Written as part of a consulting project for the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, PA.
When art institutions embark on community-based projects, good intentions are sometimes overshadowed by actions that leave a negative impression or cause offense to the people they are trying to engage. Mistakes are inevitable; however, mistakes can be prevented by devoting adequate time to courting a community and figuring out how an organization can put its best foot forward. Best practices for community engagement are not dissimilar to common tips for making a new friend or going on a first date. The potential to grow that relationship is based not only on how we talk, but also on how we listen to the other person. Good conversation typically begins by asking questions, being careful not to make assumptions. Even when we feel confident about ourselves and in what we have to offer, there may be uncertainty about how we are being received or read by the other party. Amid the anxiety, there can also be joy in getting to know someone and forging a new relationship. So how might an art institution prepare to introduce itself to a new community? And what happens when you are introducing new technology at the same time?
Photos: (top) Barnes Foundation community engagement team meeting patrons and using VR headsets Charles Durham Free Library in West Philadelphia (bottom) Jihan Thomas, a Barnes educator on the Barnes VR community engagement team, leads a group in the Barnes galleries who came on the field trip. This group was from the South Philadelphia Free Library.