Is your arts organization doing real community engagement work?

America is grappling with uncertainty amidst great change. Unlike some other sectors, the diverse political makeup of our audience puts us in a unique position to engage hearts and minds in this time of great polarization. We need to resist our own tendencies to slip into fear-based decision making on every level, from our programming, to our marketing and hiring. It has never been more imperative that our sector harness the power of art, and acknowledge its role in advancing social change. 

As the racial demographics shift in our nation, it is crucial to engage in asset-based community engagement and audience development. Cultural differences are strengths, not weaknesses to overcome in our arts and culture sector.

Arts organizations often use the terms “target audience” and “community” interchangeably to our own detriment. Our “target audience” is defined by us and our brand, while a person’s “community” is defined by them. They hold the power in choosing whether or not our organizations are worth their time and money. The key is to align our brands and programs to reflect the communities we are seeking to serve. Our job is to remove our own institutional barriers (ie. the fence in the illustration above) so that communities choose us.

We also use the term “community” loosely without defining what it means to us. Is it a particular racial group? A certain neighborhood, or an affinity group? The truth is, only individuals get to define which communities they belong to, arts organizations don’t.

Demographic data and persona studies only tell you half the story. Take my demographics for example, I’m Asian, I live in a wealthy Seattle neighborhood, and I’m 26. Based on statistics, you would have assumed my income to be almost 400% more than what it is. You wouldn’t have known that I live in a 6 person co-operative house, or that I am a graduate student. Essentially, you would have misrepresented my “community” groups. Therefore, it is important to understand where your data is coming from (ie. Is the data collected geared toward advocacy, development or marketing?)   

Fleisher Art Memorial's strategic community-based community engagement speaks to this. They invested in the simplest, and most effective solution: to ask. That doesn’t mean one-off focus groups. Flesher's staff took to the streets and spoke to everyday people. They began strengthening their presence, and deepening their relationships with the Latinx community. 

We often develop our programs based on what we think communities want, or we look at existing data to drive our strategies. That is perfectly fine provided your data represents the changing demographics of the nation, and is specifically tailored to your mission. If your marketing department is operating independently from your community engagement and education departments, you’re already behind the curve.