We are no longer accepting applications.
The Exploring Engagement Fund supports arts organizations with innovative ideas and a readiness to take bold steps that will engage new and diverse populations.
It funds experiments with engagement approaches that may be untried and unfamiliar, and profiles new projects that engage Californians in the arts. As of March 30, 2016, we are no longer accepting applications.
Exploring Engagement Fund projects explore at least two of the three engagement pathways: Who, How, and Where. The projects are completely new or an experiment that takes a different approach with an existing project or practice. The projects aim to engage new and diverse populations by adding active participation opportunities for participants and/or incorporating the use of nontraditional arts spaces.
We aim to increase engagement by low-income or ethnically diverse populations that have been historically underserved by arts nonprofits.
We aim to expand the ways Californians engage in the arts as active participants, by making or practicing art. This could include the use of digital technology to produce or curate art.
We aim to expand the use of diverse, nontraditional spaces for arts engagement, especially in regions with few arts-specific venues.
This report, drawn from an assessment by independent consulting firm Harder+Company Community Research in close partnership with consultant Diane Espaldon, distills lessons from the early implementation of Exploring Engagement Fund projects. It offers seven lessons, as well as practical tips that can benefit arts organizations working to engage new and diverse participants.
To help nonprofits understand the variety of Californians engaged in arts experiences, the Capturing Information on Arts Participants toolkit outlines five key steps. Each is defined and supported with practical information; together these steps form a framework for planning and implementing information-gathering techniques.
Exploring Engagement Fund Grantees Offer Advice From the Field
Since 2012, the Exploring Engagement Fund has supported over 100 projects that experiment with innovative approaches to engage new and diverse Californians in the arts. As part of our ongoing interest to share what our grantees have learned, we gathered feedback about how they are finding ways to engage new and diverse populations.
Given all this rich information, we created a tool to share highlights with the field. The advice below comes directly from Exploring Engagement Fund grantees, and is sorted by themes from our Emerging Lessons and Implications report that offers seven lessons and practical tips that can benefit arts organizations.
We’d also like to hear your advice for organizations seeking to engage new and diverse audiences and participants in the arts. Please feel free to use the comments section at the bottom of this blog or to share your tips on Twitter or Facebook using #EEFtip.
Be realistic about what can be accomplished with unprecedented projects and build in time to do some of ground/prep work in addition to implementation, as well as contingency planning and funds for the inevitable challenges that are unanticipated (i.e., community connections, marketing). Have a longer time period in each place/community and also more preparation time in all locations. It is hard whenever doing a grant proposal since you want to do something unique. Do not be too ambitions but be sure to build in the time and budget.Los Angeles County Museum of Art
Not surprisingly, initial forays into building stronger relationships – even with longtime community partners – was met with skepticism, hesitation, and distrust. This was further amplified with community groups who expressed anger that we were out of touch with the community and “hadn’t been around.” We learned some valuable lessons. In particular, we learned to take the process slowly and approach each conversation as an opportunity to get to know one another rather than to have an agenda that is too specific. This approach allows relationships to develop naturally over several meetings.Oakland Museum of California
It takes time to develop a rapport, trust, and an understanding of the people you’re trying to serve.Counterpulse
In every neighborhood there are so many different people and organizations. It is important to do your homework and see what art opportunities are already happening there and see how your work can connect with some existing event and activities and agreed upon needs. Connect to it a bigger community priority or issue.LA Commons
What’s important about all these programs that we administer is that we always have to keep reminding ourselves that no two groups are the same and the outcomes will be different from one place to the other and it might just be a little different than the other.California Indian Basketweavers Association
How much time every step would take was more than we had figured. Working with different venues, playing phone tag, every aspect of it took more time.Center for the Study of Political Graphics
Talk to the artists and other groups/organizations who have done this kind of work before to hear how they did it. Open your mind to other options and see what fits for you. What resources do you have that are comparable? Set the limits and needs. It will help prevent you from accidentally overlooking additional overhead expenses.Other Minds
Give the people some control over the project. Take suggestions and ideas from people – be open. It helps with developing buy-in and lets them feel like stakeholders. Don’t do it at them but with them. Then it unfolds as you go.24th Street Theatre
Our performances were paired with existing holiday events on sites. These events also included free meals for residents, which encouraged attendance and allowed staff and artists to “break bread” with residents. Residents were given a chance to get to know staff and artists in a familiar context that allowed for trust building. These opportunities for direct contact with residents have also been very moving and meaningful for staff. The staff feels invested in and rewarded by the engagement work.Counterpulse
Community Engagement is key. Project members bring food and share with each other during rehearsals and performances. It is communion and community, intimate and personal. Those who are unable financially to donate to the cause can instead contribute by bringing food or helping to make performer costumes. These contributions display their ownership and commitment to the project. By investing real time into this project, each individual feels that they are a fundamental part of a larger collaborative effort.Los Angeles Opera
We immediately recognized that we needed to collect baseline information about neighborhoods instead of using census data to determine needs, issues, and identity. As a result, we worked with a consultant to develop a series of “snapshots” of each community through digital ethnographies and community conversations. We were interested in learning about these neighborhoods beyond the typical demographic information and delving deeply into community needs, challenges, assets, and values.Oakland Museum of California
You can’t go in with an agenda. You have to meet the participants on honest terms. It’s a lot of listening and reacting to what you’re hearing or what you’re sensing from them. A lot is unspoken. We’re asking them to step outside of their comfort zone to join us in a crazy endeavor that is normal to us but to them is other-worldly. So we tried to bridge that by doing something other worldly for us, like going to a 6am Rotary meeting, to show “we care as much about the world you live in as we're asking you to care about the world we live in.”Shakespeare San Francisco
It has taken time to teach us how to be a collaborator. It’s easy to say “we’re going to collaborate” but it has taken time to learn how to truly teach skills and let things evolve the way that each individual participates. Whatever skill level they’re bringing to it, to bring everybody along. That is definitely something that occurred over time.University of the Pacific
We discovered that our partners have different degrees of readiness for partnering on an arts-centered project. Some are willing to dive in, inviting us almost immediately to program engagement activities with their constituents; others are more hesitant, unsure of what the next steps might be and taking some time to offer access to their members. We have encountered both of these responses. However, we have built trust and understanding in most of these newer relationships, moving to the next stage of our work together.Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
Our intention of forming such an advisory panel was to create a situation in which the members, in time, would take “ownership” of the project and hopefully increase their commitment to making sure the concert would be a success. This “spirit of ownership” concept has definitely taken place and is reflected in individual members assuming responsibility for such tasks as venue selection, event promotion, obtaining participant survey incentives, acquiring public sanitation accommodations, determining food and beverage needs for the event, etc. The establishment of an advisory panel comprised of local business and civic leaders as well as citizens within the community is proving to be an essential component to the success of this arts engagement project.Coachella Valley Symphony
Think about relationships with partners and really listen and be as responsive as possible to what the community needs. This is a challenge for arts organizations who want to focus on what is cool or aesthetic. Be in tune with what community members want. Push people a little outside their boundaries but meet them first.LA Commons
It is all about relationships with the community. Find out if the partnership is a fit. Some partners come into it thinking about it one way and it changes. You need strong, committed partners in the community. It is not about imposing yourself onto others, but about being receptive to the partners’ goals and objectives, and how we can help make them a reality. The partner has to be invested as well. Through this, we build community.Los Angeles Opera
Each partnership relationship is unique. We began each relationship with the question “What can we do to support the work that you already do in your community/neighborhood?” All of the partners were amazed that we did not come in with preconceived recommendations about the work we would do together and instead we wanted to learn more about what each organization was hoping to accomplish. As a result, while partners are currently supporting some existing programmatic elements, much of the resulting partnership activity is unique to the partner.Oakland Museum of California
Something we did was to reach out to people through an in-person meeting with the leader of a particular group. Face-to-face interaction and explaining the project in person is critical. Meeting with somebody in charge, explaining how and why we are doing it, and having them be able to communicate that to others. We made flashcards as takeaways so they would feel equipped to explain it to others.Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History
Recruitment and strategic partnerships were a key component of the outreach programs and proved to be vital in successfully reaching the intended audience. We began by identifying two community partners with strong ties and connections to the community and asked for their assistance in recruitment. In order for stakeholders to have a vested interest in assisting us, they needed to see how the programs would help them further their desired outcomes. This meant that for each partner organization, the photography program had to have a different strategy and outcome that met the partner’s strategic goals. This made the outreach programs more involved in terms of planning, design and delivery.The AjA Project
One of the challenges we discovered during the first year of our project was that partner organizations' operational models vary. This affected how responsive they were to us and, thus, influenced how effectively we worked together. Staffing resources of partner organizations--some had long-term, full-time staff and others relied on volunteers with intermittent work schedules--affected planning, execution, and outcomes. Our success was dependent on the level of commitment of our partners, which we had not fully factored into our initial proposal. Further, partner organizations' own programmatic offerings influenced their levels of engagement.The New Children's Museum
A challenge has been to engage community members in an ongoing dialogue to generate consistently relevant programming. The organization has formed a community advisory group that meets periodically to provide crucial insights so that the organization can become more responsive to the community needs. This group has helped us address issues as fundamental as when and where to hold events...With community dialogue, we have increased attendance significantly through moving the program to more convenient locations and more appropriate times of the week (weekends and weeknights).Diavolo Dance Theatre
We have learned that grassroots outreach has been more effective in getting the word out than press releases, newspaper articles, or any marketing materials printed by the organization. It seems social media, email forwards with PDF flyers that are easily printed and referenced, and face-to-face meetings with opinion leaders have a high yield for us. We also found that the people likeliest to come out to the events were people who lived within walking distance of the events. This highlighted that the more multi-use, populous, and diverse our partner site is, the more traffic we will garner.Los Angeles County Museum of Art
At the crux of our experience was a learning curve that taught us, as a nonprofit organization used to having an audience beat a path to our door, that we couldn’t and shouldn’t rely on our name-identification and branding alone to draw in this new audience. We gained valuable ground toward the end of the first year of the grant, however, through the establishment of deep and committed community partnerships. These partnerships were instrumental, leading us to the conclusion that the initiative works wholly and best as a collective, collaborative effort between all community parties involved.Palm Springs International Film Festival
A key lesson for us was that an abundance of marketing materials and advertising did not guarantee a strong turnout. Feedback indicated that the materials developed for year one of the program did not sufficiently communicate a sense of what the program was, nor did it generate sufficient interest in the program. Our poster came across as prescriptive/intellectual rather than something to be enjoyed. It also became clear to us that strong simple visuals were more effective in communicating the program than words, as many people seemed disinclined to read the text. So we worked closely with a top designer to create key artwork for our poster, T-shirts and materials, which turned out to be highly popular, with many of the attendees requesting posters and eager to acquire T-shirts.Palm Springs International Film Festival
We should have engaged our marketing partners earlier than we did. From a marketing standpoint, we discovered the invaluable force of a bilingual marketing coordinator, whose approach to community connectivity has influenced how we are reaching out to potential new audience members in general.South Coast Repertory
We have learned a lot in terms of how we reach out to people. The spirit of invitation. Creating something that people are curious about as opposed to more proactively trying to get people to come to us. Even when we are setting up our space, we are purposeful about setting up and quickly.Street Poets
When you bring in the community, and multiple ages of the community, you have to let the work achieve its own shape. You can’t say “I would do it this way.” You say, “you want to do it that way; it’s good.” You have to release a certain amount of OCD and let it go.University of the Pacific
Provide programming in a community location. Use this location as an entry place so that you can connect with participants more closely. Go to the participants instead of asking them to come to you. Connect with people in the community by first reaching out to them and connecting with them in their neighborhoods.Bowers Museum
The workshops that went to the people where they are were very successful. We used informal strategies to tell people about the events - word of mouth was generally the most successful outreach method, i.e. someone you know tells you about it in a space that is more familiar. Handing out flyers was not effective. Informal networks were most helpful. Organize with other organizations that work in the community (not just with arts organizations) so that they can also help get word out.LA Commons
We were called upon to create a program that is specifically for non-traditional settings, so it merits nontraditional thinking, non-traditional promotional platforms, and non-traditional forms of getting the word out. Also for us, our whole programming is, well to us it’s every day, but to most people short films that are subtitled are non-traditional. We can’t take all of that and put it into our customary formula. It actually caused upon us to look at the rules of the games and throw them out.Palm Springs International Film Festival
We learned it was to our advantage to be as self-contained as possible since there was no continuity between each venue's technical support system. This mobility allows us great freedom in adding new venues – venues such as churches, synagogues, mosques and any other gathering place for our demographic.Palm Springs International Film Festival
We have been most impacted by the relationships we developed with public libraries. We saw what an invaluable resource they are in neighborhoods, and librarians were particularly receptive to organizing events in their neighborhoods. Libraries are trusted community centers, and thus allowed the event to reach more people in diverse communities.Ryman Arts
Utilizing the different spaces for the performances helped community leaders see those spaces in a different way. The civic center area is usually for the homeless and protests. They were not accustomed to seeing performances there.South Coast Repertory
We were purposeful about the set up and made it look like something was going on around the van. People were curious and would come around as we set up the dry erase board and PA system. We would just start doing it ourselves and it would draw people in. We were not dependent on the response from the people on the site, we had people on board that would help make something. We started to develop partnerships in the community as well. The most successful outings were the ones in which we were expected to come. We were an added element to a community gathering.Street Poets
Many families were not able to participate due to lack of child care. To make their participation possible, we offered childcare. That is something very important, so children are not running around everywhere while the parents are rehearsing. This helped a lot and made it possible for the whole family to participate without worrying who is going to take care of their children.Centro Binacional Para El Desarrollo Indígena Oaxaqueño
Events with food are much better attended. If something had no food or giveaway then it was not thought of as official programming or paid attention to in the same way. So then we paired our activities with already existing events (i.e., food bank giveaways, holiday events). Our workshops happen following a performance. We add on to existing events and activities and don’t create something from scratch.Counterpulse
Create multiple ways for people to participate. That was already on our minds. For example, combine a mural and a performance. As an organization we have the most experience in live performance. Making the jump to people making the artwork is a big jump for us. It is the way to get people to start creating and enter in. Performance can be an intimidating proposition for participants. One way we’ve tried to reduce this pressure is by integrating performance and workshop activities so that participants can be learning and performing for peers at the same time.Counterpulse
We have learned that community arts programs should be implemented with flexibility in mind. Although we treat our community participants with high expectations, they may have irregular attendance at workshops because of other commitments, lack of transportation, or other issues. Through these obstacles, our teaching artists maintain the workshop curriculum and our commitment to sharing the organization's values of trust, teamwork, and individual expression.Diavolo Dance Theatre
Most effective strategies are not universal but more about the site and location we were in. Instead a diverse menu of activities and offerings was important and made the project more effective. Some people wanted intense workshops; for others, the workshops were too much of a commitment. For some, sharing an oral history was too personal - watching others share their story was more appealing than actually participating. All three aspects together were effective because it provided options for the many motivations and needs of the diverse psychographs served via this project.Los Angeles County Museum of Art
Having a wide variety of types of activities helps people engage. People can engage in variety of ways. They get to try different things. There is a range of background of people so range of activities is important. Make simple parameters that people can alter themselves. Nothing as stagnant but more flexible.Ryman Arts
We are co-designing projects so they resonate with people and help them feel welcome. People framing their own art experience has helped them feel welcome at our events.Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
With these kinds of big projects, it is ideal and best when the whole department (or in the case of smaller institutions, it is ideal when the entire organization is behind the effort) bands together. We needed to make it a full department effort in order for it to be successful. Not being able to find the perfect community liaisons made us rely on our internal staff, and it was a positive benefit of not finding the right external staff person in each community.Los Angeles County Museum of Art
It is a triad of the institution, artist, and community. Finding the right artist is so important. When we brought in an artist with a more community-focused practice it made for a stronger process and product. We often think about the importance of the public engagement process, but there are also museum expectations around the quality of the art being produced. It needs to be right artist to balance that and involving the artist was critical.Oakland Museum of California
Be clear with partners, staff, and everyone why you are doing this project. There is a danger when a project is grant funded that staff feel that this is what is being mandated by the funder and then it's not as authentic. Make sure the organization is really clear about why they are doing it and that it is not just because of the funder.Oakland Museum of California
The artists need to be engaged as well as have sense of value and belief in public practice. They need to know how to take the essence of what they do and make it for the community. There is a depth to it but still accessible. Not all artists get that.Ryman Arts
Staff trainings are very important before you send them out to the community. If we were to launch something like this brand new, we would spend some quality time with the staff infusing them with the spirit of engagement and invitation.Street Poets
Get buy-in of the full organization staff. Every month we talked about what is going well, and we sent out regular success emails. Leadership and communication is important. Share the personal stories with the staff. Makes it grounded for them.ValleyPBS
Having a launch meeting for each project and inviting key agency leaders and community group leaders got them on board from the beginning. They could help us contact different groups. Initial meetings are really important and following through...every time something happened was also important. An initial part of our effectiveness is finding the right people who “get it.”Yolo County Arts Council