Arts Engaged
Engage Now

Services Overview

Services Content Overview


Presentations & Workshops


Community engagement: Myths, Motives, and Means

Community engagement holds much potential for invigorating arts organizations and supporting healthier communities. Unfortunately, there is much misunderstanding about what it is and what it is not. This facilitated conversation, designed for arts organizations’ internal stakeholders, will address the relevant issues and lay the groundwork for efforts to increase relevance to the community.

Over the last decade, the word engagement has become a fad in the nonprofit arts industry. Unfortunately, there is a lack of understanding of the word that is so pervasive we are in danger of losing the power that community engagement represents in the fog of meanings that surround it. In addition, for some there is a set of deeply held, but sometimes unspoken, misconceptions about the work. This conversation, designed for internal stakeholders in the industry–administrative and artistic staff, board members, and donors/members/subscribers–addresses mistaken beliefs about community engagement, presents the rationales for embracing it–both practical necessity and benefits to the arts and arts organizations, and introduces steps for implementation that demonstrate substantive community engagement can be possible without completely overturning an organization’s business and structural models.

engaging for success

The economic, social, and political environments out of which the infrastructure for Western “high arts” grew have changed.  Today’s major arts institutions, products of that legacy, no longer benefit from relatively inexpensive labor, a nominally homogeneous culture, or a polity openly managed by an elite class. Expenses are rising precipitously and competition for major donors is increasing; as a result, the survival of established arts organizations hinges on their ability to engage effectively with a far broader segment of the population than has been true to date.

As a result, “community engagement” has become a frequently discussed topic in arts circles, but there is little common understanding of what it means. This workshop will clarify the various types of engagement, present the arguments for systemically engaging, acknowledge the difficulties in doing so, and introduce principles for effective engagement. It will also provide opportunity for discussing experiences in engagement, challenges that exist for participants' organizations and how substantive engagement can transform our work.

[This workshop is intended for those interested in or curious about the potential that community engagement represents for the arts. Its focus is on relevant background, definitions, and advocacy regarding the importance of engagement for the future of the arts.]

Engagement: making it real

Effective community engagement is not an add-on activity to be carried out by a designated “engager.” To be successful, it must be an essential element of every aspect of an arts organization’s work. It is important to structure and implement engagement activities so that they reflect a whole-organization perspective. Development and marketing are two sides of a single coin. Ticket buyers and donors should be viewed as a single group of people. Programming, marketing, and development are similarly inter-related. A community engagement lens helps unify these functions and provides the potential for greater success.

For an organization ready to create deep, lasting relationships with new community partners, “Engagement: Making It Real” provides a comprehensive process of learning, discovery, and planning to achieve that end.

The work begins with an introductory presentation including definitions, examples, and on overview of the process. The presentation may take the form of a workshop or seminar for multiple organizations or can be presented to a single agency as the kickoff event for making engagement central to its mission.

This is followed by a consultancy: a series of discussions and trainings, tailored to the specific needs of the organization, that address the work required–both internally (assembling a team of change leaders, securing allies, identifying constituencies in need of “lobbying,” developing strategies for achieving consensus, securing organizational commitments, and making institutional preparations) and externally (developing and maintaining relationships with current stakeholders and new communities).

Process Outline

Phase 1
Organizational Assessment
Mobilize Change Leaders
Engage the Core: Internal Stakeholders

Phase 2
Commitment to Engagement
Institutional Preparation: Engagement Planning; Training

Community Engagement: Develop/Enhance Relationships
1. Current external stakeholders
2. Ambassadors: Individuals respected in the community who have a potential interest in your art form who could provide introduction and serve as liaisons to that community
3. Communit(y)(ies)

Maintain Relationships (Anticipation-Event-Memory)

Artists and Community Engagement: New Thinking Yields New Options

What does "community engagement" mean for artists now and in the future? New relationships and new ways of thinking about the arts hold promise for artists. Rather than cutting smaller slices of the pie, they represent the possibility of baking more pies. They also suggest the need for change in approaches and in understanding of the roles of the arts. How can community engagement be undertaken in ways that yield success and also maintain artistic integrity? This workshop, especially appropriate for arts entrepreneurship training, examines these questions.

Preparing Artists for the Future: A Residency for Higher Education

The economic, social, and political changes that affect the future of established arts organizations affect artists as well. Those who work for or with arts organizations need skills in “community engagement.” New relationships and new ways of thinking can create opportunities for independent artists as well. All artists need training in how to be in community at the same time they develop their requisite arts-specific skills.

While community engagement is a hot topic in arts circles, there is little common understanding of what it means. An ArtsEngaged residency will assist college and university arts programs in preparing students for the future. It will clarify the terminology, present the arguments for systemically engaging, acknowledge the difficulties in doing so, introduce principles for effective engagement, provide examples of individual artists and organizations in successful interaction with communities, and explore the implications of the new environment for the rising generation of artists. If desired, the opportunity for faculty and administrators to consider the curricular implications of engagement can be included.


Content Overview

The Case for Engaging

Preparation for community arts work on the part of arts organizations must begin with a thorough examination of the reasons–practical, moral, and arts-centric–that the work is important.

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Understanding the Roadblocks

A thorough understanding of structural obstacles as well as strategies for addressing them is an essential part of the preparation for community engagement if it is to be done through or with established arts organizations.

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Mainstreaming Community Engagement

Without a systemic shift in approach, many of the potential benefits of engagement are lost. Organizational systems (governance, programming, marketing, fundraising, and advocacy) can be re-tooled through substantive interaction with the entire community. A key component of this is presentation of methods for evaluating the opportunity cost of existing work as one step in the potential reallocation of resources.

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Essential Skills and Knowledge for Community Arts Practitioners: Community-Focused

Cultural Humility (sometimes aka, Cultural Competency or Diversity Training)

Whatever term is used, it is essential for the community arts practitioner to “know what they don’t know” in dealing with people who are different from them. Cultural assumptions are pervasive and largely invisible. Until individuals have the experience of and opportunity to examine those assumptions, they will be unprepared to participate effectively in partnerships that cross lines of human difference. Cultural humility must influence arts programming. Decisions as to what expressions of a culture are to be employed in community arts projects first requires active consultation with the partnering community. Beyond that, however, understanding the options, the relevance and importance of those options to the community being engaged, and an awareness of issues of quality in the presentation of those options are critical to being an effective partner in program development.

In addition, cultural humility demands an appreciation of cultural differences in the processes by which other cultures accomplish tasks. Aspects of process that can be important are traditions with respect to assumed levels of input from participants; habits of decision-making: consensus, majority rule, or leadership command, for example; and expectations regarding time frames for project implementation.

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The Understanding of Privilege

While some may not separate it from cultural humility, an awareness of the role that privilege has in easing the lives of members of majority populations and power groups (e.g., wealthy, educated, male, non-elderly) and creating internalized oppression in others is critical. Awareness of this issue is particularly important for members of majority populations or power groups if they are to participate with people from outside their group in the development of successful partnerships.

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Communities and Community Organizing

An understanding of a community’s constituencies and of methods of engaging with each is important to successful engagement work. Principles and practices of advocacy and lobbying (and an understanding of the legal and regulatory limits on the latter) at all levels of government are important for community arts workers. Awareness of the concerns, needs, and interests of all stakeholders in the public schools (school boards and administrators, teachers, staff, children, and parents) is essential for anyone undertaking community arts work associated with K-12 education. Familiarity with community business interests–chambers of commerce, as well as economic development and tourism authorities–is a valuable basis for much community arts work, especially, of course, projects that support economic development. And skills in working with neighborhoods, faith communities, and cultural communities (i.e., populations bound by ethnic heritage) are vital to almost any community arts project.

A number of models and approaches to community organizing–involving a broad spectrum of people in decision-making and program planning–exist. Whatever model is used, the principles of “winning friends and influencing people” in the community must be understood by people leading community engagement work. Saul Alinsky’s approach in establishing chapters of the Industrial Areas Foundation is one option. The IAF model focuses on power analysis, determining what individuals and groups in a community hold power (formal–e.g., economic and political–and informal) in differing situations. This knowledge is then used to effect change. Such knowledge can also be useful in the creation of community arts projects.

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Discussion of Difficult Issues

If for no other reason than the experience-based mistrust of arts organizations, it is valuable for community engagement workers in the arts to have skills in leading and participating in discussions of difficult issues. Beyond that, the issues being addressed by community arts projects often are or have the potential for being contentious ones. Competence in participating in constructive dialogue is critical to successful project development and implementation.

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Conflict Resolution

Principles of conflict resolution become valuable when disparate individuals and organizations are brought together to design and implement programming that addresses significant issues in a community.

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Self Knowledge

Community arts workers need to understand their own motivations for participation in the work. This knowledge can reveal blind spots that could get in the way of successful collaborations and direct the student toward particularly fulfilling areas of practice.

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Strategies for Engagement

Generic techniques for encouraging collaboration and participation should be taught along with methods particularly appropriate for target populations. Story collection, action research, cultural asset mapping, and relational meetings (as conducted by community organizers for the Industrial Areas Foundation) are just a few of the possible approaches.

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Learning Styles/Teaching Techniques

An understanding of Multiple Intelligences as described by Howard Gardner is valuable for artists generally, since the arts contribute to learning in most of them. In addition, awareness of the Intelligences aids in devising learning opportunities for disparate individuals. Further, a survey of teaching techniques that have been successfully employed in community arts programs can provide a basis upon which to build in devising new projects.

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Interdisciplinary Knowledge

Community arts practitioners are inevitably interdisciplinary workers. As such, they need knowledge (vocabulary and practices) of the community systems and populations with which they will be working. In addition, when dealing with cultural groups other than one’s own, awareness of cultural norms and traditions is essential. Among the areas in which community arts workers collaborate are, for example:

  • Social Systems
    • Community Development
    • Criminal Justice/Correctional Systems
    • Economic Development
    • Educational System (Public K-12 particularly)
    • Health Care (including mental health)
  • Special Populations
    • Developmentally Disabled
    • Disenfranchised Groups
    • Elderly
    • Immigrants
    • Incarcerated
    • Infants and Children
    • Middle Class (See “Reflections on the Practice of Community Engagement”)
    • Physically Disabled
    • Suburban (See “Reflections on the Practice of Community Engagement”)
    • Youth

These lists are far from exhaustive, and even with these it is obvious that no individual could be competently knowledgeable in all categories. Nevertheless, community engagement training needs to provide background on selected areas in which the student will be working.

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Essential Skills and Knowledge for Community Arts Practitioners: Selected Arts-Specific Content

Creative Entrepreneurship

An awareness of the options for entrepreneurship in community arts work–structural, financial, social, to name a few–is helpful as community arts projects are designed. Thoughts “outside the box” can lead to more powerful, more sustainable projects.

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Cultural Mapping

Cultural mapping can be one of the most valuable skills for the community arts worker. The discipline is rooted in respect for the cultural heritage of the population being addressed. Skills in this area are important for those seeking to enter into partnership with populations new to and under-served by the arts.

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Design and Implementation of Arts-based Education Programs

A working knowledge of the vocabulary, practices, and structures of educational institutions in the community is essential for anyone hoping to develop curricular or co-curricular arts-based programs.

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Economic Impact of the Arts

In order to be taken seriously when communicating with community development officials, community arts workers should have a firm understanding of the potential that the arts have for economic development and the research that confirms its impact.

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Principles and Practice of Public Arts

Public art is a common element of community arts work. Understanding the particular design/development, funding, implementation, legal, and maintenance challenges represented by public art projects is important for people in the field.

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Essential Skills and Knowledge for Community Arts Practitioners: The Design and Implementation of Community Arts Programming

Making Community Arts Partnerships Work

The arts organization that has re-oriented itself in a community service framework and has developed awareness and skills in the areas outlined above is prepared to begin productive partnerships. Relationship building, particularly between organizations, is time-consuming; and for established institutions there is a reluctance or inability to partner based on inertia and/or the need for sole ownership. The individual readiness of potential partners must be determined. The Meet-Talk-Work construct is helpful; the Eightfold Path of Community Engagement, also presented above, can provide a further means of guiding the process of establishing effective partnerships.

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Project-Specific Skills

Marketing, Project Management, Program Design & Evaluation, Resource Development

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Introduction to Community Arts

History, Theory, and Examples: Community Engagement through the Arts

To be a successful practitioner in the community arts world, individuals and organizations should have an understanding of how proposed approaches relate to the history of community arts work; of theoretical models exist on which to base project design; and, especially, of earlier projects, programming, and values-based systemic transformation there are either to emulate or avoid. There is no need to re-invent either the wheel or the hula hoop.