Collaboration—Not Artists for Hire

June 4, 2019

By: April Greene

The workshop “Collaborative Practice from the Artists' Perspective” took place on May 23, 2018 at the ArtPlace 2018 Annual Summit in Louisville, Kentucky.

  • How can organizations ensure they are actually collaborating with artists on creative placemaking projects—not just executing their own plans with artist input?
  • What particular challenges do urban planners, policy makers, etc, face when they set out to work with artists? And vice versa?
  • How can artists aid community development efforts to center historic inequities?
  • How can artists balance the context of a project, the project’s goals and limitations, and the ideals of their own practice to be the best partners they can be?

These and many other questions were posed by and to workshop presenters Soneela Nankani and Michael Rohd of Sojourn Theatre and the Center for Performance and Civic Practice, as well as to the attending audience.

Collaboration in creative placemaking can be daunting for artists and non-artists alike. Using artists’ experiences, assets, and challenges as a starting point, this session sought to help participants take their partnerships to the next level by examining what goes into successful (and not so successful) cross-sector relationship development.

Some highlights from the conversation:


What’s unique & valuable about artists as partners in community development? Artists...

“...bring the chaos factor. They can bend the reality of whatever the sector happens to be. Artists can use the language of the arts to change the dynamics of authority. If someone challenges an artist, they can say, ‘This is the art part of this—let’s go with it.’ We can use art to change perceptions.”

“...are attuned to and aware of story; they’re attracted to and curious about epic tales. When you look at a situation as a journey like that, you see the obstacles and challenges as part of the story: you think about how the story’s being told and who’s telling it. That goes along with the idea of, ‘If you don’t like the narrative, change the narrator.’”

“...have an aesthetic awareness that beauty matters—that beauty is a right.”

“...are good at translating different thought processes and changes that occur. They’re good at taking in the landscape and communicating it to people in a digestible way.”

“...are used to not knowing the solution from the start. They’re used to play as part of their process, and to the potential of discovery as part of their work.”

“...are often used to having multiple jobs, or assuming different responsibilities within a project. In a small theater, for example, the artistic director could also be the development director. More than in other fields, that need for multitasking and a wide skill set is at play. While that’s difficult, it can also be a great benefit.”


How do power, equity, and analysis play into cross-sector collaborations with artists?

“Consider it part of your work to spend time with people: do what they’re doing; be interested in what they’re interested in. Go to church with them, even if you’re not of that faith. Go to everything you’re invited to.”

“If you wait for issues of equity to come up organically, sometimes they won’t. Talking purposefully and openly about the power dynamics that are inside the room from the get-go is how we can be honest about where the floor is before we start reaching from there.”

“Sometimes the artist is great, but doesn’t fit the community. Sometimes ‘trained’ artists have different values and goals than ‘untrained’ artists. We should be especially attuned to these differences in communities affected by structural racism. To make sure we understand, we need to engage more with folks in the community and gain a better understanding of who they are and where they’re coming from.”

“We look at our asks: if we’re putting an RFP [request for proposals] out there, we ask ourselves, Who are we missing? Who does this exclude? Are there other ways we can put the call out to be less exclusive? These questions help get responses from artists who are of the community, not outside it.”

“We insist on a list of equity commitments with our partners that states everything we do will positively affect communities of color where we live. That means we have to be transparent in all our decisions—board development, grants, RFPs, etc—and so do our partners.”


How can artist—and non-artist—collaborators understand the limits of their expertise?

“As the artist in a partnership, I’m often viewed as the expert, but I’m skeptical of experts—though I’m a fan of expertise. There is expertise in the room, but I prefer the idea of it being a ‘cohort,’ not a ‘mentor,’ situation. We want partnership, not gun for hire.”

“I think a lot about authority and how to create spaces where people can be recognized for the unique authority they have from their lived experiences. Financial security is important for people to be able to engage with authority, so I make that core to the work I’m trying to do.”

“It’s important to emphasize the distinction between expert and expertise. You don’t want to underestimate that someone could have a lot of special training in something—or that others could be bringing expertise of different types from different places.”

“I try to be especially mindful of being the ‘expert’ coming in. I try to approach it the way I learned ethnography: to approach lightly and listen. There’s so much variation from project to project—even if I interview someone on Monday vs Thursday—so I try to assume that I don’t know what I’m getting into. The challenge is understanding when or how to leverage what you know without assuming that you know best."

“As artists, there are times when our job is just to hold space, not lead. Sometimes I say to myself, ‘My job right now is just to witness, just to be present.’ There can be a demand for output that makes us rush into things, so this is a reminder that we can take the backseat, we can sometimes follow.”


What common problems do you see in cross-sector collaborations? Any solutions?

“‘Just put a bird on it.’ When people only beautify a place, rather than try to disrupt and actually change things there.”

“The practice of partnership itself is not always given enough attention when we talk about cross-field collaboration. We talk about the relationships we have with our community members or the people we’re trying to reach, but we can neglect the one between the immediate partners we have: the organizations and the artists.”

“Working with artists can be tricky because you need to get funding to work with them, but you don’t know how your project is going to go, which is why you’re working with them, so it’s hard to describe it so that you can get the funding!”

“The language used by funders, artists, and grantees—even when they communicate directly—can be very different and challenging to translate.”

“Partners may say they want to work with artists to bring in new ideas, but then they give artists an allotted space and scope of duties and if they try to go beyond that, they’re told, ‘Nope! You’re done.’”

“We want to get over the formula of engaging local artists and then waiting for grant funding. We like the idea of putting together a network of local artists before setting out to do a project, so we know who we can reach out to when it’s time to apply or do the work.”