Let’s Explore: Engagement

Posted by Melanie Harker On October - 8 - 2013
Melanie Harker

Melanie Harker

I am an arts explorer. Investigating ideas, pursuing new bits of information, engaging in conversation, or listening to the buzz around me; I thrive on discovering new perspectives and navigating new concepts. Through much personal exploration, I have realized what I loved most about the theater was not performance (I hold a degree in Acting) but instead the art/artist/audience community that surrounds all art in general. As a twenty-something arts professional, I have decided to dedicate myself to the pursuit of all ideas encompassing this fascinating intersection.

A couple of weeks ago I saw this New York Times (NYT) op-ed, “High Culture Goes Hands-On” by Judith Dobryanzki. In it, Dobryanzki makes the case that museums are trying too hard to create space for “visitor engagement” which augments (even tarnishes) the purpose and reputation of museums; “It changes who will go [to museums] and for what.” She even adds in a follow-up article on her personal blog that, “Art museums are… luring visitors by giving them participatory art experiences rather simply providing them with the opportunity to experience viewing glorious works of art.” While this piece references the museum world, I would like to challenge this community of arts marketers to think about its broader impact and how its claims can map directly to all arts audiences.

Linda Essig responds to Dobryanzki’s point of changing “who will go and for what” on her Creative Infrastructure blog. She writes, “That, it seems to me, is a good thing.  Arts organizations have for years been decrying their declining and graying membership and subscription bases.  If visitors change and visitors change their expectations, perhaps the sound of membership rosters circling the drain will not be so loud.”

Deborah Markow, in contrast to Essig, responds with a letter to the NYT editor agreeing with Dobryanzki, and makes the case that creating visitor engagement opportunities (like meeting the artist or interactive art installations) is not the way to help the public “appreciate and feel at ease in the presence of the great art of the past.”

As I read about all of these heated and contrasting ideas, I saw that words such as “activation,” “engagement,” and “participation” were being dropped into a bucket of full of buzzwords. Over the past two years of working for various Washington, DC theaters who are all energized by the support of their community*, I have come to know these words beyond their empty buzzword-y shells.

I have seen patrons arrive for Woolly Mammoth’s production of Sam Hunter’s A Bright New Boise and through a series of arts and crafts related activities, connect to an unlikely protagonist and discover more about the nature of extreme religious belief than they ever thought they could. I regularly interact with people who, after participating in one free improv workshop with Washington Improv Theater,fall in love with the style and call my office regularly to see when the next improv performance will be. I have also seen patrons, who, upon learning that dog & pony dc’s Beertown is a bit of an audience engaging arts piece, fold their arms and insist that they will not under any circumstances fall for such witchcraft… 30 minutes into the piece they are standing up and nominating an object for removal from the town’s timecapsule. All of these interactions and exchanges were not forced and did not use trickery of any kind to “lure visitors.”

As my first NAMP Conference is approaching, I am excited to talk with as many people as possible about all of these notions. Does “engagement” and “participation” feel icky and inauthentic to you, or are can they include genuine experiences? Is the arts world working too hard to keep up with the “business of experience”? Is there a happy medium? Help me discover what more this field has to offer. I’m ready to have a conversation.

*I have also come to strongly believe that we should consider illuminating our audiences to the notion that they are creating their own community among themselves… but that’s another post for another time.

10 Responses to “Let’s Explore: Engagement”

  1. Melanie, If you are an arts explorer. Investigating ideas, pursuing new bits of information, engaging in conversation, or listening to the buzz around me; and thrive on discovering new perspectives and navigating new concepts. You might be interested in these new concepts in community art, Google search:
    1- “THEORY OF ICEALITY ON ENVIRONMENTAL ARTS”
    2- “North East Ohio Area has been ‘branded’ as the Home of the Environmental Art(s) Movement by the International Center for Environmental Arts (ICEA)”
    3- “Building the National Coast-to-Coast Great American Peace Trail”

    • Melanie Harker says:

      Hello Drach — thank you so much for opening my eyes to this work that David Jakupca is doing. This is taking my knowledge of arts in community to an entirely new level. Incredibly fascinating and definitely cool (and important) work.

  2. Sara Leonard says:

    Oh Melanie! Your last, dropped-in italicized comment speaks to my heart — and my research! My post in the blog salon will begin to touch on this and I hope you’ll drop by the roundtable I’m doing with Steppenwolf during NAMP where we’re going to talk about 4 keys to creating audience-based communities. You’re so right. The research shows us, in the performing arts specifically, that people are looking for social and emotionally fulfilling experiences when they attend the arts. Our purpose is to understand HOW people achieve such experiences, and then how to put the art at the center. Can’t wait to talk with you more and hear your thoughts on this topic!

    • Melanie Harker says:

      Hi Sara — so excited to meet you during the conference! I will definitely stop by the round table discussion and interested to learn more about your work.

  3. Emily says:

    Melanie, you just hit on the nose exactly what interests me about the arts! I too hold an arts degree (BFA Painting) but have realized recently that I’m ultimately interested in figuring out how to help audiences have meaningful experiences with the art that are significant for them (rather than shoving my experiences down their throat). Thanks for the post!

    • Melanie Harker says:

      Hi Emily — sounds like great minds think alike! Hope you see you at NAMPC or feel free to tweet at me @MelanieGwynne to keep jamming on this topic. :)

  4. Melanie,
    Thanks for your thoughts here! I’m a poet who, like you, is highly interested in arts experiences, audience development and participation. You’ve really found the creaky floorboard for me — (in)authentic engagement. I think it comes down to trying too hard at the wrong things. When we act on our audience assumptions without listening to and learning from/with/about them, the result is like the new stepparent buying you a doll when you’re really a skateboard kind of kid. Out of communicative convenience, I often use terms like “audience engagement and community-based arts experiences” but in my poet mind what I’m really imagining is more along the lines of a beautiful, messy, each-one-reach-one game of idea tag that occurs in your own mentalscape, plugging into a collective power grid as you ping with creative people and spaces. ….yep, I’m sure you see why audience engagement is a useful term for me. :-)

    All of your thoughts are EXTREMELY timely in this moment in my creative work as I launch a public art project that is squarely committed to arts engagement. Thanks for giving me much to noodle on.

    • Melanie Harker says:

      Hey Stephanie — How fortunate that this is coinciding with a project of yours! I think for me engagement feels inauthentic when layered on top of programming, sitting on the outskirts, vaguely connecting to concepts, “engagement for engagement’s sake.” I really enjoy your collective power grid visual, which to me allows for (and almost requires) listening and learning on both the audience, artist, and administrator fronts — ultimately that is the community that rallys behind art, right?

  5. Marsha Dobrzynski says:

    Melanie,
    Interesting post. One correction – the spelling of Judith’s Name. It should be Dobrzynski.
    Thanks for making the correction.

  6. Carter Gillies says:

    Of course some forms of engagement strike some people as ‘inauthentic’ or in poor taste. That’s because we often have expectations for one form of delivery or another. If you upset that expectation you upset people who are stuck in their ways.

    But the point of this whole issue is that the arts are struggling to find NEW audiences, and the truth of the matter is that old and time honored means of delivery are failing to do the job adequately. These attempts at ‘engagement’ are the necessary exploration of how the arts can be discovered differently by different people. The stodgy elitist audience is well covered by the traditional modes of delivery, and this new adventure is (shockingly to them) not really about what they want or expect at all…. They may even wonder, “Who let all the riff raff in?”

    But that’s why this is relevant: How do we communicate and appeal to a new generation? Its the same question that technology seeks to answer with touchscreen ipads and twitter accounts. These outlandish contrivances are surely ‘inauthentic’ to a person used to talking face to face when they communicate. Or hand writing letters that are delivered in the post. As steadfastly as our ancient customs are adhered to by the people they speak to, as things change they are often relegated to the status of quaint irrelevancies. Is it necessary to preserve all old customs, ipso facto?

    The larger truth is that the world is evolving, and the arts can evolve along with it or remain a bastion of a culture that is as fast disappearing as the generations of its adherents. If we can honestly answer that the arts are evolving, then we should not be excessively worried that our expectations will be challenged. Are we big enough to grow with these changes? To change ourselves with the experience of new phenomena? Its the same question being asked in every arts outreach campaign: “See what the arts are all about! You may discover something you like!”

    If we are attempting to reach open minds, is it a shock that some minds will be closed to what we are doing? And we need not be surprised that some of the closed minds inhabit our audiences today…..

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