Mass Culture is a recent addition to the Canadian arts & culture sector, connecting research, practice and policy by weaving together a network of collaborators. In 2018-2019, my work was focused on developing tools and principles for the Gatherings, a series of creative conversations about arts research designed to inform Mass Culture’s community-led priorities. The next stage was, naturally, a festival: Mass One, Festival of Arts Research.
Amidst the maelstrom of changes, the brutal breaking down of familiar patterns and the fast widening of inequalities we’re experiencing right now, I am reminded of a commitment the Mass One team made early on: to share the development process, and to think and learn in public. We’re now resuming our active planning, so it’s time to look under the hood and launch this Producer’s Process series of articles.
Mass One came out of a desire to disrupt the usual modes of knowledge production and dissemination. We asked ourselves what a hybrid between an academic conference and an arts festival would look like, especially if we paid special attention to the participants’ experience.
When I started producing Mass One, I was interested in exploring the notions of choice and participation. For this first edition, we planned to gather 100 people over 1 night and 1 day in a format designed for exchange, connection and knowledge co-production – a “choose-your-own-adventure” festival of ideas where participants design their own learning journey and co-create a rich conversation on research, policy and practice in the arts.
That was then; now we’re pivoting, in sync with so many other events and programmes around the world.
Because we can’t meet in person, the spatial dimension of the event is radically altered. All those online meetings, disembodied and back-to-back, can drain our energy really fast, even though we’re actually processing far less information at once than “in real life”. But online space is what we’ve got to work with; it’s our design constraint.
Some online events will be intensive working sessions limited in capacity. Others will be shaped by our work with co-curators and may take time to emerge in their most effective form. And because we now have time for the in-between, we’ll explore different ways of opening up opportunities for dialogue beyond these salient moments in the process.
So I’d love to know:
What do you think is the difference between a festival and a season? (I’m asking this as a festivals & public programmes producer – I’ve never managed a season before).
What other principles drawn from artistic practice can we bring to our knowledge & cultural production activities? (I often refer back to my experience working with improvising musicians – “freedom within structure, structure within freedom” – but there’s got to be more to life than jazz).
And the question that keeps me going: how do we design frameworks where we can practise participation and apply this competence to other aspects of our life?
This partnership-working principle is both a great opportunity and challenge: with the right synergy and efficient pooling of resources, ideas can spark brighter and projects become bigger. However, there’s no template for a perfect partnership: the terms of the relationship have to be negotiated on a case-by-case basis, and it will widely depend on the nature of the project, budget, timeline, resources available including staff – so pretty much everything! And like with any relationship, sometimes it just clicks, and sometimes you need to lay down a few things before you get properly started.
Preliminary Thinking: Checklist & Questions
I’ve started to develop a few ideas towards a partnership agreement or charter, something that would reduce risk without being stifling.
So far it’s very much about what partners need to discuss, define and revisit throughout the project cycle, with the following broad categories to address:
–Leadership: who is responsible for what
–Communication: how and how often will partners communicate, and who will be responsible for external communications
–Administration: who will be in charge of updating the budget, booking meeting rooms, taking and distributing minutes….
–Evaluation: how, when, when will the project be evaluated; who will take part, and why
–Legacy: what do the partners want to achieve, what will happen after the project phase ends
I’m still in the process of researching and developing this partnership agreement checklist – or whichever format it ends up taking – and have recently come across some interesting resources that I’ve listed below.
The National Enquiry: The Art of Partnering
When I conducted the research into co-commissioning and artistic partnership back in 2013, I was quite surprised by the lack of formal agreements and the ad hoc nature of relationships, even at international level. A recent Cultural Enquiry report on The Art of Partnering, led by King’s College London in collaboration with the BBC, published in October 2015, found that, amongst arts organisations surveyed:
This seems to confirms that many partnerships are started on a trust basis and conducted rather informally, and therefore run the risk to be under-serviced, to the point of not managing to conduct an evaluation.
I do love a well designed report, and this one has got a nice collection of pretty bubbly infographics to highlight key findings, of which I’ve copied a few below.
There’s also a detailed section about methodology, something I’m especially interested in at the moment, and lots of case studies, such as Teach Through Music (a partnership of 5 London-based music organisations delivering CPD for music teachers) and SPINE (library services in Cambridgeshire, Suffolk and Norfolk collaborating to share back office facilities).
The View from the Producers: Taking Bearings
Also in the past few days, I’ve come across another interesting document about partnerships produced by a British arts institution – in a fairly serendipitous manner, as it’s a document that was mentioned in passing by ClaireDoherty (of Bristol-based Situations) in a video interview she did for The Art of MOOC, a new online experiment about public art, education and participation.
This time it’s a much more personal take on what makes a partnership a success, the fruit of a peer learning event exploring quality in the context of the Creative People and Places programme (an Arts Council flagship programme of investment into arts organisations working in places and with people identified as remote and disengaged). Titled Taking Bearings, it starts with a lovely illustrated “Map of the Voyage to the Island of Quality” commissioned from artist Nicole Mollett and also includes a short story by Sarah Butler – a nice way to position firmly this document within the realm of artistic collaboration.
I really like the journey metaphor and the compass-style layout of questions, as it helps to envisage such partnerships as processes, always moving and growing.
In her introduction, Claire Doherty explains: “We have devised these prompts collectively to be used for ‘a meeting with oneself’, or as a device to enable more open conversation with participants, stakeholders and collaborators.” On the whole, It’s much more conceptual than my own set of questions, and I find it helpful for daring to go to fairly uncomfortable places (“Is the obstacle due to a disagreement about where you are headed?”) and bringing home some common sense (“Have you looked at this from another direction?”).
The Theoretical Background: Enabling Effective Collaboration
“Partnership” means something different to everyone, but MMM identifies 9 models of collaboration based on the case studies and additional examples: from Fully and Partially Integrated Mergers (such as Trinity Laban) to the Creative Adhocracy, a casual, trust-based relationship between individuals choosing to work together (a common occurrence in the arts, of which MMM is an example).
As illustrated in the above Map of Quality, there are numerous pitfalls in the partnership journey. This document lists the key behaviours that contribute to the success of a partnership, based on interviews with case studies participants. As noted by one of the interviewees, it is crucial to understand from the start what will be required through the project lifecycle so that partners can choose appropriate project leaders and invest in the professional development if necessary.
Wanting to learn
Building shared vision
Building a critical mass for change within an organisation
This last document is “an introduction to planning collaborative activity and a digest of key early stage challenges”, including advice on working with external specialists. It introduces the notion of “disciplined collaboration” developed by management professor Morten Hansen, which he defines as “the leadership practice of properly assessing when to collaborate (and when not to) and instilling in people both the willingness and the ability to collaborate when required.” MMM has developed a framework inspired by Hansen’s work and based on case studies findings to take into account the specificities of the not-for-profit arts & culture sector. The full framework, with additional questions and references, can be found on MMM’s website, and I’ve summarised the key points below.
Step 1: Evaluate opportunities for collaboration
This step is about identifying levels of experience, resources and relevance of the proposed outcome. Hansen warns that “collaboration is a means to an end and that end is great performance. This means that often it may be better not to collaborate, because there is simply no compelling reason to do so.” This is also the right time to create a relevant collaborative working proposition, and this can be framed around the themes of mission, models and money:
How will collaborating help better delivery of the organisation’s mission or how can it help renew mission?
What will be the advantages for our operational model?
And what positive impact will it have on our finances?
Step 2. Spot barriers to collaboration
Hansen proposes four typical barriers:
• The ‘not invented here’ barrier (people are unwilling to reach out to others)
• The hoarding barrier (people are unwilling to provide help)
• The search barrier (people are not able to find what they are looking for)
• The transfer barrier (people are not able to work with people they do not know well)
To which MMM adds “over-extension and undercapitalisation” as specific to the arts sector, in other words, lack of time, money and resources.
At this stage, partners should be aware of these potential pitfalls and be ready to ask themselves some difficult questions about their own limitations, behavioural, organisational and/or practical barriers that might prevent successful collaborative working. It’s also the right time to take stock of the resources available on all sides, including staff, and to start considering options for what MMM calls “Technical Assistance”, in other words external advisors / experts.
Step 3. Tailor solutions to tear down the barriers
After identifying potential problems, partners can start identifying solutions: it’s time to clarify the shared vision, articulate the strategic objectives, put plans in place to gain new skills or draw in external experience.
Structures and methodologies should also be developed at this stage, defining roles and responsibilities and putting in place strategies of accountability.
Step 4. Review and embed the process
Finally, special attention should be paid to implementing feedback mechanisms throughout the project cycle and enabling sustainable learning across the partnering organisations. To conclude, MMM shares insights into “early stage collaboration challenges” that pilot project participants encountered – in other words, what they would do better if they could start all over again.
Crystallising the purpose: even if it evolves over time, it’s better to have a direction in mind than to navigate in the dark.
Ensuring mission congruence: the mission is the identity of an organisation – so it’s essential that partners understand fully how their values and beliefs overlap or diverge.
Recognising the different kinds of value being created: as this is an essential element of the partnership legacy, it’s important to acknowledge gains and benefits at all stages of the project
Communicating: how, how often, with whom… a communication structure between brand new partners is a must.
Paying sufficient attention to ‘soft skills’: issues of leadership and relationships need to be looked at from the start.
Understanding resourcing needs: these can be time, money, in-house skills and accessible external assistance.
Arts organisations use all sorts of office settings, from small and casual bolt-holes to grand, more formal venues. Physical environment clearly influences productivity and mood of the team, so space and resources need to be adequate.
Unfortunately that’s easier said than done, with rent taking such a big chunk out of a company’s budget. But there’s another way to look at the question of space for arts organisations: rent could be a good investment in a mutually beneficial creative environment, so that a building becomes an active player in a particular city’s cultural ecology.
Co-working, shared workspaces and cultural hubs are on the rise because they solve problems. For example, a hot desk at Toronto’s Centre for Social Innovation (known locally as CSI) starts at CAD75 a month – and comes with a business address, mail delivery, 24/7 access and shared services such as free wifi, free coffee, cheap printing and meeting rooms. This can offer a low-cost, temporary solution for an organisation trying to bounce back after reductions in income.
The venue management publishes open source toolkits, incubates projects and operates a crowdfunding platform. They also fix the wifi if it goes wonky and remove those pesky paper jams.
And for added value, members get to be part of a thriving community of freelancers and entrepreneurs, both not-for-profit and for-profit, from a variety of sectors. An internal communications system, networking events of all types and sizes and a big communal kitchen allow members to constantly exchange services, contacts and ideas.
CSI started with 14 founding tenants in 2004 and now has three locations in Toronto and one in New York, so it’s clearly working. It’s a social enterprise that acts as a community enabler, not a commercial landlord draining away resources.
The management team publishes open source toolkits, incubates projects, runs a micro-loan fund and operates a crowdfunding platform. They also fix the wifi if it goes wonky and remove those pesky paper jams.
There are other models out there, other ways to turn office rent into community investment. Also in Toronto, 401 Richmondis a 200,000 sq ft historic warehouse renovated under the principles of eco-restoration and openly inspired by Jane Jacobs (‘Old ideas can sometimes use new buildings; new ideas must use old buildings’).
Current tenants include over 140 cultural producers and micro-enterprises: 12 galleries, artists, designers and architects, a music shop, a bookshop, many arts festivals and environmental and civic agencies.
The management company, Urbanspace, organises tenant-led Nuit Blanche events and open studio days, and services include an arts-based childcare centre, a friendly café and a luxuriant rooftop garden. Here too, the community is based on shared values, and tenants are selected – from a long waiting list – to contribute to the creative mix.
Still in Toronto,Artscape, a registered not-for-profit organisation founded in 1986, manages several buildings that offer affordable live/work studios for artists, offices for arts and civic organisations, and performance and exhibition spaces at a discounted rate for charities.
These three examples in Toronto have strong links: one of the founders of CSI is the president of 401 Richmond, who was in turn inspired by Artscape. All took time to develop and mature, which is why they have deep roots in the local cultural ecology.
Creative placemaking, connected networks and sustainable platforms can enable artists and arts organisations to adapt to a changing environment.
If you’re thinking of pooling resources to save money and find creative synergies, existing models are there to provide ideas and inspiration, and they tend to share openly their history and principles.
They’ve enabled and inspired countless projects on their home ground, and I’m hoping that these insights will be useful to cultural innovators in other cities and countries.
In the post-institution-building era, how is art created and supported? Should – and can – public funding be as innovative as the contemporary practices and experiments it is meant to enable?
These are questions addressed in a recent report written by Shannon Litzenberger, a practising artist (a dancer, as the title might give it away) and arts policy researcher during her Innovation Fellowship at Canadian private foundation Metcalf.
As our cultural expression evolves, there is a need to re-look at some of the fundamental assumptions regarding how the arts are supported and sustained in Canada. The environment in which we are operating is radically different than in decades past. New technologies, changing demographics, global interconnectedness, and the evolving nature of public engagement in the arts have transformed our industry. Consequently, the working practice of the emerging generation is increasingly misaligned with current arts funding policies.
The author spent three years investigating industry trends in Canada, the UK, the US and Australia, meeting over 100 cultural leaders and reflecting on context and process. Her report is full of ideas and examples from artists, arts organisations, granting agencies and strategic consultants in the 4 countries of research – from Arts Council England’s project-based, continuous-intake funding programme Grants for the Arts to Toronto’s leading collaborative platform and shared workspaces Centre for Social Innovation and Artscape, via insights from DEMOS associate John Holden and WolfBrown’s consultant Alan Brown.
Litzenberger is careful to mention that “the recommendations contained in Choreographing our Future are not intended as prescribed solutions. They are designed to trigger a more informed debate within the sector about new ways to address future arts development.” The debate was there right from the launch event, where three Toronto-based arts advocate – a granting officer, an independent theatre creator and a consultant – presented to a full room their own views and reaction to the findings. What emerged from the public discussion was a strong desire to go further – but where?
The report conclusion contains clues to a possible direction: towards collaboration, between genres, generations and even industries.
It is not our intellect that will propel us forward, but our courage. We must be willing to erase the line that separates artist and institution, that polarizes the traditional from the contemporary, that pits disciplines of practice against each other, and isolates generations and cultural groups. In this new age of the arts — this newly celebrated creative economy — I am optimistic about the possibilities for artists, arts organizations, and funders to work together as creative innovators, as facilitators of engagement in creative life, and as ambassadors of a healthy, thriving, vibrant arts sector.