Structuring Your Partnership

Structuring Your Partnership

Not all M/A partnerships are alike. They are formed for different reasons, have different scopes and scales, different administrative structures, and may involve additional partners. This section lays out some of the variables to consider when structuring a partnership.

“You can’t generalize...It’s not like Frankenstein where you just throw the parts together.” D. A. Bullock, Artist, Creative CityMaking, Minneapolis

Who Initiates a Partnership?

The vision for an M/A partnership can begin with a range of municipal or arts workers. They create momentum that grows as additional people sign on to the idea. These advocates include:

  • A mayor, city council member, or other elected official can be influential in getting an M/A partnership off of the ground. For example, mayoral initiatives in Seattle and Minneapolis to address racial inequity led to programs that embed artists in city agencies.
  • “[If not] for [Mayor Walsh’s] overall support for the arts, I doubt we would have had the support for Boston AIR [or even for] exploring this kind of thing.” Julie Burros, former Executive Director, Mayor’s Office of Arts and Culture, Boston
  • Leaders and staff within municipal agencies can initiate partnerships that relate to their mission and programs. They are also key in navigating municipal policies to successfully integrate artistic practices.
  • Local arts agencies such as a Department of Cultural Affairs are already a bridge between government and local artists. They can play an important role in coordinating M/A partnerships, like the City of Los Angeles.
  • Artists who want to connect their vision and practice to an issue or opportunity facing a community can seek out municipal allies. Artist-driven partnerships often evolve from a previous relationship or work within a city, such as in Richmond, VA or in Maine.
  • Nonprofit arts organizations can initiate a project and also serve as intermediaries between municipal agencies and artists. You can read more about how this happened in Philadelphia.
  • A funder with a particular grant or agenda can spark a partnership. This can be a private foundation, a public grantmaker such as the NEA, or a grantmaking program within a local arts agency. See this section for more on funding.

No matter who initiates, most M/A partnerships build in ways to gather early and timely public and stakeholder feedback, such as advisory groups.

Partnership Scale and Scope

A partnership can be structured at a number of scales and scopes within a municipal framework.

Single Project: The artist works with municipal and community partners on a finite project or initiative. Projects may range from long-term and large-scale or short-term and small-scale. The artist often works closely with a department liaison whose work aligns with the project.

Agency-at-large: The artist is invited to partner with a municipal agency and its work at large. Even though the artist may engage with multiple divisions and staff, it’s important to identify a staff liaison who can facilitate these connections and ensure two-way communication with agency leadership.

Systemic or City-wide: The artist/s works across a municipal geography or with multiple agencies. This is perhaps the most complex scope, so you’ll need to create an administrative and creative infrastructure that is sustainable over time.

How Long Should the Partnership Last?

The timeframe of a partnership depends on mutual goals and what resources are available. Typical partnerships work within these timeframes:

Less than a year: Short-term partnerships can respond well to a time-sensitive issue or a very focused project scope. These can also be useful to prototype an idea or gauge the potential for partners to work together on a bigger project in the future.

12 to 18 months: The length of standard municipal contracts and budget/funding cycles can dictate this common timeframe. However many partnerships caution that this can limit the time for relationship-building and project planning. Learn how NYC does it.

Multi-year or ongoing: Partnerships that aspire to create systemic or significant change need long-term investment from both municipalities and artists. These projects can require an artist to be embedded in an agency or other municipal structure, and contracted for a longer period or with renewable contract terms. St Paul and Portland ME both use an ongoing partnership model.

Structuring the Artist’s Role

There are many ways to structure an artist’s relationship with a municipality. Some things to consider:

How integrated into or independent of the municipal agency is the artist?

If the artist is more integrated (or embedded), they spend significant time in the agency, building relationships and becoming part of the team. They might shadow staff, or attend meetings and programs. Integrated artists get an insider view into the agency’s work and culture. Being part of these day-to-day conversations deepens understanding of how each partner thinks and works and can provide greater access to agency expertise, resources, and supports for the artist. St Paul and New York City use this model.

If the artist works more independently, they spend more of their time outside of the partnering agency, doing project work within a community or with outside partners. The artist spends time at the agency only for key meetings and project administration. The Detroit City Storyteller program uses this model.

How open-ended or focused is the artist’s work?

With an open-ended structure, an artist does not come into the partnership with a specific project. Instead, the artist has a set period of time to do research and develop a project idea. This phase includes engagement with the agency partner, stakeholders, and/or community members to inform the project concept.

Sometimes a specific issue or problem to be solved, opportunity, or initiative, or program will suggest a particular direction or focus for the artist’s work. Often the artist makes a project proposal first and then carries the work out.

How should the legal relationship between the artist and municipality be structured?

The legal relationship is framed by government hiring and contracting policies as much as by agreement about what will best support the artist’s role in the partnership. Creative maneuvers within the system are sometimes required. Relationships are typically structured in these ways:

Artist as independent contractor: This is the most flexible way that municipalities can bring on outside expertise. However, the limitations of contracting can create challenges to structuring a relationship that accommodates a longer timeline, how the artist works, and the nature of deliverables.

Artist as lead: An artist or arts organization may secure funding for and initiate a partnership project. Holding the purse strings may give the artist some control in negotiating the terms of the partnership or in decisions about how resources are used. However, this doesn’t guarantee access to municipal partners and resources, and may even make municipal buy-in more difficult to secure.

Artist as employee: This can be an ideal arrangement when agencies want to integrate artists into their everyday or long-term work, when the project timeline is ongoing, or when work on systemic issues requires consistent collaboration between the artist, the agency staff and constituents. However, the independence afforded by the contractor model may be lost, and not all artists want to become city employees.


St Paul’s City Artist program uses a non-profit intermediary to employ artists, which allows them to work with more autonomy— although the City then plays a more limited role in funding the program.

For more on this, see the Contracts section.

Where is the artist going to work?

Artists have a desk or space in a municipal office. TThe benefits are face-time with staff, exposure to the daily workings of government, and access to phone, email, and support systems that are helpful for the project and create credibility for the artist within and outside of the agency.

“Our hard power is our city phone number and city email address! With it, I’m seen as staff.” Amanda Lovelee, City Artist program, Saint Paul

The municipality provides studio space for the artist.

The artist is based outside of the municipal agency and works independently from a home studio and/or office.

The artist spends the majority of their time working at a community site. This could be a municipal site such as a library, park, or school, or at a local organization.

The artist does not have a fixed workspace and instead is mobile, working flexibly in multiple project locations.

Working with Third-Party Partners

Many partnerships benefit from a third organization that helps structure, administer, and facilitate partnerships, and can function in bridging, translating, and coordinating between the partners. Third party partners can include: local arts agencies; nonprofit arts and civic organizations; or even place-based funders. Part of the work is figuring out how these intermediaries are positioned in relation to the municipal agency.

Local arts agencies (LAAs) like arts commissions or councils are the most common type of third-party partners, and are typically a department of municipal government. Other LAAs may be nonprofit, for-profit, or hybrid organizations. Among their many functions, local arts agencies make grants, manage public art programs, provide training to artists, and promote the role of arts and culture in other sectors. Their mission is to make arts and culture accessible to many people in civic life, enhancing what the city offers to its residents while creating opportunity for artists to contribute to the public good.

An LAA’s role in a partnership is often described as intermediary, but can be more involved than the title suggests. They can initiate, conceive, and administer programs, and negotiate dynamics and complexities of partnerships. They importantly can provide continuity in programs when there are changes in municipal leadership. Note that not all local arts agencies will be able to take on this role.

Challenges can arise for third-party partners in balancing the administration of an M/A partnership with other organizational priorities. An LAA which is part of municipal government may experience less leverage or negotiating power in comparison to other departments. Ultimately, city and department leadership needs to want, own, manage, and resource M/A partnerships to ensure their effectiveness and sustainability.

These M/A programs were created and managed by local arts agencies: Boston’s AIR program; Los Angeles County’s Creative Strategist program, Nashville’s Restorative Arts; and Philadelphia’s Civic Practice initiative.

For more, check out these resources: