Developing a Project
Once you’ve signed a contract, it’s time to develop the project. The project design should follow the civic goals determined collaboratively by partners. Typically, the artist either refines their initial project idea, or proposes a project after a research or “getting to know you” phase. The project can be co-developed iteratively, and tweaked or redirected as community partners provide input and participant feedback is received.
There are many types of M/A projects, so it’s difficult to make a check-list of what needs to be done at this stage. Generally, developing a project includes engaging participants, setting up regular check-ins, managing timelines, identifying locations for project activities, laying the groundwork for documentation and evaluation, and other logistics.
During development, keep in mind that the project should emphasize art’s civic capacity. Determine how you’ll incorporate third-party or community partners into project planning. Develop clear criteria to guide thoughtful and transparent decision-making about the project’s direction.
The project itself might sit on a spectrum between art product and process, and might incorporate elements of both. Municipal staff often play supportive roles for the former, and co-creator roles for the latter.
Projects that foreground art products can include:
Projects that emphasize creative processes can include:
Some projects include both process and product.
Pop Up Meeting is a project by Amanda Lovelee, a former Saint Paul City Artist, which seeks to increase diversity and participation in the city’s urban planning process. Lovelee retrofitted a city van as an ice cream truck, and asked residents to exchange survey responses and their thoughts about the city for a popsicle.
Components of a project may be in flux even after it is launched.
NYC PAIR artists The Lost Collective proposed to create a play with LGBTQ foster youth. As the artists and youth got to know each other, it was clear that they weren’t interested in this idea. They were, however, interested in making videos using their cell phones. The outcome—artistic expression—remained the same, but the medium and the deliverables changed.
Challenges & Strategies
The artist and/or the municipality may feel pressured to produce something concrete early on. They are forced into moving too quickly by time constraints.
Project scope regarding resources, timeline, and/or capacities of partners or participants proves to be unrealistic.
Civic practice requires strengths that an artist or agency may need to develop.
Working In and With Communities
Many M/A projects involve geographic or other kinds of communities as participants. The most effective and meaningful projects result from community engagement strategies that are grounded in genuine curiosity, cultural sensitivity, ethical practice, and an openness and commitment to design that reflects the artist’s, agency’s, and community’s needs and interests. To build strong and equitable relationships with communities, consider the following:
Gain Trust and Credibility
Establishing trust is a major issue for outside artists entering community contexts. Professionals of all sorts have been known to go into communities to extract information without giving anything back, leaving the community feeling exploited. It’s important to intentionally set up processes to be accountable to communities.
Responsible engagement depends on artist and municipality mindfulness about:
Learn about community histories and contexts
Both the artist and the municipality should learn as much as they can about the history of the place and the systems that influence it, and consider the ethics of and potential impacts (intended or not) of the proposed project or intervention. It’s important to be aware of dynamics around race, class, and economic inequities within a community or issue. Understanding how particular communities have been disenfranchised will identify groups and individuals who can help ensure that a new partnership is empowering and respectful.
Planners for the Santo Domingo, NM Pueblo Housing and Heritage Trail Arts Project worked with the tribal government and residents on a pedestrian pathway between the pueblo and a rail station, that integrated community-determined cultural elements into planning and design goals. Project planner Joseph Kunkel, Executive Director of Sustainable Native Communities Collaborative writes, “It’s a time-intensive process...you have to rebuild relationships that have been hurt historically...You have to deal with [this] directly...from the beginning. Because historically tribal members had been promised many things that were not delivered upon, project managers had to be as transparent as possible, particularly since the planners themselves were viewed as outsiders (even though they have worked with native communities for many years).
Municipalities and artists may initiate a partnership project about a particular issue, and assume a leadership role around that issue. However this can alienate stakeholder organizations and residents who are directly affected by that issue. Self-determination and power are critical to those with the greatest stake in the issue, and honoring that is paramount to building mutual trust and strong relationships between M/A partners and community.
Artists may not recognize their cultural or class power in relationship to disenfranchised communities, and might even develop a “savior complex.” Artists have the privilege of doing work they care about, and often the privilege of leaving the community, the issue, and the municipal system at the end of the project, or even the end of each day.
It’s important that partnerships be set up to include community organizations and other stakeholders in authentic and equitable ways. Both artist and municipal project leaders need to be mindful of community needs when establishing projects.
It’s important to invite local organizations that represent stakeholders and community members to the table. These organizations can help forge relationships with community members, provide expertise and context on a local issue, and can connect to local resources—all of which can advance the goals of the project. They also hold municipal and artist partners accountable. Embracing strong relationships between organizations that have already worked together honors knowledge and can move things forward.
“You can’t solely have deference to the top or the most known community groups. You can’t stop there. We take a deep dive in communities; you need depth and breadth in your search for information, input, or simply sharing what you are doing.” Caitlin Butler & Laure Biron, Mural Arts Philadelphia
Involve community partners and groups early on. This means that M/A partners need to work hard to:
As the project develops and is implemented:
Doing otherwise can leave potentially critical stakeholder partners feeling devalued, disempowered, and frustrated, which isn’t good for them or the project.
If you would like community members to participate, invite them into the project by:
Challenges & Strategies
Sometimes communities are resistant to artists and municipalities, who may be perceived as meddling and/or lacking awareness of the ethics of working in and with communities.
Art can provide a different perspective to a community issue. How do you deepen the experience or inquiry so that it can be transformative?
“I like to think of people in communities as having the creativity within themselves to continue to make the places they are already making. I’m not bringing anything there but rather elevating people's capacity to continue to do what they're already doing. I work lightly within those communities to add a little focus on capacity.” Artist Rick Lowe, Project Row Houses