Friday, November 2, 2012

Arts Organizations and Community

Somewhat delayed by unexpected events including Sandy, I'll be publishing a series of blog posts inspired by the proceedings at the Salzburg Global Forum, an annual leadership seminar for 50 young nonprofit leaders in the arts organized by National Arts Strategies. Bloggers have been asked to address a series of questions facing the nonprofit arts world similar to those being considered in Salzburg.

Arts Organizations and Community

In a post-recession world, institutions which survive will be those grounded deeply in a sense of community. By community, I mean that linked group of people who establish connections with one another and with others based around an idea or a place.

Communities of ideas can exist the world over, and may never even meet physically. The internet has provided an easy way to replace the physical with the intellectual, and has provided virtual meeting spaces to encouraging the sharing of ideas. Communication has always been at the heart of communities of ideas, and that communication grows faster and more sophisticated every day. “Web 2.0” and “social media” are both buzzwords of this new, more sophisticated linking.

Communities of place are much more traditional, and foster connections by the simple virtue of familiarity breeding not contempt, but mutual reliance and affection. Small towns and neighborhoods are the ultimate example of this type, which fluctuates widely as demographics shift from urban centers to rural areas. “Third places,” such as coffeehouses, bars, and other physical institutions are also a small-scale example.

These communities can co-exist and co-create – those interested in fiber arts might congregate at a yarn store, or those in a neighborhood might form a jogging group. Communities of ideas might create brief, intense communities of place, such as a Renaissance fair or science fiction convention, and communities of place might band together to promote an idea, such as an inner-city neighborhood advocating for music education in its schools.

Museums can and should participate in both types of communities. First, all museums have subject matter expertise and collection items that can speak directly to one or more communities of ideas. Engaging with those communities can activate their passion on behalf of an institution, and they can serve as valuable advocates worldwide, no matter the location of the museum. The key to this type of engagement is consistency and transparency – regular new content accompanied by honest dialogue with those who may be more expert in a subject matter than the museum itself. This type of community engagement is much more familiar to museums, but many have yet to take full advantage of its new digital possibilities

Museums have struggled as members of a community of place. Some have succeeded brilliantly for a time, only to fall behind with a change in leadership or staff. Some have eschewed their physical communities entirely in favor of connecting only with those who have particular interest in their collections. Museums can no longer be the temple on the hill that preaches down to the masses; they must now be equal community members. This requires a great deal of flexibility and understanding, as a museum must participate equally, sometimes allowing its own identity to recede (not disappear!) to allow for another member of its community to take center stage.

Ultimately, when the time comes to prove necessity, a museum that has integrated its planning, programs, and exhibitions fully with both its virtual and physical communities will survive.

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