Monday, 21 October 2013

Guest post: "Arts organizations and communities: Perfect partners", by Karen O'Neill (UK)

There’s nothing more inspiring than listening to Karen O’Neill talking about the community engagement programmes of the Lawrence Batley Theatre, where she is the General Manager. Mainly because we feel how focused, serious, honest and sincere the intentions are. This is much more than words; these are the actual actions of a cultural institution that is clear about its role in the community it finds itself in. This is much more that advocating access and the building of relationships; this is actually doing it. It’s this wealth of experience that Karen shares with us today. mv

We’ve all felt it, that odd sensation in your stomach, a mixture of excitement and nerves. The sense that something new, something big is about to begin. Well right now at the Lawrence Batley Theatre (LBT) that’s how we feel because we have a new significant other, yes that’s right we have partnered with a new community!

For an arts organization, engaging with a new community is a lot like starting a new romance. There are all the same stages, getting to know one another, the wonderful honeymoon period, growing together and of course the inevitable breakup.

Getting to know you
At the LBT we have worked over the last 5 years to develop a community engagement programme and strategy that, just like a true gentleman, puts communities at the center with focus on encouraging them to lead and to inspire the work. We work with them to create pathways through which people are able to explore their own creativity and equip them to navigate the arts. We have learnt the immeasurable importance of communities feeling confident in the terms of the engagement, we must be patient and understanding allowing them to move at their own pace. We respond to the wants and the desires of the community we partner with through time spent talking and discovering together. What is learnt during this time is vital to shaping the nature of the engagement and building a good foundation on which the relationship can flourish.

Drama taster sessions for adults (Photo: Peter Boyd)
Arguably the best moment in any relationship, the time when things are moving along nicely and, quite frankly, you just can’t get enough of one another. The LBT is currently delivering a number of different workshops, programmes and projects addressing and focusing on all the things we have learnt about this community, its needs, strengths, hopes and weaknesses. With a dedicated project manager focused on the area, the LBT is looking to make strong connections with the community and use creativity as tool for change. Through a range of initiatives, from creative play workshops for young parents to inter-generational drama projects, the LBT uses creative practice to raise aspirations and encourage cohesion. 

The Couryard Circus - a celebration event for a community project producer by young people from the community (Foto: LBT)

Growing together
Once the newness has worn away, it is important that both parties take the time and energy to look towards the future and face the obstacles that may cause the relationship to falter. As many relationship experts will tell you, this can be a make or break moment. Repeatedly arts organizations parachute into communities and do not think beyond initial delivery. It is vital that a pathway from participation to performance is developed.

Arts organizations must work with communities to recognize and overcome the barriers they face when it comes to sustained arts engagement. From experience working with communities, I know these barriers can often be complex and emotive, they can center on transport, confidence, access, economic issues and the list goes on. Only by overcoming these barriers can communities move from short-term low commitment engagement (free arts activities in their local area) to either a committed engagement (buying a ticket for a show) or even an extended engagement (joining a youth theatre programme).  It is vital that arts organizations work with communities to move through these engagement steps. Just because someone came to a drama workshop in their local center does not mean that they will automatically be purchasing season tickets for their local theatre. At the LBT we work with a number of mechanisms to overcome barriers, from organized theatre trips, tours and staff talks, bringing together different community youth theatre groups, structured ticket pricing, behind the scenes sessions and so on.  Our experience has taught us how this stage of our engagement is key to success. Understanding the important role community engagement plays in audience development helps the LBT to develop audiences for now and the future.

Re:Volt - professional produced play featuring a full community cast, performed on the main stage at the LBT as part of the theatre season (Photo: Peter Boyd)

Breaking up is hard to do
All good things must come to an end and unfortunately there always comes a time when you have to walk away. The LBT always commits to a minimum of 3 years with any community. Some would ask why not stay longer and the ugly truth is simply that the need is great and the resources small. We believe that focusing our work in a community over a sustained period delivers the best result for both the community involved and the LBT.  The LBT builds the sustainability of the any community programme into the work from the start, delivering a range of capacity building projects alongside the creative programme. We understand that part of our role is to equip communities with the skills and tools they will need to sustain the creative practice after our time is over. We work with the community to develop an exit strategy tailored to their ambitions and plans for the future.

Can we still be friends?
Yes, of course! A key function for any community engagement programme is that it serves as an audience development tool.  Community engagement builds a strong and active audience who are hugely engaged with the organization, understanding its values and worth. Through the deep connections made with communities through sustained engagement, the LBT has created audiences that are both passionate about the arts and understand the value of creative practice; an audience that advocates for the LBT in forums and conversations we would never be able to gain access too, we want them to kiss and tell!

As funding cuts continue to bite and local authorities start to scale back their delivery, it is vital that arts organizations embrace and partner with communities. Through sustained and well thought out engagement programmes, arts organizations can create a zealous and involved audience base that is already convinced that the arts and culture are not a luxury but, like relationships, are an essential part of life.

Karen O’Neill is the General Manager of the Lawrence Batley Theatre (LBT) in Huddersfield West Yorkshire in the UK. The LBT, a outstanding multi-arts venue, presents the very best in live performance and works closely with the local community. As General Manager Karen oversees the strategic development of the venue from securing its financial future through fundraising and income generation to creating a place where creativity can flourish. Karen began working in the arts as a manager in community theatres, focusing on developing both community engagement with the arts and financial stability for the venues. She then moved on to work in the large scale venues within the commercial theatre sector. She is currently an International Fellow at the DeVos Institute of Arts Management at the Kennedy Centre in Washington D.C., joining arts manager from across the world for one month each year in Washington D.C to learn, create, empower and inspire each other and their organisations.

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