The Changing Grammar of Community Engagement

Past Imperfect, Present Future

If arts organizations want to stay relevant, the time has come to get serious about building connections with the wealth of creative activity in our communities.

Although the quote is his, it doesn’t take an Einstein to realize that doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results is insanity. By that standard, we must admit that for several decades, the community engagement practices of America’s arts organizations have been close to insane. Or maybe it is just that the need to expand the participant base has not felt urgent enough, amid the crazy daily pressures of running such organizations, to impel arts leaders to make creative changes in established community engagement practices.

Arts organizations complain that investing seriously in innovative community engagement is expensive. You think innovation is expensive? Try irrelevance.

 A new research source, the National Center for Arts Research at Southern Methodist University, analyzes data on arts in the U.S. in unconventional ways. In their Inaugural Report, they find that the average U.S. arts/cultural organization actively engages (using an inclusive definition of participation) with only 10% of its local population. Yes, 90% of local residents have nothing to do with most arts organizations. No wonder we struggle to get public funding in the arts; no wonder we complain that the public doesn’t understand what we contribute. Arts organizations complain that investing seriously in innovative community engagement is expensive. You think innovation is expensive? Try irrelevance. 

For the last decade I have widely proclaimed that choruses are a positive example that the arts need to follow. Choruses, with their wide networks of participant households, their collegial connections between amateur and professional sectors, and their joyfully inclusive nature, represent sanity to me. As you read this article, I hope you take pride in the ways that choruses already embody many emerging community engagement practices. But choruses too need to experiment more boldly with innovative methods.


Eric Booth

Even given that depressing statistic about arts engagement, I am optimistic. I confess that I think the gap between the arts and an average citizen’s sense of identification with and personal connection to the arts has never been wider in any culture in human history. But I see that chasm closing. I see the definition of art becoming more inclusive, building connections between the widespread wealth of creative activity in our culture and that professional subsection we call “the arts.” I see almost every arts organization experimenting with new ways to expand that 10% participation with new urgency. The time has come. 

A Brief History of Community Engagement

For decades, arts organizations didn’t feel they had to reach out; the public came to them. Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concerts with the New York Philharmonic were an innovation, and had a powerful impact on a whole generation (my generation, in fact, and certainly me personally). I think Bernstein was the most prominent “teaching artist” the arts have ever had. 

Education departments at arts organizations were the staff designated to deal with the world beyond ticket buyers. Their philosophical stance was to “teach” the populace to appreciate the specialness of what happens in their buildings. The predominant delivery model was a broad-but-shallow exposure program: get a lively presentation in front of as many young people as possible. Arts organizations (and funders) believed that exposure would lead to future audiences.

This belief lasted through the end of the 20th century, even though no research ever affirmed the hope. Broad exposure programs in the ‘80s and ‘90s were a gamble that didn’t pay off. The field, including practitioners, funders, and researchers, has come to conclude that one-shot, or several-shot, exposure programs have very little, if any, lasting impact—except for getting a few individuals excited about something they find personally important. We have repeated beloved anecdotes of those isolated transformation stories, but they don’t make a case for effective impact or savvy allocation of resources. 

The term “outreach” gained favor after “education.” The metaphor was more active, but was still condescending: the arts organization reaches out from where it lives to give a handful of itself to others. There is nothing wrong about this, but it entrenches a separation, rather than building a connection. The word “outreach” is falling into disfavor for exactly that reason, with terms like “community engagement” and “community partnerships” coming to the fore. These terms metaphorically recognize some emerging understandings in the field: 

  • People engage where they find value. We have to discover more about what genuine value arts organizations can provide for those who don’t already care about what the arts do.
  • Location matters. Where the meetings and creative activities happen makes a big difference to local partners.
  • Listening matters. Arts organizations have heard what non-patrons and potential partners have to say through filters of convenience and cultural prejudice. Listening, hearing, and communicating at a deeper level are required.
  • Partnerships matter—and merely working together does not a partnership make. I have noticed that types of partnership roughly match with blind dating, steady dating, and marriage. Blind dating: two organizations do something nice together, are on good behavior, but don’t expect much of the encounter; there is usually little follow-through. Steady dating: partners become actively interested in one another’s work, and decide to work together regularly; there is assessable impact from working together. Marriage: partners commit to long-term affiliation; they are open to changing their organizational identities in order to move forward together and developing new language and practices to reflect their enduring partnership. As partnerships move from convenience to commitment, the quality of engagement deepens. Certainly organizations should only manage one or a few “marital-depth” commitments, but all partnerships need to lean toward more connection in order to actually accomplish engagement.

Currently even the word “community” is coming into question. We realize that there are many racial, social, cultural, ethnic, and geographic groups that comprise communities, and they can’t be addressed as any one single thing. If we lump them together as a “them,” we separate the arts organization from the position of “us” where change is born. True community partnerships require a new kind of dialogue, beginning with the assets both partners bring to the birth of new relevance, not just the assets that an arts organization offers to hopefully grateful recipients. Some say the word “community” has racial overtones, as an elitist code word for people of color or lower class. Whether that accusation is false, a little true, or quite true, it is a call for changing the way we talk to, listen to, and connect with those who don’t already know and like what we do. 

Promising Practices

I see three emerging trends in the way arts organizations are approaching community engagement, which we might call promising practices. 

  • Listening more. Listening is key to deepening existing programs and discovering new kinds of partnerships. This listening takes time, a shift in intent, patience to press through awkward stages, and sometimes even facilitation. A guided discussion with an outside facilitator can help different parties define their interests and provide a vital ground upon which to partner. Simply put: healthy partnerships cannot grow unless arts organizations learn how to hear a community’s true aspirations. 
  • Increasing experimentation. Every arts organization should have exploratory partnership experiments underway. No exceptions for size or history; this is becoming the new norm.
  • Investing in teaching artists. Teaching artists are already the key deliverers of most community engagement, and those who can design and lead this experimentation have become crucial change agents. Many organizations are investing in the development of an advanced cohort and increasing their commitment to raising teaching artist capacity in general, since training pathways are generally haphazard and demands for this type of expertise continue to grow. 

Carnegie Hall’s Musical Connections initiative is an example to follow. The education staff listened deeply over years of experimentation, with a developmental evaluator helping them hear and learn better, as they patiently built partnerships within New York’s criminal justice systems, and with hospitals and homeless shelters. They were building on a foundation of decades of sending performers into New York City neighborhoods and sending teaching artists into schools in ever-smarter learning programs—all excellent initiatives, but mostly within the framework of traditional “outreach” approaches. Musical Connections marked Carnegie Hall’s commitment to learning with new community groups, seeking to provide a different kind of value for both partners.

True community partnerships require a new kind of dialogue, beginning with the assets both partners bring to the birth of new relevance, not just the assets that an arts organization offers to hopefully grateful recipients.

One among many experiments was the Lullaby Project. Addressing the child welfare system’s challenge of helping young single mothers to bond with their children under stressful parenting circumstances, musicians worked with pregnant and new mothers to compose and perform their own original lullabies. The project was so successful, by both the health department’s and Carnegie Hall’s standards, that it is being expanded across the city.

Setting New Expectations

It isn’t just Carnegie Hall and a few exceptional arts organizations that are pioneering new community engagement work. Every major orchestra in the U.S. now has partnerships with financially struggling communities where they do not expect to recruit future ticket buyers. They are invested to such an extent that they (and their funders) expect assessable impact, whether in social measures like increased school attendance and enhanced self-esteem, in artistic capacities, or even in terms of new skills for participants and artists. The Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra have large El Sistema-inspired programs of intensive youth orchestras in minority-population areas of their cities, and they ambitiously aspire to redirect the life trajectory of those youngsters. Smaller and mid-sized arts organizations are developing their programs too—all this at a time when the arts are facing budget cutbacks. 

I think our expectations of engaging with communities have changed because of the confluence of three factors: 

  • Arts organizations are finally admitting they are in trouble. Their traditional audience is decreasing, and their traditional “outreach” programs that provide “exposure” to large numbers of children or adults have proven to have very little real impact. “Change or die” is a compelling directive, and many arts organizations now believe it is true. 
  • Funders are requiring and rewarding more ambitious community engagement. And funders, let me tell you: with your increased support, you can really help this experimentation grow. 
  • The experiments that most organizations have underway are actually exciting and successful, and there are more and more successful examples of arts organizations making innovative long-term relationships with new groups in their vicinity. 

The organizational survival and funding factors account for the increasing experimentation. But they don’t really explain the investment in communities that will never produce many ticket sales. I think there are two quieter reasons driving this era of innovation. 

Arts organizations have realized that they need to make their offerings more relevant and valuable to people other than the 10% who already care enough about what they do to show up in some way. Community engagement used to be about “teaching” the public; ironically, it has now become about necessary “learning from” the public. Arts organizations used to base their outreach on a belief that what they offered could make life better for all Americans; now they base their community engagement on a belief of shared learning—if they learn well together, they can make life better for a wider community and for their own future too. 

Community engagement used to be about “teaching” the public; ironically, it has now become about necessary “learning from” the public. 

Exploratory, in-depth partnership work also feels good to people in the arts, once they get past the sometimes awkward, creaky feel of getting started. It reactivates the sense of “everything is possible” that most people in the arts had when young. They rediscover the flexible power and relevance of their art form by exploring afresh and creating anew. This revitalization has important resonances within arts organizations. Indeed, I think the next frontier of community engagement is adapting the way arts organizations think, function, and plan in order to internalize what they are learning from their experiments. It may well be that the beacon pointing the way to the future of healthy U.S. arts organizations is lit not in their management offices, nor in the velvet-seat performance hall, but in a South Bronx juvenile correctional facility or migrant farm workers’ town outside Los Angeles. 

How does this work for choruses? You already have national leadership in terms of community participation. What might expanding on this foundation look like? What can you learn from the partnerships happening in your community? What revitalization can you gain from returning to the basics of your art form, and rediscovering that art form’s relevance? The book The Singing Neanderthals, by Steven Mithin, proposes the theory that humans sang before they spoke. I believe that choruses can sing the U.S. back to the future of full community engagement in the arts. 

Editor's Note: Sarah Johnson, director of The Weill Music Institute at Carnegie Hall, spoke about Carnegie Hall’s Musical Connections initiatives and the Lullaby Project at the closing plenary session of Chorus America’s 2013 Conference.


Eric Booth is an award-winning actor, author, entrepreneur, and arts education specialist. Frequently described as the “father of the teaching artist profession,” he has lectured, led workshops, and been a visiting scholar at more than 100 schools, universities, and other cultural institutions. He is a leader in bringing the Venezuelan music education approach called El Sistema to the U.S. and the world.

This article was adapted from The Voice, Spring 2014, a special issue devoted to community engagement.

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