5 Field Leaders Respond to 1 More Tough Question About Engagement Practices and Programming in the Arts

Ted Russell
Feb 1, 2016 · 12 min read
2015 Market Street Prototyping Festival (Presented by YBCA and San Francisco Planning Department) | Photo: San Francisco Planning Department

We could have left our conversation at the first ten questions and responses from Are We Doing Enough? Part 1 and Are We Doing Enough? Part 2 and certainly would have more than enough to discuss and debate with you. But I, and my colleagues at the Irvine Foundation, deeply value bringing in divergent points of view, inviting “outsiders” (a.k.a. highly respected leaders in our field) into our conversations with grantee-partners, and continuously reflecting on how we might approach an issue differently. In that spirit of inclusive, thought-provoking dialogue, we asked five field leaders to help us see what else we should consider in the search of a sustainable and vibrant future of the arts.

— Ted Russell, The James Irvine Foundation

If you missed the beginning of this conversation, start here…

11. Is there an issue in the arts field that is more urgent than engagement?

Diane Ragsdale, Jumper

I’m inclined to say “yes.”

First, if we were to drill down to the discipline level, we would emerge with at least a handful of “most important” issues — gender parity and ethnic diversity, the fragility and loss of midsized companies, and labor issues, for instance. Even among institutionalized philanthropies — which spend considerable time seeking to identify the most important issues at the sector level — there would be diverse responses to the question. The Irvine Foundation’s decision to focus on engagement reflects its organizational values and priorities as much as any objective determination of the most important issue across the arts field.

Second, engagement may be impossible to tackle head-on as it is a byproduct of a considerable number of factors, many of which are outside of the control of arts organizations. I’m skeptical that increasing engagement is a goal that the arts field (particularly at the organizational level) can pursue directly.

Third, broad public engagement is not the primary purpose of all arts organizations, nor should it be. Some in the arts field are first and foremost concerned with preservation, or with the development of artists, art forms, and works. Engagement (or even attention), to the extent that it is a goal at all, is often of secondary importance or focused on gatekeepers, artists, and other members of the cultural elite. This may be an uneasy truth when considered within the frame of a foundation whose primary goal is to advance democracy, but it is the nature of art worlds.

James Turrell’s Roden Crater

Consider James Turrell’s Roden Crater — an audacious work of art that was begun decades ago and is still not completed. While it would be brilliant if millions of people were able to travel to Arizona in order to experience Roden Crater, I would argue that what matters more is whether the idea of Roden Crater is able to be pursued. What matters is whether we still live in a society in which it is possible for diverse artistic ideas to be realized, regardless of their utility today or in the future.

I’m not sure we do.

Jeanette Winterson writes,

“Art is a different value system. … We sense there is more to life than the material world can provide, and art is a clue, an intimation, at its best, a transformation. We don’t need to believe in it, but we can experience it. The experience suggests that the monolith of corporate culture is only a partial reality. This is important information, and art provides it.”

While lack of meaningful engagement in the arts is indeed troubling, I would offer that a larger problem is that the nonprofit, professional arts have become, by-and-large, as commodified, homogeneous, transactional, and subject to market forces as every other aspect of American society. From where I sit, the most important issue in the arts field these days may be that the different value system that art represents no longer seems to be widely recognized or upheld — by society-at-large, or even within the arts field itself.

Clay Lord, Americans for the Arts

I guess I agree with the premise that there’s nothing more urgent than the question of engagement for the arts and culture field. But if I’m being honest, I’m having a bit of trouble with vocabulary these days, and the emptiness that terms take on when they become a la mode. I think “engagement” without context can end up meaning all sorts of presumptive things, and that it’s important to define some parameters.

I would argue that almost everyone in America engages with arts and culture. For a country that is so generally apathetic to public support for arts and culture, we are steeped in it. In Europe, strong cultural policies and relatively monolithic understandings of what “arts,” “culture,” and “heritage” mean pervade and create collective identities.

In contrast, in the US, the relevance of balalaika to Russian immigrants in Fairfax County, VA sits alongside ExhibitBE, a complex, hip hop and graffiti-infused story of an African-American community in New Orleans. Both nurture and restore deep heritage connections for a specific community. The American cultural identity is an exquisitely fragmented one, and in that context, engagement, relevance, arts, culture — all of it is up for grabs.

Where the urgency comes in, I think, is in two places.

The first urgency is to develop a public will that acknowledges the relevance of culture in day-to-day life so that you, as an individual, will ultimately support the existence of arts and culture in your community, whether that’s through advocacy, patronage, or the act of making.

This is engagement freely experienced.

The second urgency is to strengthen our producing and presenting system. This ties to money, which can mean maintaining happy patrons, which can run counter to the first urgency, even as it creates a deep engagement of the narrow slice of those who already care.

This is engagement strapped with the place, time, and medium.

Between them is the constant conundrum of the arts in America. How do we foster a creative class that can make their living as a creative class, inside an imperfect structure that nevertheless has allowed for a vast proliferation of professional artistic product over the last 75 years? How do we create broad opportunity for daily art in American life when that doesn’t pay the bills?

When those two urgencies come into conflict, how do we respond?

Vu Le, Nonprofit with Balls

So often in the nonprofit sector, “engagement” just means finding a way to be able to check the boxes and feel like we’ve done our part with diversity and inclusion. What ends up happening is that people who are being “engaged” get asked to do stuff for free, their feedback then ignored because it doesn’t “align” with whatever agenda has been set, and they are basically just tokenized. Honestly, many people of color that I talk to are sick and tired of being “engaged.”

If we want authentic engagement, then we have to look beyond just superficial gestures and discuss issues of equity, resources, and systems. So often, it is the bigger organizations not led by communities of color that get paid to engage communities of color. There is something disconcerting about that.

If we are not willing to move resources, change long-held beliefs and practices, and take seriously the feedback given by the communities we are trying to engage, it is often not just pointless, but possibly harmful. Offering discount tickets to attract diversity in the audience, for example, might lead to diversity in the short run, but we also need to look at what kind of art are we creating, does it respond to cultures and backgrounds of the people in our neighborhoods, are we casting diverse actors and showcasing diverse artists, are our outreach strategies thoughtful, and are we putting enough funding into the budget to do it right and not just asking people to provide free translation.

Authentic engagement is critical. Our population is becoming more diverse. To not take diversity and inclusion into consideration is to risk becoming irrelevant. Asking if anything is more important than engagement might be like asking “what’s more important, air or water?” All of the elements have to combine together in the right way at the right time — funding, infrastructure, public interest, the messages we are trying to convey — in order for any project to succeed.

Karen Mack, LA Commons

As I view the world around me, I see alarming signs that Americans at every level of society are detached from their fellow citizens. It’s not just the brutality of those sworn to protect and serve that I find disturbing, for the violence of our “justice” system, particularly against those at the fringes, is longstanding. More significantly for me are the homeless encampments, brightly colored tents lining sidewalk after sidewalk, visible reminders that our leaders are not fully engaged, nor are we, in declining to decry the disgraceful beginnings of favelas in downtown Los Angeles.

I can’t not mention those who, more than daily this year, have killed and maimed innocents based on a misguided cause or derangement, and the impotence of those in power to make meaningful policy. Clearly, our leaders need to be led.

Photo: LA Commons

Thus, most URGENT(!) for the arts, and every other sector, is to inspire active citizenry. Given the dire state in which we find our “democracy,” increasing citizen engagement is a must if we are to survive as a nation, and as a planet. We can’t afford to leave governance to a privileged few.

Art has a unique power to engage. Let’s use it to enable people to express themselves and connect to the policymaking process. To do this effectively more often than not requires artists and arts organizations to partner with established institutions expert at getting people involved in the civic process.

Unfortunately, the capacity of artists and arts organizations is often limited in communities populated by those whose voices are least heard. So also essential is building the ability of the creative sector in these marginalized places to enable their participation as full partners in implementing large scale arts and civic engagement efforts. The other benefit is that creative involvement is bound to foster creative solutions from unexplored vantage points, increasing access to fresh thinking!

At LA Commons, we are engaged in social change efforts in the heart of South LA bridging experienced and very young artists with our non-arts partners to transform community stories into dynamic visual narratives that inspire civic engagement. These initiatives result in young people ready to take on tough challenges in their neighborhoods. One of our youth participants, Rodman Mejia, summed up his experience this way,

“We want people to know that we are not just a bunch of young people who got together to paint, but that we are working for the health of our communities and want to send a message of hope to signify change for better health that our generation wants to be a part of making in our community.”

If we get out of this mess we are in, it will be because young creatives decide to take the initiative, bringing their heart and ingenuity to leading us all in a new direction.

Teresa Eyring, Theatre Communications Group

When Margo Jones launched Theatre ’47 in 1947 in Dallas, she articulated what was then an ambitious dream: that one day there would be 30 not-for-profit theatres in operation across the U.S. The resident theatre movement, now six decades old, was born and has since brought about a national theatre groundswell consisting of hundreds of professional theatre organizations and hundreds of thousands of practitioners. Margo got a lot more than she bargained for. If she were alive today, I think she would be pleased.

In the early years of our movement, theatre makers were sorting out the basics of running their organizations. Audience and community engagement were key challenges from day one. It wasn’t always easy to get people in to experience the work, and classics and well-known titles were the more popular fare. When Danny Newman introduced subscription through his book Subscribe Now, it helped eliminate some of the uncertainty about whether or not there would be an audience for a particular project. Its premise was that community members needed to feel a sense of engagement and loyalty to an organization and the artists within it, and commit to an entire season of work without knowing exactly what it would be. It also paved the way for an increasing number of new plays to be developed and produced. Subscription became theatres’ version of community supported agriculture; it was a game-changer at the time.

Today, we have a national theatre field that is generating new work and producing the classics, innovating how it engages with audiences and communities, engaging in education and global cultural exchange, and working to be civically engaged.

We’re also at a moment where the most crucial issue has to do with how we collectively care for the shared ecosystem we have created. We are a highly interdependent field, and the choices made inside every theatre ripple out for the benefit of the rest. The play commissioned by one theatre goes on to be further developed and produced in others. The fundraiser who gains early experience in one organization goes on to senior leadership in another. The actors who are part of one local theatre community, even if associated primarily with one institution, often travel among multiple venues and contexts. The business practices one organization uses are often adopted by another. We all share in the cultivation of artists, audiences, donors, and more.

And yet, for all of its strengths, our theatre system has grown up replicating some of the structural weaknesses that exist in the larger society, whether having to do with income inequality that impacts artists or the existence of a glass ceiling for women and people of color.

At TCG, an ecosystem-wide issue we’re taking leadership on is building greater equity, diversity, and inclusion in the theatre field. In practice, this takes the form of a variety of initiatives including our Equity, Diversity & Inclusion Institute. The inaugural Institute, a three-year cohort of 21 resident theatres, will come to a close just as a second cohort launches in 2016. These theatres are deeply committed to building a more diverse and equitable theatre field, starting with their own organizations. They are developing action plans to create more diverse and inclusive practices with respect to boards, staffs, the artistic work, and the audience. Our goal is to have 200 or more theatres complete the Institute in the coming decade.

We believe this, along with many other programs, will lead to systemic change. We hope to lead the charge for other sectors, bringing about a better world for theatre and a better world because of theatre.

Photo: LA Commons

What issue do you think is the most urgent to address in the arts field?

Log in to Medium to respond below.

This is the third 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, where we’ll be looking at how to cultivate and track long-term relationships with audiences and partners.

Special thanks to our voices from the wider field: Americans for the Arts, Jumper, LA Commons, Nonprofit With Balls, Theatre Communications Group.

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.


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.

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