I’ve noticed that many arts organizations are including “Community Engagement” sections on their websites and listing engagement activities as if they’re some sort of program offerings or one-off events. One venerable classical music institution says that their education and community engagement programs:
“…offer individuals of all backgrounds an opportunity to develop their relationship with the [organization] and build their ownership of and engagement with orchestral music through high quality, relevant, multi-leveled, and interactive education and community engagement experiences.”
How lucky those little community members must be to have such a high-minded institution offering them this incredible opportunity. (This didn’t come out of a grant application, these people actually published this on their website.)
The thing about engagement that arts organizations don’t get is that it’s not something you talk about or, god forbid, offer to people; it’s what you are. Publishing a list of community engagement programs on your website is like printing a list of interpersonal behaviors on your business card:
Friendly smile √ Firm handshake √ Eye contact √ Warm greeting √ Remembers name √
If someone handed you such a business card, you’d think that person was an idiot. Good interpersonal skills aren’t something you telegraph in printed materials, they’re something you exhibit naturally, or by practice if necessary, in the presence of others. For arts organizations, this translates into being naturally engaging throughout the entire organization as a part of your everyday interaction with the world around you. If you’re not doing it, no amount of promotion will compensate for its absence. And if you are doing it, you won’t need to talk about it on your website.
Sadly, the copy above shows how wide the gap still is between arts organizations’ willingness to do engagement and their ability to be truly engaging.