Advice for Artists Working with Municipalities & Institutions
Stress and tension can sometimes accompany partnerships between independent artists and large organizations like settlement agencies, cultural institutions or municipalities. While such tensions may not be entirely avoidable, they can be mitigated if both parties clarify their expectations for a project and take time to acknowledge the others’ expectations, restrictions and timelines. Here we offer some tips for artists looking to partner with agencies or municipalities. We have also written tips for agencies and municipalities about how to work successfully with artists. Please note that a lot of this comes down to clear communication and acknowledgment of differences.
1. Finding Organizational Partners
Building partnerships from the ground up can take time but is worth the effort. At MABELLEarts, partnerships with non-arts organizations have helped us to meet and engage hundreds of new participants. For Welcome to this Place, we researched organizations whose mandates involved supporting newcomers to Canada. We then reached out to program staff to start a conversation about partnering. When forming a new partnership, it’s important to meet face-to-face with staff. Don’t rely on email alone to make a new partnership work.
2. Show and Tell
While the power of your artistic process may be entirely evident to you, you will likely have to convince large institutions to share your confidence. We recommend taking the time to phone your contacts at the agencies you’d like to partner with and planning a visit with them, or better yet a sample workshop for their staff or clients. Do advance research on the organization’s mandate and current priorities, and consider how your ideas might be relevant to those. When you do visit, be sure to share photos of your past work and testimonials from people who have participated in your projects. Listen actively to your potential partner organization about what they’re looking for and what their restrictions are. Offer your ideas in relation to their mandate and priorities, and help them make the links between their work and yours. Better yet, if the agency or municipality is willing, offer a sample workshop or art activity for staff or clients to participate in. This will give everyone a really strong sense of what your project has to offer. Finally, don’t be afraid to keep trying even if you don’t get instant buy-in. Bureaucracies can move slowly because their chain of command is long. Maybe there are other people within the agency who you will need to meet and make your pitch to. Or maybe another call from you 6 months down the road will yield results.
MABELLEarts shares the successes and discoveries of our projects through public reports. Click through the links below to explore our multi-media reports from previous projects!
3. Outline your potential contributions as well as theirs
It can be very useful to create a document that outlines both your contributions to the project and the contributions you’re looking for. And, as is true when fundraising, it’s important not to underestimate or discount any contributions. Social service agencies and municipalities may not understand everything you do as an artist—from creating promotional materials, to securing workshop supplies, to setting up, to facilitation of activities, to cleaning up after events. Similarly, they may not know what you’re looking for from a partnership with them unless you spell it out. Be sure to list everything you could use support with—from online promotion, to transportation, to storage space, to introductions to front-line workers, to help with permits and other paperwork. Clear communication between you and your potential partners will help you both understand where there are gaps and where there is potential. Offering your own clear list of each party’s contributions will also indicate that you are well-organized and realistic about what it will take to realize your vision. Further down the road, once partnerships have been secured, it will be useful to draft a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that outlines each party’s contributions to the project.
4. Recognize different ways of working
As an independent artist or a community arts organization, you can likely alter your plans and process quite quickly based on your intuitive sense of what participants might like or in response to your evolving artistic vision. This is part of the artistic process—trying things, seeing what takes shape and revisioning. Large organizations, however, aren’t nearly so nimble. Your main organizational liaison in a municipality or agency may be someone who requires approval from management and if your project revisions need approval, back and forth communication between all parties may take weeks. Large agencies and municipalities set their budgets, timelines and personnel well in advance because of the time required to communicate with all necessary parties. As much as you can, you need to understand and respect their process and timelines.
Where an artist’s more flexible approach may prove useful, however, is in creatively thinking about how to work with a large institution’s constraints rather than against them. Perhaps, for example, there is too much red tape involved in building a formal partnership. This doesn’t necessarily mean that staff can’t support some of your activities or help you promote your project through their networks (an informal partnership but one that will still benefit your project). Or, maybe staff can’t invite you to host your own workshop, but you can weave your process into one that is already planned, thereby augmenting their program. The key to recognizing different ways of working is to listen to each other and understand each others’ systemic limitations. Try to work cooperatively with your contacts at agencies and municipalities to navigate these.
Do you want more tools, tips and insights for creating your own community-engaged projects in public spaces? Visit Placing Parks to learn more and explore our project archive and toolkit! We hope Placing Parks helps you envision artful projects that bring people together in your local park!