Getting to Know Each Other

Getting to Know Each Other

Many of the challenges that M/A partners encounter relate to underlying misperceptions of the other, including lack of understanding of each other’s professional norms and cultures. It’s important for partners to get to know each other before any work with the community starts.

In the process of getting to know each other, the hope is that partners:

  • Dispel preconceptions they have about each other’s professional identities,
  • Recognize that they are both being asked to work differently than they normally do,
  • Articulate a set of values and goals for the project,
  • Learn how to work with and through differences,
  • Have enough context to fully understand the civic issue at the heart of the project from the other’s perspective,
  • Can imagine the project together.
“[A NYC PAIR program artist]...has to be prepared to learn...the mission of the agency, its physical presence, its locations, and the people who work there. It's a real pre-existing place that's different, and often quite complicated. The second rule is that the partnering agency must agree up front that they will not tell the [artist] what to do. The artist has to be free to invent...they are not your helper...Otherwise, it's not art. So work it out. And trust the artist.” Mierle Ukeles, Artist-in-Residence, NYC Department of Sanitation

Understanding Differences

“Artists work from a passion place, but so do people here.” Greg Mahoney, Boston Police Department/AIR partner

Sometimes it may seem that artists are from Mars and municipalities are from Venus. The intention here is not to perpetuate stereotypes, but rather to acknowledge key differences between artists and municipalities that can both serve and challenge a partnership. You might find you have more in common than you realize—for example, many municipal staffers are also artists, and many artists really know their public policy. If you can accept and work through differences, you’ll create a strong partnership.

Process vs Procedure

About artists' process

Artists work in iterative ways that can be exploratory, organic, reflexive, and nonlinear. A civically-engaged artist’s work may be process-oriented and more about collective expression than about a final product—so it may not look like conventional art.

It’s wise to build a research period into an M/A partnership. Listening, looking, and learning, even noodling around, is required to ensure the work is relevant. Artists may not want to pre-determine outcomes up front but rather allow their creative and community-based research to define the project. This can defy municipal norms around deliverables. One city planner described having to justify three months of an artist’s dialogue with community and no product to show, even while knowing that this research and discovery process would inform a later artmaking phase. Managing an M/A project may require greater flexibility, a longer timeline, and more process.

Artists tend to engage horizontally across structures or groups—this can provide an important sense of project ownership for participants even if a government approach might reach a solution more expeditiously. It’s important to learn about the artist’s research and discovery process, and whom they wish to involve in decision-making.

About municipal procedure

Municipalities are structurally top-down in order to manage their vast responsibilities. This applies to even the most benevolent effort carried out by the most compassionate staff. Municipalities are driven by public accountability, which requires straightforward problem-solving.

All of this can affect how a project moves forward. Bureaucracies are infamous for moving slowly, but they are also bound to timelines. Sometimes the politics of the work, construction delays, and funding issues hold up projects. At other times, projects need to be completed quickly for reasons of efficiency, cost effectiveness, and to meet deadlines related to other issues.

Municipal staff are able to move civic processes from dialogue to decision in an effective way. They often hold a “big picture” view that can be invaluable to a project. They see how issues are interrelated, where systems connect, and short- and long-term implications of actions.

“It helps artists to understand how hard a planner's job is. While the project might focus on one issue, we have to see its connection to 10 other issues, and the three different political routes needed to move it forward - and that it will take five years make any real progress.” Lynn Osgood, urban planner, Austin TX

In order to work well with municipalities, artists need to understand the city's or agency’s mission, goals, aspirations, activities, and constituency. They should be oriented to the specific municipal context and to the staff which they’ll be working with. They need to understand the specific boundaries and challenges for the partnering agency and staff, and learn where there is wiggle room and where there is not.

Artists need to know what goals and outcomes matter, and who needs to approve any actions. They need to know which specific policies, procedures and timelines to follow, and how to follow them. For example:

  • If and how municipal workers are compensated if they work on the project outside of regular hours.
  • Procedures (including meetings, paperwork and other protocols) that ensure accountability and/or safety.
  • Basic procedures such as how to schedule meetings and reserve meeting space, how to purchase supplies or services, how to get participants access to transportation, and how to document billable hours.
“Because artists are used to non-formal methods of approval and communication, we needed to learn to ask for things waaaaaaay ahead of time. We had numerous opportunities fall through early on because we didn't understand this.” Rad Pereira, Artist, NYC PAIR

Freedom vs Restraint

A core question that the NYC Department of Cultural Affairs asks through its M/A program is “can artists partner with government without too much compromise?” Artists are used to the freedom to act in ways that municipal staff cannot, and may feel constrained in governmental contexts. The reality is that government employees often have to perform intricate balancing acts considering different stakeholder and general public needs as well as being bound by accountability checks and necessary public safeguards. This can be especially the case after highly public tragedies or controversies. Dialogue between partners is crucial to fully understand what’s going on, where there is latitude to push back, but also where conformity to rules and protocols are in place for the protection of the artist, participants, agency, and/or public.

“[At times] I had the feeling like the artists viewed us as sellouts or as people who are working in this broken system and part of the problem...In order to change the system, you need to put pressure on the outside have to know how to work inside it. And that takes strategic work and that needs to be recognized.” City of Minneapolis staff member

Municipalities are driven by public accountability. Measurable results and evidence to back them up ensures responsible use of public resources. There are legal requirements for community engagement and feedback that cities have to adhere to. Municipalities set up formal systems and procedures for reasons of accountability or safety that may dictate steps and approvals, require meetings, protocols, and documentation, and take time.

“Can we put aside any disagreement or difference in values we might have with an institution or system…to acknowledge that ours is not necessarily the bigger truth? Can we be good partners even when we believe we know better than ‘they’ do?” Carol Bebelle, Executive Director, Ashe Cultural Center, New Orleans

Language & terminology

Artists and municipalities use language and terminology that are specific to each discipline. This can include technical language, jargon, and acronyms. Often artists use language in a way that allows for ambiguity, while municipalities tend to use clear and concrete language.

Sometimes the same term can mean something different to each partner. For example, for artists, “community engagement” may mean using creative tools for organizing and education work, and building relationships with participants. Municipalities use the term to describe the range of ways they connect with their constituents, including public programs, public meetings, workshops, and digital surveys.


Municipalities and artists often have different concerns about risk. Municipalities are set up to minimize risk, while artists see it as a natural part of the creative process. However both partners see risk as necessary for new possibilities to develop.

Municipalities are generally risk averse because of:

  • Being subject to public scrutiny and accountability
  • Legal constraints of what a municipality can and can’t do
  • Liability concerns
  • Communications and messaging protocols

There are many unknowns for a municipality in working with artists. They fear the potential for controversy, for jeopardizing public confidence, or putting future opportunities and resources at risk if the work “fails.” If an activity is perceived by the agency as risky, it may be slow to make a decision about it or be noncommittal. Artists need to understand the realities of risk for their municipal partners, and where there is (or isn’t) wiggle room.

For artists, risk suggests pushing boundaries, challenging themselves, and a willingness to fail when trying something new or ambitious in scope or intention. Artists may encounter risk in M/A partnerships if they feel their artistic vision being compromised or their social capital is on the line when doing work on behalf of a municipality.

Communities experience risk in the potential emotional, physical, and social effects of their participation. Partners need to be conscious of issues of privacy and confidentiality, for example in ethically using community stories or other material in a project.

Minimizing risk: Partners need to navigate the tension between different thresholds for risk. Discuss anticipated risk at the beginning to understand each other’s concerns, and to strategize ways to minimize the potential of negative effects. Ask each other:

  • What will make you/your agency feel at risk in this project?
  • How can we build honest dialogue about risk throughout our work together?
  • Is the risk we anticipate a risk worth taking? Is there a meaningful purpose behind it and potential for positive results?
  • Have we considered the potential emotional, legal, and privacy risks of the work and ways to manage or avoid these?
  • Do community participants have agency in decisions that might put them at risk?
  • If the work has risked and “failed,” has something been gained nonetheless?

These questions are derived from Aesthetic Perspectives: Attributes of Excellence in Arts for Change.

For more on the differences between artists and municipalities, see this chart.

Who to Get to Know

It’s crucial to understand who has the capacity and power to address partnership issues and make decisions as they come up. This includes people within the municipality and among project participants.

  • The primary liaison facilitates discussion and decision-making between the artist and the municipality, and has the most contact with the participant group.
  • Champions & drivers are enthusiastic about the project, and committed to being part of it, but have less responsibility.
  • Skeptics haven’t bought into the partnership or project. They may be unfamiliar with working with artists, or at worst, mistrust the project, the artists’ intentions, and their ability to be useful. These individuals may have had bad experiences with artists in the past and so have much to teach the partners.
  • Related cultural organizations can be important allies who have connections to communities and groups that the artist hopes to reach.
“At each of the five [foster] houses for LGBTQ youth where we worked, there was at least one staff person who got to know us and love us and made the effort to facilitate communication between the youth and us.” Rad Pereira, Artist, NYC PAIR

Practical Ways to Get to Know Each Other

M/A partners should learn about each other’s working methods before making detailed project decisions. Seeing each other in action will help clarify the scope of work and deliverables for each stage of the project, and will help partners figure out how they will work together.

Open-ended ways:

  • Artist shadows agency staff to get a sense of what they do and how.
“[Artist] Marcus Young said, ‘I’d just like to walk downtown with you.’ He followed me around and asked what I noticed, what I was thinking about. He wanted to ‘get inside the planner’s head.’” Lucy Thompson, Principal City Planner, City of Saint Paul
  • Artists and municipal staff get to know each other through professional or personal contexts outside of the partnership

As part of the Boston AIR program, artist Shaw Pong Liu invested significant time over seven months getting to know members of the Boston Police Department (BPD). She did ride-alongs with officers, played violin and talked about her project, Code Listen, during roll calls, and led impromptu lunch-time jam sessions at the precinct. Her continued presence and engagement within BPD built trust and respect.

From their first meeting, Liu felt that Sergeant Provenzano was the right liaison. “I felt like this is someone I could work with in a time that feels controversial, someone who wants to engage.” Sergeant Provenzano also steered her to others in the department whom she felt “opened doors as opposed to putting up walls.”

Excerpted from Boston AIR internal report

Structured ways:

  • Artist attends/participates in municipal meetings to understand the day-to-day workings of governments and to get to know people in it.
  • Artist presentations of their work to municipal staff.
PAIR artist Tania Bruguera presented her work to staff at the Office of Immigrant Affairs, her partner agency. The exchange helped dispel assumptions that each partner might have had about the other. Brugera’s images showed an approach to art that was more about relationships rather than objects. Staff questions demonstrated their familiarity with and appreciation of art.
  • Studio visits: Municipal staffers visit artists in their studio, rehearsal space, or other workplace to understand what it takes to make the kind of work they do.
PAIR artist Ebony Noelle Golden brought staff from her partner agency, the Office to End Domestic and Gender Based Violence, to the National Black Theatre in Harlem. They watched Golden rehearse a short movement piece with two dancers. The staff saw the degree of agency the artist entrusted in the performers, and that no one was concerned that parts of the piece were still unresolved. This helped staff to see how art can be about exploration of ideas rather than a finished product.
  • Peer learning: Some cities with multiple artists working in various agencies bring the partners together as a cohort to learn from one another and share challenges.
’s Institute held quarterly convenings for City staff and artists for deep exploration of transformational change work.
  • Coaching by third parties. Specialists in civic practice provide opportunities for artists and municipal staff to develop their work through mentorship.
  • Team training: Some municipalities convene partners for formal training opportunities.