DC Casineros and community participants at DanceAfrica 2013

Community Arts Engagement

Community Arts Engagement is a variety of programming, performance, and event activities which leverage art to engage community members in cultural, social and economic development.  

Lessons Learned: 
Engagement and Communications: Getting Started and Reaching Target Audiences

Community arts engagement projects help directly connect community members to artists. 

Many art service organzations have been supporting communities and artists for years in doing this work, like the Association of Perfoming Arts Presenters, National Performance Network, Network of Ensemble Theaters, Alternate Roots, the First Peoples Fund, and the National Association of Latino Arts and Culture.  They are great places to reach out if just beginning.

Also there are lots of resources and stories online at Springboard for the Arts' Creative Exchange and Animating Democracy's Landscape.

From artists setting up studio spaces in senior centers in New York City, to a small non-profit helping minority and immigrant youth learn the art of portrait photography in Portland, Oregon, to writers helping youth connect with the beauty of their rural surroundings in Missoula, Montana, these projects reach out to specific audiences through the arts to help them connect to each other and to the larger environment.  

Many times project mangers targeted audiences to work with organizations such as local school districts or health and human services providers to help do outreach.  With lists of potential project participants from partner organizations, these projects then tend to use typical forms of communication to recruit participants: postcards, letters, phone calls, emails, social media, e-newsletters, and face to face communications. 

Funding and Resources: Working with Partner Organizations

Because community arts engagement projects often worked with partner organizations to help them identify potential project participants, many found it possible to seek funding from organizations unrelated to the arts. 

For example, in New York City (where they paired artists with senior centers) the project was able to gather additional funding from the Department for the Aging, and in Missoula, MT (where they integrated writing into various school curricula) they were able to get funding from the Missoula County Public Schools to support teaching in the district for equitable service to fourth grade classrooms, and grant funding from the Pleiades Foundation, a Montana based non-profit that focuses on supporting those who work for a better environment.

Partnerships and Logistics: Helping to Address Specific Community Needs

Community arts engagement projects often used the arts to address specific issues for their target audiences. 

In New York City, the SPARC program was developed as part of Age-Friendly NYC, a citywide effort to make New York City more livable for seniors. As project manager Kristin Sakoda said, “SPARC is just one part of a continuing effort on the part of New York City to increase the livability of the city for its growing population of older adults. We hope that the positive impact of SPARC will support further interest in arts and aging efforts that might result in additional changes to policies, laws and programs of the city in the future.” Similarly, in Missoula, MT project managers for the Writing Lives project worked to build on a successful summer program to create a year-round program with local schools, “by incorporating an emphasis on the natural world as a key component of creative writing teaching.” 

Goals and Evaluation: Relying on Others’ Experience

Community arts engagement projects relied on project partners outside of the arts to assist with project evaluation efforts.

In Roanoke, VA, the Parks, Recreation, and Tourism Department took charge of implementing audience surveys and counting attendance at the various park events.  The Department will use these numbers to help decide how to matchmake future arts programs to different parks around the city.  One lesson they learned in creating the surveys was that the door prizes they offered served to be too distracting to the goal of gathering feedback. “People were more interested in getting the door prizes than in giving honest feedback!”


To understand the potential that evaluation has for a community arts engagement project, the New York SPARC project serves as a good example.  This project targeted putting artists into senior centers throughout the city’s five boroughs. The New York City Department of Cultural Affairs (DCLA) and the New York City Department for the Aging (DFTA) worked together to conduct the overall project evaluation.  Kristin Sakoda, project manger, outlined that, “the program was documented and evaluated during the period of support through surveys, work samples, site visits, photographs, final reports and in-person feedback sessions to measure data, collect anecdotal evidence, and identify outcomes and findings.  We identified both quantitative measures (e.g., # of contact hours, # of seniors, # of public programs, etc.) and qualitative measures.”  What they found was that, “the most instructive criteria for SPARC related to 'quality of life indicators' of participating seniors. Studies in the field of creative aging have shown that quality of life indicators such as increased social engagement and mastery of a skill have ongoing benefits to senior populations. At the conclusion of the SPARC program, senior center directors reported an increase in quality of life indicators observed in seniors who had participated in SPARC. Observations were ranked on a scale of 1-5, with 5 representing the strongest agreement. Directors felt strongly that seniors displayed increased social engagement (average rank 4.66), increased mastery of an art form (average rank 4.25), and increased positive attitude (average rank 4.6).”  They also found that, “the least precise criteria were general anecdotes (e.g., testimonials, photographs, videos, etc.) that were submitted to DCLA by the arts councils, senior centers, and artists. However, this information was often the most compelling and instructive in terms of SPARC’s success and reach in the community.”

More information about evaulation is available on the "Project Process - Measuring Project Results" page.