Community Engagement in the Arts

Greater involvement in community building by arts organizations is important for both the public and the arts.  Artists and arts organizations can benefit from re-imagining of their role in their community.

On January 22st and 23rd, Ontario Arts Council’s, Ontario Dances program hosted a workshop and presentation on community engagement in the arts. Over seventy professional dance artists, dance managers, arts presenters and other arts professionals attended these events facilitated by Doug Borwick, Ph.D and CEO, ArtsEngaged, and the author of Building Communities, Not Audiences.  Doug is renowned for his research on examining new ways of looking at the public and the arts, of how the arts develops within community, and how the arts will survive and indeed flourish by serving the very community it is developed within.

As a part of this workshop,  artists participated in a roundtable discussion that explored the question of what community engagement means to them, both now and in the future.  At the same time,  presenters had the opportunity to particpate in a workshop that explored specific audience engagement practices involving Nova Bhattacharya from Nova Dance,  Crazy Smooth and Sylvain LaFortune from Bboyizm,  Denise Fujiwara from Fujiwara Dance Inventions, Syive Bouchard from Dusk Dancers and Andrea Nann from Dreamwalker Dance Company.

The morning of the 23rd was spent at the Toronto Dance Theatre where Doug further explored the principals of engagement with an audience of members of Toronto’s arts community.  The basis of his presentation comes from his blog – Engaging Matters.

The arts began as collective activity around the campfire, expressions of community. In a very real sense, the community owned that expression. Over time, with increasing specialization of labor, the arts– especially Western “high arts”– became distanced from the community. Today the survival of established arts organizations hinges on their ability to shorten that distance. Engagement is important; engaging matters.

To engage successfully, arts organizations need to make authentic, substantive connections with their communities.  Those communities should not be seen as a collection of market segments to be tapped in an effort to sell tickets or extend reach; they should be seen as indispensable partners in improving lives. It is the creation and support of healthy, vital communities that provide the ultimate justification for the allocation of financial and human resources that the arts require.

He concluded his address with this message: “Communities do not exist to serve the arts; the arts exist to serve communities.”

The presentation followed by the Q & A session and a beautiful performance of Vena Cava by Toronto Dance Theatre.

Doug on his experience in Toronto:

The opportunity to work with artists and presenters in Ontario was a real gift. Canadian cultural policy, in which expressions of heritage are to be provided to the country’s citizens, shone through. Ontario Dances, expending resources that ensure access to dance from a wide variety of cultural traditions, is an excellent example of grassroots audience engagement, one laying vital groundwork for substantive community engagement with dance. (Careful readers of my blog may have seen a recent reference to some of what I learned.) It was a privilege to spend time and share ideas with Canada’s dance community.

Our participants said:

  • This presentation was valuable because, it addressed the concept of engagement in a pragmatic and accessible manner with concrete examples. It validates the strategic direction we have been developing and implementing. – Melissa Mahady Wilton, City of Kingston, Ontario Dances Northern Ontario
  • The concepts were well presented, clear, and offered some real insight into areas that are important to the vitality of our organization.
  • The concept of community engagement versus selling tickets is something that the presenting community (myself included) struggle with. The two do not necessarily go hand in hand, it’s about building relationships.
  • The talks gave me a new perspective on the concept of community engagement as a responsibility of a presenter rather than an added bonus.
  • The Artistic Director, Audience Development officer and E.D. are discussing Doug’s concepts and how we can position our organization to be more engaged with the communities we serve.
This initiative was funded by the Ontario Arts Council with addition funding from the Department of Canadian Heritage and Canada Council for the Arts.
Administered by CCI – Ontario Presenting Network, the initiative was presented by Ontario Dances, a program of the Ontario Arts Council. Ontario Dances offers the public the opportunity to participate in dance at all levels from dance classes and workshops to dance artists in residence to the presentation of dance by Ontario-based professional dance artists throughout communities across Ontario.
For information about Doug Borwick: