Local arts agencies (LAAs), which support, promote, and develop the arts at a local level, can meet a community’s needs for engaging its citizens by using the arts in creative and strategic ways. In this capstone project, I explore how LAAs’ programs perceive and define civic engagement in order to understand how they seek to create civic competencies, and engage communities in crucial activities of local public life. Further, I analyzed current trends, practices, and program outcomes of LAAs that promote or integrate the arts in other civic activities to develop a resource for community leaders wanting to create a more cohesive, integrated, and sustainable community.
My goal is to provide a framework to explore and understand how LAA programs have succeeded in attaining civic engagement objectives. In order to do this, I examined different roles LAAs can assume in civic engagement programs, as makers, enablers, and funders. I explore how changing governance structures affect the development of programs that promote various opportunities for education, dialogue, and participation.
Through a purposive sampling technique, I assessed how 16 LAAs are working to accomplish their civic engagement program goals. Analyzing 13 interviews with practitioners and secondary data about the organizations, I found that the most common perception of civic engagement was the creation of social capital through community participation. This has been achieved by a change in funding priorities to focus on individual projects and by capacity building to enable greater participation by more diverse social groups. Further, many LAAs face the challenge of continued and sustainable funding, so public agencies are playing a major role as funders, while private organizations tend to focus on programmatic development.
Understanding the unique contexts for civic engagement program development is important to help enable LAAs and community leaders to initiate their own programs. Whether communities face urban and demographic challenges or are developing a city’s identity, civic engagement leads to the provision of a public benefit in multi-faceted ways. Local policymakers should support strategic civic engagement initiatives and look to LAAs as creative partners, since the goals of government and the goals of LAAs are increasingly becoming complementary.
Thus, the perception of civic engagement needs to be diversified from simply participating in traditional civic activities, to include the capacity for dialogue, which is essential to sustain a vibrant community and to increase the impact of these activities on local governance and community life.