Introduction: Idea in Brief
- The ideal community engagement is a three-way conversation
- It begins early in the process
- It has many check-ins
- It has clear, open community and mutually agreed upon goals
- It has an evaluation strategy built and agreed upon at the outset and used throughout the process
- A “gold standard community engagement model” would have a longer planning period and span a longer residency period, or have multiple visits
The ideal community engagement scenario sees an artist, presenter and community actively engaged in a three-way conversation, early in the process, and with frequent check-ins. Clear and open communication, and a mutually understood and agreed upon series of goals outlined in advance are crucial; an evaluation strategy should be built in at the outset and used as a framework for all discussions and implementation moving through the process. A move towards models of engagement that start earlier and span longer periods of time or multiple visits should be considered the gold standard.
The impetus for community engagement can come from anywhere within the ecosystem. However, knowing that the ideal scenario outlined above is often not possible, it is ultimately the presenter’s responsibility to move these conversations forward, to research and understand their own community and the work of the artist. With an accurate understanding of all the moving parts, a presenter can act as a matchmaker between appropriate community constituents and artists, and create a context for their constituents. In addition to creating a context, a presenter should work to cultivate and encourage curiosity and openness among its audiences/communities. Knowing that artists’ visits are often few and far between, it is helpful to them to be able to enter into a situation where there is trust between the presenter and the community.
The presenter’s role:
- To research and understand their own community
- To research and understand the work of the visiting artist(s)
- To spark the conversations between Artist(s) and Community
- To be a “matchmaker” between appropriate community constituents & artists(s)
- To create context for their community constituents about the artist
- To cultivate and encourage curiosity and openness in its audiences/ communities
- To understand and facilitate how the artist(s) wants to work in the community
- To help the artist choose the appropriate work or process while visiting the community
It is first and foremost an artist’s responsibility to consider how their work/process can be best shared with audiences/communities and to bring to the table ideas about how they are interested in doing so. However, should the artist need a partner to help design his/her residency, a presenter should not hesitate to work with the artist to imagine how the artist’s work can best be shared in the presenter’s community.
Tools and Tactics
When bringing an artist to your community for either an extended residency or even for a few days of work in your community, it is very important to understand the artist’s methods, styles and beliefs about working in community. Through its research the LDI cohort developed the following interview questions for Artists, Managers and Agents:
Interview Artists, Managers and Agents
Questions to ask artists, managers and agents include:
- What role does connecting with communities play in the performing arts ecosystem?
- How should presenters work with artists to connect with a community:
- When can the artist be present in the community for the work?
- When can the artist not be present in the community for the work?
- What makes for successful “community engagement” for you?
- What is the most challenging thing for you in entering new communities?
- How do you define “community”?
- Who do you consider your own community? Your audience?
- How can we build engagement around your work in other ways?
To help evaluate and further your organization’s community engagement practices, the LDI cohort found the following exercises to be very helpful.
Study your community engagement successes:
Case Analysis: Identifying Examples
Collect one example of each, document, summarize, and look for common threads that will lead to insights and/or a path forward for you:
- Success with community engagement in partnership with an artist (involve the artist in the reflection if possible) from within your own organization.
- Success with community engagement without direct artist participation from within your own organization.
- Success with community engagement in partnership with an artist from a peer presenter or an aspirant presenter.
- Success with community engagement without direct artist participation from a peer presenter or an aspirant presenter.
Through the LDI research and interviews with many artists, companies, agents, managers, and presenters, the group discovered the following best practices for involving artists in the process of connecting with communities:
- Presenters, artists and communities are all responsible for engaging in open and transparent communication about community engagement
- Clearly articulate and agree upon shared goals for the community engagement before beginning a project
- Provide opportunities for reflection
- Commit the necessary time and resources
- Utilize a variety of formats; informality and fun are often as successful in making connections as more formal exchanges
- Make appropriate matches of work, theme, personality and skill between artists and communities based on knowledge of the communities and the artist and their work
- Integrate evaluation of community engagement programs throughout the process from beginning to end
- Connect community engagement activities to community members seeing the artistic work itself (doesn’t necessarily mean community members need to come to the presenter’s theater)
- Cultivate curiosity and resilience in audiences and communities and actively foster trust between the presenter and the community over time
- Don’t be afraid to take on community engagement around the work without the artist present (involve them in the planning, but they don’t always need to be there)
- Consider changing your engagement model to stretch over longer periods of time and/or multiple visits
- The impetus for community engagement can come from anywhere within the artist-presenter-community triangle, but if it is not happening, it is incumbent on you as the presenter to initiate and maintain it
- It is an artist’s responsibility to consider how their work and process can be best shared with audiences and communities and to bring to the table ideas about how they are interested in doing so
- Agents or artist representatives should enhance communication between artists and presenters, not act as barriers
How It Works in Practice: Voices from the Field
Artists are central to everything we do as performing arts workers and, at a point in its process, the LDI cohort realized they needed to bring artist voices into the story and highlight their particular perspective on the question of knowing and connecting with community.
At that moment in the inquiry group thinking had evolved to rest on a fundamental assumption: without knowing and connecting with their diverse and complex communities, they – as performing arts organizations—would become irrelevant and their survival would be threatened.
In order to understand how artists were thinking about knowing and connecting with community, LDI members undertook 16 interviews with artists across disciplines, geography and familiarity with or interest in “community engagement.” Acknowledging that communication with artists often takes place through and with agents and managers; cohort members also spoke with them as important members of the performing arts ecosystem. Like its conversation about communities, the LDI group acknowledged that there are as many perspectives on these questions as there are artists. Each person and situation is unique and there is no cookie-cutter format for bringing artists and communities together. A diversity and multiplicity of approaches is what makes for a healthy and sustainable ecosystem.
The following are quotes from LDI interviews with artists, managers and agents:
- A presenter suggested an approach: “From a presenter’s standpoint, I believe we should always ask about the workshop abilities of a artist/company; if we all communicate better, the residency will be more successful… Presenters should be pushy about what they want, and share: who is the community you are serving what is our goal in presenting the artists, ask the agent about residency programs and other engagement activities that the artists conducts or has participated in – ask about the details of performances; be inquisitive about the residency aspect of the artists’ work.”
- Most surprising was the responsibility that artists gave to presenters in driving these connections: the LDI members heard many times that artists relied on presenters to be the ones that carried the long term community relationships that allowed their shorter interactions to be successful.
- An artist said: “At the very least there needs to be a reason to do the work for the community and within the community. I think presenters know their communities and visiting companies justifiably don’t. In terms of outreach work I think the presenter’s responsibility is to offer a truly two-sided engagement – by that I mean something that is working for both the artists and the community. The presenter can develop and broker these relationships for the two sides.”
- The LDI group often heard this suggestion from artists and want to call attention to the artist’s responsibility in the ecosystem: In the same way, presenters should promote the idea of spreading the responsibility for knowing and engaging community widely among an organization’s staff, but it should also be shared among artists, presenters and community members. LDI participants believe it is the responsibility of the artist to come to the table with some ideas about how to best share their work, and with the same curiosity and resilience that presenters ask from the community.
- A presenter said: “Most challenging is finding audiences who are willing to take a chance on something unusual, who aren’t threatened by weird things, who have a vocabulary and a frame of reference (instead of saying “the story didn’t make sense” they say “maybe it’s abstract and non-narrative”) and who are willing to say “I didn’t like it, but that’s not the end of the world, there was still something interesting about it.” Anything that helps audiences increase their ways of seeing, their ways of questioning their own assumptions, is good for me as an artist.”
- “It’s harder to engage with the community when the engagement occurs outside of the parameters of the main performance. It’s a need to connect; I’m disappointed if students in a class or an activity don’t attend a performance. We’re doing a lot of advance work that should be connected to what is seen on stage.”
- “Our feeling is that a concert is a concert, whether at a school, a workplace, a bar, a concert hall, a tiny radio station in the middle of a beet field (yes, we have done this!), or anywhere else. It involves balance, to treat each event like a concert in its own right and also to prioritize a main concert event because that is the culmination of our performance experience.”