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Tough Questions About Engagement Practices and Programming in the Arts

Ted Russell

Ted Russell, Former Senior Program Officer

Engagement is a buzzword in the arts field, there’s no way around it. There are a multitude of perspectives about what defines engagement, exactly who we’re engaging, how to engage authentically and productively, and why it matters at all. We gathered our first group of New California Arts Fund grantee-partners in early 2014 to support them as they move arts engagement to the core of who they are and what they do.

In the two years since, this initial group of arts organizations has tried and explored and succeeded and failed and learned about the many tools and practices they need to become more resilient organizations, to better reflect California’s changing population, and to uphold their value to their community. Many of these arts organizations were already moving engagement to their core even before we began funding them, and the same is true for the six new arts organizations who joined the New California Arts Fund last year (more from them soon). They don’t have all the answers, but they’ve been asked a lot of questions along the way — from board members and community partners, from funders and audience members, from colleagues and donors. That’s why today we’re launching the first in a series of stories we’re hosting on Medium to share what the arts field is learning from experimenting with new forms of engagement with new audiences.

Instead of releasing a report or hosting a symposium, we want to open up more dialogue (and join the conversations already in progress) about the real struggles arts organizations are facing and how a few of them have attempted to transform their own organizations and their communities. Future stories will focus on the how, for now, we begin with the what and the why.

The first “why” you might be asking yourself is, “Why instead of your own blog?” We know it can be intimidating to comment on a funder’s blog. For this particular series of content, we want to thoughtfully and transparently put a little distance between us as the institution, and the valuable knowledge sharing of our grantee-partners, in hopes that you will feel a little more at ease questioning, disagreeing, and contributing to this important conversation. Together, we’ll come up with more and better answers, and no doubt even tougher questions