“Future Proofing” Public Engagement

I am interning with Hancher Auditorium this summer to explore the meaning behind the “future proofing” of public engagement work. As a public-facing scholar who is dedicated to revitalizing the relevance of the university in today’s world, I am researching what publicly engaged work means post-pandemic and how arts-based approaches to public engagement work could help facilitate conversations about the “future proofing” of community engagement. Arts engagement took on a very different methodology in the last year and much of the work that went into the shift of ‘going virtual’ underscored a renewed focus on accessible, equitable, and inclusive practices within public engagement work. I am exploring questions about equal access, arts accessibility, and inclusivity within the participatory culture of the arts. I am specifically interested in exploring public engagement at Hancher at the intersection of arts engagement and community engagement, a process of inclusive public participation designed to support the well-being of the communities through the building of deep relationships between the arts and their communities. This is where my internship begins!

Hancher Illuminated. Source: Iowa Now.

Hancher is a gateway for engagement at the University of Iowa. The networks and communities that uplift and support Hancher were not absent during the pandemic, so the programming that once democratized engagement within the auditorium had to methodologically shift to virtual spaces. Engaging audiences took on a whole new meaning, and Hancher found that ‘going virtual’ has actually benefited its served communities in more ways than one. For instance, programming was more accessible and equitable for school districts and school groups who visit Hancher. Expanded technological capabilities allowed artists to sustain their livelihoods in new and exciting ways as well as connect with communities that were previously out of reach. So, the problem-solving behind what initially began as a means of providing social connections through art during the pandemic has turned into a historic preservation project that examines the public impact behind virtual innovation for artists who have made substantive contributions to the vitality of communities in the past year. How do arts-based approaches facilitate community participation? How can our creativity from the past year be used to “future proof” public engagement work?

I am currently building a virtual innovation report to validate the continued use of virtual opportunities for artist residencies. Virtual engagement uplifts residencies off stage and expands audience engagement out of the auditorium in methods that are arguably more accessible, equitable, and inclusive. In the past year, performing arts centers across the country saw major changes in their audiences, the build-up of digital infrastructures, a renewed focus on equity and activism in response to social justice initiatives, and challenges in maintaining community relevance. Hancher utilized the outdoors for Hancher Illuminated (despite the cold weather!) to create spaces for live performance and audience engagement during the height of the pandemic. Audience response from last season’s event Virtual Jazz at Lincoln Center praised the “nuanced communication” brought to them within the “in-home experience” that allowed people to engage with the artists like never before. It is energizing to see the new ways in which cultural venues will be utilized moving forward to service an even wider variety of events by unlocking the world of virtual engagement.

So, back to the initial question, what does the “future proofing” of public engagement work look like? Well, to start, digital is here to stay. The greater use of digital alternatives in the past year suggests the technological infrastructures that were built should not necessarily be abandoned. New hybrid models of performance could support a digital events package offered to audiences at greater distances and offer on-demand “in-home experiences”. Artist residencies could also be better supported with digital access to wider audiences and creative outlets. I am interested in exploring the renewed appreciation for digital services that are perhaps here to stay.

I love the idea of putting creative workers to work, creating new positions, and leveraging creative power to recover, rebuild, and reimagine. To activate the creative economy is to stimulate the recovery for arts and culture. These workers uniquely engage communities to contribute to well-being and connectivity, reflecting back on local history, amplifying the unique character of places, and renewing the civic and social lives of community members through their work. I see the auditorium at the intersection of creative placemaking and the performing arts. I think about the ways the auditorium can also engage in, drive, and direct the employment of creative workers.

An overall view of a Broadway street sign with NYC graffiti art in Manhattan, New York. Source: Kostas Lymperopoulos/CSM NEWS Covid-19, Manhattan, USA – 08 Aug 2020.

The last idea I am exploring is the re-evaluation of mission and vision statements that define the purpose of public engagement within our cultural institutions. Seeing limitations in the past year as parameters for creative thought, problem solving, and ways to move forward bring issues of accessibility, equity, and inclusion to the forefront of community engagement. I think about the creation of a box office that works for everyone. I ponder both in-person and digital user-friendly experiences that are easy and straightforward. As we’re inching towards a post-pandemic era, I am contemplating how to reengage and reconnect our communities in ways that consider virtual innovation as both a method and tool to interact with public audiences. I’m excited to see what the summer brings, and to see what Hancher might consider as other cultural industries, and the communities they serve, begin to heal during post-pandemic recovery.