanding the artistic vision to be more inclusive is that it is barely possible to do what is being done now; there is no way to do anything else. This assumes two things–1) that all the things being done now need to continue being done, and 2) that there are not additional resources that might become available if significant shifts in focus and programming were made. Narrowly focused on institutional survival, there is not a history or habit of arts organizations viewing themselves as members of the community, members with a responsibility to partner with others to improve people’s lives. This is particularly unfortunate because community engagement, when properly understood, can be a critical element of long-term survival and can help fulfill the artistic mission.

Governance and Management

All not-for-profit corporations are run, on the policy level, by Boards of Directors. These are made up of community members, but seldom experts in the field, who have an interest in the work of the organization. If artists are not trained in the need for and means to expand the reach of the arts, these volunteers can certainly be excused for having no such awareness.

Not-for-profit arts organizations, taken together, are by now an established industry, with a mature national infrastructure. Each arts discipline has its own service organization. These national bodies have a substantial vested interest in the status quo which has made it difficult for them to press for a radical (or even significant) change of focus. However, as will be discussed in this book’s conclusion, during the last few years this has been changing.

Similarly, training grounds for arts administrators, whether in higher education or professional training workshops sponsored by arts service organizations, are measured on the success with which they place graduates in positions with arts organizations. This means education/training programs teach to what those organizations want. If training for engagement is not sought, there has been no structural incentive to provide it. Fortunately, here also, change is afoot.


Arts institutions exist to present art, and established arts organizations, supported by their artists and patrons, present the art that they unconsciously identify as being art. One of the most contentious issues in shifting to a community engagement focus is a perceived threat to the artistic canon. It is feared that engaging with the community might entail shifts in programming away from the core work of the artistic discipline as understood by those involved. It will, but the shift is primarily one of subtle emphasis rather than seismic disruption. It further serves to address unexamined cultural myopia and open up exciting new aesthetic possibilities. (To consider the quality question, see “Quality and Community” below.) Arguments for dealing with and processes for managing this concern are covered more fully under Principles of Effective Engagement.


The traditional approach to marketing as practiced by arts organizations is the source of this book’s title–Building Communities, Not Audiences. That approach is one this author calls product oriented. In other words, decision-making is rooted in allegiance to the art, an allegiance greater than any other concern. The demonstration of this is the role of the marketer in arts organizations. In general, the artistic director makes programming choices and presents them to the marketer with instructions to “sell” it to the public. The resulting “If we present it, they will come” approach precludes creative (and non-traditional) programming that might be welcoming to a broader portion of the community while maintaining faithfulness to the mission. Indeed, the focus is so fixed on responsibility to the art presented that relatively little attention is paid to the interests or needs of the “audience–either traditional or non-traditional. The notion of any parallel responsibility to the community in anything other than a generic sense is often not a routine part of organizational thought.

Traditional Outreach: “For” not “With”

The good news is that most artists and arts organization personnel, when they focus on the topic, are interested in connecting with their communities. Unfortunately, a frequently heard response to suggestions for increasing engagement is “We already do that.” For the record, the number of established not-for-profit arts organizations that are actively engaged in on-going substantive partnerships with members of their communities outside of the arts is tiny. Most outreach that is undertaken is done “for” the community, assuming that the arts organization understands what art the community needs. To be effective, successful engagement must be done “with” the community, based on reciprocal, mutually beneficial relationships with the organizations or communities being served. Indeed, the very word “outreach” implies an unequal relationship: the “outreacher” is central and those “reached” are peripheral and in need of service.

This is probably as good a place as any to address the idea that arts organizations’ offering fundraisers for community groups is community engagement. It is not, at least not as that term is understood here. Fundraisers where some or all ticket or other proceeds are given to a worthy cause are laudable but do little or nothing to develop effective inter-organizational relationships. There is generally no community issue being addressed in such circumstances (although the publicity around the fundraising may slightly heighten community awareness of the cause being supported) and there is generally no substantive engagement or mutuality that develops between the participating organizations. On the contrary, these projects can establish the beneficiary as a dependent. (Exceptions to this exist when the fundraisers grow out of a relationship between the two organizations and include programming and community dialogue about the cause being supported, but such examples are comparatively rare.) Fundraisers are mostly a marketing tool for the arts organization. More tickets are sold as a result of public awareness that proceeds will benefit a good cause. This is cause-related marketing, a worthwhile undertaking, to be sure, but not community engagement to any significant degree.


Assumption of "The Given"

Resource Limitations and Exhaustion

One of the most common responses from arts organizations to presentations about the importance of community engagement is the truism that every program and management option that can be done is already being done simply to keep the doors open. There is no way to do “one more thing.” Later, in the chapter Principles for Effective Engagement, the opportunity cost of existing work in the light of the benefits of community engagement will be discussed. The essential point is whether all the things being done are more important to the health and vitality of the organization than working with the community to identify and address its needs.


Quality AND Community

Any discussion of community-focused arts activity sooner or later gets around to the quality vs. inclusiveness argument. The assumption that this is an either/or proposition is damaging to the discussion and to the potential for engagement. High quality work is possible in any cultural expression, context, genre, or medium. The issues are at least three-fold. Who decides what “quality” is, what do we mean by quality, and does the work have realistic access to the resources required to produce estimable art?

For some, there is a fear that if efforts are made to provide arts experiences that appeal to those outside the traditional audience, that effort is pandering–grossly appealing to a lower common denominator. But who gets to decide what “quality” means? Some guardians of artistic purity operate with an unconscious assumption that the reflective artistic expression of Europe is superior to that of other cultures. Fortunately, this argument does not hold up well in the light of direct analysis. It is only the most conservative of cultural critics who persist in this line of reasoning when confronted with the position’s implications.

For others, the quality question can reflect an unconscious discomfort with the unfamiliar. Experts in (or knowledgeable supporters of) an established genre of art, when faced with “foreign” art forms, media, and traditions find their expertise (or understanding) called in to question. The result is that they sometimes circle the wagons around the work they know.

The concept of reflective arts is beneficial in that it provides an opportunity to acknowledge a broad range of experiences that feed the soul. The merits of these experiences are not culturally specific. They can be and are rooted in the fabric of every human society. When a work of art–even a manifestly great work of art–does not speak to a person or group of people, its excellence is not relevant to them. More to the point, excellence is inherent in the best artistic expression of every culture.

The notion of what is quality is one that gets insufficient consideration. For instance, the arts infrastructure supporting the European cultural tradition today is heavily weighted toward “spectator art.” In other words, the quest for excellence (sometimes understood as technical expertise) is so pervasive that most people have been reduced to arts observers. Excellence is important; quality is important. However, participation in the creation and presentation of art is also important. Could not the participatory potential of an art form come to be understood as one criterion (and yes, only one) for quality? An aesthetic that dismisses the value of hands-on artistic expression is one that runs the risk of spiraling toward irrelevance.

Carrying the critique further, Arlene Goldbard provides, in her book New Creative Community, a through-the-looking-glass view of the argument. The pursuit of technical excellence can be seen as a means of making art artificial. This artificiality is off-putting to those not part of the cognoscenti, making the art, arguably, less valuable as an aesthetic experience. The phenomenon of castrati in 17th- and 18th-century opera demonstrates a telling extreme in the relationship between technique and artificiality. To make the same argument in a different way, home-made or handmade can be seen as providing a richer, more authentic result.

Goldbard also points out that it is the inequitable distribution of resources supporting cultural products, rather than any inherent difference with respect to technique, that is the source of at least some observed deficiencies in quality. How can any artistic expression compete on sheer technical excellence given the resources that have been devoted to the reflective arts of European origin over the last several centuries?

Finally, Goldbard’s observation about the value of creating art rooted in everyday life experiences speaks not only to her concern about social justice but to a powerful means of community engagement, a significant path to relevance, and a richly renewable source of artistic inspiration. “[T]o demonstrate that the lives and stories of ordinary people can be the basis for skillfully executed and powerful art works makes a strongly positive social statement.” (Goldbard, 55) Again, why can real meaning in people’s lives not be a criterion for excellence?

Other criticisms of increased attention given to community-focused art include complaints of “income redistribution,” threats to political stability (since such art often raises issues that question the political, social, or economic status quo), and undermining the artistic canon. The first argument is, of course, a concern that this focus will take money away from established arts organizations. The assumption is that established organizations will not be participating in such work and that no new sources of funds (such as donors interested in work that is finally of interest to them) will be created by it. The other two criticisms could be reframed with relatively extreme responses to their basic content. The second could be viewed as one in opposition to democratic principles: “Why should the non-elite have access to artistic expression of their concerns or interests?” And the third could be diminished by the observation that there are broader human truths to be explored and that the Western canon represents a relatively narrow slice of human expression.

As a last practical note, community engagement work is a complex skill. It takes an understanding of principles as well as a good deal of practice to attain excellence in engagement. Artists with great technical skill in their art form who enter the engagement arena without sufficient preparation are going to have mixed results. That is not engagement’s fault.

There are legitimate arguments to be made about the quality issue in the area of community-focused arts, though as shown above, they are often not as simple as they appear upon first consideration. Nevertheless, the arts delivery system in the U.S. today represents a de facto arts policy inordinately privileging Eurocentric arts. It is a policy that systematically (even if not purposely) excludes much of our population from access to the benefits provided by reflective artistic expression derived from a cultural language with which they are familiar. Providing them with that is not pandering nor is it an inevitable path to inferior artistic product.