The Art of Collaboration

Posted by Maggie Guggenheimer On December - 6 - 2011

Maggie Guggenheimer

At Piedmont Council for the Arts (PCA), we often find ourselves in conversations about collaboration.

The Charlottesville (VA) area has a high number of arts and cultural organizations for its relatively small size.

Don’t let the quaint college town aesthetic fool you – with organizations like Monticello, The Paramount Theater, Live Arts, The Pavilion, Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection, and three amazing festivals, we’re busting at the seams with high-quality cultural experiences. It’s exciting, but it’s also competitive. For many of the smaller nonprofit arts organizations in the area, collaboration is necessary for getting big projects done with a small staff and budget.

PCA participates in collaborative projects and gathers arts representatives together for networking events and roundtable discussions to address collaboration strategies. I’m amazed at how much even the busiest directors seem to appreciate the opportunity to connect face-to-face and think “big picture.” In today’s funding environment, no one doubts the importance of effective partnerships, and we all need to unplug and brainstorm together every now and then.

But beyond this necessity, lately I’ve been thinking about collaboration in a new way.

I’ve realized that collaboration is most valuable because it makes our jobs better and makes us better at our jobs. Although they require more care, collaborative projects are more fun because they allow us to work closely with people who are not arts administrators. As a result, we get out of our bubble, we’re challenged, and we learn.

When collaboration is successful, relationships with partners continue, even as projects ebb and flow. As new needs and opportunities surface, relationships are in place and we’re quicker to respond.

In such situations, being small is actually an advantage; smaller organizations can quickly respond and adapt as partnership projects arise and expand. Small local arts agencies have an even greater advantage – in addition to being nimble, they are at the center of all arts-related needs in their communities, constantly fed information about ideas that may be a partnership away from coming to fruition.

At PCA, when we can’t be the partner, we connect the dots for the organizations and individuals that can. Even the smallest of local arts agencies have a unique and powerful role to play in facilitating collaboration.

This new way of thinking about collaboration came about for me as a result of Charlottesville’s Storyline Project, which began in the summer of 2009 and has continued annually ever since.

I recently traveled to the ASLA conference in San Diego to present on Storyline with Pete O’Shea of Siteworks Studio, Maurice Cox of the University of Virginia School of Architecture, and Greg Kelly of The Bridge Progressive Arts Initiative. Our conversations in preparation for the presentation were the most exciting part of the experience. They were thought provoking and convincing of the value of cross-disciplinary collaboration, in particular.

We are all trying to figure out how to do more with less…or maybe how to do the same with less, or even simply how to DO with less.

Occasionally, we have to turn down good project ideas because of the limitations of our capacity. But with smartly designed partnerships, taking on collaborative projects is surprisingly easy, and the outcomes have great potential to transform communities.

Here is a video on the Storyline Project from its second year:

(STORYLINE from Squid and Beard on Vimeo.)

In my next post, I’ll talk about how this unusual partnership came about, why it’s effective, and how it has thrived with very little need for funding or administrative support.

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