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Audience Engagement
Art of Participation (PDF)
Report Highlights:
Program Planning and Evaluation
Targeted Outreach Efforts
Digital Outreach and Education
Deepening Engagement through Education and Relationships
Broad Institutional Change for Increased Capacity to Engage
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Building Community to Achieve a Common Goal
An Overview of the Participation Learning Network

The three funding agencies...share a common goal of making the arts more integral to people's lives.In 2006, Boston became one of the first two cities selected for the Wallace Foundation's Excellence Awards initiative. Thus began a four-year collaboration among the Wallace Foundation, the Boston Foundation, and the Massachusetts Cultural Council to increase public participation in the arts. The three agencies set out to support Greater Boston-based cultural organizations that, in the words of Wallace Foundation President M. Christine DeVita, "have made a commitment to engage more people deeply in the arts part of their DNA."

The program recognized organizations that were already innovators in the field and provided funding and a support network to assist them in stretching even further as they carried on what the Wallace Foundation calls "the vital work of bringing the powerful benefit of the arts to all."

Although the three funding agencies have different purviews—national, community-wide, and state-wide—they share a common goal of making the arts more integral to people's lives. But the initiative was not limited to broadening and deepening cultural participation. At the same time, the funders sought to shine a national spotlight on the critical need to engage more people in the arts and to draw lessons from the experience in Boston (and other cities supported by Wallace) that might guide and encourage other cultural organizations across the country.

Drummers performing in a World Music concert. Photo by Edgar De Souza"We wanted to work with organizations that were ready to take on a growing edge and to embrace the challenge of increasing participation as part of a larger strategy," says Ann McQueen, former Senior Program Officer for the Boston Foundation. "To be truly successful, audience development must cut to the core of an organization’s mission, rather than just be a strategy of the marketing department," concurs Charlie McDermott, Deputy Director of the Mass Cultural Council.

Ultimately, the initiative involved 22 Greater Boston-based organizations, including seven direct Wallace grantees and a local cohort of 15 organizations that were regranted funds from a Wallace Foundation grant to the Boston Foundation. (See Participants.)

Beyond providing financial support, the initiative facilitated an exchange of knowledge by creating a Participation Learning Network (PLN). Based on the model of a community of practice, the PLN brought together organizations with shared interests and similar challenges to learn from each other over an extended period of time. Public forums, directors' sessions, workshops, and special-interest salons provided the framework for an ongoing exchange of ideas. As organizations implemented their individual plans, they also contributed to the larger community. For continuity, each organization was asked to identify two key staff members who would attend PLN meetings on a regular basis.

Photo of men dancing courtesy of Jose Mateo Ballet TheatreWith staff already stretched thin, some organizations had reservations about the time commitment that the PLN could require. William Chapman, Director of Marketing and Development for Opera Boston, admits that he initially feared that the PLN would be incredibly time consuming, but that the presenters and funders "created the conditions for a good and useful dialogue." He found that participating in the PLN "helps put an end to the isolation" of the daily routine and provides an ongoing structure "to figure out what your peers are doing."

PLN speakers and activities were chosen to mix equal parts of inspiration and information while carving out time to engage in hands-on work. Presentations were loosely structured around a theme of adaptive change that became ever more relevant as each organization sought to further its audience-building efforts in a climate of increasing financial uncertainty.

Two public forums each year were open to artists, cultural organizations, and PLN members. Noted speakers, whose presentations are summarized throughout this publication, generally brought a national perspective and an inspirational message. Early in the course of the initiative, for example, Dr. Lynne Conner, Colby College faculty member and Principal Investigator for the Heinz Endowments' Arts Experience Initiative, shared innovative approaches by organizations across the country that empower audience members to find their own meaning in cultural events.

Later in the process, Ben Cameron, Program Director for the Arts at the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation, called for organizational change in response to new circumstances. His presentation provided a jolt of energy and a modicum of reassurance, even as some participants faced roadblocks to implementation of their funded projects. At the final public forum, Diane Paulus, Artistic Director/CEO of the American Repertory Theater, and Elizabeth Streb, founder of STREB Extreme Action Company and STREB Lab for Action Mechanics, engaged in a lively conversation about building an audience for challenging, even risk-taking work.

Several meetings were designed specifically for artistic and executive directors, the individuals who would lead their organizations in new ways of thinking as well as new methodologies. But the heavy lifting of the PLN resided in the four workshops per year in which participants developed their original plans and reported on their progress.

Photo by Aaron Epstein of Theater Offensive performance."I felt empowered and energized. My battery was recharged," says Gia Podobinski, Marketing and Public Relations Manager of New Repertory Theatre. "You get so caught up in the day-to-day operations, but then the PLN meetings let you get a more clear sense of strategy. This is why I’m in the arts."

Although the formal Participation Learning Network will not continue beyond the funding period, there are encouraging signs that the spirit of the network will persist. Members of the cultural community have grown to value engagement in long-term dialogue with their peers. During the course of the initiative, interest from the PLN members led to the launch of special-interest salons that address a narrow topic, such as the best use of social networking sites or web-based marketing.

"Sometimes the smaller organizations have the best ideas," says Kim Noltemy, Director of Sales, Marketing and Communications for the Boston Symphony Orchestra. "And they are usually able to act on them quickly."

NEXT: Program Planning and Evaluation Using the Logic Model

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