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Is it Audience Development or Community Engagement?

As we begin to develop our community engagement practices, it will be important to keep in mind the key differences between audience development and community engagement.

As arts presenting organizations, we have usually worked from the perspective of delivering a performing arts show/event to as large an audience as possible.  This involved the ability to convince an audience to buy a ticket and attend.  From this mind set, we go out into the community with the offer, “Wow, have I got a wonderful show for you!”   We are primarily trying to interest a potential audience member into buying a ticket to a performance that he or she finds meaningful - from a personal, cultural, or experiential place, in other words, the content of the work.  Aspects of this work include market/audience research, branding, strategic marketing, media promotion and ticket pricing. 

Over time we have also added developmental activities to the transactional starting place by providing educational activities to deepen the audiences understanding or interest in the work.  This includes activities such as artists’ talks – pre and post show, enhanced information about the show on websites and program notes, etc.  But it is important to note that the entire process was one directional – from the arts presenting organization to the public/community.  

Community engagement, however, requires us to make a substantial shift in our perspective.  We have to make an adaptive change in the way we think, function and plan.  Rather than going out into the community with a show we want to sell, we go out into the community to listen and learn about what the community’s interests are.  We go out to make relationships and seek to understand what we can do together that might benefit the community.  It’s not just about producing more ticket revenues; it’s about creating a healthier and more resilient community.  It’s also about connecting to all the creative activity in our communities, not just the narrowly defined “professional arts”.  It’s encouraging participatory activities along with sitting in “red plush seats”.  It’s about arts activity taking place throughout the community, not just in our facility.  It’s about building long-term quality relationships throughout the community to ensure a healthy arts ecology for everyone.  It’s about working in a community that more fully values having an arts presenting organization in their midst.

Resources:

Why?

Hazel England - Community & Education Director. Engaging our local community in creative ways
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Why?

Dance Across The North
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Why?

Kala Seraphin - Kingston, Ontario

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