Stuff To Ponder: What About Engaging Arts Organizations?

Taking up where I left off yesterday, one of the last things I mentioned was that arts people might have an easier time shifting their perceptions to be more inclusive of what constitutes artistic practice and works of art than the general public might.

The thing is, while arts people may be more able to make the shift in thinking, they may not think it is necessary unless the necessity of doing so is pointed out to them. There is a lot of effort being made on a national, regional and local level to communicate the benefits of the arts to the general public but there isn’t a complementary effort to let the arts community know what their role is.

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But really, I recently realized the effort to get the general public to invest in the arts is a little one sided. Americans for the Arts will run ads telling people there are things they can do give their kids more arts experiences but most of the burden is on the parents to go online to the Americans for the Arts site and seek out arts organizations in their community. There may be an assumption that whatever arts organizations are doing to generate public awareness of themselves will be enough.

While Americans for the Arts had some requirements if you wanted to partner in their last kids and the arts campaign, what perhaps they should have also done is gone to the arts organizations and said, listen, we are going to run a slew of ads in your area encouraging people to take their kids to performances and museums and sign them up for classes. We are going to tell them to look for this little smiley guy logo. You can benefit by putting this logo on your website, in your ads and on the side of your building like the Safe Place logo they have on fire stations so people can easily identify organizations that offer these services.

The NEA starting a long term campaign communicating a “its all art and you should be reaching out” message to arts organizations through various channels would help to get arts organizations on the same page with them. That way the arts groups can start providing a public message complementary to the NEA’s and begin to shift themselves and the community to a more inclusive mindset.

Heck, what might actually be effective is a national campaign like the one Dominos recently ran that acknowledges people’s complaints about arts experiences. It could simultaneously address public sentiment and let arts organizations know they have a responsibility in the relationship as well.

Of course, lacking the unified will of a corporation, the campaign can’t make concrete promises of improvement across the arts sector. And honestly, unless it was incredibly well-designed and coordinated, it could alienate the general public, arts organizations or both.

But it would also be the first time that these issues were acknowledged and addressed nationally. Those of us who regularly read blogs and attend conferences are likely well aware of the need for change. But many arts people, including board members, aren’t participating in these conversations and may not be as aware of the shifting realities. This would put the topic front and center.

There isn’t just a need to do a better job of communicating our message to our local community, we need to apply the same techniques to communicating among ourselves. Which may in turn increase the number of organizations effectively communicating with their local communities.

There are already a few communication channels being used to rally arts organizations and their supporters to contact their legislators prior to crucial votes. Those are a good starting point to mobilize arts organizations but the message needs to come from different sources: blogs, television, radio, YouTube video, tweets, Facebook. In other words, the same channels we are urged to use to engage our communities can be used to engage arts organizations.

Whatever the message is needs to be light and encouraging rather than declarative and directive. Just like our audiences, arts organizations should be hearing more from their national, state and local leadership than OHMYGOD! THEYAREALLAGAINSTUS YOUMUSTMOBILIZENOW!

There should be Van Goghurt commercials made to encourage arts organizations to do better and point out resources organizational leaders can consult.

The nonprofit arts world in the U.S. is so decentralized it is hard to effectively communicate with most of the organizations. If the government provided higher levels of funding, more organizations might have closer relationships with central funders and it would be easier to provide training and information in best practices. For many it is not worth the effort required to apply, so they remain unidentified and out of touch with service organizations.

Instead of providing a few arts organizations with the funds to improve community participation, maybe foundations/funders should focus on establishing stronger channels of communication and relationships between service organizations/arts councils and arts groups, as well as between the arts groups themselves. Once that is achieved, instead of many individual organizations trying to re-invent the wheel alone, they may become better aware of the practices of those around them which will hopefully translate over time into a community engaged with the arts rather than with specific arts organizations.

As it is now, the best engagement practices developed by the exemplar organizations being funded will only be disseminated to a few hundred people attending a conference or reading a report. Better engagement and communication between arts groups and the arts councils/organizations that serve them could multiply the impact.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


2 thoughts on “Stuff To Ponder: What About Engaging Arts Organizations?”

  1. Thanks for highlighting the Americans for the Arts PSA campaign β€œArt. Ask for More.”

    As with any advertising campaign, you have to be highly focused on who your target audience is and what the message is. In the case of our PSA campaign, we specifically focused our message on parents of school-age children because as arts programs continued to be cut in schools, school superintendents made it clear that parents had the power to reverse these trends by speaking up. Our goal was to get parents to think about whether their kids are getting enough art in their lives not only in school, but also in the community and at home.

    This campaign has been viewed multiple times by more than 100 million people via television, radio, newspaper, magazine, or the internet. It has received more than $125 million in donated media because commercial broadcasters and publishers also believe in this message. Thousands of nonprofit arts organizations were engaged in the campaign as well because they already invest significant resources to create arts education learning experiences at their institutions.

    • Nina-

      Thanks for the comment. I didn’t have any problem with the campaign itself. In fact, I had the widget you created embedded in this blog. I loved the ads.

      Admittedly my comments about the campaign were made in hindsight. I am not sure that the arts community was as keenly aware even then about the importance of audience engagement as it is now. My point really is that if a campaign like that were to be run again I think there is a need try to make sure all the pieces are in place for people to take the actions they were being urged to.

      Granted, it is eminently easier for a performing arts company to ensure there is a way for their audience to buy tickets when a radio ad runs than it is for Americans for the Arts or the NEA to ensure people can find the community resources they seek.


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