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Public Engagement in the Arts

Discussion paper

January 14, 201314 January 2013

Arts participation / Public engagement

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The goal of this discussion paper is to provide “a high-level overview of current thinking and practices in the sphere of public engagement in the arts”.

Noting that the concept of public engagement “springs from a broader discourse about democracy, civic responsibility and social capital”, the report highlights the “shift from a focus on the art and the artist to the public as the central driver of cultural and arts policy and actions”. The report indicates that public engagement is increasingly seen to be important “for cultural rights, arts education, expressive life, citizen participation, social cohesion, and cultural diversity”.

In its literature review, the report notes that “there is no universally accepted or generally followed definition of public engagement in the arts. In fact, the majority of works reviewed for this paper refrain from attempting to define the term.” However, there are some themes that are common in research into public engagement: “the value of personal participation, holistic impacts on people’s lives, encouragement of dialogue between the individual and a work of art, and the role of art in building social capital.” The Canada Council defines public engagement in the arts as “actively engaging more people in the artistic life of society notably through attendance, observation, curation, active participation, co-creation, learning, cultural mediation and creative self-expression”.

The report outlines some barriers to public engagement in the arts, including cost, availability, other accessibility issues, “programming and marketing which is not inclusive of the full diversity of Canadian society”, and psychological barriers to individuals’ participation.

The report provides a brief review of the practices of other national arts funders regarding public engagement, the relationship of public engagement to cultural policy, and a snapshot of cultural participation statistics. The study indicates that “there is a need to know more about the quality and value of the experiences that the public has”, as well as the successful tools and mechanisms that could be used by policy and funding agencies. The report outlines a key concern for the arts: how to ensure “the legitimacy of an artistic life”, not just “the legitimacy of a communal cultural life”.

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