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What does community engagement in the arts mean?

"A UW-Madison choir group founded in the late 19th century that brought together students, alumni and community members has been disbanded as the university seeks to shift resources to more student-centric offerings."

Wisconsin State Journal, June 19, 2023

This summer, after a glorious sold out program on April 30, Choral Union was quietly discontinued after 130 years of existence on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus. Regardless of the "why" the change was made, which is most likely steeped in the lack of resources available due to decades of legislative cuts to the UW System, the "how" lacked empathy for and understanding of the many stakeholders involved.

Recently, the Mead Witter School of Music has taken the positive step of extending an invitation for a Community Conversation:

Monday, October 23 from 7-8:15 pm

Mead Witter Foundation Concert Hall in the Hamel Music Center

MWSoM Director Dan Cavanagh will meet with former Choral Union singers and others members of the public to discuss the decision to discontinue Choral Union and to explore the future of campus-community choral activities.

Full text of the email sent to Choral Union stakeholders available here.

Those who are unable to attend in person are invited to send a letter to Janet Murphy, Friends of Choral Union, at JanetMusicRN(at) who will share them with campus leaders and members of the Friend group.

Photo from Wisconsin State Journal archives

Pulling back from this single case study to a broader perspective, the arts and cultural sector, both on campuses and in the community, continues to wrestle with the concept of, and the realities of, community engagement. What does that term mean to a wide range of stakeholders? What assumptions have been made and what questions remain? What are the responsibilities of a public institution? What are the various ways to engage with stakeholders throughout your program year? What are the impacts, benefits, and costs of free (loss leader) vs paid (earned income) programming? What are the impacts, benefits, and costs of active participatory opportunities vs passive audience experiences?

Zooming back in, those of us who have managed nonprofits and performing arts organizations understand it isn’t as simple as “Well, go start your own group,” especially when it would involve organizing 100+ people, obtaining access to a library of scores, and securing accessible rehearsal spaces for a choir and an orchestra. With those challenges in mind, it’s also clear that Choral Union was both an incredible opportunity for UW students and community members to collaboratively perform large scale works AND a complex organization that needed a lot of staff time, equipment, and resources to sustain.

Big picture. Over the past decade the University of Wisconsin has moved away from the UW Extension model, the Wisconsin Idea supported model, that fostered meaningful engagement through large scale programs like Write By The Lake, School of the Arts at Rhinelander, and Madison Early Music Festival and small cohort-based lifelong learning hands-on courses in painting, drawing, music, and writing from UW Continuing Studies. Many of those programs grew out of post-WWII commitment to quality of life for all citizens of Wisconsin and a true investment in the UW System and UW Extension with regular and substantial financial support from the State of Wisconsin. With ongoing budget cuts, conversations about mission and impact were replaced with a pipe dream of "revenue generating programs" that were dependent on earned income for survival. On ticket sales, on registrations ...on fees, fees, and more fees.

As someone who has spent 20+ years supporting lifelong learning programs and fostering communities and events that bring together artists and arts supporters from across generations, I‘ve witnessed the magic of collaborating with others who have different lived experiences and backgrounds. I’ve seen how an arts ecosystem of inclusion and belonging - one that invites community members in, that breaks the 4th wall, and that bridges the gap between performer and audience - can have significant impacts. On the lives of the students and artists who gain support and experience working with others. On the bottom line of the institution and organization that has built meaningful relationships that go beyond an ask for money and a ticket sale.

In the nonprofit and educational sectors, all of those opportunities take money and time to support and cultivate and a return to a mindset that is mission-driven rather than one of corporate efficiencies. A dual bottom line - one that seeks to balance mission with financial stability - is harder as it may require a more nuanced and complex revenue mix and understanding of expenses. Experiences balance "efficiencies." And, most importantly, organizations move away from a scarcity mindset and toward one of abundance. The conversation shifts from "This is what we can do with what we have." to "What could we do with more?" and from there to "How do we get there?"

The first step is honest communication. Sharing the challenges that your organization faces with your stakeholders and inviting them to be part of an ongoing conversation - about the ecosystem within which you operate, about trends in the industry and your community, and about significant shifts that have impacted your ability to fulfill your mission. Locally, Forward Theater, a professional not-for-profit theater company, has been a leader in this approach - publishing their full budget on their website, communicating what those numbers mean via their Annual Reports, and opening up the season planning process via their podcast. Rather than assuming that your stakeholders understand what's going on beyond the curtain, expand your storytelling from what's "on stage" to the other 80% of your activities. Shift your asks for investment of time and money from only "project based" to also including "people based" - both in terms of staff needed to fulfill your mission and in telling the stories of those positively impacted by your organization.

Answer the "Who are you?," "What do you do?," and "Why does it matter?" and you can move on to engaging a broad array of stakeholders in "How can I help?" Sometimes those conversations may be difficult as you consider what to stop, what to pause, what to continue, and what to pursue but the important part is the conversation itself. Gathering perspectives, sharing information, and working together.

UW Choral Union, January 2020


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