Periodically, we pose questions about issues artists face in their work and lives. This month, we asked a group of artists and arts professionals: What does a healthy partnership between cultural organizations and local artists look like?
Gabrielle Schaffner, ceramic artist
Ideally, it’s a lively two-way relationship. Cultural organizations have the power to magnify their artists’ voices, increase their visibility, introduce artists to wider audiences, and open doors to opportunities. With social media, artists now have their own platforms to reciprocate and introduce their own audiences to cultural organizations, and to have more personal contact and dialogue with a wide range of cultural organizations.
I get to tackle this question from both sides – as a full-time studio artist, and as a former arts administrator for a small arts organization (I held various positions for Fort Point Arts Community between 2000 and 2015). Connecting artists to opportunities was always my favorite part of arts admin work – whether it was for a sale, a show, or a chance to collaborate, this felt like the real heart of the work, a way to help forge relationships and potentially impact careers.
Cultural organizations often have the power to speak out on behalf of communities of artists, on both political and economic issues, and make a larger impact where the voice of individuals might not. As an artist, I have been grateful to FPAC over the years as it lobbied for more creative space and even helped develop the artists’ cooperative that is my home. MassCreative has done incredible work bringing artists to the political table during recent elections. I’m thankful to the Mass Cultural Council for giving me visibility when it commissioned me (very early in my career) to create the award object for its Commonwealth Awards, and to the Society of Arts and Crafts, which supports local makers with opportunities to exhibit, sell, and promote contemporary craft.
The best cultural organizations listen and communicate openly with their artists, facilitating honest conversations: what is needed, what can they do for each other, and even offering the tools and training to help make those things happen.
Summer Williams, Associate Artistic Director of Company One Theatre
A healthy partnership looks like folks with a core common mission, ethos, and ethics coming together – with intention – to create something that feels important and natural in that partnership. What I mean by that is that both parties have to be on the same page about directionality and intentionality, about how they meet their goals together. They need to remove the ego from it so that what’s central is why you’re coming together to partner in the first place.
I think that’s really hard. It’s damn near impossible to get right on the first try. Because you’re always searching for ways to come to the table as prepared and informed and open as you can be but there always going to be challenges that you can’t account for at the start. Eventually you learn to approach those challenges as opportunities and not just things that are standing in your way.
John Aylward, composer
I’ve had a lot of opportunities to partner with cultural organizations in Massachusetts, nationally, and internationally. Every time an organization has been open to partnering, the results have been incredible, and the only times I’ve had disappointments have been when organizations didn’t want to partner or collaborate in the first place. So, through that lens, I can say that cultural organizations really have nothing to fear by partnering with artists and helping to cultivate and shape their visions. Whether with local or international artists, cultural organizations should feel that they can branch out and lend their reach and impact toward giving voice to artists of all kinds. It’s a willingness that makes the difference, because, when artists receive positive opportunities from cultural organizations, they realize the value for them – that it helps them amplify their voice – and they don’t take those moments for granted. The aspect of health in an artist / cultural organizational relationship really comes from that ground up willingness. From that, ideas and opportunities for impact arise. I never had a collaboration with a cultural organization that didn’t change and develop as we were working together. But again, it was the organization’s willingness to try new things, and attract new audiences, that made the collaboration productive, and healthy, in the first place.
Sam Toabe, Gallery Curator, Art Department, University of Massachusetts Boston
I believe a healthy relationship between local artists and cultural organizations can be fostered by adopting a more symbiotic communication system that allows for shared growth and advancement. Mass Cultural Council’s mission (and responsibility) is to further the arts in Massachusetts. Artists’ missions are less objective, varying from artist to artist in intent and affect. However, they all need to make art in a society that tends to stunt their development due to economic challenges. Many artists that deserve funding are not getting it because they have little or no education in the grant writing process or infrastructure to develop proposals with. More work needs to be done to help artists realize – even just conceptualize – projects which will advance our culture on a broader scale than in the few galleries that will show them. Engagement has to be more balanced, and the values of artist and the institution need to be recognized and fully utilized.
In light of recent projects being derailed, such as Steve Locke’s proposed slave trade memorial at Faneuil Hall, and programs to support artists’ public projects, like Now + There’s Art Accelerator Program, I think there is a need for cultural organizations to play a larger role in educating local artists and the public on the processes that cultural organizations are most skilled.
Andrea Blesso Albuquerque, Director of Dance, Boston Center for the Arts
I believe a large part of effective organizational programming requires local artist connection. Through programs that directly serve local artists to create work and expand their practice, or by presenting regional/national artists that may impact those artists through a porous process (workshops, performances, panel discussions, discount tickets, modality training, etc). Weaving local artists into the conversation to spark inspiration for events and programs is essential.
Like any relationship, the most important factor is communication. I converse with members of the Boston dance community, local presenters, and funders on a frequent basis to gain a clear sense of artist needs and trends. Armed with that information, I annually assess the resources my organization may offer to fulfill those needs. Oftentimes, I spark partnership with another organization that could fill a gap in necessary resources to create a healthy program and level of support.
I have been lucky enough to dance within the local community for the past 20 years, and now work at an organization that supports those artists. “Active listening” is a term I use frequently, as it sums up the balance of reactive energy, and proactive presence in the community that I utilize when building my programs.
Andrea Blesso Albuquerque is a choreographer, dancer, and Director of Dance at Boston Center for the Arts. Next Steps for Boston Dance will present We Try To Live Together at the Plaza Theatres at Boston Center for the Arts 9/26-9/28. The event features performances by Michael Figueroa (Choreography Finalist ’18) and numerous others in a “carefully choreographed collision of people and ideas.”
Sam Toabe is an art historian and curator. Currently, he is Gallery Director of the University Hall Gallery for the Art Department at the University of Massachusetts Boston.
Summer L. Williams is a Co-Founder and Associate Artistic Director of Company One Theatre in Boston, and an award-winning director. For Company One’s upcoming season, she’ll direct “Wolf Play” by Hansol Jung (1/31-2/29) and “Black Super Hero Magic Mama” by Inda Craig-Galván (7/17-8/15).
Image: ceramic art by Gabrielle Schaffner.