Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Connecting and Engaging Communities

How do the arts connect to communities? In the United States right now there are so many arts organizations that have been around for decades, yet so many of them find the task of connecting to their communities to be a real challenge. Arts education and outreach programs exist in almost every major city in America, yet somehow they are not fully succeeding at engaging their surrounding communities. These organizations need to find a new model for reaching out to their audiences and most importantly, they need to identify a successful way to activate and sustain their audience's engagement.

In Venezuela, El Sistema has managed to connect to their communities by using music as a "vehicle for  development". Their model is innovative but has a clear mission.Their approach of "sharing the knowledge of music with under-served populations" has produced such a clear outcome that the whole world is paying attention and now wants to learn.

Arts organizations in the US can learn a lot from this Venezuelan model but may not have the time to go and observe El Sistema for weeks or months, although some have. Some of the important lessons to learn from El Sistema aren't new ideas, they are just ideas that have not been implemented here before, at least not with the proper dedication of time and energy. If there is one thing I would underline that has to be done, it's the investment of time. Time could mean years, and years translates to a big financial investment for a lot of these institutions. But that's what it takes. We cannot expect to build sustainable community engagement in a few months, or with a handful of run-out concerts or music workshops.  If we want to really create interest we have to impact crowds and target arts education in innovative ways. We have to use alternative pedagogy, what some expert teaching artists call "passion driven education".

Some of us may have a hard time adjusting to these ideas. Our personal backgrounds and ways of doing things can "conflict" with the El Sistema model. If you find yourself in this position, I encourage you do investigate just a little, and identify for yourself the successes of this model. I admit I am an advocate for El Sistema. My job is simple, as Eric Booth describes it: "the purpose of advocacy is not to change what people think but to change what people do, and what people do is based on what they believe. If you change what people believe, you can get them to change". As an advocate for El Sistema USA, I am dedicated to changing how arts organizations approach and interact with their communities and am on a quest to challenge what they believe they know to be true about community engagement.

If you have any thoughts, please comment.....

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