Note to readers: This is the seventh in a series of blogs I am delighted to be writing for Harmony: The WomenArts Partnership Project. They appear biweekly on the WomenArts site (when you get there, scroll down for a list of blog installments), and I will also reproduce each one here.
This installment of the Harmony Project Blog focuses on veteran artists’ advice for relative beginners to the process of collaborating with non-arts organizations. They emphasized starting out with willingness to learn and give, forming relationships that are shaped from the outset by the same values and aims that should characterize every stage of a collaboration.
If you’d like a reminder of who the quoted artists are, they’re all introduced at WomenArts’ site.
Say Yes to Everything
Destiny Arts’ artistic director Sarah Crowell believes in learning by doing, which inevitably entails making mistakes. She urges newcomers to artist-organization collaborations to dive right in: “In the beginning of doing partnerships, say yes to everything. Do a bunch of collaborations. That’s the way I learn the best: I get in there and I do it, I make some mistakes. Be as strategic as you can and follow your gut around the projects that are exciting to you and aligned with your mission. Then build your understanding of who you want to collaborate with, and develop good relationships.”
Sarah believes that walking the talk is the foundation for any strong partnership: “With every single person that you meet—the janitor, the secretary, the principal, the CEO, the funder—everybody gets the same treatment, everybody gets the same benefit of the doubt, everybody gets your eye contact and your heart. I teach this from the kids up and the Board down: every interaction, every phone call, every time a parent is inquiring about something or complaining about something or connecting with you about something, any stakeholder, come with that integrity.”
Muralist and Precita Eyes Mural Arts founder Susan Cervantes counsels beginners to start forming relationships in their own backyards, as she did many years ago: “That’s basically how I started. It happened all very naturally. It’s been a long time now, and I can look back, I have some perspective. I walk around the neighobrhood and I see all my artwork all around, and that of my community. It’s a very good feeling.
“You have to start from where you are at. If you’re really interested in doing community-based art, you start with the people you know are around, the businesses that you patronize, the centers that you patronize, the people that see you every day. They’re the ones that are going to support you because you have some relationship with them on a daily basis. That’s what gives you a good start.”
Don’t Be Daunted
Interviewees explained that even parts of the collaborative process that seem daunting may turn out to be exciting and positive contributions to the artist’s experience.
For example, filmmaker Debra Chasnoff points out that even with new video technologies, films are expensive, taking time and involving a fairly large team. But she counsels artists and organizations “not look at the fundraising for a film as a big negative. It actually can be a huge opportunity for community-building and for building your base and getting a lot of people involved. Once you have that little trailer of what you’re doing, you have an instant vehicle for house parties and convenings and speaking engagements. It’s very compelling: people want to be entertained and they want to be involved. They can help, spreading it on Facebook and other social media. Think about the fundraising as a community organizing or an activist component of the project.”
Visual artist Beth Grossman suggests offering people a manageable number of options, rather than being completely open-ended. “I’ve taught a lot of kids’ classes,” she explained, “and if you bring in too many art materials, they don’t know what to do. If you bring in one or two and say, ‘Okay, we’re working with tempera paint today,’ they’ll go for it. A lot of this is about the way that people are conditioned in their childhood about artmaking, too. I try to structure it with just the right balance, so they know what they’re doing without having to ask too many questions, so that they don’t have a lot of room for self-doubt to come in.”
Overall, the artists’ advice downplays technique in favor of authenticity, human connection, and goodwill. Roadside Theater managing director Donna Porterfield emphasizes that like so many things, it’s about paying attention to who people are and what they need. “When I taught first grade,” she told me, “you assess everybody’s strengths and ways they need to be better, and work with them to set up a situation in which people can succeed and learn from each other as well as from the teacher, the expert. You need a real clear way that human beings define what we have in common and work out our differences in some kind of equitable and sensible way, and what to do when people don’t want to do that, and are hurtful. So in principle, it really isn’t different than working with six year-olds.”
Next time, perspectives from the Harmony Project interviewees on the investment it takes to build solid working relationships.