Thursday, August 13, 2015

Engagement - Busting Out All Over

This excerpt is from my regular column, Culture & Kibbitz at The Clyde Fitch Report. You can read the entire post here.

Engagement is breaking out all over -- audience engagement : community engagement : engaging audiences : arts engagement -- and I am as guilty as the next person at promoting this. For years, I have proposed that arts organizations will have a diminished future unless they find a way to solidly engage with their communities. As a result of ongoing technological and demographic changes the relationship between artists and arts organizations, and the audiences for their work, is altered resulting in a changed value proposition that is, in many cases, less relevant. This leaves our arts organizations, generally, to struggle with diminishing audiences and less stability as the connection between the arts consumer and those offering the arts has frayed. In order to re-establish a solid connection, organizations and artists need to understand their engagement with their community and with their audience.

To be successful, an organization has to look at what it is doing in the context of a shifted landscape and be willing to change, rather than just look to find a different way to do what it has always done. It is a much tougher job now and only those that actually engage and use the information they learn will be able to sustain a future.

Whereas in the past, due to the limited ability to create and see art, arts organizations provided the only vehicle for engagement for most people, now that making art is universally accessible, perhaps organizations no longer need fulfill that role. To appreciate the depths of this shift on their business environment, arts organizations need only look at the commercial sphere. There, companies that create and distribute content have seen their business model collapse or become severely threatened (newspapers, book publishers, music producers, movies) and businesses providing platforms for participation have reached stratospheric valuations (Facebook, Instagram, YouTube).

When looked at in total, to deliver maximum value to its constituents, any organization that wishes to remain viable needs to carefully consider its community engagement and its audience engagement and, if necessary, its audience building in developing a strategy to deal with the increased complexity of the cultural environment today. As non-profits, we have a responsibility to deliver value to our communities and audiences and the pathway to ensuring we are maximally fulfilling that responsibility is to regularly assess our engagement with our community and audience.

In an earlier time, we arts leaders likely had a clearer pathway to understand our engagement with our communities and audience, and how to deliver the value they expected from us. Today, in our tumultuous continually evolving and diverse environment, to fulfill our mission to deliver maximum value, we must pursue different pathways to achieve that goal. Success will rely on a careful and clear understanding of the strategic imperatives and goals we set for ourselves. This can only be fully done if we set those goals and imperatives while keeping the close relation between audience engagement, community engagement, and audience building in mind, but considering them each distinct areas, and by not conflating them into a single question for consideration.