Some are under the impression that 1) community engagement is inherently expensive, 2) it implies charity work such as homeless shelter painting classes, free concerts in the parks, or elementary arts education, and 3) it demands appealing to the lowest common denominator.
Regarding the first, some choices might be expensive, but engagement is fundamentally rooted in a community-aware mindset out of which programming arises (programming for which budgets already exist) and is expressed in relationship building. Changing habits of thought may be extremely difficult but it is not necessarily expensive. Nurturing relationships cannot be, like fundraising should not be, placed solely in the lap of staff. Other stakeholders, like board members and operational volunteers can work with communities to build trust, awareness, and understanding.
Few things in life have no cost, but a good part of the engagement process described in this book is devoted to helping organizations see how things they already do (and for which budgets exist) can be re-purposed with a greater emphasis on communities and relationship building without radically overthrowing the enterprise.
Equating community engagement and charity work might be reasonable if the only communities the industry needed to address were the homeless or those subsisting on incomes below the poverty line, but there are plenty of other non- or under-participating communities with whom it can be valuable to build relationships.
Some charity work undertaken by arts organizations might represent true community engagement, but few arts organizations would choose the homeless or the desperately poor as the first communities with which they need to engage. The universe of those unassociated with or disaffected from arts organizations is depressingly vast.
If as is too often the case, such work is for the purpose of image buffing, its intent is not to build relationships with those being served; its goal is to be seen as worthy by the community at large. There are far more efficient ways to build relationships directly with new communities. Charity work can be valuable in demonstrating bona fides as a responsible community citizen but it is not inherently community engagement.
Charitable endeavors are necessary in a healthy society, but this book does not propose that arts organizations become community charities. What it does propose is that arts organizations undertake more community-aware activities, growing out of relationships of trust and understanding, that benefit both all involved. Sustainable results cannot be achieved if there is no self-interest served for the organization and for the arts.
Lowest Common Denominator
While dealt with previously in “The Quality Bugaboo” and in the following section–“Respect,” no list of community engagement myths would be complete without including the assumption that this work demands programming inferior art. The battle cry “You’re just talking about giving them American Idol [or whatever is the current popular culture fad] all the time.” is both tiresome and dangerously incorrect. That view acts as an insurmountable barrier for any serious artist or arts organization that might consider community in their work.
Honest engagement does demand awareness of community, but respect for it also demands providing experiences that are meaningful and edifying. Doing both requires understanding one’s community and one’s art and being able to identify beneficial points of intersection.