What does ‘public engagement’ mean?

Noorlinah Mohamed - Wednesday, February 12, 2014
At a lunch meeting with several arts administrators in January 2014, someone at the table highlighted the recent arts policy shift in Singapore towards ‘engagement’, as opposed to ‘outreach’. Curiously I asked if there were any difference between the two. There must be a difference, insisted the next. Otherwise the change would only be cosmetic. But the catch is, ‘engagement’ is an oft-used word, easy to discuss but hard to implement. A few weeks later, while on a work trip in Washington D.C. visiting schools and arts centres, the word ‘engagement’ surfaced again. Keen to know what others think of public engagement, I made my rounds, speaking to organisers of engagement programmes. I wanted to know what and how engagement is perceived and organised. Here is a compilation of some key phrases that surfaced in the discussions:

Engagement . . .
  • is about communicating with other people;
  • getting people outside our normal circle excited and interested about the things we are passionate about; 
  • making something engaging and accessible;
  • a two-way dialogue, a possible exchange;
  • making connections between people, between ideas, between different ways of doing something;
  • bringing the topic, subject matter, out of its conventional domain and into the public realm;
  • negotiations between what you think you know and what you hope and yet to know;
  • advancing the knowledge and generating awareness, like advocacy. 

What is clear from this list is that ‘public engagement’ involves effective communication and negotiation. And it is both a tool and a process of extending knowledge from one field of expertise by bringing others beyond the field into it. If ‘outreach’ signals a one-way direction initiated by an expert-centred approach, ‘engagement’ suggests a communication process that hinges on dialogue, a conversation and possibly an exchange of ideas between one or more groups.

Discussing and listing what others say about ‘engagement’ makes it an easy enough concept to understand. But the challenge is really its implementation. At a glance, an engagement programme looks no different from an educational or outreach event. It offers the same format: talks; workshops; free or low-priced performances; and bringing productions out of their walled arts preserve into public spaces. Generally speaking, it has all the similar aims, that is, generating awareness, advancing the knowledge of a particular topic or subject. But it is in the detail that the real shift is felt.

While in Washington D.C., I attended the National Symphony Orchestra (NSO) community engagement programme. The NSO, realising that it is increasingly hard to get people into the concert halls, decided to bring music to them. Called the NSO in Your Neighbourhood, the community engagement programme includes performances and educational activities staged in a selected community or district within the D.C. area. The orchestra performs in parks, schools, coffee shops, by the sidewalk, in markets, homeless shelters and even train stations. The aim: “to reach a wide audience” and “hope people of all ages will embrace classical music with the same excitement as we do at the NSO”.

The one NSO community engagement event I attended took place in an events hall of a covered marketplace. The audience of 200 was varied: some as young as 3 years old and there were tourists, passers-by and parents of NSO youth members. Several things stood out for me while I watched the NSO perform. Firstly, the set-up was minimal, the NSO made do with chairs provided by the marketplace. There was no microphone to amplify the conductor’s voice when she introduced the music. Secondly, the programme consisted not only of the usual performance of pre-selected and thematically structured compositions, but was accompanied by a mini demonstration and introduction of each instrument. The demonstration highlighted the origin, the history as well as quirky trivia only those intimate with their instruments would know. Thirdly, the orchestra comprised both senior professional musicians as well as youth members (the latter were students or past students of the NSO young talent division). Finally, not only do they play the music, they also offered anecdotes such as history of the piece of music, including adaptations and variations of the work, if any, across different musical types (pop, jazz and classical) and periods. All packed in a 45-min repertoire. It was quite a ‘dense’ and complex programme. Yet it was both informational and entertaining. It displayed expert knowledge yet presented in an accessible manner. 

One of the musicians commented later that the community engagement programme was not just about playing good music, but “making the connection that music relates to everyday life”. And the key to good programming is understanding how, in this case orchestral music, can be made relatable without reducing the fundamental quality and essence of the music itself. Hence showing that quality music can be played in unsuspecting venues like a train station or a marketplace is an important aspect of the NSO’s engagement endeavour.

The NSO believes that such engagement programmes not only foster public appreciation of orchestral music, but also enhance their musicians’ experience of communicating their love for music to the public. Indeed, the process of programming would lead the musicians to unconventional areas, connecting their musical knowledge with other fields. For the marketplace performance, the programmer not only researched music history but also the history of the community to connect the selection of music with the locale. And in another NSO event to young people, a musician spent 6 months programming an engagement event that made innovative connections between music and science, geography, nature, as well as technology.

But there is one thing I think is missing in the 8 bullet points I highlighted earlier. And that is openness. The NSO team, musicians and conductors, at least those I met, seem ‘open’ to making, or should I say creating time to build strong engagement programmes. But their openness is met with an equally curious and open minds and hearts of the audience, the very people these programmes are tailored for. The 'openness' on both sides requires time to nurture and sustain. Not only time, but also constant negotiation. Negotiating what is created and how they are created, negotiating comfort zones and learnt habits, negotiating perceptions and beliefs. It is not enough to make the public know what we want them to know – though of course it starts out with the one who knows more leading the way – but the goal is to go beyond telling, to dialogue, to enable experience, to inform thoughts and ideas of everyone involved in the engagement. What I am alluding to is that in an engagement programme there needs to be time and space for both the people involved in the engagement programmes and the audience to be partners of the ‘engagement equation’; connecting in a continuous flow of offerings, receptions and responses.

This brings me to Festival Director, Ong Keng Sen’s ideas for The O.P.E.N. He framed The O.P.E.N. as connecting arts making and thinking to the way we live. This is done by focusing on thoughts, ideas and concerns as central to the engagement process. All of us coming to The O.P.E.N. may not come from an arts background. But we all hold thoughts and ideas on issues that circulate globally. At The O.P.E.N. some of these issues are talked about, discussed and space is made for the public to converse and communicate their responses to the topic and to enrich the programme with their experiences. I am not sure if the tone and balance is set just right for this first installment of The O.P.E.N. But I am certain it can be developed. We can slowly invest in building a repertoire and vocabulary of continued public engagement, especially in the arts.

Let’s begin the engagement now: What is public engagement to you? And what would you want from a public engagement programme?

(a) The work trip in Washington was organised by the National Arts Council. I was part of a delegation of arts education specialists visiting schools and arts centres studying arts education initiatives.

(b) Public engagement in public policy and governance is not new. I will not elaborate on it here, but a useful article to turn to about public engagement in governance is Kenneth Paul Tan’s Public Engagement: The Gap Between Rhetoric and Practice (Ethos – Issue 11, August 2012).

Copyright 2014. Arts House Limited.
Unless otherwise stated, other images by Jeannie Ho