Arts Festival with No Artist Engagement

A new performing arts festival launched with no artist leadership and without consulting artists. During the first season, there were extensive problems with production, communication, and marketing; many were "disastrous" from the artists' point of view. No effort was made to assess or post-mortem the first year's issues.

Unaware of the issues, and with no mechanism for assessment other than the festival's self-reporting, foundations continued funding the festival. Artists who attempted to communicate concerns to the festival and to funders were brushed off as complainers. Artists began to tell one another: stay away from this festival

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I work with Artists Artists Give Up Engaging with Artists

Workshops without Artist Input

After a months-long program hiatus and staff turnover, the new education manager attempted to solicit input from artists about their professional development needs using an online survey. Very few artists completed the short questionnaire and many responses were too broad to be of much use, so the education manager created a season of workshops without a strong sense of artists' perspectives. These workshops were severely under-attended, indicating the focus topics were not of interest or need for local artist community.

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I work with Artists Artists Give Up Engaging with Artists

Relentless Artist

An artist working in our city is very interested in green/blue infrastructure issues at the city and neighborhood level. This is tied into her creative work to recast fiber as an urban, sustainable and people of color practice. She was relentless in finding out the information about meetings (which are not transparently posted on the city's website), attended meetings and ultimately worked her way on to the task force. The task force now sees the benefit of including artists in their work - but there is no mechanism for this to become the norm for the way the city thinks about constituting its community taskforces, services, planning and departments across the board.

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I work with Artists Artists Give Up Engaging with Artists

A City Plan Created without Artists

Casey Summar, Independent Consultant and former Executive Director of the Arts & Business Council of Greater Nashville, shares a cautionary tale about the lack of artists at the table for creating the previous strategic plan for the city of Nashville in the 1990s.

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I work with Artists Artists Give Up Advocacy

Exposure as Compensation

If we have a local artist who’s contributing to the exhibition in some way, we typically don’t pay them an artist’s fee or honorarium unless they’re doing something substantial for the exhibition.

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I work with Artists Artists Give Up Paying Artists

We Assumed the Artists Were Just Being Needy

Our most unsuccessful program was our attempt to give artists monies to create their own open studio tours in their own neighborhoods. They hated that idea. They really did not want to be responsible for organizing an open studio tour or for creating advertising materials and signage. To us, they felt needy. We believed they wanted somebody else to put a tour together that they could just pop into. After reflecting on the experience, we hope to start a dialogue to learn more about how we can successfully partner with our local artists, rather than basing our actions off assumptions.

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I work with Artists Artists Give Up Engaging with Artists

Lacking an Authentic Voice

We’ve just had some experiences where we had high hopes that a certain individual, trainer, would be a great resource for our arts community and it just really didn’t work out. They weren’t able to bring the authentic voice that the artist responds to. If the artist starts to find that the person standing in front of the room or across the table from them doesn’t really know what it’s like to walk in the artist’s shoes, then they just become very skeptical of that person’s credibility. We find it’s just not a very productive professional development experience.

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I work with Artists Artists Give Up Services and Programs

Trying to Find Common Ground

As a Community Development Corporation, we know in theory that working with artists could lead to interesting programming, but we have no idea where to start and how to connect with artists. Some of our staff try to go to places and events where we might find things in common with artists, such as gardening and community events, as well as showing up at openings and such. But there still seems to be a gap between our general interest in partnering and the ability of our staff or the artists we meet to make a connection and advance the conversation.

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I work with Artists Artists Give Up Community Connections

Assumptions about Artists

In the partner program – because it is delivered by an artist who is totally sensitive to and supportive of the basic enterprise of just being an artist – when he talks about how he manages his time and learned how to do more of what he wanted to do and charge for it, they totally get it and they totally buy-in because it is all couched in terms of the reality of being an artist. Sometimes a business guy will come in and will talk with a group of artists based on his assumptions of who or what artists are…and sometimes that can be a little off-putting to artists who live that life everyday.

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I work with Artists Artists Give Up Services and Programs

Artists Asked to Donate Their Time

There was one time very early on in the creative catalyst program, when our creative catalyst coordinator was working on an art demo project. There was a festival downtown and the creative catalyst wanted to do something with it so they went out and recruited a bunch of aerosol artists to use these art cubes we had built, doing aerosol art outside onsite at this festival as a part of community engagement for creative catalyst. When I realized that they had lined up all these artists that were willing to donate their services – the only thing we had done was buy the paint – it actually bothered me because we don’t generally ask artists to work for nothing. So, as a thank you to them, because they were already lined up and the event was about to happen, we ended up giving all the artists who participated vouchers for tickets to come see a show. They got two free tickets to a show of their choice.

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I work with Artists Artists Give Up Paying Artists

Getting the Right Presenter

One thing we’ve struggled with is finding presenters who will offer information specific to artists. For example, we did a workshop about finances and doing your own taxes. The presenter was knowledgeable about the topics generally, but when the individual artists in the audience spoke up and asked questions about their artwork, the response was, “Well, I don’t specialize in artist taxes, so I can’t really speak to that.” The feedback was “Well, then you’re not the person that we need in front of us.” The artists left frustrated with the lack of specific information and felt it wasn’t worth their time. This was a great lesson for us to invest time in getting to know our presenters in advance and also a reminder that sometimes we should pass on a very well-credentialed presenter if they don’t have deep arts experience.

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I work with Artists Artists Give Up Services and Programs

Not Providing Tools for Effectively Building Relationships

What has been unsuccessful is designing a program in a way that overtly supports artists but doesn’t overtly give them the tools and resources needed to effectively build relationships with the community. That’s not an innate skill set for many artists. Even though artists have something that they want to share, they may not have the tools or resources necessary to understand how to share it.

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I work with Artists Artists Give Up Community Connections

Working with Artists Behind-the-Scenes

I think the work that we do with individual artists around advocacy is very strategic and behind the scenes, because we, as an arts agency, are allowed to educate and inform but we’re not allowed to advocate. So, we work as an agency, most specifically providing individual artists or teams of artists with resources, strategy, people, evaluators; we function as a support to them in order for them to articulate their interests and their concerns.

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I work with Artists Artists Give Up Advocacy

Lack of Funding to Support Individual Artists

One of the biggest challenges that we have as a nonprofit organization is functioning successfully as a business and making sure that our artists are always compensated for their work, rather than having to work as a nonprofit that is always looking for donations and grantfunding. One of the barriers I think we have to making sure our artists can thrive is the lack of funding, period. There is little funding to support individual artists in their work, or funding to engage individual artists into the culture of an organization.

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I work with Artists Artists Give Up Funding Individual Artists

Institutionally Built Systems

We understand that, institutionally, we have built systems to make our grant making successful. But inherent in developing those systems has been the reality that certain groups of people or certain individuals have not been successful in those processes. And so, as we evaluate for our next ten years how we provide meaningful support, we understand that it’s not just about getting the dollars out to the community – it’s also about how we do that. And it’s important that we do it in a way that opens the door for more people of color, more people of different classes as well as for more people from different regions. And this is all not only once they receive funding to be successful – it’s all the way through the application and grant process. It’s to ensure that for anyone from our community who is creative and has something to share, there is the opportunity and to be successful in that grant process.

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I work with Artists Artists Give Up Power (open, equitable, and culturally relevant)

Organizational Capacity Is Definitely a Challenge

I would say organizational capacity is definitely a challenge. We are a small organization. We’re headquartered in a town in the Northeast, so it is a challenge to go to the West Coast or the Midwest or to really be able to spread ourselves out. We have such a small staff, so we’re looking at what model organization, what kind of structure we might need to best maximize our capacity. But we’re kind of lean and mean at this point.

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I work with Artists Artists Give Up Organizational Capacity

Waiting for that Lucky Break

What I see as a failure is an artist who hasn’t recognized red flags: you haven’t paid your rent for two or three months and you’re waiting for a lucky break. It’s more like an addiction or gambling, “I’m gonna get that lucky break” but meanwhile the ground is crumbling underneath you and there’s only so much that anyone else can do to offer crisis assistance, but at a certain point if the artist is working in isolation and not open to at least even trying something different, even just to stabilize him or herself, the resources won’t be enough and the artist may ultimately give up.

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I am an Artist Artists Give Up Practice

Connecting Artists and Organizations One-at-a-Time

The extent of our work to connect artists and communities is making one-on-one introductions. For example, last summer there was a filmmaker who was new to town and he was looking to make connections with organizations around a particular issue. I met with him and said ‘sure I’ll connect you to this person and that person.’ That’s happened many times since. I’ve connected artists to each other or to organizations so that they can collaborate. While this is better than nothing, I can’t help but think we could use a more strategic system and more capacity for serving artists interested in community-centered work.

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I work with Artists Artists Give Up Community Connections

Relying on Artists to Fill Gaps When Resources Dry Up

One of our challenges is sustaining programs. We received funding from a national partner to start a program where we trained and hired artists as facilitators. We would then coordinate workshops drawing on this stable of artists as our presenters. For a time, it worked well and we were able to hire artists regularly. When the funding dried up, the artists wanted to continue doing the work they were trained to do, but we couldn’t afford to pay them anymore. Now, some artists will occasionally find funding and we’ll partner with them to help host a program. Other artists are volunteering their time. Our board feels that the artists should find the funding themselves and work as a partner to us, but we feel that this is asking too much of the artists to make up the gap left by our lack of funding and commitment to this program. It’s definitely something we need to discuss further to try and get the staff, the board, and our local artists all on the same page.

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I work with Artists Artists Give Up Organizational Capacity

A Distinct Hierarchy of Artists

For a lot of the projects that we do, we hire artists, but there is a distinct hierarchy. There is a project manager, and then there’s teaching artists, and then apprentices, in that order. While we want to value artists with more experience, the really well-known artists in our community, we find that this “top down” system reinforces those structures so that the same artists always get the best commissions and the other artists are not advancing. Our challenge is that our board is still very committed to traditional notions of artistic excellence and look to measures such as exhibition history, formal education, and even the medium used as the only legitimate ways to evaluate the value and career of an artist. We have a long way to go, but we are starting to have these conversations with our board to help them understand both the intentional and unintentional results of perpetuating this cycle.

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I work with Artists Artists Give Up Organizational Capacity