Community Engagement in the Time of COVID-19

Posted by Ms. Patricia Walsh, Mar 25, 2020

Ms. Patricia Walsh

In the arts and culture sector, the impact of postponing or canceling community engagement events arguably hurts the public art field more than most. With social distancing practices supported by many medical professionals and government agencies to help slow the COVID-19 pandemic, limitations on public gatherings are good for public health but can provide a challenge for public art administrators to keep projects on schedule. Generally, public art community engagement practices aim to build connections and strengthen communication with stakeholder groups related to a project’s location or themes, or as part of oversight for public art programs. Communities engaged through public art include residential groups, local stakeholders, arts commissions, and others; and canceling or postponing events may hinder the development of public art projects.

This blog post aims to provide insight, resources, and recommendations to maintain community engagement for public art projects and programs as we all work to promote health and safety in our communities. 

“On the Threshold (Salvaged Stoops, Philadelphia)” by Kaitlin Pomerantz. Photo by Steve Weinik.

Closed Events

Closed events, such as certain artist selection panels, can be done successfully via remote access. Recently Beth Tobey, Arts Manager for the City of Beaverton (Oregon), hosted an artist selection panel with over half the panel calling in remotely. The panel was able to have a thoughtful dialogue and keep the project moving forward. As artist selection panels are typically smaller groups of people (under 20 inclusive of staff), these remote panels can be implemented through video conferencing systems that allow for sharing of visuals, such as presentations or desktops, that are relevant to the meeting. Zoom has become a popular platform, although to get the most out of it does take financial investment as well as time to set up. Skype is a free Microsoft tool that can host up to 50 people and allows for video sharing and conference calling. Others are using FaceTime, which can only be used by Apple or iOS users, and Google Hangouts, which requires a Google account to use. Do research based on your specific needs and the tech capabilities of your panelists before moving forward. There may be low-tech options (see below) that can work for you as well.

Video conferencing platforms also can work for grant panels. I recently sat on a panel managed by Netanel Portier and her colleagues at Mural Arts Philadelphia, who used Zoom to connect panelists and staff facilitators from across different states. This allowed for dialogue and decisions to be made to keep the grant process moving forward. During the online event, a voting app was used to gather votes on the different submissions under review. Americans for the Arts has used PollEverywhere for long distance staff meetings; attendees respond to surveys through text message, smart phone app, or a web browser. Other voting apps include Slido and Doodle.

If you’re facilitating a video or conference call for the first time, or want to learn effective ways of doing so, read How to Run a Great Virtual Meeting from Harvard Business Review.

Public Events

Public events—such as artists workshops or arts and culture commission meetings that are open more widely to the public—may still occur virtually, and may take additional time to set up. Julia Muney Moore, in working on a collaborative project between Arts Council of Indianapolis and Keep Indianapolis Beautiful, reported that they were able to implement a community workshop taking social distance requirements into account: “We made the difficult decision to cancel an open community workshop and are rescheduling it as a Facebook Live presentation that will be recorded so anyone can check it out at their leisure. We are also going to be scheduling ‘watch parties’ for the recorded session so we can answer live questions in upcoming weeks.” Luckily, Julia and her project team were able to test this type of engagement before the lockdowns on social gatherings began: “We did a Facebook Live session for an artist-related workshop a couple of months ago for the same project and it was great—we didn’t do it because of the virus, but because of accessibility. That proved to us that we could use the technology going forward.”

When it comes to scheduled meetings of a public art commission, or an arts and culture council associated with municipal government, now is a good time to brush up on your state’s sunshine laws and connect with the clerk’s office on what kind of meetings, such as virtual versus in-person, are permitted in order to keep meetings scheduled yet publicly accessible. Take cues from your city, town, or county councils to see how these meetings may proceed.

Using Facebook Live or other free and easily accessible tech products allows for community engagement while practicing social distancing. Recording events and meetings and setting up watch parties also gives folks who miss the initial presentation a chance to connect later. Check out 10 Facebook Live Tips to Follow Before, During & After Your Broadcast by Sprout Social for best practices when coordinating an online public event.

Additional tools and insights to implement public engagement events comes from the International Association for Public Participation, which developed “Adaptive Engagement Tool Ideas” to help consider different ways to connect during COVID-19.

Low-Tech Options

Even though our modern communications rely heavily on technology, it is important to remember that not everyone in our communities has equal access to the same technological capabilities, including access to high-speed broadband internet—which is what allows many of us to stream movies, participate in video conferencing platforms like Zoom, and download large data file in a short amount of time—and a computer. Though many areas with low broadband access are rural areas, access to high-speed internet in all geographic areas can come with financial implications that may hinder those with limited funds. Keeping access to technology in mind, here are a few low-tech options to implement public engagement activities while still practicing social distancing:

  • Survey participants. For specific groups such as artists panels and arts commissions, send a letter or an email to participants to understand their capabilities. Ask what type of phone everyone uses, such as smart phones, landlines, or cell phones, and whether their internet can handle large downloads or video conferencing/streaming.
  • Allow for additional prep time. Work with your colleagues to make sure materials are prepped ahead of time so you can mail out items for review prior to the meeting or send it via a shared file system, such as (pricing starts with free access up to 10GB of storage) or Sharepoint (a free app with Microsoft 365). For mailings, note that in a recent study coronavirus has been found to live up to 24 hours on cardboard; make sure to mail items in advance so recipients can leave the envelope outdoors for 24 hours before they open the package. 
  • Set up a conference call. Artist selection panels, community groups, and even boards and commissions can still get work done through a telephone conference call. If you already have access to a video conferencing system like Zoom, you may be able to use it to perform telephone conference calls as well. If your organization currently doesn’t have a conference call system and is on a budget, consider a service like or These services often are free for the organization, although long-distance charges may apply to callers. allows for up to 1,000 participants in one call, and the host can break participants into separate conference calls for smaller breakout sessions during an event. If you have the budget for the paid plan, you can get similar features plus a toll-free number for participants to use. Do your homework and take your budget (and the finances of those participating!) into account to find the best service for you.

While planning for new ways to engage with communities, remember to stay in contact with your project teams, community stakeholders, client agencies, funders, budget offices, and others who are part of overall project development. In this new world, many are flexible when it comes to deadlines due to the changes we are facing as a nation and as a global community. At times, it may be better to postpone an event or project rather than risk the health of yourself, staff, artists, and communities when implementing an event that could further the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. If you do move forward, I hope these resources provide ideas on how to keep your public art project or program going safely and engagingly.

Have stories, resources, or ideas on how to continue community engagement activities during the pandemic? Please send them to [email protected] so we can add them to the conversation. 

Visit Americans for the Arts' COVID-19 Resource and Response Center to learn ways the arts are affected by the coronavirus health crisis and how you and your organization can respond.