Arts Engaged
Engage Now

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.

Photo taken by Ben Rodig at One State Together in the Arts.

Photo taken by Ben Rodig at One State Together in the Arts.

Over the last decade, the arts world has entertained much discussion of "engagement." The word is used by people to mean many things. This had led to confusion, frustration, and the tendency to dismiss community engagement as a trendy distraction. In particular, the use of the word to mean audience development, audience engagement, or community engagement has muddied the waters. All three are vitally important to the future of the arts. To have a discussion of and effectively practice each, definitions that differentiate among them are essential. The definitions used by ArtsEngaged are found below.

In addition, 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.

The knowledge and skills required for effective community engagement are not part of traditional training in the arts or in arts administration. ArtsEngaged exists to provide that training and to aid the arts world interested in becoming more deeply focused on community engagement. The resources referenced on this page are intended to guide those concerned with helping their organizations, and the arts in general, become indispensable to their communities.


Engagement Essentials

For extended discussions of each topic below, click the appropriate link

Community Engagement: What You Need to Know
Nonprofit arts organizations are facing an existential crisis stemming from skyrocketing expenses, rapidly changing demographics, and vastly altered social expectations. The survival of arts organizations hinges on their ability to engage effectively with a far broader range of their communities than has been true in the past. The process by which arts organizations connect with communities is called community engagement.

Embarking on Community Engagement
Community engagement is important to the long-term viability of arts organizations and to the well-being of the communities they serve. If you don’t believe that, you may stop reading here. All of what follows discusses “how,” not “whether ” or “why?”

Effective community engagement begins with an organizational commitment to it. Half measures or “funder-made-me-do-it” projects will quickly wither on the vine. Communities easily detect insincerity. Only after a commitment is made is it time to think about “doing” community engagement.

"Embarking on Community Engagement" in smaller chunks
Initial Steps: Simple and Slow
Initial Means of Connecting
Mainstreaming Engagement

The Engagement Process (Outline)
There is no one correct approach to community engagement. However, general principles apply and a generic process template/outline can serve as a guide. The key stages are Planning, Preparing, and Partnering.

For more information see The Engagement Process, Engagement Process (Continued), and Engagement Process: Template

Evaluating Community Engagement
Evaluating community engagement is difficult because it is in its infancy as a practice for arts organizations. As such, it is no surprise that techniques of evaluation specific to it are not nearly as advanced or as systematized as those available for fundraising, marketing, or other arts management functions.

In addition, there are at least two vastly dissimilar categories of evaluation that are important for community engagement practitioners. One is, of course, evaluation of the outcomes of the work. The other, however, may be as important because it determines how successful any community engagement project can be. That is the effectiveness of the engagement process itself.

Excellence and Community Engagement
I.          The Question of Excellence
Advocates for community engagement in the arts often get pushback from people who assume that concern for the interests of our communities necessitates a “lowering of standards.” Excellence is a goal for many, if not most, categories of work. For the arts, dealing with basic questions of human existence and well-being, it is essential. However, objectively evaluating excellence is extremely difficult. Any art is culturally specific and the question of excellence is inevitably rooted in the culture from which that art springs. In addition, there are many types of excellence, many if not most of which are important to the future of the arts.

II.        Equity and Respect
Conversations about excellence and community engagement in the arts are difficult because they have to consider the cultural context of the works in question as well as acknowledge the broad range of types of “quality” that should be considered. (See “Excellence and Community Engagement.”) In addition, for effective work in community engagement, awareness of historical inequities and respect for our communities are essential; these factors then also have an impact on how we understand excellence in this work.

Articulating the Benefits of the Arts
Those for whom the arts have deep meaning have difficulty understanding/relating to people for whom that is not the case. This is especially true when it comes to articulating why the arts are important. To simply say that there is something “ineffable” about the arts will yield nothing but blank stares from those who are not already “believers.” However, some of the more readily understood talking points (economic impact, educational support, health outcomes, etc.) have, arguably, been promoted beyond their actual merit and do not speak to the true reasons people are drawn to the arts.





[This definition is exclusively intended to apply to 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.

audience engagement

Activities undertaken by an arts organization as part of a marketing strategy designed to deepen relationships with current stakeholders. The purpose is, over time, to improve retention, increase frequency, and expand reach through stakeholder networks. Principal beneficiary of direct, intended outcomes: arts organization.


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

Community engagement

Activities undertaken by an arts organization as part of a mission strategy designed to build deep relationships between the organization and the communities in which it operates for the purpose of achieving mutual benefit. It is accomplished by developing trust and understanding through which reach can be expanded. This results, over the long term in increased ticket sales and financial support as well as more arts-friendly public policy. Principal beneficiary of direct, intended outcomes: community and arts organization.

audience development

Activities undertaken by an arts organization as part of a marketing strategy designed to produce immediate results that benefit the organization: sales, donations, etc. Principal beneficiary of direct, intended outcomes: 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. In any healthy relationship, all participants are changed as a result of the relationship. This is also true of relationships between arts organizations and communities. Effective, successful community engagement is therefore transformative.

civic engaGEMENT

An attribute (or state of being) that communities seek–citizens actively involved with community life. The impetus for encouraging civic engagement could come from community leaders, grassroots advocates, or anyone (including artists and arts organizations) concerned with collective well-being.

The big question in all of the above is who is doing what for whom and toward what end?

Development Terminology

In the arts management world, much discussion of development, marketing, fundraising, and sales is complicated by conflicting or overlapping definitions. While what is presented here is decidedly “non-standard,” it represents an attempt to clarify the terminology in ways that might be helpful.


The process of soliciting and securing resources for an organization. All of the following are subsets of development.


The percentage of any given population that takes advantage of an organization’s offerings.


The process and activity of soliciting and securing grants, contributions, and donations to an organization.


The process and activity of securing an exchange transaction with a member of the public in which they give money and/or their time in order to receive the value of the art the organization presents.


Processes and activities that support fundraising and sales and that enhance organizational visibility which serves as the foundation for both. It is best understood as communication with external constituencies about the offerings–the receivable values–an organization presents.


The average number of times any given member of the public takes advantage of an organization’s offerings in a prescribed period of time.