Note to readers: This is the fifth in a series of blogs I am delighted to be writing for Harmony: The WomenArts Partnership Project. They will 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.
In this and the next installment of the Harmony Project Blog, I introduce the remaining three activist artists who shared their wisdom on collaborating with organizations. We’ve touched on the range of collaborative projects and the reasons for collaborating. Now it’s time to talk about building relationship. Without a foundation of trust, partnership can’t work. So how do you establish that firm grounding for a collaboration?
Marty Pottenger: Go as a learner, not the center of attention, and seek out natural leaders as allies.
City Water Tunnel #3 was performance artist Marty Pottenger’s breakthrough project, garnering an Obie, major press, and European and U.S. tours. It focused on one of the world’s largest public works, a New York City tunnel conveying drinking water to the city from upstate reservoirs. Construction began in 1970 and is projected for completion in 2025; in between, there are generations of human stories. Pottenger’s organizational partners in CWT#3 were Local 147 of the Tunnelworker’s Union and New York’s largest municipal agency, the Department of Environmental Protection. Their interviews, archives, and stories were the raw material Marty drew on to craft this solo multimedia show.
Marty told me that when she works with bureaucracies like unions and city agencies, at first, her presence is often unexpected and may even seem unwelcome to rank-and-file participants, who may have “a real deep social understanding that art is not important, that it’s frivolous, that only economically privileged people are involved in it.”
When she began getting acquainted with the Tunnelworker’s Union, “I found out that they were having a once-a-year memorial service for people who had died building the tunnel.” Typically, she said, “I find out what their traditions are, and I go to the cultural events of the group that I’m collaborating with. I go as a learner, a respectful learner. I got this beautiful picture from one of the engineers of a tunnel shaft, and I made a Memorial Mass card—the memorial was held at a Catholic church near the union hall. I printed them up myself, got them laminated and cut them. I just did what it took. It said, “like tears, the rain falls mixed with our grief,” and “In Memoriam, St. Barnabas, 1993.” The union leadership was in a tough battle to win the election; they positioned themselves at the door and handed them out to the members coming in.”
As this demonstrates, Marty’s key question for entering a new partnership is this: “How can art help this situation?” She asked herself, “What could make a difference here to people to really remember that we’re honoring these people, to remember the worth of the work they’re doing?” The answer must “fit in with the culture and not draw attention to myself—which is also the thing that people think of artists, that they have to be the center of attention.”
Much of Pottenger’s work has focused on the themes of work and value. Her own personal history illuminates the connection: she was one of the first women in Florida to join a construction union, working first in the Mason’s Union and later as a carpenter. Arguably, her life as an artist shines a different kind of light on the undervaluation of socially important work. In any complex setting, she says, it’s essential to get allies. Since 2007, she’s been based in Portland, ME, for Art at Work, a partnership with the City of Portland to demonstrate art-making as a valuable, cost-effective and sustainable tool to strengthen cross-cultural understanding, enhance communication, raise morale and increase understanding and cooperation between city agencies and the public.
In Portland, Marty explained, “I met a lot of people and identified for myself the people that people followed, which are not necessarily the people in charge. I asked a lot of the officers on the street something like, ‘Who do you respect on the force? Who do you look to?’ And people kept mentioning this one person. And then I make a point of meeting that person and talking to them about the project.” A key practice, Marty said, “is to be very clear with myself about the goals that I have, because the goals speak to people: to recognize the work that’s being done, to appreciate the labor, to make visible the invisible. If it’s said plainly, these are things that people can get behind.”
Next time, Jawole Willa Jo Zollar of Urban Bush Women and visual artist Rene Yung share their advice for cultivating working relationships.