Hands-On Learning Benefits Community Arts Organizations

Photo Credit: Donna Walker-Kuhne

In the fall of 2019, I had the honor and pleasure of teaching a new course at New York University’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development. The course title was “Community Engagement for Community Arts Organizations/Centers.” I was excited to create and teach this class because its goal was also service-oriented. Not only did the students learn the theoretical tools for building audiences in a classroom, the 25, diverse participants in the course learned the principles of community engagement and strategic planning through a hands-on opportunity to support locally based, multicultural arts organizations.

Over the course of seven weeks, the students participated in field trips and meetings with the leadership of four, multicultural arts organizations: Asian American Arts Alliance (A4); New Federal Theatre (established by Woodie King, Jr., and now celebrating its 50th anniversary); The Clemente Soto Vélez Cultural and Educational Center, Inc. (focusing on the preservation of Puerto Rican/Latino culture) and the National Museum of the American Indian—New York. I love each of these organizations and know that their contributions to the artistic and cultural landscape are significant and essential on both a local and global scale.

I also know that funding for audience development and/or community engagement is infrequently given to arts organizations of color. Instead, funders primarily give it to larger institutions with white audiences, not recognizing that audience development and community engagement is a necessity for all arts organizations. We discovered that each of the institutions with whom we worked all shared the same goal—they wanted to engage a more multicultural audience, based on geography and programming. However, these organizations were hampered due to the lack of budget or staff for implementation.

The students worked in teams to assess each organization’s challenges. In addition to significant amounts of reading, which included case studies from around the country, my first book, Invitation to the Party, as well as posts from Arts & Culture Connections, they used marketing tools, analysis and dialogue to create solid action steps for each organization.

I was impressed with the detail and focus they employed to unpack the key challenges—whether it was helping the arts organization focus its lens more clearly on targeting new audiences for specific programs or utilizing marketing strategies based on a strategic plan. Fueled by their passion for the arts, the students were very thorough in the creation of their final plans for the multicultural arts organizations. Their strategic plans included timelines, audience targets, along with measurements for success.

I am grateful to the class for their passion, sense of adventure, commitment to their teams and to the organizations for which they created great work. It is my hope that the receiving arts organizations will be able utilize these plans to advance their community engagement objectives. From the comments I so far have received, I believe these efforts will be a significant asset for these vital institutions in 2020.

I also must extend my thanks to Richard Maloney, Ph.D., Director of NYU’s Performing Arts Administration Graduate Program and a Clinical Associate Professor. When I shared my idea for this course, he immediately supported it and secured approval for its offering.

Finally, it is my hope that my colleagues who read Arts & Culture Connections will be inspired and committed to share their skills with students, enabling them to dream, to discover, to create and learn from their hands-on contributions to arts organizations in need of additional expertise and support.

Please feel free to share your comments below or send me an email: donna@donnawalkerkuhne.com.

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