Creating a Strong Partnership

Creating a Strong Partnership

Strong partnerships are grounded in common values and goals, mutual respect and trust, and the experience, sensibilities, and knowledge that each partner brings to the table. Artists and municipalities have very different ways of working and perceiving the world— but in a strong partnership, those differences become points of connection, learning, and mutual benefit.

Strong partnerships are hard work. It takes a commitment of energy and time to listen, learn, and be present in the other’s sphere of work. It takes sharing successes and owning missteps, openness to the new, and a willingness to challenge and be challenged. This applies to municipalities, artists, and to community partners who are often involved. (For more on working with community partners, see this section.)

Building Relationships and Trust

It is a radical act for artists and government to break out of their usual ways of working and join together around a civic issue. Given that these sectors don’t typically collaborate, intentional relationship-building should be a major part of accomplishing shared goals. Below are some strategies for building strong relationships:

Check Assumptions, Perceptions, and Attitudes

Both artists and municipal partners need to check assumptions and misperceptions of the other in order to build trusting productive relationships. (See the Getting to Know Each Other section for more on this). This idea extends to public misperceptions about artists and government. Artists and city staff working together in the service of the public interest is a prime opportunity to counter assumptions and stereotypes about both.

Negative attitudes—skepticism, dismissiveness, righteous anger—get in the way of building honest and trusting relationships. Keep an open dialogue with a willingness to challenge attitudes in oneself and others that are not constructive.

Identify Shared Values

A strong partnership is based on shared values relating to public service and the nature of the partnership itself. Core values often include:

1) Equity is a stated core value for many of the partnerships featured in this guide. Some M/A programs are formed explicitly to respond to equity as a broad municipal commitment: Seattle and Minneapolis lead initiatives that aim to end institutional racism and inequity both internally and citywide. Los Angeles’ Cultural Equity and Inclusion Initiative is designed to ensure that everyone has access to arts and culture. Nashville’s MetroArts critically explored internal oppressive structures before creating a training program for teaching artists who work with court-involved youth. Within these contexts, artists can introduce innovative strategies to engage local government, community partners, and residents in efforts toward equity and justice.

2) Inclusiveness: Partners prioritize involving people in the municipality and community who have diverse backgrounds, expectations, and aesthetics. They do this by ensuring multiple forms of access and opportunities for participation.

3) Openness: Artists and municipalities should be open to each others’ approaches, and open to changing their own through collaboration with each other and with communities. Openness can be accomplished through a collaborative process and dialogue which is welcoming and respectful of different perspectives and viewpoints; suspends judgment; seeks equality among participants; and aims toward empathy and a common understanding. The outcome is a partnership that creates new possibilities and unexpected outcomes.

4) Responsiveness: When partners are responsive in a substantive and timely way, it helps build trust. This also includes being receptive and responsive to community partners and participating communities, and supporting their agency and input.

5) Transparency and honesty: The artist must be transparent to municipal partners, community stakeholders, and participants about the project, for example in how much time and emotional investment are needed for participation. Municipal partners must be transparent about availability of resources, boundaries, politics, and actions that will affect the partnership and the project. Both partners need to be honest, accurate, and transparent about their intentions, how they will share knowledge, points of disagreement or conflict, concerns about capacity, and when things aren’t working.

Allow Time to Build Relationships

Building relationships and navigating the learning curve in M/A partnerships requires the artist and agency to make time for each other. Some programs allow 3-6 months for partners to do this, as well as gain a mutual understanding of the issue at hand.

“...the reality is that [artists and city workers] learn from each other, and therefore duration is also important. Our rule of thumb is that all placements should be for a minimum of two years, longer for big projects.” -Frances Whitehead, initiator of the Embedded Artist Project, Chicago

Find the Right Liaison

Not every municipal staffer can be an effective liaison between the city or agency and the artist. It’s crucial that they should be both a champion for the artist and able to work within bureaucratic systems. The ideal liaison:

  • sees value in the role of artists and wants to work with artists;
  • is open to change;
  • opens doors to others in the department to participate;
  • is a bridge builder, effective in translating and boundary crossing;
  • has credibility and authority within the system to advance the work;
  • champions the artist in navigating the system and working through challenge points;
  • is able and willing to make the time to partner.

Carol Owens, Director of Strategic Engagement and Marketing for the Boston Department of Neighborhood Development, was the liaison to artist Georgie Friedman for . She described her strengths as “I get things done! I have no fear of bureaucracy. I’m willing to twist arms and cajole.” Friedman agreed, “Carol was an awesome partner. She had my back.”

Working through Differences

Tensions and conflict can be expected in any partnership and these can be the richest moments for learning and change. Addressing them requires honest and authentic exploration of issues as they come up; showing vulnerability and humility; and being committed to hanging in there. When necessary, identify a person or process to facilitate conflict mitigation.

For more discussion on working through differences, see the Getting to Know Each Other section.

While navigating differences, M/A partners should continually come back to the common ground they share their desire and commitment to make a difference!

“Underscore the commonalities.” Maria Rosario Jackson, Urban Planner

Are You Ready for a Partnership?

Passion, creative possibilities and aspirations for meaningful outcomes can be hugely motivating for M/A partners. However it’s hard work to get there, and often stretches partners’ human, financial, and time resources. Use these questions to help gauge if you and your potential partner are ready to work together. Ask these early on in the process.

Questions for Municipalities

  1. What core strengths, knowledge, sensibilities, and resources can we (as people and professionals) bring to the partnership?
  2. What are the gaps? What more do we need to learn to help us imagine and define opportunities to work with artists in our community and/or agency?
  3. To what degree are we able to allow aspects of the creative work to evolve through collaboration with the artist?
  4. How open are we to new ways of working that may disrupt our usual practices? What is our risk threshold? Where can we bend and what are our risk limits? Can we be critically reflective of our work in order to pave the way for new ways of working?
  5. Is the timing right to embark on this? What internal and external factors might propel or impede this work?
  6. Do we have buy-in? Who are the champions in the city and in relevant departments? Who are the skeptics? Where are the barriers in the system that will require preliminary work to ensure buy-in and assistance?
  7. Can and will we commit time and resources to pay artists fair compensation and provide space, access to staff, and other resources as needed?
  8. How will we think about incorporating this work within staff roles and responsibilities, and compensation requirements?

Questions for Artists

  1. What core strengths, knowledge, sensibilities, and resources can I bring to the partnership?
  2. What are the gaps? What more do I need to learn that will help me imagine and define opportunities to work with the agency and to effectively engage community?
  3. How will I handle working in the context of bureaucratic systems, timelines, and procedures? How will my practice need to bend to work within these parameters?
  4. To what degree am I able to allow aspects of the creative work to evolve through collaboration with municipal partners and/or community members?
  5. Am I the right artist for this context? What is my connection to the cultural context, issue, community, population and/or how will I assure credibility, authenticity, and integrity in the way that I work?
Are you ready for a partnership?

Questions potential partners should ask themselves and each other, early on in the partnership.