If I’d Had More than Two Minutes

by Doug Borwick

in Audience & Community Engagement

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Last Thursday (3/26/15) I had the privilege of participating in a conference presentation at TCG’s Audience (R)Evolution Convening addressing the Ethics of Engagement (archived video of the session available here). I was one member of a panel of four including Martha Lavey, Artistic Director, Steppenwolf Theatre Company; Seema Sueko, Associate Artistic Director, Pasadena Playhouse; and Shay Wafer, Executive Director, 651 Arts. Facilitator Michael Rohd, Founding Artistic Director of Sojourn Theatre, had devised a brilliantly concise format that allowed numerous participants at the Convening to contribute. One part of that format allowed each of the four panelists two minutes to make an opening statement.

Brevity supports clarity. At the same time, brevity is, well, brief, especially since I felt the need to begin with some definitions. Therefore, as I told the participants in the session, I felt a need to share what I would have said as introductory remarks if I’d had more time. This blog post serves that purpose.

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It is an honor to have been asked to participate in TCG’s gathering to address issues of engagement. I’m particularly impressed that this plenary session opens the discussion because the acknowledgement that engaging with communities has ethical implications is, if not rare, at least remarkable.

The nonprofit arts industry has, in the last decade, had much discussion of the word “engagement.” Unfortunately, the word has become a bit of a fad and has been used to describe many, often contradictory, things. In an effort to help you understand me when I talk about these issues, here are my current operating definitions of three related concepts.

  • Audience Development: a marketing strategy designed for immediate results (sales, donations, etc.)
  • Audience Engagement: a marketing strategy designed for deepening relationships with current stakeholders and expanding reach over time. (This will yield increases in sales and donations over time.)
  • Community Engagement: a mission strategy designed to create and maintain relationships with individuals and communities (many of whom may not be currently affiliated with the organization). The desired end results are deepened relationships and expanded reach for the arts organization and healthier, more vibrant communities. (This will also, eventually, yield greater support for the arts organization but the time frame is longer than that for audience engagement.)

All of these are important, are vital to arts organizations, but they are not the same thing. A lack of clarity about any of them makes seeking the value they represent less possible. This convening centers is focused on audience engagement and community development. I think my definition of audience engagement is not in conflict with TCG’s, and I believe it may provide somewhat more specificity. Community development is not in my direct area of expertise, but the result of community engagement serves community development ends.

Providing one more definition is probably worthwhile. In discussing community engagement from the perspective of arts organizations (as opposed to a sociological consideration of the term) I define “community” simply as a group of people who have something in common. Arts organization seeking to engage with communities get to choose what group or groups with which they want to do so.

Before I get to the ethical implications surrounding engagement, I should highlight a few good practices in engagement. First, “engagement” implies relationship building. This is true of audience engagement as well as community engagement. The best metaphor is that of developing friendships. If in doubt about what to do, ask yourself how you would approach the situation if you were trying to make friends (or maintain a friendship) with an individual.

Second, effective engagement needs to serve mutual interests. The arts organization (and art itself) needs to benefit from the relationship. The community needs to benefit as well, in ways that they recognize as benefit to them. (Being “enriched” is not such a benefit if enrichment is not viewed by the “enrichee” as a benefit.)

Third, engagement is not charity work. If an organization views it as such (consciously or unconsciously) it will not connect. It will appear to be (and it will be) paternalistic. This does not mean that charity work is unworthy. It is simply not engagement.

Finally, it is important to remember that there are divisions of expertise to bear in mind. Arts organizations are expert in art and the artistic process. Communities are expert in their interests and what works (and doesn’t) in their environment. Remember, community engagement is not “giving people what they want.” It is developing a sufficient understanding of their interests to be able to suggest work from the cultural canon that will speak to them or to assist in the creation of new work that does so.

With that introduction (and I am now already way over my two minutes), here is the basic outline of my thoughts about ethical issues around engagement.

Ethical Principles

The nonprofit arts industry is the beneficiary of a huge outlay of societal resources to develop and support its infrastructure. (It is the U.S. successor to the patronage system of European history.) As a result there is a moral obligation to utilize that investment in ways that maximize the impact of our work in people’s lives–far more than is the case currently. (As our political demographics change dramatically over the next generation this is a “chicken that will come home to roost” sooner rather than later with respect to public funding. But that is as much a pragmatic consideration as an ethical one.)

And, directly related to that historical support, the industry represents unearned privilege in the minds of almost everyone who is not on the inside of it. Using privilege for good (thanks Carmen Morgan) is an imperative for us in the arts. As a reminder, it is not necessary to feel privileged in order to be privileged.

Another basic ethical principle was alluded to in my definitions. Engagement must be a two-way street based on mutual benefit and mutual respect. The concept of “with” not “for” is important. We must not attempt to inflict art upon an unsuspecting community.

Ethical Practices

With those principles in mind, we must ensure that our practices reflect them. Does our governance and management reflect equity and respect for communities? Who is “allowed” at the table? Barry Hessenius (Barry’s Blog: http://blog.westaf.org/2014/10/gia-wrap-up-thoughts-on-equity-racial.html) has said that commitment to diversity must move from being considered a “challenge” to being an obsession. This is true of both our board membership and our staffing. Does our programming reflect our growing understanding of the communities with which we engage? Importantly, what is the root of our pursuit of excellence? Is it for art’s sake? Or is it rather because the communities we serve deserve it?

Before I close my ten- (or eleven-) minute two-minute introduction, let me also observe something about a question that is often raised. When we engage with communities, how do we “exit” the relationship? Simply put, we cannot, we must not. We are an event-focused, event-driven industry. We complete one and are then compelled to move on to the next. This does not, however, fit well with engagement. Using the personal relationship metaphor again, we run the risk of leaving in our wake a series of jilted lovers, upset at what they view as our habit of “one-night stands.” We must devise methods of relationship maintenance. We don’t have the time to go into this in depth here, but an option that does not involve inordinate staff resources is the identification of community ambassadors (members of the community who have developed trust in your organization who are willing to serve as on-going liaisons between you and their communities). Related to this could be the formation of a Board of Engagers, the collection of community ambassadors who together are your eyes, ears, and legs in the communities they represent.

I’d like to thank TCG for the opportunity to participate in this vitally important discussion. (And Michael Rohd for devising–and adhering to–a format that allowed a wide range of voices room to be heard.)

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Engage Now! A Guide to Making the Arts Indispensable 

Availability (mid-2015) will be announced via @DougBorwick on Twitter and at Engaging Matters.

Reserve a copy by emailing engagenow@artsengaged.com.