Audience Engagement & Community Engagement Aren’t The Same Thing

In a recent episode of Quick Study, Sunil Iyengar, director of research and analysis here at the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), notes that the arts community, including the NEA, toss around the term “social and civic engagement” as a benefit of the arts, but many arts and cultural organizations aren’t necessarily doing the work to achieve that. (h/t for the link)

He points to recent research by Marie Kim (George Mason University) and Jodi Benenson (University of Nebraska Omaha) which differentiate between audience engagement, community engagement, and civic engagement.

Iyengar says civic engagement is:

It’s all the political and nonpolitical processes that individuals invoke to improve the quality of lives of their communities or neighborhoods: you know, voting, volunteering, taking part in community meetings or activities designed to advance a public outcome.

Currently, it seems like the terms audience engagement and community engagement are used interchangeably, but the researchers say a significant difference is that community engagement is more of a two way conversation where the arts and cultural organization will effect changes to reflect the needs of the community.

“‘Audience engagement focuses on having members of the public experience a relationship with the arts as created and/or presented by the artist or organization, while community engagement seeks to develop relationships that potentially transform both the arts and individuals who come to enjoy the arts.’ So they add that to be a hub for truly community-engaged activity, the organization must invite open and honest two-way communication between itself and its audiences. An organization adopting this approach must be willing to change, I think that’s key, based on the needs voiced by the community.”

In a survey Kim and Benenson conducted of executive directors or equivalents, many organizations expressed a commitment to community engagement, but few were taking the steps to achieve it in terms of things like surveys and involving the community in planning:

“So the survey results showed that while most nonprofit arts and cultural organizations said they developed programs, quote, “Relevant for local community members,” and they offered, quote, “participatory programs,” they were not often very active in collecting data on audience preferences or in– this is important– or in involving audiences and visitors in program planning. They also found separately that when they asked executive directors to rate the importance of civic or social issues for their organization, half of them deemed such issues as extremely or very important, but nearly one-third of these organizations expressed ambivalence about this importance, and roughly one out of ten said such issues were not important for arts and cultural organizations.”

In terms of how this all relates back to civic engagement, Iyengar says Kim and Benenson found that when an organization increases their efforts at audience engagement, civic engagement in the community shows a corresponding increase. However, there is a much greater increase in civic engagement when the organization increases their efforts in community engagement.

Iyengar says some of the findings of this study dovetail with research goals of a national survey of arts agencies the NEA is conducting and form the basis for the ArtsHere grant program which seeks to “strengthen the organization’s capacity to sustain meaningful community engagement and increase arts participation for underserved groups/communities.”

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.


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