Why Municipalities and Artists Partner
Artists and municipalities provide each other with skills and resources that exceed, contrast with, or complement what each can do on their own. They can share the same goals even if they have different perspectives and access points. M/A partnerships can also be strategies for creatively addressing an important community issue, or adding value to a cross-sector funding initiative.
“Jennie invited...staffers to play a little, laugh a little. People let down their guard and brought a new level of energy and imagination. They felt allowed to be more whole.” Stephanie Gilbert, Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry
“[Stephanie] encouraged people...to see that experimenting with the arts brings them good, meaty content and new ideas that add to their area of expertise.” Jennie Hahn, Artist
In this section:
Why Municipalities Want to Work With Artists
Municipalities seek artist partners because they approach issues in open and creative ways. Interest in working with artists often comes from specific agencies or departments within a municipality. They may seek help from artists to tackle:
External goals, to address issues in the public realm that the agency is tasked to address. These might include material projects like improving infrastructure or economic development; community concerns like increasing public safety; or specific challenges, like facilitating cross-cultural relationships.
“We have a construction management mindset. How do we allow for creativity?” Nicole Crutchfield, City Planner, Fargo
Internal goals, to engage the agency’s internal needs directly and may focus on everyday issues like staff development, agency processes and systems, and organizational culture, and outreach strategies.
Municipalities often seek artists to:
Increase and Enhance Civic Participation
People from historically marginalized communities often have barriers to participation. Because of this, their voices are less often heard, and their needs are less often met. Integrating artists’ practices into civic participation can make people feel more welcome, make meetings more enjoyable, lead to a more level playing field, create safe spaces for those who have historically been left out or disenfranchised, and help sustain engagement for long planning processes.
Improve Agency Outreach and Communications
Artists are skilled at creatively reframing issues in ways that resonate with specific communities, capture public attention, express urgency or motivate people to action. Artists can bring authenticity and credibility to this work especially when they are part of the community that’s being reached out to.
Think Outside the Box
An artist can be both a collaborator and a “disruptor” who can take risks and shake up typical approaches and systems, while still working within the context and spirit of the municipality.
“Sometimes a manager with artistic knowledge who connects diverse artists to neighborhood-specific projects is a better choice than one artist who drops into a neighborhood they aren’t a part of.” Joe Smoke, Los Angeles Department of Cultural Affairs
Promote Under-funded Municipal Resources
Artists can work with agencies and residents to raise awareness of underfunded municipal programs, to amplify their value and mobilize for budget increases.
Deepen Understanding of the Community and Identify Ways Forward
The Los Angeles County Department of Arts and Culture asked designer Rosten Woo to create a “visioning tool” that could be used to help residents of Willowbrook, Los Angeles, participate in a major re-planning effort for the community. Woo spent a year on the ground in Willowbrook, learning about it from the people who live there. He produced a community festival and a photo book about local creativity that celebrated Willowbrook’s vision of itself, and helped both residents and outsiders appreciate the community in a new way. The County government implemented a similar form of community-centric “asset mapping” in subsequent planning processes.
“Rosten Woo challenged our original concept of community visioning, [going beyond] lip service to community, like making plans not enacted...Instead, he implemented a community-driven, community asset mapping effort that put the creative collections, hobbies and accomplishments of individual community members at the forefront.” Leticia Rhi Buckley & Pauline Kanako Kamiyama, Los Angeles County Department of Arts and Culture
Improve Workplace Culture
“Most of the issues that municipal governments deal with internally won’t be solved by an employee barbecue.” Marty Pottenger, Artist
Artists can help address challenges for municipalities around workplace culture, morale, team building, and race relations. Participatory arts practices can break down barriers, equalize power dynamics, stimulate natural creativity, and add an element of fun to working through challenging workplace issues.
Artist Marty Pottenger assembled local artists to work with Portland, ME police officers in poetry and photography workshops. Officers initially resisted the activities, but grew to appreciate the creative way to express their work challenges. When some of their output was shared with the community in the form of a photo calendar, public readings and other events, community perception began to change. The project facilitated appreciation of each other beyond the uniform and extended into the community.
Why Artists Want to Work With MunicipalitiesMany artists are committed to applying their creative energies to improve social issues and community health. Artists who collaborate with municipal agencies have the opportunity to be immersed in community planning and action. Agency staff have technical expertise themselves, access to more from other partners, and an understanding of existing resources – to which they don’t always have access themselves. Municipalities have access to technical expertise and other resources, and connections to community leaders and constituents. These partnerships are invaluable for artists to:
Artists working with municipalities can expand their reach far beyond what they could do on their own or through working with individual schools, community centers, prisons, etc. Their work can have visible impact on a larger public as well as critical community issues.
Artists Manke Ndosi and Reggie Prim worked with Minneapolis’ Regulatory Services Department to change agency culture and build awareness about housing inspectors’ unconscious biases that affected their interactions with and outcomes for low income tenants.
Contribute to an issue or community with which they identify
Artists who see themselves as part of a community, whether because of geography, core identity, or tradition, may want to contribute directly to the community’s health and wellbeing.
Learn how systems work from the inside
Artists who are organizers value ways to work with and through systems to affect policies. Such partnerships can provide insights into how systems work in order to build impactful creative strategies.
“We serve on Richmond’s Juvenile Justice Collaborative, with organizations that play a role with young people in the system. We’ve learned that the Juvenile Justice system…[isn’t] funded to do preventative work, even if they personally agree that’s important. That’s a structural issue-- these are good people. Getting to know where the city is operating from allows us to get somewhere.” Mark Strandquist, Artist/Community Organizer, Performing Statistics
Expand work opportunities
Artists’ many skills are directly applicable to municipal issues. An M/A partnership can be a good way to support their practice, build their civic reputation, and earn a living. One partnership opportunity can lead to others.
“I'm trained to support racial justice in government and as a visual artist and performer. I wanted to integrate creativity more into my government work. Now I'm bridging between the Office of Arts & Culture and Office for Civil Rights in a new role that really brings together my passions.” Diana Falchuk, Creative Strategies Initiative Manager, City of Seattle Race & Social Justice Initiative, Office of Arts & Culture and Office for Civil Rights