Developing a Project

Developing a Project

Project Design

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:

  • Temporary or permanent elements of public infrastructure
  • An arts-based component of an existing curriculum
  • An arts-based workshop

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.


  • Structure in time for a research and development phase where nothing concrete is produced, or include a prototyping phase, and articulating the deliverable as a prototype.
  • Create smaller events at first that eventually lead to a larger project.
  • Create communications strategies early on in order to describe research and development activities.


Project scope regarding resources, timeline, and/or capacities of partners or participants proves to be unrealistic.


  • Regular check-ins are crucial, to ask questions like: Does the budget meet project needs? Are people showing up? Is the project moving at the desired pace, and if not, why and what to do? Are the responsibilities assumed by leadership and participants in fair balance?
  • Scale back deliverables to meet the timeline, budget, or staff/artist capacity, or work to expand these resources.
  • The project may be more about setting up a model than fulfilling it. Managing expectations is crucial.


Civic practice requires strengths that an artist or agency may need to develop.


  • Cross-sector collaboration in project design and decision-making may balance out abilities.
  • Artists should consider if another art form than the one/s they know best is more appropriate for the project. This could mean involving other artists.
  • Even though agency staff may have an established way they do their job, an M/A project might require a different approach.
  • Pursue training, mentorship, or other opportunities to learn new skills or capacities together.

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:

  • Genuine collaboration with local partners: initiatives should serve reciprocal goals, not just those of the M/A partners;
  • Be clear about what is being proposed, and be willing to amend the project to meet community needs;
  • Make meetings, events, and other participation asks as accessible as possible to community needs, locations, and timelines;
  • Understand what makes it worthwhile for this community to participate;
  • Understand and plan for when leadership needs to shift to community members to sustain the project.

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 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.

Be Accountable

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:

  • Sufficiently engage stakeholders in early planning and project design so that community needs can inform project goals and priorities;
  • Involve stakeholder partners during fundraising and in the budgeting process to ensure that resources are allocated equitably;
  • Form a steering committee that represents key stakeholders, and clearly define its role and authority.

As the project develops and is implemented:

  • Keep stakeholder partners in the loop as agendas and timelines are defined or changed.
  • Communicate with stakeholders regularly, asking: How are we doing?
  • Evaluate the project along the way to learn whether the partnership is being accountable to stakeholders, and make changes if it’s not.

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:

  • Announcing initiatives at public convenings that local people attend, like town halls or PTA meetings.
  • Offering workshops or other public events at locations that people can get to easily and are familiar and comfortable with. These include institutions where people who are affected by the issue either live or spend time, such as prisons or group foster homes.
  • Setting up opportunities for reciprocal learning with community members, in which residents and artists learn from each other. Setting up story circles, gathering oral histories, and facilitating other participatory events show an interest in local experience, and communicates respect for what residents know. This material may find its way into the artwork.

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.


  • Be mindful of the potential for distrust towards government, and outsiders.
  • When requesting community input, make sure to apply it to the project.
  • Find authentic ways to work with local partners that are meaningful to and benefits them, and when possible, engage an artist who already has experience with the local partner.
  • “Being engaged” can be time-consuming and exhausting for some community members. If you co-design projects with them, they can determine the appropriate level of their participation.


Art can provide a different perspective to a community issue. How do you deepen the experience or inquiry so that it can be transformative?


  • Create an environment where people can explore something through art more fully than they could in another format.
  • Acknowledge the strengths in participants’ creative endeavors, and what is meaningful to them.
  • Provide opportunities for self-discovery for all team members.
“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