Public engagement through the arts

I have enjoyed seeing how Canada Council for the Arts has joined the conversation about public engagement in the arts.

The latest addition is this report Dialogues: Public Engagement in the Arts (link to PDF)

Reading it, I noticed that much of my own work in recent years has become entwined in this national conversation:

  • As lead investigator and author of the Value of Presenting study, commissioned by CAPACOA on behalf of Canada’s presenting networks.
  • As part of the research team for the Canada Council’s ground-breaking Dance Mapping Study’s Yes I Dance survey.
  • As workshop leader and presenter at the Creative City Summit and CAPACOA conferences which were cited.
  • And references to the Value of Presenting study were part of the discussions at several cited events including Culture Days Congress, Wasan Island meeting initiated by the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation, and the Power of the Arts National Forum, co-hosted by the Michaëlle Jean Foundation and Carleton University’s Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences.

I have been enjoying collaborating with CAPACOA to continue to bring to life this research and champion the lessons learned and apply them on the ground.

I believe now is a good time for the performing arts sector as a whole and individual arts organization to think about whether they are seeking “public engagement in the arts” or public engagement through the arts”.

The Council’s working definition of public engagement in the arts is “Actively engaging more people in the artistic life of society notably through attendance, observation, curation, active participation, co-creation, learning, cultural mediation and creative self-expression.”

Public Engagement through the Arts

Public engagement through the arts aims at something somewhat different — and more. It alludes to some of the community and societal benefits we are continuing to realize and are beginning to understand better.

  • We are learning that attending performing arts improves health outcomes – there is plenty of evidence that participating in the arts via art therapy or choir practice, for instance, has proven health benefits; that attendance by itself does, too, I learned through looking at a much broader range of health sciences research cited in our report.
  • We  can see that there are strong correlations between civic engagement, like volunteering, and attending performances and festivals, thanks to Hill Strategies‘ reports.
  • Canadians believe social cohesion, pride in community, understanding each other within and across cultures and backgrounds all accrue as a benefit of attending live performing arts events, of bringing the community together, and bringing energy and vitality into communities.
  • My work on a needs assessment and feasibility study (PDF) for the formation of Sistema Canada as a national network for Sistema programs that can galvanize and grow a movement across the country allowed me to learn about how these programs are designed to help children and youth realize their full potential through ensemble-based, intensive music learning. These children are not becoming musicians, even though some might well, as much as they are becoming citizens.

The question I am pondering is this: what does it look like to design programming, curate arts experiences, behave in communities, contribute to solving community problems, create engagement in, with or through the arts, in order to engender some of these broader benefits? Can performing arts organizations design to obtain or increase these benefits in some way?

Certainly, I see opportunities for both approaches (the in and the through) to create lasting and important benefits. I do not believe one is more desirable than the other necessarily.

A lived experience

As someone who attends a lot of shows – for fun, not work – I wonder what, if anything, would change if the underlying purpose shifted toward my whole community more often.

There are examples of such effects already. One that amazed me was Northern Scene last April organized by the National Arts Centre. Ottawa has never felt more vibrant and exciting to me than when 250+ Northern artists, spanning the full range of cultures, heritages and backgrounds, were in the city. Attending shows and meeting people has left me with an indelible sense of the North I just have not had before. It left me knowing more, a knowing that is in the bones more than the head, about the country I inhabit and the awesome and endless variety of people and experiences. I have attended other Scenes featuring other Canadian regions before, but the Northern Scene felt to me like a cultural meeting of minds and hearts beyond anything I could have anticipated. It made me want to go North and see and learn.

In short, I was highly engaged through the arts with the North. And, perhaps not surprising, I am going to spend time this year in both Nunavut (for work) and Yukon (for pleasure). I will see. I will  learn. I will experience. I will be. And that, I am truly excited about.