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Making Meaningful Connections

Helicon Collaborative

Many arts organizations across California are seeking ways to ensure their future relevance.

This includes reaching out to new and diverse participants in response to a California with rapidly changing demographics.

Critical to reaching our goal of promoting engagement in the arts for everyone in the state of California is the ability of arts organizations to engage new participants — beyond the audiences, artists and others that benefitted from the work of many arts nonprofit organizations in the past. Providing engagement in this way makes arts organizations more responsive and valuable to their communities, as well as more resilient.

Successfully creating meaningful and sustainable relationships with diverse participants is not unlike making new friends. It takes intention, curiosity, flexibility and time. It also takes realizing that we can’t make new friends without being changed by the experience.

For the last two decades, arts organizations of various kinds have focused increasing attention on participant development. Many have become more customer-centered in their practices and have successfully attracted more or different participants to their programs. These efforts have produced a growing body of knowledge on effective arts engagement techniques — the specific programming, marketing and social media strategies that organizations are using to attract participants.

Research by Alan Brown, Kevin McCarthy and others has also enhanced general understanding of the different levels on which people engage with an art form or organization, as well as the processes of deepening arts engagement. Reports on work by grantee-partners involved in The James Irvine Foundation Arts Innovation Fund and case studies of projects funded by The Wallace Foundation, among other materials, have contributed to a growing library of engagement methods and success stories.

Smart programming and marketing strategies are critical, and they have helped many cultural organizations attract new participants for specific programs. Depending on the organization, targeted populations have included teenagers, young adults, African American professionals, families, Latinos, veterans’ groups, low-income populations, Arab Americans and others. Yet overall, the participant mix for the majority of cultural institutions remains largely unmixed. It is still the rare cultural organization whose regular participants truly reflect the socio-economic, ethnic or generational demographics of its wider community.

This report offers an initial framework of key organizational characteristics for cultural institutions that are genuinely engaging participants who reflect their communities’ changing demographics. It is not comprehensive, and the concepts outlined here may apply differently to different kinds of institutions. This summary is intended to spark thinking and discussion among organizations that are interested in better connecting with diverse participants and sustaining those relationships over time. It may also spur further experimentation and testing, and encourage leaders to deepen their understanding of the organizational dynamics that are essential to achieving more diverse participation in nonprofit cultural institutions.

This research sought to understand the underlying organizational characteristics of successful engagement of diverse participants by arts organizations. The findings presented are a synthesis of research from multiple sources.

  • Which arts organizations are most effectively engaging diverse populations and what can we learn from them?
  • Are there factors that indicate an organization’s readiness to engage more deeply with a broader population, and how can this be supported?
  • What are the points of leverage to propel change within individual organizations and the system as a whole toward greater engagement with diverse populations?
  • What are barriers to change?
  • A total of 28 interviews conducted in three rounds over the course of 12 months with experts on systems change, researchers on arts engagement, national and state arts funders, and national arts practitioners who have been effective at engaging participants; see Appendix for a list of interviewees
  • A literature review of research on systems change, arts engagement, organizational change, cultural competency and networks; see Bibliography for a partial listing of these sources
  • A review of Irvine program materials and past research
  • Helicon Collaborative’s experience designing, implementing and assessing numerous arts engagement programs over more than 20 years