Harmony: How to Build Relationships With Non-Arts Groups

Note to readers: This article is part of the WomenArts Harmony Project. Arlene Goldbard has interviewed ten women artists who have been successful at building collaborations with non-arts organizations, and she is presenting their advice for other artists. The full series of articles is posted in the Harmony section of our website.

Start With People You Know

Susan Cervantes, a muralist and the founder of Precita Eyes Mural Arts, counsels beginners to start forming relationships in their own backyards, as she did many years ago.

“That’s basically how I started. It happened all very naturally. It’s been a long time now, and I can look back, I have some perspective. I walk around the neighborhood and I see all my artwork all around, and that of my community. It’s a very good feeling.”

“You have to start from where you are at. If you’re really interested in doing community-based art, you start with the people you know are around, the businesses that you patronize, the centers that you patronize, the people that see you every day. They’re the ones that are going to support you because you have some relationship with them on a daily basis. That’s what gives you a good start.”

Say Yes to Everything

Destiny Arts’ artistic director Sarah Crowell believes in learning by doing, which inevitably entails making mistakes.

She urges newcomers to artist-organization collaborations to dive right in: “In the beginning of doing partnerships, say yes to everything. Do a bunch of collaborations. That’s the way I learn the best: I get in there and I do it, I make some mistakes. Be as strategic as you can and follow your gut around the projects that are exciting to you and aligned with your mission. Then build your understanding of who you want to collaborate with, and develop good relationships.”

Sarah believes that walking the talk is the foundation for any strong partnership: “With every single person that you meet — the janitor, the secretary, the principal, the CEO, the funder — everybody gets the same treatment, everybody gets the same benefit of the doubt, everybody gets your eye contact and your heart. I teach this from the kids up and the Board down: every interaction, every phone call, every time a parent is inquiring about something or complaining about something or connecting with you about something, any stakeholder, come with that integrity.”

Don’t Be Daunted

Interviewees explained that even parts of the collaborative process that seem daunting may turn out to be exciting and positive contributions to the artist’s experience.

For example, filmmaker Debra Chasnoff points out that even with new video technologies, films are expensive, taking time and involving a fairly large team. But she counsels artists and organizations “not to look at the fundraising for a film as a big negative. It actually can be a huge opportunity for community-building and for building your base and getting a lot of people involved.”

“Once you have that little trailer of what you’re doing, you have an instant vehicle for house parties and convenings and speaking engagements. It’s very compelling: people want to be entertained and they want to be involved. They can help, spreading it on Facebook and other social media. Think about the fundraising as a community organizing or an activist component of the project.”

Provide Structure & Balance

Visual artist Beth Grossman suggests offering people a manageable number of options, rather than being completely open-ended.

“I’ve taught a lot of kids’ classes,” she explained, “and if you bring in too many art materials, they don’t know what to do. If you bring in one or two and say, ‘Okay, we’re working with tempera paint today,’ they’ll go for it.”

“A lot of this is about the way that people are conditioned in their childhood about artmaking, too. I try to structure it with just the right balance, so they know what they’re doing without having to ask too many questions, so that they don’t have a lot of room for self-doubt to come in.”

Be Authentic

Overall, the artists’ advice downplays technique in favor of authenticity, human connection, and goodwill.

Roadside Theater managing director Donna Porterfield emphasizes that like so many things, it’s about paying attention to who people are and what they need. “When I taught first grade,” she told me, “you assess everybody’s strengths and ways they need to be better, and work with them to set up a situation in which people can succeed and learn from each other as well as from the teacher, the expert.”

“You need a clear way for the participants to define what they have in common and work out their differences in some kind of equitable and sensible way – and what to do when people don’t want to do that, and are hurtful.”

Cool Collaborators!
Geena Davis Teams with Girls Scouts, Broadcasters & Artists

The Geena Davis Institute on Gender and Media has teamed up with Girl Scouts of the USA, broadcasters groups, and The Creative Coalition of artists to form the Healthy MEdia Commission for Positive Images of Women and Girls.

The Healthy MEdia Commission will bring together media leaders and experts to create a set of recommendations for promoting positive media images of women and girls.

Watch What watch2You Watch!

The Girl Scouts previously worked with The Creative Coalition on this public service announcement.  Watch the video>>

Take Geena’s Poll!
The Geena Davis Institute has launched a poll to get input for the definition of healthy media that the Commission will include in its recommendations to industry leaders.

Question: How do you define “healthy” media for women and girls?
(Select one answer)

Vote Characters portray confident women and girls who feel good about their bodies and themselves
Vote Characters are positive, authentic role models
Vote Characters portray women in a range of professions (police, CEOs, doctors, politicians, engineers)
Vote Female and male characters are equally represented
Vote All of the above

Did You Know?

* Most 8- to 18-year-olds spend upwards of 10 hours a day engaging with media.
(Kaiser 2009)

* In family films and television, male characters outweigh female characters nearly 3:1 and only 27 percent of the speaking characters are female. (GDIGM)

* More than half of girls (55 percent) admit they diet to lose weight; 31 percent admit to starving themselves or refusing to eat as a strategy to lose weight. (GSRI)

Note: This bi-weekly series about successful collaborations between women artists and community organizations is part of the WomenArts Harmony Project. This project has been made possible by a generous grant from the Nathan Cummings Foundation.

About Arlene Golbard

Arlene Goldbard is a writer and consultant focusing on the intersection of culture, politics and spirituality. See her talks and writings at her Web site: www.arlenegoldbard.com.

Special Thanks

WomenArts is supported by generous grants from the Nathan Cummings Foundation, the Meyer Levy Charitable Foundation, the Peace Development Fund, East Bay Community Foundation, the Leo S. Guthman Fund, the Do A Little Fund, and by gifts of time, energy and money from artists and arts supporters around the world.

This entry was posted in Arts & Social Justice, Dance, Film, Harmony, Interviews with Women Artists, Visual Arts on by .

About Arlene Goldbard

Arlene Goldbard is a writer and consultant focusing on the intersection of culture, politics and spirituality. See her talks and writings at her Web site: www.arlenegoldbard.com. Her most recent books include New Creative Community: The Art of Cultural Development (New Village Press, November 2006), Community, Culture and Globalization (Rockefeller Foundation 2002) and Clarity, a novel. Her essays have been published widely, and she speaks frequently. She has provided advice and counsel to hundreds of community organizations, independent media groups, funders and policymakers. She is writing a new book on art’s public purpose. She serves as President of the Board of Directors of The Shalom Center.