ASC Partnerships Blog Series Post #9: Navigating Partner Policy | Discussion

In this blog series, we’d like to seed conversations about what meaningful community-engaged participatory arts for social change (ASC) partnerships can look like, how they can be effective and enriching, while also discussing some of the challenges and difficulties. The content of this series draws primarily on research conducted by Judith Marcuse (Principle Investigator on the ASC! Project) and Nicole Armos (ASC! Research Assistant) during the 2013-2019 Art for Social Change (ASC!) Research Project, but the content of these posts is meant only as a starting point. We want to hear your thoughts too! 
Read the other episodes in the series here: 
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ASC Partnerships Blog Series Post #9 | Navigating Partner Policy | Part 2, Discussion

Agreements
It would be very dangerous to enter into a project and not have key things embedded in a signed agreement, because things like that can de-rail a project in the middle of it.”
Terry Hunter, Vancouver Moving Theatre, Vancouver, BC

Although it may take a lot of time and effort to agree on terms, especially in projects involving multiple partners, the process of creating a formal agreement, such as a Memorandum of Understanding, can uncover unexpected details about each organization’s policies and values that can be critical to project success. It can also open a space for conversations around uncomfortable subjects, such as who owns the art that is created.

As ASC work is often iterative and flexible, many community-engaged artist practitioners that we interviewed spoke of written agreements as a “baseline” or as “guidelines that will govern the flexibility” of a project. Rather than tethering partners to parameters that may not fit an evolving project, a written agreement can be intentionally designed to encourage partners to explicitly discuss new directions, unforeseen circumstances, and more equitable arrangements. When one partner experiences staffing changes, for example, written agreements can offer an effective starting point for familiarizing new staff with the original terms of agreement.

However, the documentation processes and “legalese” used by large institutions can be inaccessible to, or exceed the administrative capacity of, smaller organizations and artists. Many successful ASC projects operate under more informal processes of agreement. This is especially common in partnerships involving smaller, grassroots organizations and freelance artists. We heard from several practitioners who make agreements verbally in face-to-face meetings or record them in more informal documents such as shared meeting notes or emails. The level of trust and pre-existing relationship between partners can also be a factor in the formality of agreements. One interviewee explained, “Sometimes it's a handshake. It's a trust factor there. There is a relationship, a pre-existing one, and…those relationships are just as strong [as written agreements] but maybe less formal.”

Example: Policies of Space
While some ASC organizations operate their own studios, the majority of ASC projects operate in partners’ spaces, such as schools, community centres, senior centres, NGOs, correctional facilities, hospitals, social housing, and fine and performing arts spaces. Discussions about the logistics of working within these spaces are often a key element of partnership agreements, including issues such as hours of access, the involvement of partners’ staff, and security protocols.

Many ASC practitioners we spoke with described the complex process of navigating entry into unconventional spaces for artwork. Some institutions require artists to enter as volunteers or receive orientation and training before they begin the work. Other artists were met with entirely inadequate spaces for arts-based processes, due to small room sizes or fixed configurations of furniture, requiring innovative adaptations.

One ASC practitioner described the balance between respecting partners’ protocols and defining boundaries to protect the core values of their work. For instance, while they adapted their usual policy of inclusivity to work at a women’s shelter that permitted only women and children to attend, they are strict about not offering workshops in spaces that require a fee to participate.

Overall, practitioners stressed the value of respecting partner protocols and building trust with staff. Describing the process of passing through security checks in a correctional facility, one artist said, “When you step in, you’re no longer like a person on the street; you’re an entity within the system […] you just have to conduct yourself in a way that makes them understand that you’re with them. Whatever they need at this moment […] everybody’s safety depends on their being able to do what they’re doing.” The artist explained that by focusing on building mutual respect and trust with staff, they have been able to develop a multi-year partnership where projects have become “much deeper and more complex.”

On the other hand, our interviews also highlighted how partnering organizations must sometimes adapt to incorporate and accommodate art processes in their spaces. As one practitioner states, there is often a learning curve for institutions “that are not as familiar with partnerships outside of their own milieu” and who may not trust or understand artistic methods and methodologies. In interviews and from other sources, we heard of ASC projects that requested exceptions to institutional protocols, such as bringing boys and girls together for a dance program at a youth correctional facility, or working in unconventional spaces such as lobbies, staircases, or even swimming pools.

The program officer in one partner space we spoke to described the process of partnership planning as a “constant negotiation […] from the bottom-up and from the top-down,” where they strive to consider the specific needs of each project “looking for a middle path” between questions of risk-management, disruption of other work in the space, and the creative potential of the art project. One well-established example of this type of collaboration between artists and facility staff is William Head Correctional Institution. Despite the obvious need for strict protocols around access and use of the space, William Head has, since 1981, hosted William Head on Stage, “the only inmate-run prison theatre company in all of Canada that invites the public into the prison to experience their shows”.

What challenges have you faced in finding out about and understanding partner policies? What successes have you experienced in adapting your work to the partner’s policies or helping a partner organization adapt to make an ASC project viable and meaningful? What creative tips or examples can you share to help others? Join the conversation on Facebook or Twitter to share your experiences!

In our next post, we’ll take a look at some specific approaches to partnerships.