Are We Doing Enough? Part 1

Tough Questions We Get Asked About Engagement Practices and Programming in the Arts

Ted Russell
Jan 19, 2016 · 12 min read
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Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History: July 2015 FREE First Friday | Photo: Celia Fong

Engagement is a buzzword in the arts field, there’s no way around it. There are a multitude of perspectives about what defines engagement, exactly who we’re engaging, how to engage people authentically and productively, and why it matters at all. The James Irvine Foundation gathered our first group of New California Arts Fund grantee-partners in early 2014 to support them as they move arts engagement to the core of who they are and what they do.

In the two years since, this initial group of arts organizations has tried and explored and succeeded and failed and learned about the many tools and practices they need to become more resilient organizations, to better reflect California’s changing population, and to uphold their value to their community. Many of these arts organizations were already moving engagement to their core even before we began funding them, and the same is true for the six new arts organizations who joined the New California Arts Fund last year (more from them soon). They don’t have all the answers, but they’ve been asked a lot of questions along the way — from board members and community partners, from funders and audience members, from colleagues and donors. These are just a few of the questions they’ve wrestled with in their journey.

This is the first in a series of stories we’re hosting on Medium to share what the arts field is learning from experimenting with new forms of engagement with new audiences. Instead of releasing a report or hosting a symposium, we want to open up more dialogue (and join the conversations already in progress) about the real struggles arts organizations are facing and how a few of them have attempted to transform their own organizations and their communities. Future stories will focus on the how, for now, we begin with the what and the why.

– Ted Russell, The James Irvine Foundation

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1. Are some communities more important to engage than others?


Michael Garcés, Cornerstone Theater Company

Cornerstone is, at our core, an ensemble of artists with a shared commitment to the community-engaged practice of theatre. We make our central decisions, including which communities to collaborate with, based on our curiosity — aesthetic and civic. It’s an idiosyncratic, consensus-based process and comes out of the passions of the people who make up our ensemble.

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We have tended to work in cycles of plays developed to explore an overarching theme such as faith or hunger. During the course of a cycle we engage the community through issues in which we are interested, seeking people who are impacted or activated by the topic (say, addiction, urban farms or immigration and documentation). The choice of community often indicates an overt social and political stance, but it’s not necessarily reflected in the work. The work itself comes out of a dialogue with the people we are engaging, and is unpredictable in outcome (for example, we might be working in the skid row neighborhood of Los Angeles to explore hunger and homelessness, and community members might want to tell a story about falling in love). We’re interested in urban and rural geography-based communities. We’ll occasionally begin a process out of a somewhat more frivolous impulse, such as engaging with twenty-year-olds to celebrate our 20th anniversary.

It’s hard to define “our” community, as we work with many of a wide variety. We are not embedded in a given community on an ongoing, consistent basis. We have tended to work from an outsider perspective, collaborating with people who are deeply engaged with their communities, hoping that we bring a different perspective and expertise in theatrical practice to the table. We rely on our collaborators for their knowledge of their world, their authenticity of voice, and their passionate connection.

Are some communities more important than others? Some communities seem to be privileged in the cultural dialogue, in the mainstream media, and on our stages nationwide, and we tend to focus on communities that are not, be that due to race, economic status, religion, geography, etc. Rather than consider one community (or person) more or less important, we’d like to see equity for all communities.

We are averse to drawing lines, instead, we try to find the factors that define our collaborating community organically through our engagement and dialogue with those people. This is not without a great deal of deep and sometimes difficult and even contentious conversation among community members, and presents challenges for our artists. But the definition of any given community is a changeable and living thing, and is not ours to assert. That said, it is important to define those factors, or lines if you will, as limits help us determine the scope of participation on a given project, and are important in terms of capacity and artistic integrity. It is an ongoing challenge each time we undertake a project.

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2. Will these new “engaged audiences” detract from the experience of our current audience members?


Nina Simon, Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History

No. Or if they do, that should lead to some frank conversations about who gets to exclude whom from the art experience you offer.

We see our museum as a restaurant with a very big menu. You don’t boycott a restaurant because there’s something on the menu that’s not for you. If you have some things on the menu you love, you are satisfied.

A lot of this comes down to prioritizing “and” over “or.” Diversifying experiences is not a zero-sum game. As we include more people in our programming, we implicitly ask them to respect the reality that there are multiple ways of experiencing and appreciating the museum. No one has an exclusive claim to the museum nor the “right” way to engage with it. No form of participation is trivial. Our greatest success stories are visitors who use the museum at different times for different reasons — those for whom the MAH becomes part of the way they work, play, learn, and socialize.

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I’ve always been struck by the difference between how new and existing audiences react to diversification of offerings. I’ve never had a new participant, someone you might call “engaged,” complain about offerings at the museum that don’t suit their sensibilities. No young adult has ever come up to me at a lively festival and railed against the existence of quiet Thursday afternoons in the exhibitions. And yet existing audiences, especially those who feel an ownership stake in the institution, can sometimes appear mortally wounded by programming that happens at times they don’t attend, in spaces they don’t visit.

This doesn’t make insiders bad people. As people become insiders, they often shift from feeling like a place has something for them to them feeling like they own it or have some claim to it. This has positive effects: people are more invested in that place, art form, project, or thing. But it also has negative effects: people feel more entitled to define what the thing is and who it is for.

Newcomers don’t feel any sense of entitlement. Most outsiders are disinterested and uninvolved. When you start to involve them, you create a spark of possibility. Maybe there is something for them here.
As you invite in newcomers, you have to manage the expectations of insiders. Cultivate their open-heartedness. Encourage them to invite new people into the place they already love.

But you can’t focus too much attention on insiders. You will always hear from insiders: the content they like, the format they prefer. You will not hear from people who are not yet engaged. You have to go out and find them. Learn about their expectations and strengths and fears. Honor their preferences as you honor those of your insiders. Maybe these newcomers prefer programming later at night, or want content in another language. Start making changes to welcome them in. Be forewarned: if these changes threaten insiders’ experience, some may revolt.

They may say you are dumbing it down, screwing it up, throwing the baby out with the bathwater. But you’re not doing those things. You are opening up your work to more people. You are making something that is valuable to insiders valuable to more people. And hopefully, some of them will become insiders, too.


Alison Levinson, Pacific Symphony

Anecdotally, we have found that a more diverse audience in and of itself is not a negative thing in the eyes of many of our current patrons, so long as the core product — the classical music canon and experience they know and love — doesn’t change.

Our current audiences have been supportive of our initiatives to engage the Chinese communities in Orange County. In addition to our community and artistic engagement work outside of the concert hall, we’ve incorporated Chinese guest artists and guest conductors into our season, as well as into our repertoire. However, the vast majority of our repertoire remains Western classical music; if we were to incorporate more Eastern music, it may elicit a different response from current audiences.

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A segment of our current audience tends to be more skeptical of new engagement practices and variances in behavior outside of the traditional norms of classical music. For example, video in the concert hall, talking from the stage, new music — even how people dress, clapping in between movements, taking photos or video, or making any noise at all. There’s a sentiment among some that new engagement practices detract from the purity of the sonic musical experience — i.e. how classical music has traditionally been presented and consumed.

We have spent a lot of time in board and staff meetings talking about the data and research that show us that audiences for classical music are declining. As a Symphony, we know that we have to change in order to remain relevant to our community and the changing demographics of Orange County. While we strive to honor the traditional format and canon of classical music, we must simultaneously diversify our offerings to be in tune with our community, and in turn, create experiences that engage a broader audience with classical music. It is this constant attentiveness to our community and the realities of the changing world in which we live that will keep us relevant and viable for years to come.

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3. What makes us think audiences want to engage?


Josephine Ramirez, The James Irvine Foundation

Contrary to what traditional attendance figures reflect, people are actually deeply interested in the arts.

For many years, arts nonprofits have been tracking a downward trend in arts attendance. A report we commissioned last year, The Cultural Lives of Californians, looks beyond the typical events used as benchmarks to reflect traditional measures of participation, and reveals a seemingly contradictory takeaway: The new narrative is not about decline! Californians actually have a deep interest in the arts and lead active cultural lives. People want to engage, in artmaking and arts-learning in particular. Emerging technologies, expectations and cultural norms mean art is happening in new places and ways.

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At the same time, this updated narrative comes with elements of urgency for the nonprofit arts sector — for example, California’s largest and growing demographic groups do report lower overall arts participation and they are less likely to attend benchmark arts events, as do lower income groups (a finding established in this report’s earlier companion, A Closer Look at Arts Engagement in California).

A recent similar report from the NEA, When Going Gets Tough: Barriers and Motivations Affecting Arts Attendance, hones in on the 13% (roughly 30 million Americans) who are described as audiences in waiting — people who would have gone to a specific event in the last year if not for a barrier they identified. These audiences want to engage, so how might we sway them?

The challenge for nonprofits is how to adapt both how they program and how they operate in order to be responsive, particularly to the appetite for artmaking and arts-learning. Our New California Arts Fund grantee-partners are modeling the “heavy lift” that many organizations will have to face eventually: rethinking their assumptions as organizations and questioning the systems currently in place, all with the intention of focusing on how to change so that they can engage what California looks like now and into the future.

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4. Should artists be responsible for creating art for the purpose of engaging communities?


Deborah Cullinan, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

One could argue that all art that is created for public consumption is art that is made for the purpose of engaging people, engaging communities. To me, engagement has to be thought of more broadly than what often comes to mind — participatory activities, public programs, workshops. Rather, engagement is the myriad of ways that a work of art of any kind can spark people and communities along a spectrum from inspiration, to dialogue, to creativity, to collective action.

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An artist creates in the open throughout the YBCA: Work in Progress exhibit | Photo: Jordan Fugate

The question, depending on how you read it, implies that this is a responsibility that either is not typically asked of artists or should not be asked of artists. If you think of it a little differently, the question might be in what ways do and should we ask artists to create art for the purpose of engaging communities and what are the various ways we can engage communities in our organizations and in their neighborhoods, their gathering places, their lives.

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5. As we think about engagement, do we start with a more diverse audience, staff, board, artists, or art works?


Kelly McKinley & Lori Fogarty, Oakland Museum of California

View Kelly and Lori’s response, and see some highlights below.

“It’s hard to sustain over the long term if you don’t have a staff that represents the full diversity of your community.”

“You really have to think about building board capacity, staff capacity, and not just focus on the programming.”

“Artists are engaged in this work as well, thinking about how to connect with their community and how to have social impact, in some ways we can take our cue from the artists.”


Deborah Cullinan, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

To realize our potential, we must expand our definitions of arts participation and set our sights higher than counting the number of people who walk through our doors. Our “diversity and inclusion” efforts must move beyond representation and toward massive change. Perhaps, the question is not whether we should focus on diversifying audience, staff, board, artists or art works. The question is, simply, how willing are we to change from the inside out?

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At YBCA, our mission is to generate culture that moves people. We believe that culture — stories, traditions, and values — enable us to act with imagination and creativity, to act politically and with conviction. Indeed, culture precedes change. The great societal strides have inevitably sparked from cultural shift. To achieve the kind of inspired, equitable and bold strides that are necessary today, we need more and different kinds of people accessing, engaging in, influencing and defining the cultural movement.

Arts organizations of all kinds are poised to be leaders and connectors in their communities. They can be beacons for equitable and inclusive culture. Expanding our definitions of who participates, how they participate, and where participation can happen will inevitably, and authentically, result in changes throughout an organization from its leadership to its program to its community of stakeholders.

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Cornerstone Theater Company: dtLA Arts District Opening Night Ritual | Photo: Cornerstone Theater Company

What tough questions are you struggling to answer in your own engagement work?

Log in to Medium to respond below.

This is the first in a series of stories on Medium exploring how arts organizations are adapting to reflect the changing demographics of California, engage with their communities, and become more resilient organizations.

✉︎ Follow this publication and our next story will land in your email inbox.

Special thanks to the Irvine Foundation’s New California Arts grantee-partners: Bowers Museum, California Shakespeare Theater, Cornerstone Theater Company, Ford Theatres, MACLA, Oakland Museum, Pacific Symphony, Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History, The Music Center, and YBCA.

If you would like to contribute to future stories, please email us at communications@irvine.org.

Continue to part 2:

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Ted Russell

Written by

Senior Program Officer for the Arts at the James Irvine Foundation since December 2005.

NEW FACES | NEW SPACES

Inspiring stories and practical advice about embedding art in our communities and community in our organizations.

Ted Russell

Written by

Senior Program Officer for the Arts at the James Irvine Foundation since December 2005.

NEW FACES | NEW SPACES

Inspiring stories and practical advice about embedding art in our communities and community in our organizations.

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