Arts Engaged
Engage Now




This book began with an overview of the systemic challenges facing the arts industry. Many of the arts world’s structural and mental models have deep roots in European aristocratic tradition and practices, yet social and economic conditions have changed radically from those distant origins. The resulting strains, observed in labor disputes, bankruptcies, forced mergers, and closures, pose threats to the future of all nonprofit arts organizations.

The “secret” of a successful business model is having income that exceeds expenses. The more isolated the arts are, the fewer people with which an organization has relationships, the less chance there is of that happening. For the long haul, viability demands a commitment to engagement.

The arts world has a connection problem. The percentage of “Yeses” is diminishing; that of the “Maybes” and the structural and cultural “Noes” is expanding. While the cultural “Noes” certainly represent potential, they are not waiting to be wooed and, by and large, they feel little motivation to pay attention to the messages being presented by the arts organizations in their communities. (See pp. 178-182 for the discussion of these three categories.) The result is that the arts are connected with a diminishing portion of the population.

Only in the last several decades has actionable awareness of this disconnection been found outside small patches of academia, public policy advocates, and visionary members of the field. It has been centuries in the making; the pace of change has been glacial. Reversing the trend will not happen overnight. As efforts are put in place to do so, understanding some of the primary sources of the problem will be useful. Each of the following has played some role in distancing the arts from the people they should be serving.

  • Separating art from the perceiver

Focus on the works presented rather than the connection between those works and the people who experience them has led to artcentricity. This has diverted attention from the need to make those connections.

  • Holding too tightly to the specialness of the arts experience, excluding potential newcomers

Related to the first point, devotion to art and its traditions that comes at the expense of welcoming “outsiders” sends a powerful message that all are not welcome. Examples, though small and not highly consequential, are the orchestral traditions of performers in formal wear and the prohibition on clapping between movements.

  • Failure to acknowledge the fact that responsibility for change rests within—and only within—the industry

Disconnection with the public is of primary concern and has its primary impact on the arts establishment. Change, if it is to happen, must be advocated for, led by, and acted upon by those who will most benefit from that change. While circumstances outside the arts have a significant impact upon the field (arts education in the schools is an obvious case), if something is to be done, the onus of action—and for results from that action—is internal.

  • Separating the population into us and them

This is an understandable outgrowth of the first two points. While almost exclusively unconscious, the tendency to view the world as being divided into those who “get it” and those who do not is off-putting in the extreme.

Addressing each of these issues is vital for viability; and it is important, again, to remember the many examples presented here of organizations that are working to make the community connections that are necessary. Yet viability—even sustainability—is not a clarion call to thrill the hearts of the faithful. There are two things that are. One is the transcendence felt in the presence of great art. The other is the exultation experienced when that art is shared with others. The facilitation of both is the privilege of all who work in the arts.

The exciting potential of the “us” view of community engagement is that there is then immediate access to the entire population as those with whom transcendence and exultation can be shared. In addition, as the process leads arts organizations to indispensability, the opportunity to see whole communities transformed through the arts becomes a reward of nearly incalculable proportions.




It is clear that the world’s perception of the arts as, at best, an amenity is detrimental to the long-term viability of the industry. Being widely seen as relevant would be a big step in the right direction, yet even “relevant” may not be a highenough goal in a time with countless needs and few resources to address them. Indispensability is likely the only standard that will support a healthy future.

What determines indispensability is real and perceived value. At the risk of being both redundant and inflammatory, art has no inherent value. Value does not exist without people; it has value based on its impact on people. This idea may be controversial, but if there is not some value to some person—living, dead or as yet unborn—how can it be valuable?

There are three essential steps in achieving indispensability, each of which has already been presented separately, in the context of engaging with communities— “believe,” “rethink,” and “do.”

First, Believe

To become indispensable, the first and most fundamental issue is the transformation of institutional culture. Everyone involved in plotting the course of the organization must believe that a community orientation is a good idea and that being perceived by the community as valuable is a worthy outcome both for the organization and for the art it presents.

Second, Rethink

The organization needs to re-vision its role. No longer self-perceived as a product presenter, it understands it is an experience provider. It should reimagine the relationship with its community as one of service, although the work must be reciprocally valuable. The organization and its programs should be seen as community resources that can be adapted to ends that are important to the community.

Third, Do: Matter by Mattering

Indispensability ultimately comes down to mattering. It is the arts’ marginalization from the broad public that is a principal hindrance to sustainability, much less indispensability. The arts simply do not matter to many.

At the risk of sounding cute, the arts will come to matter by mattering.

Communities must recognize what the arts do as meaningful, important, even life changing to them—collectively and/or individually. To be seen as meaningful, arts organizations must be and do things that make them so; and it is impossible to know what those things are if there is not significant communication and then relationship with the communities in question.

Mattering and indispensability begin with a question: “How can we serve the interests of our community?” The arts as a tool of service is not a construct with which many in the industry, especially those of “a certain age,” grew up, but it is important in engagement and is a direct path to relevance and on to indispensability.

Undertake a Value Offensive

If indispensability is the goal sought and perceived value is the means to that end, a concerted campaign to do things of value is the prescription. It does not matter whether this takes the form of a plan of specific actions to enhance the organization’s value or if it is more organically the outgrowth of intentional listening and resultant responses to community interests, undertaken with the community. Being widely viewed as valuable—the ultimate goal—is the end in either case. Plus, “value offensive” is a catchy idea.

Vitality and Vibrancy

Similarly, viability is not an outcome that excites many members of the arts community. The notion of indispensability might be invigorating, but arts professionals also yearn for art-focused ends. Vitality and vibrancy, not just of the organization but also of the art itself, can be enhanced through community engagement. The passion of arts consumers can be contagious and new perspectives usually lead to advances in arts products themselves. These are ends that appeal directly to those who have chosen careers in the arts.

In both cases—indispensability and vitality/vibrancy—it is the building of new and deeper relationships that yields the desired ends.


Final Thoughts

The steps toward meaningful engagement outlined here are general guidelines. Arts organizations are unique; communities are unique. The ways they can best interact will also be unique. The principles of relationship building apply in all cases—from individual to inter-organizational to community—but the best specific means of doing so will vary widely and will sometimes be contradictory. What works in one situation will fail miserably in another and vice versa.

At the outset of this book, a continuum of the public’s view of the arts— amenity, relevant, indispensable—was presented. Occupying the ground of simple amenity will not yield sufficient support for viability much less vitality.

Relevance, broadly acknowledged, is a minimum position to hold in order to deserve and receive the resources required to maintain what is admittedly an expensive industry, but “mere” relevance may not be sufficient. Only with extreme relevance—indispensability—can arts organizations have confidence in their future.

Readers who have reached this point may be surprised at how little mention has been made of economic development, a category of arts advocacy that has dominated much public policy thinking in the field over the last two decades. It did feature prominently in Building Communities, Not Audiences, but it is dangerous to put too much emphasis on an ancillary benefit to communities that is little different from professional sports franchises or microbreweries. Positive economic impacts are to be expected of any healthy industry. Broad awareness of the economic contributions of the arts has yielded results in securing cultural organizations a place at the table in community discussions. That is an excellent first step.

Similarly, creative placemaking, a child of economic development advocacy, is gaining much traction and visibility. Ann Markusen and Anne Gadwa, the thought leaders behind creative placemaking, said in their book Creative Placemaking, that it “animates public and private spaces, rejuvenates structures and streetscapes, improves local business viability and public safety, and brings diverse people together to celebrate, inspire, and be inspired.” [] This is clearly broader than economic development. It is also specific to the arts and can have a greater impact on public appreciation of the role of the arts than statistics about employment and “multiplier effects.” Excitement about a vibrant place can generate considerable recognition and good will for those that create and maintain it. Certainly, there are concerns about creative placemaking. There is danger of over focus on bricks and mortar at the expense of human interaction and experience, of “best practices” assumptions that lead to homogenization rather than local authenticity, and of majority culture crowding out or overwhelming minority expression, especially when those minorities already feel excluded from the “place” in question.11

This does not mean, of course, that arts organizations should not participate in economic development or creative placemaking projects. On the contrary, insofar as any work is important to the community, the arts should be involved. However, passion about the arts comes from programming that impacts people’s lives directly, intimately. It is work that addresses the core benefits of the artsmentioned earlier in this book, those that enhance the human spirit or improve social relationships, that will lead to the most powerful community connections:

  • For individuals the arts provide (or enhance) internal congruence
  • Between individuals, the arts aid relational alignment
  • In the community/society context, the arts foster social capital

Widely held perception of deep community value, public value, is the root of indispensability. It is projects furthering these categories of personal and community benefit that will do the most to move arts organizations to being understood as indispensable.

Significantly, the quest for indispensability need not be seen in opposition to many of the basic motivations of artists and arts industry stakeholders. Success in deep community engagement most demands these three things:

  • Care for the community, those who are served through the art. This is the prime directive.
  • Love the art but don’t let it become more important than the people whom the art will inspire.
  • Pursue (and achieve) excellence, not for its own sake but for the sake of the community. They deserve it.

These are motivations that many if not most arts professionals and arts supporters can readily recognize in themselves or can easily reconcile with their most basic values.

The moment seems right for arts organizations to make broad-based commitments to community engagement. There is a demonstrable need for them to be more intimately involved in the life of their communities. Viability is at stake, but so is the core meaning of those organizations as facilitators of connections between people and the arts.

At the same time, communities have many deep needs, all of which could be profitably addressed—some even solved—through programmatic partnerships with arts organizations. Awareness of the arts as such a resource is limited. It behooves arts organizations to advocate for their work in this regard if they are ready and willing to participate in such collaborations.

Indispensability is not simply a lofty or admirable goal. Pursuing that end through work which bears the community in mind and includes it as partner is both possible and, arguably, essential. The moment at which an arts organization deserves to be considered indispensable is the point at which its future is best assured. It will also represent a pivotal milestone for the community,ensuring far greater health and productivity as well as better, more fulfilling lives for all who are members of it.

Arts organizations cannot long survive without earning impassioned support from the communities they serve. Those communities cannot reach their full potential without the benefits the arts can provide.