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Audience and Community Engagement: From Transactional Exchanges to Relationships of Depth Skip to main content

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Audience and Community Engagement: From Transactional Exchanges to Relationships of Depth

For many years, the performing arts community has been increasingly tested about how to survive, surrounded by numerous pressures and challenges to traditional ways of working and succeeding. Theaters, presenters, festivals, museums and other venues have faced shrinking audiences, changing demographics and the competitive force of quickly evolving technologies. However, these developing obstacles have also created opportunities for self-reflection and new paradigms of working.

After conversations with hundreds of arts organizations and over a decade of experimentation, the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation’s Arts Program and many of its grantees have grown confident that the future of the arts lies in changing an inward-focused question of "How do we survive?" to "How can we help our communities thrive?" In attempting to answer the latter question, the insights that DDCF and these organizations collectively unearthed have revealed themselves to be vastly more essential to successful practices than we could have originally imagined. With this recognition, we knew that we must share this treasure trove of best practices, so that more artists and organizations can gain from the value of their peers’ insights.  In the first of what will be many efforts to communicate what we’ve learned alongside and from our grantees, we are pleased to provide you with a bit of context-setting background for this exploration, accompanied by six articles that introduce steps arts professionals can take to respond to a changing landscape and move their organizations into the future.

To date, DDCF has supported more than 220 performing arts organizations with about $42 million to implement 300 projects in 35 states and the District of Columbia. While each project has been unique — and inherently dependent on each grantee’s specific surroundings — the widely shared commonality has been a methodology that focuses on cultivating genuine relationships and asking deeper, smarter and more open questions with the community.

In 2017, with hundreds of case studies in tow from DDCF-funded projects, the Arts Program stepped back to begin a deeper examination of trends across the field. We commissioned Anne Dunning of ARTS Action Research to gather and review key documents on audience engagement, as well as interview the service organizations running DDCF-funded projects alongside individual artists, theaters, presenters and community organizations working at the grassroots level in different communities across the U.S. Dunning also interviewed other national and regional funders working on these issues. We convened the service organization directors and project managers to discuss commonalities and overall learning from the local organizations and artists. Then, we subsequently met with them to discuss potential ways to disseminate the lessons. 

Over the course of a year, Dunning identified common threads among DDCF-supported organizations that had strengthened their connections with new audiences and communities. These shared concepts created the basis for a series of six short articles, which you can find synopsized and hyperlinked to below:

- "The Paradigm Shifting Power of Audience Building/Community Engagement" explores consistent shifts in perspectives on relevance, sustainability and diversity; deep and purposeful reassessments of the organizations’ mission and goals; and operating principles of equity, diversity and inclusion.

- "Audience Building/Community Engagement Practices as Change Agents" provides insight into deep changes in the structure and practices of the organizations that initially sought to change their communities but transformed themselves in the process.

- "Effective Mindsets for Audience Building/Community Engagement" reveals specific mindsets that prioritize relationships and collaboration rather than reliable formulas as the main priority.

- "Best Practices for Funding Audience Building/Community Engagement" demonstrates the power of an environment of grant-makers that are equally committed, through their grantees, to supporting communities.

- "Evaluating and Disseminating Audience Building/Community Engagement Results" makes the case for more tailored and comprehensive evaluations of community engagement beyond linear measures of "success," and for establishing as a priority disseminating and learning with and from peer organizations.

- "Field Building Activities in Audience Building/Community Engagement" explores opportunities to invest in building the broader, field-wide movement toward community engagement and community-oriented practices through practices such as training and leadership development, peer-to-peer networks, funders’ collaborations and dissemination of research to make field-wide change.

Collectively, the above articles reveal major evolutions in thinking, moving from a focus on transactions and markets to one centered on relationships and networks. The Arts Program at DDCF similarly remains committed to learning from and with our grantees and peer funders about the needs of the performing arts field and to supporting a field that is collaborative and learns from itself. Large conferences, webinars, close conversations with our grantees and the dissemination of research remain on our agenda, and are the context for these concise articles we have briefly described above. We invite you to read them through the links above and to join us in this critical effort of supporting an arts sector that strengthens and relates deeply to its communities.

Cheryl Ikemiya, senior program officer for the arts at DDCF, directed this research. She recently retired in July 2018 after 19 years of supporting the arts across the country and internationally.