Are We Doing Enough? Part 2

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

Ted Russell
Jan 25, 2016 · 11 min read
Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History: Teen Nite “What the Cruz?!”| Photo: Courtney Lemon

6. What purpose do these “engagement events” serve if people don’t then start showing up at the museum?

Kelly McKinley & Lori Fogarty, Oakland Museum of California

7. What’s the value of offering free programming and how do you make it sustainable?

Ming Ng, The Music Center/Performing Arts Center of Los Angeles County

Public programming is about delivering meaningful arts experiences. Those experiences have intrinsic value, regardless of their price point. How do we know that a program is meaningful and is hitting all the right buttons? Ask the people themselves. They may report that they learned or experienced something new about the arts (aesthetic growth), valued the opportunity to be with others who are different to or similar as them (bridging/bonding), or proud that this cultural happening is occurring in their city (civic pride).

8. If we (only) give audiences what they want, will they miss out on what (we think) they need?

Heather Rigby, Ford Theatres

Our programming model at the Ford, in which we partner with local producers and arts organizations, allows us to source our season from local communities and present arts experiences that are relevant to a broad cross-section of Los Angeles. The Ford Theatres is a cultural resource for the entire County of Los Angeles; the region is so big and its population so diverse that we can’t assume to know what audiences “need.” We rely on those partners to be interpreters, intermediators, and connectors to local communities and we cultivate audiences together.

9. Should every performance or visit to our space offer an opportunity for engagement?

Nina Simon, Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History

Depends on your definition of engagement. If you define engagement as “a feeling of genuine involvement,” then yes. If you define engagement as painting, or talking to strangers, or singing in the choir, then no.

Emily Mahon, Bowers Museum

10. Are culturally and racially-specific arts organizations negatively affected when mainstream arts organizations offer diverse programming?

Anjee Helstrup-Alvarez, MACLA/Movimiento de Arte y Cultura Latino Americana

Changing demographics coupled with the desire for mainstream or traditional arts organizations to better connect with their communities, results in the need for more relevant, diverse programming. We’d neversuggest that traditional arts organizations are negatively affected by the existence of organizations grounded in specific racial, ethnic or cultural communities, so is the question itself already biased? There are ways to think about the relationship between culturally-specific and mainstream arts organizations as part of an ecosystem where everyone can benefit if equity is the goal.

Community engagement in action at a recent MACLA exhibit. | Photo: Damian Kelly

Tierra Allen, Lisa Evans, & Rebecca Novick, California Shakespeare Theater

Vu Le, author of the always astute “Non-profits with Balls,” called out “trickle-down engagement” in the field last year: This is when we bypass the people who are most affected by issues, engage and fund larger organizations to tackle these issues, and hope that miraculously the people most affected will help out in the effort, usually for free.

  • Share our resources: When funders are hesitant to invest in organizations already rooted in communities of color (usually due to small budgets or lack of institutional support), it creates a self-fulfilling prophecy that leaves this work unfunded. We must find ways to share resources with these artists and organizations. When we ask them to contribute to our work, we need to pay them: a substantial portion of our budget goes to supporting artists, staff time at collaborating organizations, residency participants, and artist-led projects.
  • Take up less space: When we do share resources with a community-based project, or co-present work with culturally specific groups, we need to make sure we don’t receive outsized credit that renders our collaborators invisible. When we’re invited to represent this work publicly, we should extend those invitations to our collaborators on the frontlines of the work and allow them to speak for themselves.
  • Examine who’s at the table, what the table is, and how invitations happen: Don’t come to potential partnerships with all the answers (or even all the questions). If we alone are deciding whom we invite to collaborate and what the focus and structure of that collaboration is, we’re dictating too much of the work. We need to be a platform for diverse ways of working, rather than setting a table where we control the menu and the guest list.
  • Understand our privilege and work to change the system we are benefiting from: Our access to funding opportunities grants a standing with funders and donors that we should use to promote the work of community-based organizations and artists of color. We must also call out our peer institutions when we observe problematic practices: a key part of this work is engaging internally and nationally in efforts around diversity, inclusion and equity in the field.
Friday Nights at OMCA | Photo: Alessandra Mello

How do you respond to tough questions in your own engagement work?

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This is the second 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.


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.


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