This week, we are excited to share our interview with Doug Borwick. Doug is a past President of the Board of the Association of Arts Administration Educators and was for nearly 30 years Director of the Arts Management and Not-for-Profit Management Programs at Salem College in Winston-Salem, NC. He is CEO of Outfitters4, Inc., providing management services to nonprofit organizations and ArtsEngaged providing training and consultation to artists and arts organization to help them more effectively engage with their communities. He is also the author of Building Communities, Not Audiences and Engage Now!, and writes a column for ArtsJournal.
In this interview, we discuss Doug’s first book Building Communities, Not Audiences. We hope you enjoy this information packed discussion. Let’s begin!
In the foreword of Building Communities, Not Audiences Rocco Landesman talks about how Art is like a campfire. Can you discuss what that means?
I think the way I would describe it a little more accurately, to be a bit professorial, is the campfire is a “commons” that a group of people share, a place around which they gather. The Arts are what animates either the campfire or, today, the commons. What happens in that commons then begins to define the culture and the identity of a particular community. The Arts began as an expression of community around the campfire. It’s more than a little odd that arts organizations, at least some of them, are trying to figure out how they can become better connected with the community since that’s where the arts actually began.
That makes sense. Can you discuss art as a community development and building strategy?
Well, most of my work is with arts organizations, so I will refer to them, although I do some work with individual artists as well. When arts organizations see themselves as part of their communities, as resources for community improvement, then, in conversations with those communities, they identify areas in which the community is particularly interested. From that the arts organization can develop programming to address some of those issues. Out of that the community becomes a better place to live. But something that I need to make clear is that in all of my work, the fundamental premise is that there’s a partnership between the arts and the community and it has to be mutually beneficial. It’s not simply the arts serving the community, or the community simply consuming the arts. It is a two-way street.
Can you give us examples of how the arts can benefit the community?
Let me take a very simple example, and that is the organization that’s going to produce, for instance, West Side Story–something lots of theatre companies will be doing normally. There are a couple of mindsets that can go into that. One is that it is one of the great American musicals. They present and market it that way. Another grows out of an awareness of things that are going on in the community. We have issues around immigration. We have issues around gang violence. Wouldn’t it be cool if we offered to our community the use of our production West Side Story as a means to begin conversations around those issues? And out of that, work can begin to be done to address the issues that West Side Story has in its essence.
So, you recommend using theatre as a forum to discuss what is happening within the community?
Yes, and that’s just one way. There are all kinds of different approaches, but it really, from the arts organizations’ point of view, comes down to wanting to be of value to our community. What are some ways that we can do that? It grows out of paying attention to what’s going on in the community and knowing your own repertoire, what your type of art can and cannot do and suggesting options to the community when you understand what the community’s needs are.
What I advocate against is something that I have termed artcentricity; the notion that it’s all about the art. To be honest, again, to go back to the origins, it has never been all about the art. It’s been the connection between the art and either the individual or the community.
Along those same lines, you discuss survivalism in arts organizations. If organizations are struggling, how can they start to focus on community engagement?
Well, there are two different levels. One is the mission level, what is the organization about? Is it primarily about the work of theatre that it’s presenting or is it primarily about theatre as a means of creative expression for individuals and of improvement in the community? If you get away from the artcentric view, you begin to think, “What are some ways that we can do things, perhaps, differently from the way that they have been done?” Then at the point where you do that, you begin to be able to open dialogue with large sections of the community that at this moment are just not interested in what arts organizations are about, because they have never seen a demonstration of how that arts organization is of any use to them. You begin to expand your base of operation, both in terms of potential ticket buyers, but, perhaps, even more significantly for some non-profits, getting access to different sources of funds that have never been available for an arts organization previously.
Can you give us an example of a theatre or organization that has done that successfully?
Probably the best demonstration of this is what Rocco Landesman did at the National Endowment for the Arts. He went to many of the federal agencies and said, “The Arts are here to help. Let’s talk about on how we can do that.” And as a result, he got funding out of the Department of Defense, Department of Education, and Health and Human Services for projects making use of the arts to further the interests of those agencies. None of that money had ever been available for the arts before.
What are ways that you can convince your local community that they benefit from the arts? Also, how can you make them understand that their life is better as a result of the arts?
Well, it’s not better as a result of the arts, it’s better as a result of an arts organization contributing to the community. I’ve got a section in a lot of my public speaking where I say, “What we have to do is come to matter, and how do you matter? You come to matter by mattering.” It’s not about doing the same things you’ve always done. It’s about doing things in ways that begin with an awareness of the community and respond to that. It’s not about telling people that we are important. It’s about being important in those people’s lives.
Do you have any other examples that fall into those categories?
Well, there are many things. Let me use an example, another one that I use a lot. Houston Grand Opera, which is a major organization not only in Houston but nationally, has an arm of its work that they call HGOco that focuses on the community. They have, over the last decade, commissioned short operas on the experience of various immigrant communities in Houston. They would go into those communities, collect stories, and then create a work about the members of those communities, present it in those communities and then bring them together on stage, a major production. As a result of that there are large percentages of the communities in Houston that have a really deep appreciation both for Houston Grand Opera but also for opera generally and what it’s capable of doing.
That organization is really ingrained within the community. Without the community, they couldn’t have produced the show.
Exactly, it’s a mode of thinking. Another great example is the Roadside Theatre Company in Whitesburg, Kentucky. They’ve been there now for over 40 years. They do theater that is rooted in the experience of the people of Appalachia. As a result, they’re very popular, not only in Appalachia but far beyond it as well because they tapped into something that’s deep and true and human. They’re touring all over the world and people get it. It’s a little bit like the authenticity that makes people respond to Shakespeare response outside of Denmark or Scotland.
In a later chapter in your book, you discuss the participatory culture and action in the arts. Can you discuss how to have a participatory culture and how social media has affected it?
There are all kinds of ways to think about this and there are great range of ways in which people can participate. There are some very long-standing examples. So long-standing that we don’t even think of them in that way. Community theater is an example. Community choirs are another example of people wanting to participate; but the section of the book that you were referring to talks about the change that’s going on, where people are expecting to participate. They want to be able to respond rather than simply be a spectator.
Not all of the things I’m about to say I’m wildly enthusiastic about, but these are things that people have been experimenting with. There are theaters around the country that have sections they call Tweet seats. People are encouraged to share about what they’re thinking and observing while it’s going on. That can be very disruptive, so I’m not saying that’s what you should do. But there are some others that have an intermission that they call twittermission, in which they encourage people to tweet about the production and a stage manager can respond or sometimes even the actors will respond. There are other ways to even be more deeply involved. Some organizations have experimented with having community members give input into topics that they would like to see or the kinds of things that they would like to have an arts organization present.
My background is in the performing arts, primarily music, but there are some things going on in the visual arts that are fascinating. One is what is called the pop-up museum. One of my favorite examples of a group that’s doing this really well is the Museum of Art and History in Santa Cruz. They have a systematic approach to pop-up museums. They will design a topic and say, “Okay, on such and such a day, and such and such a place, bring something that relates to this topic.” One of the topics was the history of women in Santa Cruz. People would bring things, set them up, and display them. They would then have an opportunity to talk about what they had brought, whether it was something from their attic that belonged to their great, great grandmother or something that they had made that day. It’s certainly different from what we have done in the past in the arts. But it is providing an opportunity for people to connect more deeply with the topic and with an arts organization.
If organizations can make this shift into a participatory culture, how do you think it helps the community or arts organizations?
Well, clearly, if the community is more involved, it’s going to be good for the arts organizations. On the basic level, if people are thinking warm, fuzzy things about the organization, they’re going to be far more interested in the possibility of buying tickets or donating. And even if the individuals who are responding positively are not doing those things, they will stand up for the organization when it is mentioned. We’re talking about developing a level of public goodwill that then serves as a catalyst for all of the other things that we, as arts organizations, need to have happen—ticket sales, favorable public policy, funding of all different sorts.
Does that also help raise awareness of the arts organizations?
Oh, certainly, yes.
Let’s go back to the West Side Story example. We already discussed how arts organizations can use it as a forum for immigration issues. What are some ways to make that participatory online?
Here’s an example: Someone at intermission in West Side Story can tell personal stories about their experiences as immigrants, or have people who have been part of gangs make presentations, and maybe even have a Twitter chat about those kinds of things at the intermission.
I see. So, you could create a special hashtag to promote that discussion.
Yes. It really keeps going back to a mindset on the part of the arts organization to be of value to the community and then following through to be of value. There are a lot of arts organizations that have—I’m trying to watch my words carefully—a bit of a negative reputation in communities. The only experience some people have is the organization trying to sell them tickets or get donations. So, initially, when an arts organization comes to them and says, “We want to help.” they are going to say, “Yeah, prove it to me.”
Right. I also notice that people may be afraid they’re not going to understand the production or that there aren’t going to be people like them attending. What are ways to lower the barrier in order to get people to be a part of an organization?
It’s as simple and as complicated as identifying people in the community that you’d like to develop a relationship with and going and talking to them. This is what coffee shops are for. It’s about relationship building and there aren’t shortcuts in any kind of relationship. My rubric for this is: meet, talk, and work. You have to begin by meeting people. You’ve got to talk with them, to learn about what their interests are. So there’s going to be a good deal of being silent and listening. And then, there is just the process of, as you’re learning what’s important to the people that you’re talking to, beginning to imagine, “Okay, what are some things that we might do?” It’s also really important not to go in and say, “Okay, I’m going to go do this for that community” because no one from outside that community knows enough to know what they need to do for them. The approach is “We’re going to work WITH this community for both of our interests.”
That’s a great takeaway. Do you have anything else that you’d like to say?
I think there are two fundamental things to remember. One is this mindset that I’ve talked about where we, as an arts organization, want to be of value and that, then, becomes not THE mission but central to whatever the rest of the mission is. The other is that it’s about relationships. For effective community engagement, the metaphor of the personal relationship is the best one to bear in mind. If you ever had any question about what to do next in developing a relationship with the community, imagine what you would do in a parallel situation if you were trying to develop relationship one-on-one with an individual. Your answer is almost always going to be a good one, an accurate one for how to further relationship with the community.
It might also be helpful to know that my Building Communities, Not Audiences is a “why to” for community engagement and Engage Now! is the “how to.”
We hope you enjoyed this interview. If you have questions, feel free to ask Doug in the comments below.