The meaning of collaboration ought to be straightforward: its Latin root means “working together,” plain and simple. But in practice, artistic collaboration is a continuum. At one extreme, it’s a total partnership between an artist and organization, in which a project’s style, content—even the arts media used—are jointly conceived, evolving through ongoing dialogue and negotiation. At the other extreme, it’s not much different from commissioning work: an organization chooses an artist, defines a project, sometimes retaining a predefined right of refusal, but seldom entering into a close creative partnership.
The Harmony Project focuses more on the partnership end of the spectrum, because that is the way to develop deep working relationships, potentially influencing both partners’ ways of working over the long term. But that still leaves lots of room for different approaches.
The first Harmony Project blog post shared WomenArts’ aim of inspiring and supporting active partnerships and collaborations between women artists and women’s organizations involved in social change. Since “collaboration” can have a multitude of meanings, it seems like a good idea to start by honing in on its essence. Based these artists’ experience, when women artists and organizations collaborate, what can that mean?
In future Harmony Project blogs, I’ll focus on the collective wisdom of the ten remarkable artists interviewed for the project, who generously shared their own experience and ideas about every aspect of collaborative work. For today, I’ve chosen a couple of examples of multilayered collaboration to give you a sense of how fully the commitment to work in partnership can be expressed.
Susan Cervantes on The Women’s Building Mural
When I interviewed her in June, Susan Cervantes pointed out that “Maestra Peace,”, The Women’s Building mural, was several collaborations rolled into one: seven very different women muralists collaborated with Women’s Building leaders, program participants, and volunteers in selecting the imagery and scope of this monumental work, which covers two exterior walls of the multi-story building. The result owed as much to the artists’ initiative and sensibilities as to the original intentions of Women’s Building leaders, as Susan tells it:
They selected seven of us, a very diverse team. At that time, we had over a hundred years of experience between us. That already made it special. The Women’s Building had this questionnaire that they sent out to all their consituents, over a thousand or so all over the Bay Area that had used the Women’s Building, wanting to know what they wanted to see in the mural. So we were handed a packet containing a summary of a couple of hundred questionnaires.
Women’s Building leaders originally planned only a small mural low on the building’s Lapidge Street side, timed to celebrate paying off the building’s mortgage in 1994. But the muralists had a much larger project in mind, and their ideas carried the day. “We thought, ‘Look, you have seven really powerful women here, there’s no way that we’re just going to paint this little strip along the side. It just doesn’t make sense,'” Susan told me. “So we proposed to them that we were going to do the whole building, the front and the side, because there was a unique opportunity to really do something on a monumental scale that really celebrated women’s contributions.”
The artists knew at the outset that funding on hand for the Lapidge Street section could never match the necessary time investment. They spent three months creating a grand design based on responses to the Women’s Building questionnaires and their own visions. “We were all very happy that we included everything that we saw in the packet and what we felt was important to us and our own creativity, and that it worked with the architecture and the function of the building. We did a full-color study, and presented it to the Women’s Building trustees and board, who approved it.”
The team helped raise additional funds, putting on a benefit, and the Women’s Building brought in revenue by offering the right to add names to the mural in return for pledges (there’s a wonderful annotated list of hundreds at the Website). Names were lettered in gold by calligrapher Olivia Quevedo, whom Susan considers the “eighth muralist.” More than 85 women volunteered under the muralists’ supervision, hauling paint and water, blocking in color: “It made everybody feel that they were part of the whole process, and it gave all the women ownership.” They weathered a drawn-out controversy when the mural was halted temporarily on account of the building’s landmark status, but the artists triumphed over the bureaucracy, and they’ve returned to add to the mural twice, marking the Women’s Building’s 25th and 30th anniversaries.
When artists collaborate with organizations, funding is a key question. The more participatory the artistic process, the more time it takes, raising the cost of fair compensation. Artists often decide to contribute part of their time rather than forego a project, but we hope that we hope that the Harmony Project will demonstrate the true value of such artists’ contributions.
“I think we all worked for about $5000 each for over a year’s work. Sometimes I had to be there three or four full days a week, which means I’d be working seven days a week, as I was managing the mural center at the same time,” Susan told me. “At the time, we all had this energy and a lot of passion for the work, we weren’t thinking really about the money. It was a big sacrifice for all of us, but we did it. If you think about it now, you’re talking about someting that’s like a $200,000 project at least, that we did probably for about $50,000. For us, it’s a gift to the community and we hope that they see that and recognize that.”
Meena Natarajan on Pangea World Theater’s Human Rights Work
When I spoke with her in May, Executive/Literary Director Meena Natarajan explained that collaboration is intrinsic to Pangea World Theater’s process, growing out of “our work with human rights, with a social justice intersection with the arts.” As an example, she described Pangea’s collaboration with Minneapolis-based The Advocates for Human Rights, focusing on a dramatic work called Journey to Safety: The Battered Immigrant Woman’s Experience.
I’ll explain the trajectory of the work. The Advocates had a report called “The Government Responds to Battered Immigrant and Refugee Women.” We thought, wow, this would make an amazing piece of theater. And this report was also known among advocates, and so friends came to us and said this would be a great thing. We created the piece as an ensemble. I was principal writer, but the whole ensemble created the piece, an ensemble of about six women from different backgrounds, speaking six or seven different languages.
Meena explained that The Advocates, with a strong investment in getting the information out, vigorously marketed the piece to judges, lawyers, child protection workers, shelters, medical schools. “Every time we would do the piece in a new place—say we did it for the Saint Paul police, we added a couple of scenes about the police. So it would be constantly enriched by what was happening in the field,” in essence, generating an ongoing collaboration with The Advocates, who “would bring us the latest information of what the challenges are, what children go through, for example, what women have told them in their sessions.”
“Systems change is such a huge thing,” Meena told me, “and over the trajectory of the piece it’s also changed the behavior of judges. And it’s always accompanied by a panel of usually women who are working in the field. The Advocates have taped it and it gets sent nationally as well.”
Out of this experience, the work evolved in multiple directions, with versions tailored for specific communities: south Asians, Ethiopians. Pangea recognized that it’s fine to be “doing this for all these systems people, but we actually really also need to do it for our communities, because we need to help communities start this conversation on domestic violence.” Meena has served for the last two years on the Immigrant and Refugee Battered Women’s Task Force (as has Pangea’s Artistic Director, Dipankar Mukherjee), including advocates from 13 different shelters, advocacy, and human rights organizations, mostly immigrant women. “They now can’t do a single training without this show. Wherever we do the show, it’s always accompanied by conversations and training and dialogue. It’s so organic, the way that it’s grown.” And the collaboration continues to evolve:
At the last training that we did, we had a roundtable, and one of the things that emerged was—okay, these advocates are helping these women, and most of them are women too. What happens with self-care? So out of that discussion has come this whole involvement. We are going tomorrow to a conference, and Pangea is going to be doing the entire conference. We’re going to be there in the beginning, opening the conference, we’re doing two workshops, the show, then after the show a conversation with advocates. And then we’re closing out the conference too, so the whole conference is going to be infused with this notion of not only art, but also cultural equity, equity as a whole.
Not every potential spinoff is feasible: “One of the women in the group wants us to do a piece on elder abuse, but we couldn’t raise the funding for that. Sometimes it’s hard to get actors in the room and not be able to pay them anything, even if it’s two hundred dollars. But sometimes we just do the piece. If we have the time, we do it anyway.”
At its most powerful, collaboration between women artists and social-issue organizations has the power to infuse and transform the work of both partners, and often, to grow and spread in ways that could never have been anticipated.
Please stayed tuned for biweekly essays on the wisdom and experience of these amazing artists, right here at The Harmony Project blog!