Making Meaningful Connections: Characteristics of Arts Groups that Engage New and Diverse Participants

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Resource Details
Publication Date: 
July 2014
Holly Sidford, Alexis Frasz, and Marcelle Hinand
Number of Pages: 
PDF icon Making Meaningful Connection.pdf1.47 MB

Patterns of participation for arts and cultural activities have resisted significant change. In Making Meaningful Connections, The James Irvine Foundation researches attendance patterns of small, community-based cultural organizations and events. Attendance diversification is not only important to organizations that produce “benchmark arts activities,” but for smaller organizations that may work within specific demographic populations and would simultaneously like to expand their community participant base.


Through interviews, primary field research, and interviews, this study presents a framework that identifies key factors necessary to broadening community engagement.

  1. Strong Mission: To remain dynamic and relevant, every aspect of their organizational practice, including their art-making, must acknowledge and engage the social and demographic trends in their locality and in the society as a whole.
  2. Leadership: These organizations have strong leaders who sustain focus on arts engagement, and who are comfortable with risk and failure. These individuals have links to and expertise with the populations the organization wants to engage more deeply. They celebrate successes and make the most of failures — understanding that making change requires taking risks and not every effort will succeed. Such leaders have led their organizations to conduct cultural competency assessments, create specific inclusion plans and implement internal structures to support diversity.
  3. Cultural Awareness: These organizations sustain an ongoing, multilingual conversation about diversity and inclusion, both internally and externally.
  4. Space: This may involve making changes in physical spaces
  5. Community Relationships: Organizations that are making true shifts toward engaging diverse participants respect the leaders already working in the communities where they want to deepen relationships. They share power and compensate partners adequately for their contributions to joint projects.
  6. Programming: They want diverse people to see themselves in the organization and its programming. This includes hiring artistic personnel and working with artists that are members of the communities they hope to attract, and using other methods such as community advisory committees, market research, focus groups, one-on-one conversations and other means to understand the values and interests of different populations.
  7. Sustained Business Model: the work must be consistent and sustained

This report offers an initial framework of key organizational characteristics for cultural institutions that are genuinely engaging participants who reflect their communities’ changing demographics. It is not comprehensive, but adds to the discourse on diversity.

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