A community conversation

by Jini Stolk

Kudos to The Canada Council for instigating an online sharing of ideas around public, audience and community engagement in the arts. I was honoured to be asked to help launch the Council’s new blog series which they hope will stimulate an ongoing conversation on what’s working and what’s not; how companies are integrating public engagement into their programming; how this work influences artists and their communities; and whether companies are seeing a change in the commitment and involvement of their audiences – to name just a few of the questions that I’d love to see addressed.

Julie Lebel’s companion piece about her experiences as a dance artist deeply committed to increasing the points of connection between individuals and art experiences, is filled with perspective from her mentor Liz Lerman and from her own work in Vancouver. I’d like the opportunity to sit down with Julie. I’m inspired by the passion she’s putting into “… allow(ing) the work or the process to become an invitation, an experience of exchange and sharing for the public and the performers.”

As she notes, this is a far cry from the idea that a work of art is merely a consumer product – it’s actually a change in how we think about the scope and purposes of art. Special treat: I had the pleasure of meeting Cassie Meador, Artistic Director and John Bostel, Senior Advisor Humanities, of DanceExchange (the company Lerman founded) at last week’s Staging Sustainability Conference. Among other impressive things they’re doing is weaving together the concepts of dance and the body with the health of the earth.

When writing my own contribution to the Council’s blog series I wished I had space to provide a few more examples (like Kaeja d’Dance’s Porch View Dances series and  STEPS Tallest Mural in the World Project in St. Jamestown of public engagement at its best. )Wolf/Brown to the rescue, as is so often the case, with a fascinating piece (From Events to Arcs: Designing Aesthetic Experiences) by Dennie Palmer Wolf on the intersections between public engagement and arts education at the New Victory Theater in New York City’s Times Square. The New Vic presents work for children, schools, and families – and as far as they’re concerned each performance event  begins with anticipation and doesn’t end until the participants stop remembering and connecting to what they saw and experienced.

This type of engagement, as I firmly believe, is a necessary part of ensuring a sustainable future for the arts and one of the most important things we do.

I was told in my invitation from The Canada Council that I could, if I wished, write about the challenges in creating public engagement activities. I didn’t do that, perhaps because I had just read this post which says, quite rightly, that when we enter a career in the arts it’s a given that building new audiences is a challenge; making art and the quality of the work is inherently unpredictable; the way the work is received will always vary; and that art is difficult to market.

These are the tasks we’ve signed up for, and finding solutions to these challenges provides some of our most creative and stimulating opportunities.

In the spirit of sharing (so that our beloved colleagues don’t have to start down their own public engagement roads without a map)  Creative Trust’s Audience Engagement  Survey  reports on a first‐time, collaborative initiative by 20 Toronto performing arts companies to hear directly from their audiences on what motivates them to attend and what helps them connect more deeply with the work they see on stage.

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