I ate lunch at a Panda Express the other day. When I walked in the door, a young woman behind the counter mumbled something in my direction that I later learned was, “Welcome to Panda.” I didn’t know what she’d said or whom she was talking to, but somebody else came in right behind me and he got the same greeting. As it turned out this gal muttered the same thing to everyone who walked through the door. It was incredibly creepy.
I can’t say what the executives at Panda Restaurant Group, Inc. were thinking when they asked their employees to behave in such a manner, but I’m guessing it was part of an effort to engage with customers. Presumably, this young woman was trying to connect with me personally by saying something she would never say in real life and then repeating it verbatim to everyone else who entered the restaurant. How embarrassing it must be to work there, I thought, and how out of touch those corporate executives must be to think that this was effective policy.
I mentioned this to a friend who’s a regional manager for a huge retail chain and he told me that engagement is as big a fad in the corporate world as it is in the cultural community. Every week, he said, another directive comes down the pike that’s aimed at turning hourly wage earners into more effusive brand ambassadors. “I can’t make my employees do most of this stuff. It’s bullshit dreamed up by MBAs who don’t have a clue who these people are or what it’s like trying to turn them into Disney employees overnight. Engagement is something you are, not something you do just because some genius at corporate sent an email.”
As an arts professional who’s been following the engagement conversation closely, I couldn’t help thinking that my friend’s wisdom might have some resonance in the cultural sector where engagement has moved from being something art pros just talk about (like so many other fads) to something that funders are actively asking grant recipients to do. Asking people to engage is a great idea in theory, but being genuinely engaging may have a lot more to do with the fundamental nature of an organization than with any new criteria the Underbridge Foundation decides to put in its grant application.
Are arts organizations naturally inclined to engage? Some smaller community organizations certainly are, but a lot of mid-size and larger institutions simply aren’t. In my experience, the professionals who run arts organizations are very much “behind-the-scenes” sorts of people who don’t move beyond their insider’s social milieu to engage meaningfully with outsiders. In general, arts professionals tend to respect the walls, doors and prosceniums that separate them from the ordinary folks who visit their venues, and they aren’t naturally inclined to reach out with warm, humble curiosity in an effort to interact meaningfully and generously with the less well-initiated folks who reside outside the bubble.
There’s nothing wrong with being behind-the-scenes people in an industry that needs to have plenty of good people working behind the scenes. We put on shows. We impress. We make magic. And part of the appeal of that magic may very well be the mysterious things that a select group of arts insiders do out of sight of ordinary audiences. The Wizard of Oz wouldn’t have been the Wizard of Oz if everybody knew what was happening behind that curtain.
But a significant problem arises when elite academics, funders and policy pros begin asking people who’ve spent their entire lives behind the curtain to start engaging with ordinary audience members – or else. There are a lot of veteran arts pros, especially in leadership ranks, who are no more inclined to interact personally with the churning outermost fringes of their community support systems than shy high school girls are to shout heartfelt greetings at fast food customers. Asking these folks to save their organizations by relating to regular folks outside the bubble is like asking them to suddenly become different people, and that’s just not going to happen. If arts leaders and the organizations they run were naturally predisposed to engage, they’d be doing it already.
Engagement is not a new department, program, service initiative or tag line, it’s something that must be an honest, organic extension of who and what we are. Walt Disney built an empire that was infused from the outset with his personal impulse to make meaningful connections with ordinary people. If Disney employees are naturally effusive brand ambassadors, it’s because they learn it the day they arrive on the job and they live it every day they work for the company.
Is engagement a good idea? Yes. Definitely. I’ve been an audience engager my whole life and I’ve seen the astonishing things that can happen when arts organizations step outside their comfort zones to learn from and appeal to non-traditional audiences. Will organizations that don’t have engagement built into their cultural DNA be able to do it? That remains to be seen. Virtually all of the engagement work I’ve done was peripheral to the missions of the organizations I worked for and too far beneath the leaders’ social status to be of any personal or even professional interest to them. None of it was an outgrowth of a fundamental organizational impulse to make meaningful, long-term connections with audiences.
I know from experience that engagement can’t be superimposed on an organization that doesn’t have engaging leadership and isn’t guided by a mission to engage. Elite policy pros who hope to influence meaningful change might do well to avoid trying to initiate tactical-level behaviors and focus instead on nurturing engagement-oriented leaders who are personally committed to making engagement an integral part of their organizational missions.
We’re not selling orange chicken and fried rice. We can’t afford to have engagement become an artificial affectation that customers must endure as they endeavor (if they endeavor) to buy what we’re trying to sell.